Monday, February 11, 2019

Book Review: 'The wise frame their stories with care'

Robertson, Anne. New Vision for an Old Story: Why the Bible Might Not Be the Book You Think It Is. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. xii + 158 pp. Softcover.

 If you are someone who likes to talk about God, the Rev. Anne Robertson would be a good person to seek out.  Robertson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society and the author of three books about God as well as the popular Bible study series, Exploring the Bible: The Dickinson Series, now adds to this a book about how we read the Bible.
The phrase ‘Reading the Bible’ can be a showstopper for those who have never entered into a relationship with it.  Some people try reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, which usually starts out well because Genesis is full of great stories.  But then you get to Leviticus and there your relationship with God’s Word will end.
In our churches, we typically hear snippets of the Gospels paired with a psalm or other reading from Hebrew Scripture, or from one of Paul’s letters.  Unless your pastor provides it, these few verses seldom reveal any context, making it difficult to get the big picture.  We really need a broader view, if not the whole canvas, in order to gain an understanding about what it is we are hearing.  Reading provides that context, because we can start at Point A and go as far as we want to.  That works well until we can no longer see the forest for the trees.  Hopefully, my metaphors have not been too mixed, but you get the idea: we need a strategy if we’re going to make sense of the Bible.
This is where Robertson comes in.  A gifted writer, she somehow simplifies complex topics – God, the Bible! – even as she opens them up and expands them, leaving us to wonder why we didn’t think of that in the first place.
Her basic premise, one she repeats throughout, is that people are resistant to seeing the Bible as story.  She points out that ‘the Bible’ isn’t just one book, in the same way that ‘Africa’ isn’t a country.  The Bible is a collection of books containing histories, poetry, laments, myths, legends, instruction, wisdom, and truth.  It is a collection of stories meant to invite us into a relationship with God and which can guide us into a life lived in community.
We lose that if we read the Bible strictly as monolithic legal codes or as a textbook.
Robertson deftly navigates us through these other ways of reading the Bible.  Along the way, she removes any hint of intimidation we may have felt beforehand.  In fact, after reading any of Robertson’s books, especially the Exploring the Bible series, you will be inspired to go out and buy a new study Bible, even if you already have one.
Robertson intends to give us a new lens through and by which we can read the Bible fruitfully, and by and large, she succeeds.
As ordained clergy and as the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, Robertson has a unique perspective on how people perceive the Bible.  She gets that perspective the old-fashioned way: she asks people what they think about it.  And, like most clergy, she also has a vested interest in opening access to the Bible to as many people as possible.
Robertson writes with the idea of the Bible as story, not as a law or science text.  She talks about Biblical facts vs. truth, which is an important distinction to make.  People come to the Bible looking for answers and their questions don’t always have to do with how many cubits long God wanted Noah to make the Ark.  People want to know how God can help them, and if they think of the Bible only as dogma or doctrine, they won’t ever open it to look inside.  Neither would I.
So, Robertson begins by explaining the difference between truth and ‘true,’ and how it relates to the Bible.  She talks about God’s involvement in writing the Bible, and whether it is inerrant or infallible (45).  An inerrant or infallible Bible is, she writes, a false choice, if we read the Bible as story.  And that is her main concern: that when we read the Bible, we must read it for what it is: a long, complicated story.
The book includes many helpful sidebars and, at the end, questions for reflection that work for both self-study or in groups.  It is a book meant to be read with pencil in hand, the better to underline the many passages you might want to refer to later.
In her writing, Robertson typically aims at a general audience but one which includes regular church-goers, though she is also trying to reach anyone who has ever struggled with reading the Bible for instruction, hope, or inspiration.  Anyone involved with church, whether ordained clergy or a lay person, can use a book like this.  Anyone who is reluctant to approach the Bible would do well to start with this book.
In talking about the Bible, scholar, theologian, and translator Robert Alter says, ‘It is always better to trust the concrete language of the biblical writers, which is more frank and energetic than any decorous paraphrase.’[1]  This Robertson does well.  Her prose is clean and easy to read yet filled with wisdom and insight.
We don’t necessarily agree on everything – is there such a thing as too much pizza or chocolate-covered bacon? (16) – but there is nothing to infuriate either.  When I read that ‘if you’re a Christian, it’s almost necessary to believe God had some hand in shaping the Bible’ (51), my first thought was, ‘What if I’m Jewish?  And, being a Massachusetts native who lives in the southeastern part of the state, I want her editor to correct her claim that the ‘Mayflower passengers established the Massachusetts Bay Colony (68).’  The separatist Pilgrims on the Mayflower established the Plymouth Colony, not the later separatist Puritans who did establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Robertson writes that ‘the wise frame their stories with care,’ (17) and in this book, she carefully gives us an invitation to enter into a relationship with the Bible in a new way.  She opens the door to understanding a complex collection of books by showing how to read it as a story – a long, sweeping arc of a story intentionally told (21) – and not as a legal code or a science textbook.  Nor is it meant to be taken literally.  In my experience, the only people who take the Bible literally seem to be atheists.
Depending on what the Bible means to you, do you want to know what the Bible says, or do you want to know what it means?  Robertson does not pose this as a question (107) but I do.  What she does do is give us new vision – new eyes – with which to see the Bible as an ancient collection of books containing poems, history, law codes, and, above all else, as a guide to human nature and the human condition.
The Massachusetts Bible Society's mission statement says that the organization ‘exists to promote biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue that is grounded in scholarship, socially relevant, and respectful of the many voices within the Bible and all those who turn to the Bible in faith.’  As the head of that organization, Robertson is doing a fine and enthusiastic job in fulfilling that mission.