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Faith column: 3 Qs for Bibel Babel author Kristin Swenson

April 9, 2011
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Latest faith column, a Q&A with religious studies professor and author Kristin Swenson on her new book Bible Babel, a fun and illuminating read that reminds us how complex and inconsistent and fascinating the Bible is. Also that we should ask ourselves “which one?” when we talk about “THE Bible.”

Here’s the full text of the interview:

Author blends scholarship and humor with guide to Bible

It’s one thing to read the Bible, quite another to appreciate the historical context in which its various books were written, the different translations and versions that have emerged over the centuries and the indelible impact the book continues to have on our culture. With her new book “Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time,” Kristin Swenson, a religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, seeks to raise our biblical literacy with an objective and humorous guide that will appeal to skeptics and true believers alike. Swenson discussed “Bible Babel” in an email interview with Eileen Flynn.

Austin American-Statesman: Books about the Bible often advance a particular religious or political agenda or are too esoteric for the non-academic reader. But ‘Bible Babel’ offers an objective historical analysis that is accessible to a mainstream audience. How important — and difficult – was it for you to strike this balance?

Kristi Swenson: It was very important for me to make “Bible Babel” interesting and fun for people to read no matter what they believe about the Bible. I’ve had an opportunity to learn a lot about the Bible in the course of earning a Ph.D. and continuing to do research and teach in both secular and seminary contexts about it.

I wanted to help people to make (informed) sense for themselves of the ways that the Bible shows up in contemporary culture — religious, political, arts and literature, Hollywood. That meant providing big picture information and some details without preaching or (on the other hand) disrespecting or belittling faith.

Besides providing “biblical literacy” type information (who is David and why is it so important that Jesus be connected to him, where is Canaan in relation to Israel, and what’s with all the names for God?), I wanted to provide some of the historical and literary background of the Bible. The Bible speaks with many voices. Among other things, introducing people simply to that fact I hoped would discourage people from using the Bible as a club to beat up others and rather encourage them to get in on the conversation, bringing their own ideas, questions, desires, and sympathies to bear.

I’ve been teaching university students about the Bible for many years, and that experience helped a lot. Most of my students have been raised reading and using the Bible religiously; others are hostile to religion as narrow-minded and backward and identify the Bible as part of the problem. (Some are both.) I can’t tell you how many times they’ve said, “Wow, that’s really interesting/cool/weird … How come no one ever told me that?!”

The Bible continues to be incredibly influential, yet it’s hard to find information about it that doesn’t preach, try to “retell” the Bible or dismiss it as silly folktales. My writing was driven by my desire to cover a lot of super interesting material in a way that would be fun to read, clear up some misconceptions and help people appreciate the richness of this ancient text (and the ways that people use it), no matter what they believe.

You detail numerous inconsistencies as well as competing interpretations, translations and versions of the Bible. You cite scriptural passages that modern readers would consider immoral. Still, millions of believers rely on this book as their moral guide and claim that it contains no error. Why does the Bible still have such a hold on so many people?

Ironically, I think some of the characteristics that have contributed to the Bible’s endurance are overlooked by the very people for whom it continues to be sacred and authoritative. Then again, that’s understandable because there are few opportunities and little encouragement to learn the kind of background and big-picture information that enables a person to think for herself or himself about it.

In other words, I think that the Bible’s multivalency — it grew up over a long period of time and is a collection containing many different kinds of literatures, perspectives, even theologies — has contributed to its endurance. It is fixed (the texts are what they are) yet malleable in its interpretation and reinterpretation, and it has many voices. Yet some people for whom this is their sacred and authoritative scripture feel that to acknowledge that inherent variation and to “talk back” to the Bible, ask hard questions of it and maybe even disagree with it, is disrespectful or otherwise undermines the Bible. I disagree, which brings me to your last question, I see!

After doing such exhaustive research, I’m curious how you read the Bible. What value does it hold for you personally?

I grew up learning about and reading the Bible in a Christian context (Lutheran, to be more specific), but it wasn’t until I took a class in college that I began to learn some of the kind of background information that I provide in “Bible Babel,” and that ignited my desire to keep learning more. I’m humbled by this text, and I can honestly say that I love it. But it’s a love like what may develop between the couple of an arranged marriage. An ancient rabbi said, “Turn it, turn it, everything is in it.” I’ve come to think that “everything” is not “all the answers” but things that are at turns sublime and problematic, evocative and comforting, disturbing, challenging and inspiring — in short, things that prompt us to engage with the text, to bring our whole humanity, mind and heart, to bear in conversation with it … whatever we believe.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Wirtz permalink
    April 10, 2011 7:01 am

    If you have no interest in religion and don’t believe there is a GOD, don’t waste your money or your time with this book or the Bible. But, if you have an interest in religion, read Lewis’s Mere Christianity and McDowell’s More Than A Carpenter. Then find a copy of J.N. Darby’s Translation (free online or in Olive Tree apps), the most accurate of the English Bibles. Begin in New Testament with Mark’s Gospel then Acts of the Apostles, only then if your interest abides, read all of the New Testament, save for Revelation, for yourself. Only then will you have the knowledge to weigh what you hear and read about the religion of Christ.

  2. Cathy Glazener permalink
    April 11, 2011 3:22 pm

    Thanks for the introduction to this book. I appreciate Ms. Swenson’s comments on the Bible’s multivalency, its many voices. There are a number of congregations in Austin that do offer opportunities and encouragement “to learn the kind of background and big-picture information that enables a person to think for herself or himself about [the Bible].” One is Highland Park Baptist Church, an ecumenical congregation in the Baptist tradition.

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