Book review: The Rise and Fall of the Bible

by Timothy Beal


Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, and an accomplished author. His writing style is fluid, intelligent and entertaining. I confess, though, that I’m not totally sure what the focus of this book is! The subtitle is The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, which is pretty open-ended, and Beal takes advantage of his generic subtitle to meander around a bit, working in a number of interesting tidbits and topics. Makes for a great, if a bit undirected, read.

Beal is a Christian with a deep respect for the Bible, albeit one who has “drifted quite a distance from the familiar biblical waters of the conservative evangelical tradition in which [he] was raised.” Bottom line, he doesn’t consider the Bible inerrant by any stretch, and finds beauty and inspiration in its multitude of voices.

Beal begins by bemoaning America’s Biblical illiteracy. Less than half of all adult Americans can name the first book of the Bible, or the four Gospels. More than half of graduating high school seniors guess that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. The Bible has risen to the status of a cultural icon, but it’s no longer read. Instead, value-added products such as magazines and graphics novels is a thriving industry. Anything to avoid reading the Bible’s actual text.

If we did read the Bible regularly, we probably wouldn’t be convinced of its univocality (meaning, the assumption of its internal consistency.) Most of us have the idea that the Bible provides answers to life’s questions, and when we come to a crossroads, we’re taught to ask, “What does the Bible say?” Fact is, the Bible will often say lots of things on our topic, drowning us in a confusing array of contradictory advice. The Bible is not a book of answers, but a library of questions. Not a wellspring of truth but a pool of imagination, rich in ambiguity, contradiction, and argument.

The Bible is dead; long live the Bible.


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