How (Not) to Read the Bible; A Book Review

The last book review I did was on Progressive Christianity and its growing influence. The book I read next will combat that. How?

By showing us how not to read the Bible. This book is full of memes and pop culture references to help us understand. That book is titled…

How (Not) to Read the Bible: Making Sense of the Anti-women, Anti-science, Pro-violence, Pro-slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture

by Dan Kimball

“When Dan Kimball first sat down to meet with a student who was disillusioned by Christianity, he wasn’t ready for what he was about to hear. The student had a positive church experience. He was grateful for his youth leader. But he had serious objections to Christianity. Why? He had begun studying the Bible and found he could no longer accept what it taught. Reading the Bible had led him to become an atheist.

In How Not to Read the Bible, pastor and bestselling author Dan Kimball tackles one of the most pressing apologetic challenges of the twenty-first-century church–how do we read and interpret the Bible? Kimball introduces several critical principles to utilize when you open a Bible or read a verse. Then, he looks at five of the most common challenges that arise when people read the Bible today, including: the relationship between science and the Bible, the violence we find in the Bible, the treatment of women in the Bible, the odd and strange commands we find in the Bible, and the Bible’s controversial claim that there is only one way to know God. Kimball highlights several of the most common passages people find objectionable and shows readers how to correctly interpret them.

This is an ideal book for those exploring Christianity or new to the faith, as well as Christians who are wrestling with questions about these difficult issues and the challenges of interpreting the Bible. Filled with stories and examples, as well as visual illustrations and memes reflecting popular cultural objections, How Not to Read the Bible will motivate readers who are confused or discouraged by questions they have about the Bible and guides them–step-by-step–to a clear understanding of what the Bible is saying in context. The book can also be taught as a six-week sermon series or used in small groups for study and discussion.”

A lot of Christians don’t read the Bible as they should. It comes from devotions that feature one verse and an unrelated essay. I prefer reading plans that take me through the whole Bible, along with following my curiosity. 

A warning: I highlighted a lot of this book on my Kindle. And since I don’t post as frequently as before, I’m not worried about a long book review. So let’s explore how not to read the Bible.

“Here is the good news. There are ways to better understand these crazy-sounding Bible verses. We must learn how to, and how not to, read the Bible. Most of the examples we’ve seen so far are a result of people who are not reading the Bible correctly. If you are willing to look beyond the visual image and explore beyond a literal, out-of-context reading of a verse, you’ll discover the Bible is not “sheer nonsense.” There are many strange things in it, but when we study what it really says, the Bible is an amazing, life-changing book written by people who were directed by God through God’s Spirit. As we take a closer look at these and other Bible passages, my hope is that you will have your questions and concerns answered, and you will come to better know the author of the Bible.”

“Here are the four facts about how to and how not to read the Bible: 1. The Bible is a library, not a book. 2. The Bible is written for us, but not to us. 3. Never read a Bible verse. 4. All of the Bible points to Jesus.”

“Although the Bible often comes in print form as a single bound book, it is actually a collection of sixty-six books printed in one volume, a library of books. This library is diverse, containing writings of history, poetry, prophecy, and law. This library of diverse books was written in three different languages over a 1,500-year period by a whole bunch of different people from different cultures. Some books in this library were written more than a thousand years before the other books.”

We see a lot of the bizarre stuff from the Old Covenant as chronicled in the Old Testament. Here’s what Kimball has to say about that.

“The Old Covenant (or testament) is the agreement God made with the people of Israel (ethnically Jewish people) outlining in detail how they would relate to God and know him. The New Covenant (or testament) is the agreement God made with all people through Jesus, and in making this agreement, he did away with the Old Covenant (more on this later). The New Covenant outlines how all people today of every ethnic background (not just the Jewish people) can relate to God and worship him.”

He then expounds on his four facts with this:

“The second of the four facts you need to know to interpret the Bible correctly is that the Bible was written for us, but not to us. When the brilliant and highly respected Old Testament scholar John Walton spoke at my church, he repeated this phrase multiple times: “The Bible was written for us, but not to us.” He explained that the Bible is 100 percent inspired by God, and we can have confidence that every word in the original documents of the Bible is exactly what God wanted it to say. We believe in God’s full inspiration and the total trustworthiness of the Bible. The books in the library of the Bible are for all people at all times and places to read and gain wisdom from. But the Bible wasn’t originally written to us. It wasn’t written in any modern language, and it wasn’t written with our contemporary culture and its assumptions and values in mind. To get the most benefit from what God was communicating when he inspired the authors of the Bible to write, we need to enter their world to hear the words as the original audience would have heard them and as the author would have meant them to be understood. We must read the words on those terms.”

Context matters.

“Most people, when they start reading the Bible, want to immediately know “what does this mean to me and my life?” This assumes that when we read the Bible, we should read it as if what God was writing is specifically and directly written to us today. We may not even realize we do this, but we do it all the time. And sadly, even the preaching and teaching in some churches unintentionally does this, and it doesn’t help people to understand the Bible. When we read the Bible in this way, we read into it our presuppositions—what we believe and understand based on our experience, worldview, culture, and knowledge. Our contemporary values and way of life are also part of the lens through which we read the Bible. And while there is much it can say to help us, if we view the Bible as mainly a “message for me,” we will be in great trouble. We will end up picking and choosing the things we like reading and want to apply to our lives.”

We do like to claim the good verses that don’t apply to us, like Jeremiah 29:11. That’s for the exiles in Babylon. There are others about being destroyed for breaking the covenant that we don’t claim, but we will claim that one. 

“But not every promise or blessing is something we can directly apply to our lives today. We might take Bible verses and promises that are not meant for us and then be disappointed in God when they don’t happen.”

“All too often, we take a nice-sounding Bible verse and apply it directly to our life. For instance, Isaiah 12:2 says, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my defense.” We like to claim that Bible verse and own it. We take comfort in it personally, which is a good thing to do, as God is our strength and defense. That verse is truth for all times because it reflects the unchanging character and nature of God. But we avoid claiming two verses later in the same book. Isaiah 34:2–3 says, “He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will stink; the mountains will be soaked with their blood.” Can you picture that Bible promise as the theme verse for the annual women’s retreat, with a coffee mug gift for each woman who attends? Not all verses are written to us and apply to us. And we often pick and choose by taking the nice-sounding Bible verses and claiming they are true and applying them to our lives, while skipping past the negative crazy-sounding ones. We need to stop and ask: who was the Bible verse originally written to and why? As we will discover, many of the Bible verses that don’t make sense to us today usually made sense to the original readers.”

Here is a big key to understanding the Bible.

“If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart, one useful tip I could leave that would serve you well the rest of your life, what would it be? What is the single most important practical skill I’ve ever learned as a Christian? Here it is: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph at least.”

He’s quoting Greg Koukl there. 

“Every Bible verse fits within a larger story, and whenever we read any verse, we want to:

• Look at the specific Bible verse (many people stop here). 

• Look at the paragraph the verse is in. 

• Look at the chapter the Bible verse is in. 

• Look at the book of the Bible that the chapter and verse are in. 

• Look at where the book of the Bible the verse is in fits in the Bible’s whole storyline.”

He then lays out the storyline of the Bible. Two final quotes about what a donkey in the bathtub has to do with weird laws in the Bible. 

“Have you ever looked into some of the strange and unusual state laws in the United States? Several of these are still in the law books today and have never been repealed. In Arizona: It is illegal for a donkey to sleep in a bathtub. In Kentucky: It is illegal to carry ice cream in your back pocket. In Connecticut: It is illegal for any beautician or barber to whistle, hum, or sing while working on a customer. Reading these nonsensical laws makes you wonder why they were ever passed in the first place. Who needs a law about carrying ice cream in your back pocket? Bizarre laws about donkeys sleeping in bathtubs seem pretty ridiculous to us. But when you look into the history behind them, there is always a backstory, and that backstory provides us with meaning. Knowing why they were originally put in place and when is the key to understanding.”

“For example, the law about not allowing a donkey to sleep in a bathtub was put into effect in 1924. The story is that a rancher had a donkey that frequently slept in an abandoned bathtub on the rancher’s property. One day, a local dam broke, and the water from the reservoir washed the bathtub and the donkey into a basin. Local authorities were called to help rescue the donkey, but it was not easy to do. It required a lot of effort and manpower to finally rescue the animal. To prevent such a thing from ever happening again, they passed a law that prohibited donkeys from sleeping in bathtubs. At that time, for those involved, it made sense to have that law. It was likely never prosecuted, but it was put in place for a reason at a certain time for a certain purpose, a purpose most of us cannot relate to today, since few of us own a donkey.”

Ponder on that. That’s only 25% of the way through it, and we’re at over 2,000 words. So I’ll finish with the chapter headings to give you an idea of what follows what I’ve quoted. 

Chapter 6: Making Sense of Shrimp, the Skin of a Dead Pig, and Slavery

Chapter 7: The Boy’s Club Bible

Chapter 8: Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down

Chapter 9: Making Sense of Inequality in the Bible

Chapter 10: Jesus Riding A Dinosaur

Chapter 11: In The Beginning We Misunderstood

Chapter 12: Making Sense of the Bible versus Science Conflict

Chapter 13: My God Can Beat Up Your God

Chapter 14: Love Is the Way, the Truth, and the Life

Chapter 15: Making Sense of the Intolerant Sounding Jesus

Chapter 16: The TV-MA, NC-17 Bible

Chapter 17: The God of Compassion, Slow to Anger and Forgiving

Chapter 18: Making Sense of the Texts of Terror

Postlude: Jesus Loved His Crazy Bible (Why Trusting It Isn’t That Crazy)

As big a theology nerd as I am, I still learned something new from the book that’s affected my study. At the end of the book, he has a message for Christians struggling with the Bible and another for unbelievers. If that’s you, read it. 

I recommend it for everyone. 5 stars.

2 thoughts on “How (Not) to Read the Bible; A Book Review

  1. Pingback: How (Not) to Read the Bible; A Book Review — A Ronin’s Journey – Reasoned Cases for Christ

  2. Pingback: Carnival 182-April 2021 – Ayuda Ministerial/Resources for Ministry

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