The Bible, we are constantly reminded, is the best-selling book of all time. It is read with intense devotion by hundreds of millions of people, stands as authoritative for Judaism and Christianity, and informs and affects the politics and lives of the religious and non-religious around the world. But how well do we really know it? The Bible is so familiar, so ubiquitous that we have begun to take our knowledge of it for granted. The Bible many of us think we know is a pale imitation of the real thing.
In A Most Peculiar Book, Kristin Swenson addresses the dirty little secret of biblical studies that the Bible is a weird book. It is full of surprises and contradictions, unexplained impossibilities, intriguing supernatural creatures, and heroes doing horrible deeds. It does not provide a simple worldview: what "the Bible says" on a given topic is multi-faceted, sometimes even contradictory. Yet, Swenson argues, we have a tendency to reduce the complexities of the Bible to aphorisms, bumper stickers, and slogans. Swenson helps readers look at the text with fresh eyes. A collection of ancient stories and poetry written by multiple authors, held together by the tenuous string of tradition, the Bible often undermines our modern assumptions. And is all the more marvelous and powerful for it.
Rather than dismiss the Bible as an outlandish or irrelevant relic of antiquity, Swenson leans into the messiness full-throttle. Making ample room for discomfort, wonder, and weirdness, A Most Peculiar Book guides readers through a Bible that will feel, to many, brand new.
Swenson (God of Earth), an associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and PW reviewer, unpacks "what's so weird, difficult, and disconcerting" about the Bible in this rigorous, stimulating work. Swenson relays the Bible's origin as a series of scriptures compiled by largely unknown editors who had collected texts composed over many centuries by mostly anonymous authors writing in a variety of languages. She challenges assumptions commonly held by American Christians, such as the notion of one singular Bible when, in fact, there are substantive differences between the Hebrew, Protestant, and Catholic Bibles and one version of the Ten Commandments (Swenson identifies three). Pointing to conflicting biblical accounts, such as two different creation stories within Genesis and the Bible's complex portrayals of God, Swenson discourages simplistic interpretations about what the Bible says, and urges readers to embrace curiosity and to question: "as long as people keep engaging with the text, God keeps speaking." Swenson concludes with her own "Ten Commandments for Reading the Bible," including "Thou shalt not make the Bible God" and "Thou shalt not presume that any given translation is the text itself." Both religious and secular readers will benefit from Swenson's illuminating analysis of the Bible's contradictions and oddities.