Book review: What Do We Do with the Bible?

What Do We Do With the Bible Richard Rohr

It’s always amusing to review a book that shares it’s title with that of a recent blog post – but unfortunately in this case I’m incredibly glad I was given a review copy of What Do We Do with the Bible? by Richard Rohr, as I’m very glad I didn’t waste my money on this frustrating book. Simply put, if you want to think honestly and carefully about how to read the Bible today, this book is not for you. Doubtless, because it has Rohr’s name on it it will sell like hot cakes on a cold day, but it is actually incredibly flawed.

This little book starts as it means to go on by misrepresenting those with whom it disagrees. By skating over complex topics, and instead taking what often seems like internet atheist-levels of argument (with apologies to internet atheist friends who do think and engage well!) we end up with bizarre claims like “Literalism was discredited from the beginning of the New Testament through the inclusion of four Gospel accounts of the same Jesus event, which hardly ever totally agree“. Other than being downright hilarious when you consider the startling unity and depth of these accounts, it seems to ignore the self-stated purpose of the gospel writers, let alone those of us who have come after and found them to be trustworthy and true. On the opposite page, there is a broad-brush about the origins of the Pentateuch which I don’t think would pass muster in an A-Level RS class, let alone a university seminar.

While he later claims to read the Bible through a Jesus-focused hermeneutic, it is revealing that for Rohr the most important thing is to read the Bible in a ‘contemplative’ way – again (of course?) set up against the ‘literalists’, who are railed against without ever actually being quoted. This reinforces the general fuzzy-mindedness of Rohr’s writing here. A great case in point is this: “the word for a person’s methodology or pattern of interpreting a spiritual text is called a hermeneutic“. Whilst this is true, this is actually quite disingenuous, as hermeneutics is in fact a general term for the science/theory/method of interpreting any text, not just ‘spiritual’ ones. Note also the subtle shifting of definitions – whilst the Bible of course contains ‘spiritual’ writing, it also contains history, poetry, law, genealogy and other ‘secular’ forms of writing. This is an important distinction and it is important to call Rohr’s writing here what it is: a symptom of an I-focused age and the triumph of sloppy thinking over careful engagement with those whom we disagree.

Later on, Rohr manages to make me want to defend my liberal friends, as he writes “In general, people who call themselves conservative make faith largely a matter of conformity/will and those who call themselves liberal make faith largely a matter of reasonableness/intellect“. I’m honestly not sure who he is talking about. In my experience, even of just evangelicalism, conservatives have a great respect for reasonableness/intellect, and ‘liberals’ (note that Rohr never really defines either term, they exist merely to set himself up as the way forward) often have their own conformity and will. A possible reason for this is that Rohr is very positive about Buddhist approaches to things, as well as committing the theologically fascinating idea to print that “wisdom is not self generated. It comes from a larger and deeper Source, which is always shared (some psychologists call this the collective unconsciousness and Christians call it the Holy Spirit“. This is demonstrably bonkers, at least in terms of even vaguely normative Christian understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It would be interesting to hear how Rohr would engage with texts like 1 Corinthians 3:19, and Matthew 15:34/Mark 6:2 (particularly the latter two, which seem to share about the same event, where Jesus’ wisdom is not like anything his audience have encountered before).

Perhaps the saddest part of reading this book is the way that Rohr treats Jesus. An early hint is when he writes “Be careful when anybody says ‘only’. It is a giveaway for narrow-gauge and dualistic thinking“. Given the well documented exclusivity (which is radically inclusive, in that everyone is invited) of Jesus, let alone the general themes of the holiness of God and biblical monotheism, this is a strange thing to read. Rohr would seem to be suggesting that Jesus’ narrow teaching is dualistic – when, in fact, I think the opposite is true. And herein lies the rub. Rohr’s ‘big idea’ (though arguably subservient to his contemplative and pan/entheistic slants) is the innocuous sounding “Let’s use the Bible the way that Jesus did“. This sounds brilliant, apart from the fact that the Bible isn’t something to be used. Once we observe that, and think about who Jesus engaged with, submitted to, extolled, meditated one, shared, explained and explanded (For just a few verbs) the Bible he had, we see the problems with this approach. A far more positive, thoughtful and readable approach to the Bible and how Jesus treated it can be found in Andrew Wilson’s excellent Unbreakable: What the Son of God said about the Word of God.

You can probably tell that I am not a fan of this book – I did try to make it clear at the start of the post – and this is because, in my view, it is deeply flawed. Part of this is a textbook example of chronological snobbery, and the suggestion that humanity is generally maturing and progressing (which in my view is rather an odd thing to think, but there we go). On this, Rohr writes of Luther and the Reformation that “his uncritical pendulum swing also sent us down a rabbit hole that has seriously narrowed our field of vision to this day. We now call it ‘fundamentalism’. The Reformation’s critical thinking was surely a necessary stage of our maturation process…“. Whilst Rohr is aware of positive affects of the Reformation, this notion of ‘maturation’ is surely deeply patronising, and demonstrably strange. What Do We Do With the Bible? is a great question to be asking. Rohr, unfortunately, doesn’t really provide any meaningful answers.

Readers may be interested in a recent blog post, of similar title, which shared resources and a brilliant recent sermon series about the Bible.

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