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New Bible Guide Challenges Readers - New and Old


By Kenneth Davis

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William Morrow

533 pp., $25

Do you still postpone reading the Bible cover to cover? "Don't Know Much About the Bible" offers a rousing companion volume to get you going. Kenneth Davis will take you on a grand tour - with commentary.

As author of the bestselling "Don't Know Much About" series of history guides, Davis delivers a fast-paced read. To lure us into this tome, he promises to introduce us to the R-rated and otherwise frank material that was (presumably) not covered in Sunday school, besides taking a fresh look at familiar stories.

Short, selected readings from each book are followed by answers to questions like, Was there a "coat of many colors"? Who really killed Goliath? Are the four Gospels "gospel truth"?

Davis quotes rabbis, popes, pastors, and presidents. Creationists and evolutionists, ancients and moderns speak, too. The well-stocked bibliography ranges from Thomas Jefferson's pruned-down Bible to William J. Bennett's "Book of Virtues," from the most standard reference works to the tumult of contemporary Jesus scholarship.

Davis's humor and sometimes in-your-face tone keep the reader always just a little off-balance. The technique may irritate some, but lightens heavy material, such as the prolonged violence attending the occupation of the Promised Land.

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Even with the humor, it was pure relief to come at last to the prophets, gamely exposing the distance Israel and Judah had fallen. I got their message as never before.

There's much for any reader to learn. The author compares various versions of the Bible and clarifies translation problems. His timelines place biblical events in helpful contexts. The panoramic approach allows both author and reader to find connections between books, between epochs, and between characters.

Some modern scholars seem suspicious of the Gospel of John for its "spirituality," but Davis refreshingly gives the book full weight. He reports on gnostic and other alternative early Christian literature, also on healing work contemporary to Jesus'.

There are a few omissions. I wondered, for instance, why he did not question the contrast between Paul's report of his slow conversion to Christ and the later, blinding-flash account by the author of Acts. Also, Davis repeats, without examining, the hoary tradition that Luke was written by a physician. He notes the glaring lack of archaeological evidence for Old Testament events, but does not seem aware of new linguistic research that may remove the discrepancies.

Perhaps Davis's best contribution is showing that the Bible preserves differing understandings of the nature of God and man, along with differing versions of significant events.

"I try not to 'interpret' the Bible," he writes, "so much as explain what is actually in it. I'm sure that some people will not be happy with this book because it challenges 'conventional wisdom' by asking questions. Many people have been taught not to question the Bible. They fear that if you pull one loose thread, the whole thing will unravel like a cheap suit.... People of faith shouldn't fear these inquiries. How strong is a faith that can't stand up to a few honest questions?"

He adds, "I believe it is crucial for people to question the easy assumptions they grow up with - about religion, history, or a Ford versus a Chevy. The world is a school; life is about learning."

* Sara Gallant is a freelance writer and graduate student at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine.

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