I have been giving a quick read to Peter Enns’s latest book, How the Bible Actually Works, in Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers — and Why That’s Great News (HarperOne, 2019). I have to think there was a contentious meeting or two at the publisher’s office about that lengthy title, but it does serve as a good introduction to the book. Enns is trying to counter the popular churchy notion that the Bible is “holy, perfect, and clear,” which sounds good until a churchgoer actually reads it. I think the problem applies to Mormons as much as to other Christians, compounded by the “as far as it is translated correctly” disclaimer that Mormons attach to the Bible. After a paragraph each on the ancient, ambiguous, and diverse part, drawn from his discussion in the first chapter of the book, let’s think about whether a good study bible can solve the problem.
Ancient. A lot changes in two or three thousand years. Languages come and go. Words change their meanings, sometimes drastically. Cultural and religious contexts disappear. Enns refers to the world of the Bible as a “distant and utterly foreign world.” Enns suggests that in addition to the problem of translating the ancient text and rendering comprehensible various puzzling practices and references, there is also the challenge of updating or at least adapting the stories, directives, and meaning of the text for our day. Enns notes that the Bible itself contains ample evidence of such updating by subsequent generations within its own pages.
Jews and Christians throughout history have always known that this ancient Bible cannot simply be “followed” like a recipe. It takes creative imagination to bridge the ancient and modern horizons. And, as we will see in due course, that process is already happening — I can’t stress this enough — within the pages of the Bible itself. (Emphasis in original.)
Ambiguous. Enns claims, “When it comes to the details of what it means to live a life of faith, the Bible doesn’t hand out answers just because we are pounding at the door” (p. 8). Furthermore, he suggests this is not a fault but intentional. “This isn’t a drawback or a problem. This is by design.” Think about that for a moment. First, he is suggesting that we need to apply our own moral reasoning and inspired reflection to come up with our own details that fill in the gaps of the values and principles found in the Bible, whether personally or institutionally. Second, by extension, we will almost certainly arrive at some answers (again, personally or institutionally) that differ from the answers we receive through our own faith tradition, whether familial or institutional, from five or three or even just one generation back. To put it bluntly, if ambiguity is built into the Bible, then a spectrum of answers is to be expected from almost any honest biblical inquiry. That idea disturbs a lot of Bible readers.
Diverse. By diversity, Enns means the Bible “does not speak with one voice on most subjects, but [with] conflicting and contradictory voices.” Another curve ball for those who want the Bible to give simple, clear answers to every question. It’s not that God wants to confuse everyone, it’s because “the Bible was written by various writers who lived at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances and who wrote for different purposes.” That’s why, for example, a teacher’s manual for a Sunday School class provides the teacher with background information and cultural context to understand the material covered in the lesson. Or not.
You and Your Study Bible. I have found Thomas A. Wayment’s The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints to be a marvelous resource for reading through the New Testament this year. (FYI, you’re supposed to be doing this as part of the new Come, Follow Me program.) Any good study bible will be helpful, but Wayment’s is particularly good for an LDS reader. The standard LDS Bible has lots of footnotes and references but is surprisingly un-helpful for bridging the comprehension gap present for so many Bible narratives.
A question or two about Mormons and the Bible to wind things up. First, why are so many Latter-day Saints so attached to the KJV when they have such a tough time understanding it? Or even reading it? Second, why hasn’t the LDS belief that the Bible has problems (“as far as it is translated correctly”) led more Latter-day Saints to seek out better translations and supplementary materials to overcome, as far as possible, those problems? Perhaps some think the Joseph Smith Translation solves the problem. That’s a different post, of course, but simply reading most JST additions should disabuse most readers of that notion.