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Book Review: Michael Dirda reviews 'Bible Babel' by Kristin Swenson

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, February 18, 2010; C03

BIBLE BABEL

Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time

By Kristin Swenson

Harper. 343 pp. $24.99

No matter what your religious affiliation, no matter if you are a fervent believer or a convinced atheist, you should know the Bible. How else can you even begin to understand what's going on in much of the world's art, literature and music? Our most profound masterpieces -- Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," the epic poems of Dante and Milton -- draw on biblical stories and texts. Our very speech would be significantly impoverished without scriptural idioms: "To everything there is a season"; "apple of my eye"; "Sodom" and "Sodom and Gomorrah"; "But the greatest of these is love."

Once upon a time, kids learned scripture in church or at catechism; family Bibles were read aloud on Sunday and passed down from one generation to the next; the great figures of the Old Testament were equally familiar to both Jews and Christians. Perhaps this is still largely true, but I wonder. Not very long ago, I read an essay in which the late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies mentions encountering a graduate student who didn't know who Noah was.

There are numerous guides to the Bible -- I recommend Robert Alter's books on the Old Testament's literary artistry, as well as the exhilarating "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard Elliott Friedman -- but many of them are narrowly focused, sectarian or off-puttingly scholarly. By contrast, Kristin Swenson's "Bible Babel" is wide-ranging, objectively factual and written for the common reader. In its pages Swenson, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of World Studies, aims to present "big-picture information about the Bible -- what it is, what's in it, and how to understand 'Bible speak.' "

As this sentence already suggests, Swenson's book possesses a singularly breezy tone, a kind of "Jesus Christ Superstar" approach to the sacred. God promised Abraham and his descendants "significant perks." Jacob was "the baseball cap and sagging 'see my underwear' pants to Abraham's fedora and neat wool suit." David "never disrespected Saul." Sigh.

Fortunately, Swenson isn't always trying to show off her street cred, and I suspect her approach derives, in part, from teaching 18-year-olds. Still, "Bible Babel" does aim to underscore the persistence of the biblical in contemporary culture. So Swenson appropriately refers to films like "Monty Python's Life of Brian," "Magnolia," "The Seventh Seal" and "The Seventh Sign," "The Omen" and "Evan Almighty." She describes the "Left Behind" novels in her discussion of the apocalyptic end-time, while Madonna, Black Sabbath and "The Da Vinci Code" make the obligatory brief appearances. She even points to "a Christian website that sells sex toys." This is not your father Abraham's guide to the Good Book.

Swenson opens her study by pointing out that the word "bible" means something like "little library." In essence, she says, the Bible is "more like a Wikipedia entry growing out of the contributions of various people of faith than a Hemingway short story composed in one mojito-fueled evening." From here, Swenson goes on to explain the nature and development of the Jewish Tanakh and what Christians call the Old Testament.

Given that the Bible is so often the locus of ignoble contention, it's good to read a book that simply presents the facts. "A conservative estimate for the Hebrew Bible is that it includes material from over 1,000 years, the earliest dating to around 1200 BCE . . . and the latest to about 165 BCE (the book of Daniel)." Most scholars believe that the earliest book of the New Testament is Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians -- around A.D. 50 -- and that Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels (around A.D. 70).

Samuel, we are reminded, "is the only biblical character, apart from Jesus, to come back from the dead in order to give counsel to the living." David "gets far more press in the Bible than anyone else except God or Jesus." Because the Babylonians kept such good records, we can date the surrender of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar II with impressive precision: "March 15 and 16, 597 BCE." And since the word "messiah" means "the anointed one," the Magi gift of myrrh is distinctly macabre: Myrrh was a perfume often used in embalming.

Most readers love such detail, and apparently Swenson does, too, since she provides several appendices: the order of the books in Old and New Testaments, a timeline of biblical history, a chronology of Hebrew scriptural texts, the major events in New Testament history, Abraham's family tree and a short guide to further study.

But Swenson resolutely avoids the pontifical. In the epigraph to a chapter about the men of the Bible, she cites Elayne Boosler: "My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions." Nazareth, we learn, had "the reputation of being a bit of a hick town in Jesus' day. One of Jesus' disciples-to-be exclaims rhetorically, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' " She even tells us that as recently as Palm Sunday 2008, there was a riot at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre between the Greek and Armenian faithful: "Police who came to break up the melee were themselves attacked by worshipers with palm fronds." I love that.

Still, despite its sometimes overbright prose, this is a solid, readable work that doesn't shy away from the tough issues. For instance, Swenson lists and interprets the Bible texts that seem to comment on evolution and creation, homosexuality, abortion, whether God wants you to be rich, environmentalism and the care of the Earth, anti-Semitism, and the position of women. Naturally, she also discusses those perennially fascinating byways of biblical scholarship: The so-called "watchers of heaven" who mated with human women to produce the gigantic nephilim, the development of Satan as God's enemy, the Holy Grail, the Gospel of Judas, and, of course, Mary Magdalene (there's no biblical evidence she was ever a prostitute).

In the end, Swenson stresses the polarities that characterize this book of books: "There is a constant tension in both the Old Testament and the New between God's otherness and God's likeness, between transcendence and immanence, between God's efforts to be known and God's defying human understanding." The Lord, it would seem, sometimes wants to be a self-absorbed loner and sometimes a sociable family man. Typical guy indecision, if you ask me, and perhaps proof that men really were made in his image. Like any good craftsman, God did a better job when he came to create a companion for Adam.

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