Pregeant on Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons (Review)

I teach an introductory course on the Bible and it is partly a sweeping survey and partly a hermeneutics course. Since we aim to spend as much time as we can “in the text,” the choice for a secondary-lit textbook is crucial because it must be essentially informative and also short. You want something accurate, engaging, but not time-consuming.

I saw Russell Pregeant’s new Reading the Bible for All The Wrong Reasons and my interest was piqued (Fortress, 2011). The chapter titles are clever and relevant

ch1: “M0re than a Fortune Cookie: The Testimonies of Two Communities”

Ch2: “Neither Fact Book nor Catechism: Rethinking Biblical Authority”

Ch3: “Neither Science nor Anti-Science: Genesis, Geology, the Big Bang, and Darwin”

Ch4: “Neither Crystal Ball nor Horror Show: Understanding Biblical Prophecy”

Ch5: “Neither Rigid Rules nor Billy Club: The Nature of Biblical Ethics”

Ch6: “The Bible and Our Beliefs: Reflections on Christian Doctrine”

Ch7: “Life in the Spirit: The Gospel of Grace and Demand”

Pregeant covers all the key subjects: Scriptural authority, Bible and science, prophecy, ethics, theology, etc… It has all the making of a useful book and at less than 150 pages. I will tell you now, though, that I ultimately did not feel that it works through these issues in the most helpful way. It is not so much that Pregeant’s information is wrong, though there are some areas where I disagree. It is more so that he so quickly alienates the conservatives that he is trying to reach that, in the end, he will have lost their attention before making his point, in my opinion. The best tactic is to seek common ground and work from there. For conservatives, Pregeant’s “take” is too jarring and suspicious. Again, let me reiterate that I don’t think he is wrong on so many points, I am questioning the utility of the book as a pedagogical tool. OK, now some details.

In the first chapter, he underscores the key point that we aren’t meant to use the Bible to treat everything that ails us. Scripture has a purpose, and it is more holistic than a list of rules or scientific textbook. It is a theological book trying to tell a story in such a way as to transform lives. So far so good.

His next chapter on Biblical authority is rather standard (from a critical perspective), but he casts doubt so quickly on the inspiration of Scripture I suspect he will have lost his target audience as early as page 25. For example, in reference to 2 Tim 3:16, he talks about the Greek being ambiguous and could say that “Every scripture that is inspired by God is also useful” [interestingly, he says this of 3:17, but I think that was an accidental slip-up when he was writing down the reference.] He goes on: “the implication might be that only some scripture is inspired” (p 25). The problem here is that, while he could be right, I have found no translations that takes this route. But Pregeant seems insistent in his view of Scripture as, essentially, a man-made product that God can use (see 31). While I disagree with him, I don’t think he is in left-field. My concern is that he is being quite exclusive in offering only one perspective and making others seem so ill-grounded.

I will leave alone his chapters on science and prophecy – they were the best of the chapters and quite serviceable as stand-alone chapters. I want to focus on his chapter on Biblical ethics. He treats a few key issues, including women in ministry and takes a few pages to discuss the Biblical data. It was all well and good until he got to 1 Tim 2:11-12.

…how could the Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians also write 1 Timothy? The answer to the latter question is quite simple: he didn’t. (p. 71)

[sigh….] Ok, again, Pregeant is representing a certain segment of scholarship by dismissing the ethic of 1 Timothy (like Neil Elliott) as post-Pauline and, thus, of lesser value, but that seems (1) to make it an open-and-shut case (notice his use of the words “quite simple”) and (2) to pit one part of Scripture against the other. On the first point, it is anything but simple. Have you read Luke Timothy Johnson? Or Gordon Fee? This is one of the those cases where Pregeant oversimplifies in the book. On the second point, again, he is alienating his target readers – namely, conservatives who have very unsophisticated views of what the Bible is and what it is about. But, sadly, Pregeant is showing a similar kind of myopia.

In the chapter on doctrine (ch6), he delves into a number of doctrinal positions that seem to come from Scripture (exclusive salvation in Christ, the real existence of the devil, etc…) and shows how the Biblical texts that such doctrines are grounded on aren’t really as clear or useful as they may first appear to be. The wider point he is making is that the construction of precise doctrine based on various verses here and there in Scripture is dubious business, but he also ends up plunging the reader into hermeneutical incontinence. Can one know anything based on Scripture? Is it all a matter of debate or perspective?

Again, what Pregeant is trying to do is commendable, but it is so overdrawn that I doubt it will prove effective for the kinds of people he wants to reach. My own doctor supervisor called this approach “trying to crush an eggshell with a sledgehammer.” A more careful approach would be less question begging.

There are many good things about this book: Pregeant has good personal illustrations, knows the subject matter well, and the book is masterfully produced. But, in the end, there are too many careless statements, lacking balance or openness to different ways of looking at it, that I don’t think I can use it for class. Still, it is worth a read to hear what he has to say.

I definitely think this kind of book is absolutely necessary and I hope others will try to improve upon Pregeant’s attempt.