Review of How the Bible Actually Works

Disclosure: I received a free, advance copy of How the Bible Actually Works from HarperOne as a member of the book’s launch team.

Before picking up Pete Enns’ latest book, How the Bible Actually Works, you may want to ask yourself a few questions.

Are you happy with your Christian theology, by and large? Do all the various pieces of the Bible fit together nicely for you? Are you content with seeing the Bible as a unified, self explanatory whole?

If you can answer yes to one or more of these questions, you will be better off leaving this book on the shelf (be it digital or physical). However, if cracks are starting to form in the formerly impregnable wall of your Christian belief, this book might be right up your alley.

Over the course of 280 pages, Enns lays out the case for how the Biblical authors reimagined God and reinterpreted their people’s history to better suit the theological needs of their times and that of the cultures they found themselves in.

The titular footnote (Enns loves footnotes) helps spell things out a bit: “In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Books Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers – and Why That’s Great News.”

The “ancient” bit is pretty self explanatory. The “ambiguous” and “diverse” parts need to be fleshed out a bit. An example of what Enns means by ambiguous is that even the laws delivered at Mt. Sinai tend to be a bit vague. Yes, you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath but how much effort constitutes work, exactly? Proverbs says discipline your children while there is hope but what kind of discipline is best and how do you know when all hope is lost?

An example of diversity would be Proverbs 26:4-5. Do you answer a fool to keep him or her from being wise in his/her own eyes or do you not? Another example from Proverbs would be the wealth of the rich. Are riches their fortress or is their perceived security just in their imaginations?

And this ambiguity and diversity is where wisdom comes in. You have to sit and think things through when working out what the Bible is saying and how it applies to your present situation. The Bible doesn’t consist of golden tablets from Heaven comprising a rule book that is immediately applicable to all situations, at all times. Don’t get turned off by apparent contradictions or try to explain them away but rather work out why this diversity is there and what God is trying to tell you by having such divergent opinions bound up in the same volume.

The book is somewhat repetitive but avoids being dull as Enns injects a healthy dose of sarcasm and overall snark into his theological discourse. He provides numerous examples of how he believes the entire Bible works as wisdom literature and how it’s our sacred duty to reimagine God as fits our culture and times.

Again, if you’re perfectly satisfied with traditional American theology as presented in the 20th and 21st centuries, this probably isn’t your book. However, if you’ve noticed some of the diversity (inconsistencies?) scattered throughout the Bible and they are starting to bother you, How the Bible Actually Works could be just the book you need to let you see the Bible in fresh new way.

A Critical Review of The Shack

I recently got tired of taking everyone else’s word for the message of The Shack and its theological underpinnings. So, I decided to take the radical step of actually buying and reading the book for myself to see what all the fuss was about.

Let me start by saying that the last piece of modern Christian fiction I read was This Present Darkness and that was around 30 years ago. Christian fiction just isn’t my thing and I’m not this book’s target audience.

******************* SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS ********************

Having said that, The Shack seemed to avoid what I would consider Christian cliches for the first few chapters. And then God showed up and things took a drastic turn for the overly melodramatic. (Well, the main character constantly referring to his daughter’s kidnap and murder as The Great Sadness¬†ever since chapter one was pretty cheesy.)

Theological issues pop up as soon as the conversations between Mack (the protagonist/first person narrator) and God (represented as Papa (the Father), Jesus, and Sarayu (the Spirit)) start taking place. Papa explains to Mack in chapter six that none of the miracles Jesus performed on Earth were done using the powers of His inherent Godhood. Instead, Papa tells Mack that Jesus was fully human at that time (which is true but …)and was able to work wonders because He was so closely aligned with God (“… he could express my heart and will into any given circumstance.”).¬†Papa goes on to explain that she (yes, God is gender fluid) would be incapable of love without having the other members of the Trinity to express love to and that she can’t act apart from love. I’m not quite sure where any of this is found in the Bible.

In chapter 10, Jesus and Mack are talking about the relationship between the three members of the Godhead. Jesus says that the members of the Trinity are submitted to each other out of love and respect and that all three of them are submitted to humanity out of a desire for Jesus to have “brothers and sisters who will share life with (him).” On a similar note, back in chapter 7, the Trinity eagerly receives news of Mack’s kids because they have limited their omniscience out of respect for him. This is elevating man way, way more than indicated in the Bible. Big chunks of Job and Psalms, among others, say that humankind is far inferior to God. This doesn’t seem to be the kind of theology The Shack is concerned with.

Chapter 11 allows us to meet the personification of Papa’s wisdom, Sophia. She introduces Mack to the idea of universal salvation, putting Mack in the role of a judge, then telling him he has to choose two of his kids to send to Heaven and three to put in Hell. The idea of personal salvation or culpability never enters into the equation. This is brought home in chapter 13 when Papa tells Mack that He is reconciled to the whole world through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Mack says, “You mean those who believe in you, right?” God replies, “The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two-way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way.”

At any rate, the story continues on and ends with forgiveness, hope, love, and warm fuzzies all around. I understand that this is a work of fiction but it is far too easy, I think, for Christians who aren’t solidly grounded in the Word to think the God portrayed here is representative of the one true God. And it just reinforces the generic, all forgiving, universal God that many non-Christians bring to mind when they think about the deity.

The Shack differs from other potentially controversial novels like the Harry Potter series, in my view, in that the story’s focus is on the author’s take on Christianity through the dialogues that make up the majority of the book. It’s essentially a philosophical treatise and everything else in the book is secondary to the ideas it proposes. We as Christians need to be aware of the message in The Shack in order to counter its claims and lead people to repentance and true faith in Jesus. Anyone basing their theology on The Shack will find it an unsteady foundation.