Kristen Swenson, Bible Babel (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 343pp. $24.99 (hardback).
As a teacher in an Atlanta public high school, I once told a student that he was “a good Samaritan.” The student asked me what I meant, seemingly trying to determine if I had just insulted him. Briefly, I told him what this expression meant and its origin in the parables of the New Testament. The student grunted approvingly and headed off to class. I sensed he thought that “good Samaritan” was an expression that only a history teacher would ever use. I may as well have told him he was a ziggurat.
Biblical illiteracy is no joke. As Stephen Prothero and others have argued, not only is knowledge of the Bible essential for understanding Western culture, it is also important to maintaining an informed electorate. Politicians frequently quote scripture, and voters should be able to decide whether these references are apt or whether the Bible is being abused for partisan purposes. Knowledge is power and, conversely, ignorance is weakness.
This is why Kristen Swenson’s Bible Babel is so important. While many similar books offer an introduction to the Bible, they are often done in a dry and partisan style. By contrast, Bible Babel proceeds in a breezy, accessible style ideal for young people. Swenson has gone out of her way to show the ubiquity of the Bible in popular culture. Readers will learn, for instance, that the Twilight Saga misquotes the book of Isaiah or which Bible passages have appeared in Quentin Tarantino films. Even serious Bible scholars are likely to discover new and interesting facts, such as the origin of the expression “Jesus H. Christ.”
While Bible Babel offers a strong introduction to the characters and narratives of the Bible as well as the translation and canonization of the text, the most important chapter is entitled “We’ve Got Issues.” Here, Swenson outlines the arguments used in rival interpretations of the Bible as it relates to the issues of creationism vs. evolution, homosexuality, abortion, poverty and prosperity, environmentalism, and anti-Semitism.
In addition to presenting the relevant Bible passages, Swenson also outlines arguments related to translation and historical context. Everyone who has a stake in American political life has something to gain by reading this chapter. For secular readers, Swenson outlines which passages inform Christian views and why they are so important to Christians. Readers who regard the Bible as a sacred text are invited to consider multiple interpretations without encountering polemical rhetoric. As Swenson states, “My goal here is simply to help readers understand the debate.”
In closing, Swenson acknowledges that scholarly treatments of the Bible can often feel threatening to one’s faith. She addresses these fears by reminding readers that the Bible’s meaning has not diminished despite millennia of study. Ultimately, she argues, we have more to gain than to lose by considering alternative interpretations of the Bible. She assures us that, “Understanding how and why people hear different things makes a fruitful discussion about biblical perspectives possible.” In a country founded on democratic ideals and saturated by Protestant culture, such a discussion is long overdue.
Joseph Laycock is a graduate of the Program in Religion and Secondary Education at Harvard Divinity School. After spending several years workings in American high schools, he is now completing his doctorate in religion and society at Boston University.