Saving the Bible from Ourselves:
Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well
Reviewed by James Dekker
Saving the Bible from Ourselves is one of those rare books that I wish were longer. A longer book might require delving into issues still more sensitive than Glenn Paauw already takes up. Exploring controversial themes might risk challenging unofficial, but strongly accepted Bible reading practices among Paauw’s intended audience. That is, “how to read” could veer onto significant, but bumpy paths of “how to interpret.”
For example, Saving the Bible’s greatest strength is Paauw’s repeated emphasis that readers must respect and learn to read the Bible’s various literary genres as originally intended. Thus he frequently emphasizes that Bible readers—laypersons, teachers, pastors—read the Bible’s histories, stories, poems, letters, gospels and apocalyptic visions first to understand their messages to original readers. Only after rigorous analysis and wrestling with the texts’ earlier times and cultures is it fair to discern the meaning and application for today.
Such reflection recognizes that before widespread printing made Bibles available to huge reading audiences, most people listened to the various books read in Israel’s and early Christian worship. That is, the Bible emerged from the demanding forge of church history, first as a document meant for community—not as a personal self-improvement guide for today. Thus Paauw strongly criticizes today’s addiction to what he calls “snacking” and “private” niche Bibles. Reading from overly-edited versions primarily (and often only) to find an isolated verse’s meaning “for me only” ignores and disrespects the Bible’s history and God’s purpose for it.
Before describing how niche Bibles cornered today’s profitable Bible market, Paauw lists all manner of their examples: for teen boys, teen girls, singles, marrieds and more. He then takes pains to pillory with restraint and civility that hugely successful commercial phenomenon. I’ve seen and imagined still more niches: Bibles for stay-at–home moms; working moms; unemployed men in their 30s, 40s and 50s; CEOs of multi-nationals; married secretaries; young widows; old widowers; high-rise window washers; cabinet makers; unmarried bi-vocational pastors and so on. Enter any Christian bookstore—and even Chapters/Indigo in Canada or Barnes & Noble in the US—and you’ll find Bibles whose themed, annotated, versified and exhaustively cross-referenced contents achieve even more silliness than my snarky inventions.
To counter such disrespect and dilution of the Bible, Paauw dissects the history of Bible publication in always interesting and informative discussions. Starting centuries before the Reformation, then accelerating as Modernism’s grip tightened on Western minds—Christian and otherwise—scholars developed exacting methods of organizing the Bible for easy reference and cross-reference. Though unintended, those practices cast heavy clouds over Scripture’s stories and their rhetorical and spiritual impact. They confused God’s purpose of revealing His plan of Creation, Fall and Redemption for the universe over millennia in dozens of ways through Israel’s and early Christian history.
Accompanying and resulting from such good intentions, the Bible lost its connection to God’s community. Now it is handcuffed into a collection of easily remembered, discrete snippets—like pieces of a puzzle tossed onto a table, not easily re-assembled and privately used to make us individuals feel good about ourselves. But do we really meet the true God? Thus scholarship and publishers inadvertently teamed up to teach commonly accepted habits that decontextualize the Bible out of its “storiented” (Paauw’s wonderful invented word) construction, demeaning it into merely a personal devotional source.
So far, so good. Yet what I was hoping while reading Saving the Bible was that Paauw would offer specific examples of reading those various genres, despite possible fireworks. For instance, without advocating his own position—which remains unstated—Paauw could have extended discussions on genre interpretation by openly asking questions such: “What genre is Genesis 1 -11? Is that to be read and understood differently from historically datable events, such as the reports of the kings of Israel and Judah? Is it legitimate to read Job as an extended philosophical, theological fictional poem on theodicy, without being believing it is literal history? Are Jonah and Ruth lyrical novellas or literal history, making similar missional points?
Such questions and more might stimulate needed and healthy conversations. Or they might trigger explosions, whose resulting smoke and fire might obscure Paauw’s purpose; we evangelical Protestants do continue to live up to our fractious name, after all. So perhaps Paauw decided to open the issues of Bible reading taking a smaller risk. Maybe, after measuring responses to Saving the Bible, he’ll write a still more challenging sequel, facing such risky questions. I’d like that very much.
In any case, Pauuw took a courageous stance in merely broaching the subjects he does. Even as it stands, Saving the Bible could draw him in heated conversations with those whose Bible reading habits he challenges, whose sales of Red Letter Bibles and niche Bibles put bread on tables, cars in garages and chickens and sirloin tip roasts in many pots.
Fascinatingly, Paauw employs, in clear, discursive English prose, the kind of intensifying repetition that is one hallmark parallelism of Hebrew poetry. That is, he repeats with pleasing variety and re-emphasizes themes of genre reading and the importance of ancient Israel as God’s agents—for good or ill—in human history. This is very helpful, because Paauw mentions over and over that such parallelism often disappeared Reformation Bibles, starting with Tyndale’s New Testament and the Geneva Bible. Versified and re-structured ruthlessly, they were often totally bereft of their original rhetorical power. (We do recognize, though, that since the mid-20th century, many new translations and paraphrases have re-introduced poetic structure and de-emphasized artificial divisions.)
Far from being negatively critical, Paauw lucidly explains the Bible’s long-developing composition from oral tradition, to writing, to compilation into the canon that Protestants use today. (I found no mention of the Apocrypha, for example, likely because he was not aiming at Roman Catholic readers.) What I missed, but what Paauw must have for his own reasons chosen not to include, was any discussion of the process of selecting that today’s canon. It is thoroughly fair, however, to accept as Paauw does without explanation, that we received the books of our Bible through the Holy Spirit’s mysterious and gracious direction. Maybe in a sequel Paauw could dig into some of the more technical areas of canon he does not touch directly.
In all, Pauuw’s honesty, forthrightness and always clear writing consistently refresh and attract readers. There’s not a foggy sentence, poorly structured paragraph or misplaced chapter. Using a pleasing variety of writing styles to advantage, Paauw discourses intelligently, with erudition, but without jargon on technical issues in the history of Bible production. He tells personal anecdotes, illustrating his point like the compelling preacher he might well be on Sundays when he’s not working for Biblica. At Biblica, he is practicing what he preaches in reordering the books of the Bible in ways that respect the history and literary characteristics of their original composition. I look forward to seeing and reading them and await more wise words from Glenn Paauw’s mind and soul.
James Dekker is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor, living in St. Catharines, Ontario, serving Christian Reformed World Missions as Pastor to Missionaries when he’s not reading free review copies of books.