The Bible in a Disenchanted Age:
The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith
by r. w. l. moberly
baker, 240 pages, $24.99
The Book of the People:
How to Read the Bible
by a. n. wilson
harper, 224 pages, $26.99
The Bible and the Believer:
How to Read the Bible Critically & Religiously
by marc zvi brettler, peter enns, and daniel j. harrington
oxford, 226 pages, $24.95
When a student came to my office hour earlier this semester, I encouraged her to purchase her own Bible. Though the course in which she was enrolled included several readings from the Old Testament, she had been using an online Bible on her smartphone. I explained that a Bible could be obtained easily and inexpensively and that as a humanities major (women’s studies, to be precise) she should have one in her personal library. I thought it a reasonable suggestion—right up to the moment that she began to laugh. She thought I must be joking.
Biblical scholars often defend their work by pointing out that Western art, literature, and music—not to mention traditions of political thought and philosophical inquiry—are saturated with the stories, language, and thought of the Bible. I have made the argument many times. Who can hope to understand Milton, Blake, or Donne, or make sense of Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, without knowing the Bible? Yet familiarity with these works is less prized than it once was. As interest in them declines, the cultural argument for biblical literacy collapses. My student never did buy a Bible.
The printed word no longer enjoys the cultural monopoly it did in Victorian Britain or in what Neil Postman, referring to the nineteenth century, called America’s “typographic age.” People increasingly browse, scroll, click, swipe, and like their way through “content” as a means of staying informed, connecting with others, and maintaining cultural currency. Not surprisingly, this is another factor in the decline of biblical literacy. Whatever else it is, the Bible is a book. It is tied to the fortunes of the book, and it has been for centuries. To the extent that literacy itself declines, biblical literacy will as well.
Biblical literacy has also declined because of secularization. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of the American population that claims no religious affiliation (the so-called nones) rose from 16 percent to 23 percent in seven years. The nones make up a larger share of millennials than of any other generation, which means that we are heading toward an even less religious future. Knowing the Bible has never been less necessary for understanding our present culture.
This predicament is the subject of Walter Moberly’s newest book, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age. A professor of theology at Durham University, Moberly stands in the first rank of biblical scholars. In no small part because of Moberly’s pioneering contributions to Old Testament studies, many have begun, in the last twenty years, to push past old, critical taboos against theological readings of the Bible and to seek new ways of integrating rigorous scholarship into contemporary explorations of Christian faith.
Is it conceivable, Charles Darwin once asked, that a good and omnipotent God would have designed the ichneumon wasp? The female of this species lays her eggs by paralyzing a caterpillar and then depositing her ova. Once the larvae hatch, they eat their host from the inside out. Because the mother does not kill the caterpillar and only paralyzes it, her larvae enjoy fresh meat. As Moberly explains, the ichneumon wasp has become a stock figure in the works of contemporary atheists, who believe that its apparent perverseness is impossible to square with belief in a good Creator. Yet the Bible itself revels in such creatures. The ichneumon wasp is but a miniature version of the vicious Leviathan, whom God is proud to call his own in the book of Job.
To cite the Book of Job, though, brings us to the problem at the heart of Moberly’s book. The Bible furnishes many resources for handling the complexities of belief, but we live in a time when recourse to the Bible has become problematic. Two hundred years of modern critical scholarship have shown that the Bible is a product of its time and that studying it as an ancient cultural artifact allows us to make sense of many of its puzzling features. But once the Bible has become intelligible as an anthology of ancient literature, it becomes difficult to affirm that it is also somehow more than this.
Moberly leads the reader through a fascinating exercise. The first book of Virgil’s Aeneid and the seventh chapter of the book of Daniel contain remarkably similar passages. Though the former has to do with Rome and the latter with the Jewish people, “in each context a sovereign deity . . . bestows sovereignty on earth . . . upon a specially favored people . . . , a sovereignty that explicitly has no envisaged termination but is to be endlessly enduring.” There are notable parallels. Both focus hope on an extraordinary individual to bring the vision to fulfillment (a Caesar or a “son of man”), and both reflect the idea that a righteous kingdom with divine sanction will bring peace and justice to the world.
Why is it appropriate to read the Aeneid as a poetic witness to a defunct geopolitical reality (the Roman Empire) while maintaining that Daniel’s similar vision is enduringly real? What reason is there to see Virgil’s composition as a “classic” in honor of a nonexistent god (Jupiter) while regarding Daniel 7 as God-given Scripture with perennial relevance to the shape and direction of human history? One possible reason is that Virgil’s (somewhat ambiguous) triumphalism was tied to the fortunes of Rome, and its existential meaning was all but exhausted by the empire’s downfall. By contrast, Daniel’s vision, forged in the fires of suffering and persecution, reflects the hope of “oppressed people” seeking to “maintain confidence in the ultimate triumph of their vision of a just God.” One might say that history has vindicated the Book of Daniel’s approach, furnishing more opportunities for Jewish suffering than it has for Roman domination.
The real issue, though, is that any acceptance of the Bible as Scripture requires something other than historical or literary expertise: It requires faith. Moberly argues that faith arises within what Peter Berger called a “plausibility structure,” a social context that is conducive to certain beliefs. In a disenchanted age, one does not find plausibility structures for belief within dominant cultural institutions. They are to be found, instead, within the Christian Church. The biblical vision of reality will engender belief “only insofar as living Christian witness attests” to its truth. In a manner of speaking, the Church is the plausibility structure for the Bible.
In A. N. Wilson’s The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible, the plausibility structure for biblical faith is Western civilization itself. Wilson bears the unusual distinction of having converted from Christianity to atheism and then back to Christianity. Part of what enticed Wilson back into the Christian fold was a newfound appreciation for the Bible. He describes the great things that have sprung from engagement with the Bible: the poetry of George Herbert, the famed altarpiece at Ghent, the Hagia Sophia, Martin Luther King Jr., and the quest for civil rights. No fair critic of the Bible can ignore its power to inspire and transform individuals and societies.
Wilson’s book is a fine and (to him who has ears to hear) compelling presentation of the ways that deep engagement with the Bible has elevated all manner of cultural endeavor. Yet, in light of the fact that Western culture today looks less like a coherent tradition and more like what R. R. Reno once called an “empire of desire” (in which culture must be freed from traditional constraints), Wilson’s cultural apologetic seems a bit out of touch.
In The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically & Religiously, a trio of scholars (Marc Brettler, Peter Enns, and Daniel J. Harrington, S. J.) pursues a different strategy. They argue that historical-critical scholarship is key to modern acceptance of the Bible. To the extent that a complex of modern attitudes conventionally identified with the Enlightenment—the valorization of science, an affirmation of universal human dignity, a belief in progress—has made an old book like the Bible seem unworthy of belief, modern biblical criticism can restore its fortunes. Genesis need not be saddled with what many see as the absurdities of young earth creationism. Genocidal passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua may be understood in terms of ancient conflicts and ideologies that are no longer relevant. The Gospels need not be harmonized in a wrongheaded attempt to show that the Bible stands up to modern notions of historical accuracy. Biblical criticism loosens the grip of unfruitful opinions based on anachronistic readings, allowing us to move beyond sterile debates about history and science to a more sophisticated appreciation of the Bible’s religious meaning.
The authors of The Bible and the Believer argue that the academy is not necessarily hostile to faith but ought, instead, to be regarded as a plausibility structure for an enlightened, non-fundamentalist appropriation of the Bible. To this argument, Moberly may be sympathetic. As an accomplished scholar in his own right, Moberly takes an appreciative, optimistic stance toward the kind of academic biblical study advocated by Brettler, Enns, and Harrington. Yet Moberly does not set as much store by the university as they do. While the academy has a role to play in shaping social attitudes toward the Bible, it has been far more successful in accommodating the Bible and the Christian tradition to prevailing habits of mind than it has been in articulating the fundamental challenges that the Bible poses to modern culture.
This is not to deny that academic biblical studies have helped people of faith to understand the Bible in richer, more satisfying ways. It is instead to recognize something about the nature of the modern university itself. In a Christian society, the university may serve Christian ends; in a pluralistic society, however, it will serve irenic ends. In such an arrangement, the Bible may be plausible as a piece of cultural heritage, but its theological character—the fact that it amounts, in Christian terms, to an exclusive call to a particular form of life—cannot be properly registered.
Moberly is right. The plausibility structure for the Christian Bible is ultimately to be found in Christian communities. This is why Tertullian, for example, proclaimed that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. The perseverance of early Christians in periods of persecution made their witness credible and compelling. When the Christian faith is allied with political power, this too can furnish a certain plausibility structure for belief. Moberly writes of his native England, recalling the coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II and noting that representatives of the Church presented the Queen with a Bible, calling it “the lively oracles of God” and “the most valuable thing that this world affords.” In both cases, the Bible is believed (or disbelieved) insofar as real people and their particular forms of life bear witness to the Bible’s claims on human loves and loyalties. There would be no Bible at all unless there were people willing to believe it and stake their lives upon it in the first place.
Our disenchanted age has brought a certain clarity: The Bible is indeed a collection of writings much like others from the ancient world. There is no deep historical difference between a Roman prophecy and a Jewish one. Thus, the Bible no more speaks for itself than do the egg-laying habits of the ichneumon wasp. Arguments made for Christian faith nowadays cannot rest merely on the intellectual or cultural plausibility of the Bible. For good or for ill, they must rest instead on the living witness of the Church.
Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor of classics and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University.
Photo by Plum leaves via Creative Commons. Image cropped.