A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

The Bible as Instructions

As long as the word “Bible” is used to mean “definitive” or “instructions,” is there any hope people will read it for its stories?  What chance do those of us who want to open up the reading of these writings have in the face of pop culture definitions?

That’s the question that ran through my head as I pondered a display outside of Borders at the local mall.


There on the table were all varieties of Bibles.  Not King James or The Message, but The Grilling Bible, The Diabetic Bible, and The Cooking for Kids Bible.


I’d already seen other examples of secular Bibles. A few weeks ago in my Bible at the Grocery Store post, I included a picture of The Barbecue Bible.


For Christmas last year (or was it 2 years ago?), I received The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible.


In these books, “Bible” means the definitive guide, the final authority, everything you ever needed to know.

As someone who writes books, I understand the appeal of a catchy title.  I understand why, from a marketing perspective, this is a clever title for instructional guides.

But as someone who writes and teaches in hopes of convincing people that the Bible itself offers far more than rules, that it can be read as literature whose stories invite conversation about our lives,  I look at these titles and feel that my own quest is doomed.  The more that popular culture reinforces the idea that “Bible” means “authority,” the less people who don’t accept the authority of the Bible are to pick it up and encounter its profound narratives.

I find it ironic that the label both pays tribute to the status of the Bible and also makes it less likely that the uninitiated will ever open its cover.

8 Responses to The Bible as Instructions

  • Very well put. I think this is why I like speaking in slightly foreign terms when other Christians ask me about my doctoral work (Latter Prophets instead of major and minor prophets, stuff like that). It makes people look at you funny for just long enough that you can change their perspective on the books that you’re talking about.

  • Can you imagine a book titled “The Vegetable Gardener’s Midrash”?

  • Enjoyed the blog very much.
    As a pastor who worked previously in broadcasting, I can understand first hand that the need for “answers” in American Christianity (and culture!) segues into compelling marketing. Wile our denomiinations fret about declining worship attendance, folks can leave church, go to Borders, and pick up a “bible” on grilling.

    At the same time, if we approach the Bible as literature inside a church building, we are on the fringes of apostacy. I was given the chance to teach a course on the Bible as Literature at a local college and declined for more than one reason.

    It’s no wonder that the unchurched remain outside our doors.

  • If by treating the Bible as literature you mean treating it simplistically, looking only for its themes and its art, then maybe I’d agree with you. But I think the church desperately needs to read the Bible as literature–to see how it deals in complex and compelling ways with matters of human existence. The church has reduced the Bible to rules and to simplistic moral lessons. Letting it work on us as stories that we lose and find ourselves in has a lot more to offer. That’s the argument of my Reading the Bible as an Adult project, and what I hope to model in asking people to connect with biblical stories as stories.

  • Sorry for the spelling error!
    I think I was unclear. I should have said we can be misunderstood and accused of apostasy. There is a years-long sensitivity over Biblical authority within our denomination, and especially the local presbytery.

    If we can serve up something in the way of Bible study that compels our people to want to know more–specifically, how it appiles to them–perhaps a new hunger will emerge. I will be following your project closely in hopes of passing it on to my study group in Columbia.

  • To read ‘the Bible’ makes you think it is one book. Too bad – it is many. So multiform that we have lost its story telling capacity. E.g. Ruth is a camp-fire tale, Job an extended parable, the Psalms many personal journeys. I know the NT is part of ‘the Bible’ too but here the authority of the text is confused by our history. I confess I don’t know how to read the NT. And reading in the Hebrew Bible takes me a long time. I had someone say to me recently that they had read the Bible through twice – cover to cover. To read it through is far from the point. To hear one word from it is better. My most recent example is the beautiful monster Leviathan, a bookend in Job (mentioned in chapters 3 and 41) with its beautiful eyes like the eyelids of dawn (also a bookend – mentioned only in this form in chapters 3 and 41) – but mostly it is in its destructive path with its gouging of the earth through its sharp undergarments and the enlightenment of its wake – a sea and land monster in one – that it makes its mark. Here is how I read the last few verses of chapter 41

    his underparts are sharp potsherds
    he spreads cuttings in the dirt
    he makes the ocean deep boil like a pot
    the sea he sets as spices
    after him is an enlightened track
    he counts the depth gray-haired
    in all dust is his parable
    the one who is made without fear
    all the exalted he sees
    he is king over all the children of pride

    I am slow because I read Hebrew as a three year old – but there is no better way to read than this – because translators have to make so many decisions about the Bible that we can scarcely recognize the text afterwards.

  • I forgot part of the link in the prior post – sorry

  • The books you note suggest to me that they are books selling themselves as ones you can have confidence in – that’s overall positive I think. Whether they get story or not – knowing that ‘the Bible’ is a book about having confidence is good – no?

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