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Living text

John Wilson

The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times, by David W. Kling (Oxford, 408 pp., $35)

ACCORDING to the demographer David Barrett, there were roughly 34,000 Christian denominations at the beginning of the 21st century, a total projected to reach 62,000 by the year 2025. And as Barrett would be the first to acknowledge, given the looseness of denomination as a category, no one knows how big the numbers really are: Someone is probably starting a new denomination right down the street from you at this very moment, while another existing church body is splitting in two.

All of these groups, from the storefront Fire-Baptized Holiness Temple to the worldwide Church over which Pope John Paul II presides, derive their identity from the Bible. And each group interprets the Bible differently from all the others, to a greater or lesser degree. In certain southern communities much beloved by ethnographers and moviemakers, a single verse from the Gospel of Mark looms large ("They shall take up serpents," Mark 16:18 begins), while the vast majority of Christians pass over that verse in silence (or are told that in the best manuscripts, Mark ends with verse 8).

That Christians are endlessly disputatious hardly comes as news. The great merit of David Kling's book, The Bible in History, is to flesh out this conflict of interpretations in eight case studies, each of which focuses on a key Biblical text or cluster of texts. When Jesus told the rich young ruler, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21), did he mean it literally? Did he mean it normatively, for all Christians in all times? If you are serious about following Jesus, should you sell your GameBoy and your V olvo and your house in the suburbs? (And then what?) Or would that be an example of the "misguided literalism" Kling cites in another context, as when, "for example, a handful of Anabaptists strictly obeyed Jesus' words to his twelve disciples in Matthew 10:9-10 and so wandered about the countryside without weapons, money, or a change of clothes"?

Most Christians have not taken Jesus' words to the rich young ruler literally. But some have. Kling instances St. Anthony (c. 251-356), who gave up his possessions and retreated to the Egyptian desert, inspiring the monastic movement by his example, which was given currency by a biography that was read throughout the Christian world. Taking this as a point of departure, Kling shows vividly how Scripture has been endlessly reinterpreted. He casts his net wide in the course of the book, with chapters on the papacy, the Song of Songs (is it an allegory of divine love, a paean to sexual love, or both, or something else altogether?), Luther and his discovery of grace, the Anabaptists and the peace tradition, the theme of Exodus in the African American church, the roots of Pentecostalism, and the battle over women in ministry.

Whether your acquaintance with the Bible is largely limited to Life of Brian or you have taken a seminary course in hermeneutics, you will profit from reading Kling's book. (If I were New York Times editor Bill Keller, I would make it required reading for everyone at the Times who needs to understand how evangelical Christians think, for while Kling's studies are not at all limited to that tradition, evangelicals are supremely readers of Scripture.) And yet, alas, The Bible in History is flawed in ways that may limit the book's reach.

As with so many products of the academy, the problems start with the writing, sentence by sentence. An elephantine fussiness, evident in the impulse to document every statement with an endnote, is incongruously yoked with a weakness for bland boilerplate, especially in the summary sections. But the deeper problems with the book are conceptual. The subtitle, How the Texts Have Shaped the Times, is misleading. It suggests, for instance, that the chapter on St. Anthony and monasticism will say something about the impact of the monastic movement, or that the chapter on Pentecostalism will say something about that movement and "the times." In fact we get very little of this.

Both in his introduction and in the conclusion to the book, Kling seems to be struggling to articulate a thesis, apart from that which is obviously exemplified in all his case studies--that Christians have read the Bible in a dizzying variety of ways, and that those differing readings are often embedded in particular historical circumstances. His failure to make clear what he supposes to be the novelty of his approach beyond this commonsense understanding does not at all undermine the value of his nitty-gritty accounts of conflicting interpretations, where he is at his best. But Kling does leave the reader wondering what to make of the stories he has told. One response, of course--the skeptic's version--would be to see these case studies as adding up to a knockdown argument against Christianity: These people have a book they claim to be divinely inspired, an infallible guide in matters of faith and conduct--and they can't begin to agree on what it actually says! Case closed. A second response--the fundamentalist one--would be to cock an eyebrow: Yes, and what did you expect? There is the right way to understand Scripture, the plain and simple truth of it, and there are countless wrong ways, sowing diabolical confusion.

Yet another response would be to consider a tension that gets short shrift in Kling's book: between, on one hand, the multiplicity of contested interpretations, and, on the other, the remarkable unity of conviction that joins 21st-century Christians from Chicago and Lagos and Singapore with their counterparts in 1st-century house churches. To understand why Christianity continues to thrive--to understand why, contrary to the prophets of secularization, the faith is experiencing an enormous surge, particularly in Africa and Asia--we have to consider this productive tension, which allows for both enormous flexibility and historical continuity.

As scholars such as Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls have shown, and as Kling himself notes in his conclusion, translatability is at the heart of the history of Christianity. The Bible translated into the vernacular languages of Africa and Asia, New Guinea and the Amazon basin, is at once the same Bible that Augustine and Luther read--the same Bible I read--and very different, giving rise to new questions, new interpretations. When the Bible is treated as if it consisted of a series of axioms, subject to only one reading, or when--at the other extreme--it becomes a playground for subjective interpretation, infinitely malleable, it loses the dynamic quality so apparent in Kling's account. A book that means Only One Thing isn't really a book, it's a blunt object. A book that can mean anything I want it to will soon prove irrelevant to anybody else. But a book that people will continue to pore over and argue about for 2,000 years and more--that's David Kling's subject.

Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review. He is also the editor of the Best Christian Writingseries, the most recent volume of which is The Best Christian Writing 2004 (Jossey-Bass).

COPYRIGHT 2004 National Review, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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