"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

That Bizarre Book We Call the Bible

To grow up as I did in Canada with any interests in literature and theology meant that you were more or less compelled to read the great literary critic Northrop Frye at some point, as I did more than three decades ago now when I tried to benefit from his The Great Code: the Bible and Literature. I remember very little other than the sense of exhilaration at a man who could amass so vast a learning and press it into service of what one might call a metaphysics of sorts. His ability to see and demonstrate so many connections between Scripture and English literature (and a myriad other areas it seemed) was impressive indeed. 

In one of his books he rather offhandedly speaks of the Bible as being a great sprawling mess of a book, which is just the sort of frisson an adolescent prone to uncritical piety, as I then was, is bound to find delightfully shocking. 

Those words came back to mind in reading the latest catalogue from Oxford University Press, including a new book by Kristin Swenson, A Most Peculiar Book:The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (February 2021, 288pp.).

 About this new book the publisher tells us this:

The Bible, we are constantly reminded, is the best-selling book of all time. It is read with intense devotion by hundreds of millions of people, stands as authoritative for Judaism and Christianity, and informs and affects the politics and lives of the religious and non-religious around the world. But how well do we really know it? The Bible is so familiar, so ubiquitous that we have begun to take our knowledge of it for granted. The Bible many of us think we know is a pale imitation of the real thing.

In A Most Peculiar Book, Kristin Swenson addresses the dirty little secret of biblical studies that the Bible is a weird book. It is full of surprises and contradictions, unexplained impossibilities, intriguing supernatural creatures, and heroes doing horrible deeds. It does not provide a simple worldview: what "the Bible says" on a given topic is multi-faceted, sometimes even contradictory. Yet, Swenson argues, we have a tendency to reduce the complexities of the Bible to aphorisms, bumper stickers, and slogans. Swenson helps readers look at the text with fresh eyes. A collection of ancient stories and poetry written by multiple authors, held together by the tenuous string of tradition, the Bible often undermines our modern assumptions. And is all the more marvelous and powerful for it.

Rather than dismiss the Bible as an outlandish or irrelevant relic of antiquity, Swenson leans into the messiness full-throttle. Making ample room for discomfort, wonder, and weirdness, A Most Peculiar Book guides readers through a Bible that will feel, to many, brand new.

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