Book Review: The Bible – A Very Short Introduction by John Riches

You might think that I’d be fairly familiar with the bible, right? I’ve read it cover to cover once and dip into it most days. But it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of exactly what it is we’re reading. Having earlier in the year looked at it through the eyes of an American fundamentalist, this is a take from “a white, male, European, English-born, Anglican Christian teaching New Testament in a Scottish University.”

Riches begins by comparing the most widely read and the most influential books of all time. While he cites Das Kapital as an influential book, few have read it. Popular crime thrillers and romances may be widely read, but have had little lasting impact on the shape of the world. The bible (I stick with the lower case, as usual) has the unusual quality of being both widely read and hugely influential. It is this combination that makes of great interest to the literary scholar, sociologist, historian and just about anyone else who operates in the spheres where the bible has had an effect. He cites the Koran as another similar example, but makes no further comment, so I would refer readers to the VSI on that work.

Part of the reason it is so widely read is the variety of audiences that it speaks to. Riches gives some examples, including pro and anti apartheid campaigners, a Benedictine sister in the Philippines, a bishop in Mozambique as well as American fundamentalists (here Riches uses Timothy La Haye as his example).

The book really gets going with a brief overview of how the bible was written. This is soon followed by how it came to be put together. These twin topics could never be covered comprehensively in just a couple of dozen pages. Interestingly, Riches takes the view that a fair bit of the New Testament could have been written after A.D. 70. Clearly this goes against the view of F.F. Bruce and is not as extensively reasoned as the latter’s viewpoint. It almost seems to me like an axiomatic assertion upon which one’s view of the bible is shaped.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Bible in the world of believers’ Riches looks at one passage in particular and tries to view it from several viewpoints. That passage is from Genesis, where Abraham took Lot up the mountain with the intention of sacrificing him. It’s quite pertinent, as that is one of the passages I struggle with the most. Riches doesn’t answer the moral dilemma here, but gives a brief look at a few possibilities. However, the length of the book prevents a satisfactory answer; for that the author can hardly be deemed at fault.

There follows a chapter on biblical criticism, which starts with Martin Luther and ends with later German higher criticism. This is a really a whistle-stop tour of what this reader finds a very interesting field of study. Again, there is really insufficient room to do justice to the subject, but for one who is unfamiliar with biblical criticism, this serves as a useful taster.

In a chapter on the bible in culture, we get to see some of the art that has been inspired by episodes from the bible and the ideas within it. The focus here is on so-called “higher” culture, so many who consider themselves connoisseurs of art may well find themselves on familiar territory, though no doubt they may mutter at the omission of their favourite artists. I certainly chuntered at the lack of Titian. However, there was a greater oversight here which I cannot let pass. The chapter doesn’t mention the destruction of artwork by some of the more over-zealous reformers. For me, an understanding of christian art cannot be anywhere near complete unless one understands the use of art as a means of education for the illiterate, the artistic license that was taken which gave rise to poor theological thinking, the basis for accusations of idolatry by the reformers and the centuries of regress and subsequent marginalistion of art as a means of worship.

The book finishes with a chapter on the bible in politics. Once again, Riches hit upon one of the themes that particularly interests me and it was good to see him give the anabaptists and Quakers a mention here. Riches gives a carefully balanced view which will likely both enrage and encourage people from all political backgrounds.

As I finished the book, I tried to think of what a certain reader might take away with them. This is a reader who is unfamiliar with the message of the bible but who is enquiring and wishes to gain an overview before embarking on the detail. Would they finish the book with a fair impression? I’m afraid the answer to that has to be no. There is much of some interest here, but it seems that the wood has been lost for a close examination of the shape of some of some of the leaves and the structure of the bark.

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