Several different things conspired to lead me to write this book. For one, even after years of studying the Bible as an academic of rather sketchy faith, I’m still totally amazed by it — by its beauty, humor, crudities, and lofty erudition, its inspiring poetry and gritty family dramas, by its ability to endure through so many centuries and nevertheless maintain an immediacy and relevance like nothing else.
At the same time, I’ve been surprised to find so few resources about the Bible that don’t come from a particular faith perspective, try to retell the Bible, or provide such detailed academic information that readers wander off without ever gaining the nuggets buried in the jargon. So I began to think about putting together a book of my own that would try to meet people where they are, give what they want to know, and provide the tools for people to understand the Bible and references to it for themselves.
Reading Stephen Prothero’s award-winning Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t convinced me to go ahead with the project. Prothero makes a strong case for improving biblical literacy among the general population, but he stops short of providing it. I knew that I wanted to share basic (sometimes startling or intriguing) information about the Bible so that people could know what the Bible is, what’s in it, understand debates in which people use the Bible to argue both sides, and simply make sense for themselves out of biblical references in contemporary culture.
Over the years, many people have told me that they wish they knew more about the Bible but are suspicious of or turned off by sources claiming to help. While some people say that they don’t want to be preached to, others say that they don’t want to hear disparaging remarks about belief. They know that the Bible has been enormously influential in the Western world for millennia and continues to be so today. But there are few opportunities to learn about it. As a result, secular and religious alike, most people are remarkably ignorant about the Bible, which can be frustrating. The religious are poorly equipped to appreciate and mine the richness of their sacred text, and others are bewildered by how anyone could believe the Bible in the first place. It’s impossible to appreciate biblical references in music, literature, and art, or to understand (much less critique) the Bible’s role in politics, popular culture, and social controversy without some basic information about it.
So, I wrote this book for my dear friends and family in the pews of a Minnesota Lutheran church, and for my colleagues in Art and Lit departments across the country. It’s for my fish biologist friend in Kansas and for the military families I’ve come to know in Florida. I wrote it for secular Jews, born-again teens, Manhattan journalists, a middle-aged mega-church member, and the farmers that I buy my eggs from. I hope that each reader will find this book useful, sometimes entertaining and thought-provoking, or that it simply satisfies an itch to know more about the world’s perennial best-seller.