A Review of
Even the Devil Quotes Scripture: Reading the Bible on Its Own Terms
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
In every possible way, the place and role of the Bible in modern life is contested. Its role in the historical trajectory of Western culture is a matter of debate. Its status as an authoritative text in various ecclesiological settings is unsettled. Its reliability as an historical document is vociferously argued, and a responsible approach to interpretation of the Bible in the 21st century is, of course, also debated. The intersections of these arguments are massively complex, and can be bewildering to the average person who simply wants to faithfully read and apply the text. Making sense of varying perspectives on “inerrancy,” and “hermeneutics,” and “redaction criticism,” can simply feel destabilizing, and the vast amount of writing on all the above gives me serious sympathy for those who attempt to simplify the role of the Bible into the bumper sticker adage: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
A significant problem with this bumper-sticker-hermeneutic is that, in my experience, it can only carry one so far into the inevitable complexities of life, suffering, faith and wisdom. Simply put: at some point that explanation fails. For some, this failure point is when Jeremiah 29:11 bumps up against the loss of a dream, or a tragedy. For many others, and directly salient to Robyn Whitaker’s project in Even the Devil Quotes Scripture, the failure occurs when they learn for the first time that no one actually has the original manuscripts of biblical text, and that the centuries-long compilation of the scriptures involved cross-referencing ancient papyri that do not always match perfectly, that scholars have had to make decisions about which words and translations are more reliable than others, and that John 8 and the ending of Mark 16 may not have actually been added to the text until significantly later than the original authors penned them. These historical realities are not accounted for on any bumper stickers, though I would personally absolutely buy and display a sticker that said, “I’m Not Scared of Textual Criticism.”
Whitaker’s book could be viewed as a “mediator” between the world of serious, academic biblical studies and earnest, evangelical-or-fundamentalist Christianity. She is clearly, deeply aware of the experience of growing up with a conservative, inerrantist approach to the Bible (she alludes to her personal experience as such a handful of times throughout the book), and goes to great pains to translate the realities of biblical scholarship in firm-but-gentle ways. The early chapters of Even the Devil Quotes Scripture read like friendly introductions to the literary genres of scripture and the difficulties of textual criticism. As someone who has already been through a seminary education, and read widely on the historical development of the Bible, there was nothing particularly new or revelatory in these pages, but I kept thinking, “I really wish someone had explained this stuff to me in this kind and learned style when I was a lot younger!”
Particularly for those whose faith formation takes place within broadly-conservative American evangelicalism (as mine did), Whitaker’s book strikes the right balance, guiding the reader through the realities of scriptural interpretation that are more complex than some faith traditions allow, but also with guardrails up, to ward off the naturalist-materialistic skepticism and relativism that mark some progressive, reactionary approaches to deconstructing the authority of the Bible. Whitaker maintains a high view of scripture throughout. “The Bible itself is always the starting point for me . . . the key question of this book is this: What can we learn about interpreting the Bible from the Bible itself? Are there clues on those ancient and precious pages that tell us what the Bible is and how we best engage it?” (3-4)
Ultimately, to circle back to those bewildering terms I dropped at the beginning of this review, this book is a book about hermeneutics (interpretive approach), and it is not a presentation of various hermeneutical options, but a defense of a specific hermeneutic, what Whitaker calls a “hermeneutic of love” (the title of chapter 6). This approach is more open and dynamic than some would be comfortable with, though it is clearly and winsomely presented. “[I interpret the Bible] as a text with a living, dynamic history of being constantly (re)interpreted in conversation with the communities reading it. I read with one eye toward the historical context, understanding how it reflects ancient attitudes toward women, bodies, and sexuality, and one eye toward our own cultural values and the insights gained from science and medicine” (144).
There is much to appreciate about Whitaker’s approach, in particular the careful attention to literary genre, and intra-scriptural guides to interpretive rules, which she takes utterly seriously. This is no so-called “liberal” perspective that would have been anathema to my own evangelical upbringing, however, as I reached the conclusion of Even the Devil Quotes Scripture, I was reminded that discussions of biblical hermeneutics should always be conversant with considerations of biblical authority. Whitaker focuses much more on the former than the latter, and while she certainly acknowledges a certain authority of the text, her proposal of a dynamic engagement may have been buttressed by a more robust definition of textual authority. Inevitably, at the risk of sounding like a reactionary conservative, there must be a boundary somewhere, and while I admire and accept the reality of dynamic interpretation and application, I cannot help but wonder where that line exists, or maybe more to the point, what it would look like to cross it?
That all being said, Even the Devil Quotes Scripture, is a welcome, well-researched, compellingly-argued perspective that is well worth wrestling with, particularly for those of us who come from traditions that, if we are honest, prioritized certainty and rigidity over love.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com
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