A Feature Review of
The Good Book: Writers Reflect on their Favorite Bible Passages
Andrew Blauner, Editor
Hardback: Simon and Schuster, 2015
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Jennifer Burns Lewis
It’s really a very good book, this anthology of reflections about the Bible. In some ways, it’s like having an amazing chat with friends about biblical texts about which they are passionate, except that these authors are far more eloquent and eclectic than my thirty-two closest friends. The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages is a wonderfully rich assortment of essays by an array of thoughtful, reflective, sometimes witty, often reverent writers. Representing a variety of faith perspectives or none at all, these essays offer the reader delicious morsels of goodness that invite the reader to question, ponder and consider the limitless ways in which readers encounter the Bible.
The Good Book is arranged just like the bible, beginning with an essay on Genesis 2, a penultimate one on Revelation 22, and concluding with a brief, terse, amazing essay by author Robert Coover, who links the Bible to his own writing and offers a blistering commentary on the damage caused by those who use the Bible and religious faith to justify hatred and violence. It’s a powerful closing essay.
No less compelling are the thirty-one prior essays, written by novelists, professors of sociology, creative writing, magazine essayists, a human rights and a civil rights activist, a children’s author, a cadre of poets, a Benedictine oblate, and a media commentator. The notes that I took as I read The Good Book while considering this review ended up being mostly questions, or exclamation points in the margins, so thought-provoking and compelling are the insights and wonderings of these authors. Avi Steinberg’s premise in the book’s opening essay, “Who is the Snake in the Garden of Eden? A Thought Experiment” is to read Hebrew scripture as if he believed in it. He concludes that if one believes in the reality of a biblical character, like the Snake in Genesis, one will be inclined to look for such a character and “find a vividly real character looking back…” (11). In contrast, Lauren Slater’s essay on the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 22 as a person with chronic illness who has contemplated life and death concludes that the afterlife depicted in Revelation is pretty to look at, but not the construct that provides her with comfort or hope. The honesty of the book’s authors is quite stunning.
Two of my favorite authors have stunning essays in this volume. Kathleen Norris, author, poet, essayist and oblate, writes a reflection on desert stories found in Deuteronomy, Exodus and Isaiah that is an amazing complement to her work in Acedia and Me. With thoughtful examples from her own life, Norris weaves personal reflection with biblical imagery and a concluding faith assertion that would serve as a fine example of a really good sermon. Thomas Lynch, poet, novelist, essayist and funeral home director, offers a sparkling essay entitled “Miracles” on the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2. Embedded in it is this gem: “….Which is easier—by which he means the lesser miracle—‘to say, ‘your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’?” It is, of course a trick question. Because forgiveness seems impossible, whether to give it or to receive it, and impossible to see.” (198). And this: “Possibly these are the miracles we fail to see, on the lookout as we are for signs and wonders: for seas that part for us to pass through, skies that open to a glimpse of heaven, the paralytic who stands and walks, the blind who begin to see, the shortfall that becomes a sudden abundance. May what we miss are the ordinary miracles, the ones who have known us all along—the family and friends, the fellow pilgrims who show up, pitch in, and do their parts to get us where we need to go, within earshot and arm’s reach of our healing, the earthbound, everyday miracle of forbearance and forgiveness, the help in dark times to light the way, the ones who show up when there is trouble to save us from our hobbled, heart-wrecked selves.” (203)
There’s something absolutely remarkable about a volume that includes thirty-two remarkable perspectives on life and religion and writing. It’s a little bit like the result of the game where one names an assortment of people, dead or alive, with whom one would like to invite to a dinner party, except that all of these authors are living, and one can savor the essays without the food getting cold. Garrison Keillor called The Good Book “…the Sunday School class you’ve been waiting for, the one whose members have thought hard about the texts and are free to say what they think.”
Skeptics, cynics, people with deeply held traditional beliefs of any sort or no religious belief at all will find The Good Book a really good book.
Jennifer Burns Lewis is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor in the Chicago suburbs. She likes reading, talking about reading, libraries, and bookstores.