In Season 6 of The West Wing, Republican Presidential candidate Senator Arnold Vinick and sitting Democratic President Josiah Bartlett find themselves alone talking about faith, God and the Bible. Bartlett is a devout Mass-every-Sunday Catholic, whilst Vinick, it transpires, has given up on going to church, and possibly on faith in God itself. In a tender pastoral moment, Bartlett asks why the senator has stopped going to church. It turns out that Vinick’s faith was irreparably damaged by the decision to actually read a 17th century edition of the King James Bible his wife had given him. What he found there so confused, disturbed and at times even appalled him that, in the end, in his words, “I gave up the struggle.” For evangelical Christians it’s a troubling scenario. So much of our battle is getting people to read the Bible in the first place. How depressing to think that someone who did actually bother to open it would find themselves not draw to God, but moved further from him.
The truth is that the fictional Senator Vinick has many real-life counterparts. The Bible confronts the first time adult reader as a daunting and imposing prospect. Its contents (for those who manage to read it) can prove so foreign, obscure and at times objectionable that a person who starts at Genesis could be lucky to make it to Leviticus before they decide there is nothing to keep them, and a good few reasons to move on.
Enter John Dickson’s latest book A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2015).
John Dickson, the well-known Australian pastor, historian and evangelist, has in his latest offering produced a refreshingly accessible primer on the Bible. Written with the intelligent and slightly sceptical layperson firmly in its sights, Dickson takes the reader through a guided tour of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
The book moves (as you would expect) from creation to new creation, traversing ground including Abraham and the promise, Moses and the law, Joshua and the conquest of the land. It is in many ways a piece of biblical theology—the sort of thing represented by Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom or Vaughan Robert’s God’s Big Picture. But here is the book’s genius—it is a biblical theology for sceptics. Think of it this way: if Gospel and Kingdom is most at home helping a group of Sunday School teachers get ready for their year of teaching, A Doubter’s Guide is most at home in a lounge room, next to a bottle of Pinot Noir, helping to guide the conversation of a bunch of animated, sceptical, Dawkins-loving people who have agreed to read the Bible with their churchy mate.
Instead of footnotes or endnotes, full references for cited works appear in the text, and each chapter has judicious suggestions for further reading. This is a great feature as it means the book serves not only as a primer but also as guide to further reading, encouraging people to continue their quest with well-informed conversation partners.
John’s years of evangelistic and apologetic experience shine through—at almost every point he pre-empts the sorts of questions a inquirer might ask and gives credible and helpful directions. The tone is conversational and non-defensive, more like an enthusiastic and informed art critic taking you through the gallery than a shrill salesman talking you through the car-yard.
If I were being greedy I’d ask for a whole chapter on the Babylonian exile, given the literary and theological shadow it casts in Scripture. But one of the great strengths of the book is its brevity, and you don’t get brevity by saying everything.
John Dickson has provided something we have desperately needed—an intelligent, accessible primer on the vast literary phenomenon called The Bible. Arnold Vinick’s questions won’t go away anytime soon. If Bartlett had had a copy of A Doubters Guide to the Bible at hand, Vinick would have been well served.
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