Book Review: Permission Granted
Title: Permission Granted
Author: Jennifer Grace Bird
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
"To the Church, then, has been given the charge of proclaiming the Word of God. This revelatory Word is not a concatenation of human opinions and ideas but rather is God's own proclamation, the very means by which he speaks, even into postmodern society."–David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, 176
If I had been paying attention, I would have seen the endorsement by Rachel Held Evans on the front cover and I would not have selected this book for review. I should have known better. Here's the bottom line to this book: Jennifer Grace Bird did 'take the Bible into her own hands' and she made an absolute wreck of it and embarrassed herself along the way. There is nothing new whatsoever about what she wrote: she is regurgitating the arguments of folks like, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan (and others) all over again–time worn arguments that question whether the Bible is God's Word and whether or not we should pay attention to it, and whether or not we can believe in the God who is there. I've heard that argument before, "Did God really say…?" And although she says: "My intention is not to leave you in the lurch, with your entire faith system challenged," she writes. "My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible, or on the God the Bible points to?" (187) this is not what one comes away with after reading this book. (And, to be sure, this is a false dichotomy which I have not the space in this review to address.) (Interview)
There is nothing original about Bird's intellectual pursuit to 'read what the Bible really says.' There is nothing interesting about it. There is nothing compelling about it. It has a niche audience: those who are already on board with her absurd ideas about Scripture and her silly angry-feminist hermeneutic (I invite you to read carefully and slowly her work and notice how many times she makes pejorative remarks about men). What's amazing is that there are hundreds and thousands of women scholars and preachers who read the same Bible Bird reads and come away with a radically different understanding and application of the words written.
I think a large part of the problem is that Ms Bird seems to think that just because it is written in the Bible that this automatically translates into God's approval of it. Take for example polygamy in the Bible. Just because the Bible records many instances of polygamy is not an indication that God approves of polygamy. Remember in the garden, there was one man and one woman, which later Jesus affirmed. This was the ideal. After sin enters the world, then we see a break from the garden ideal and marriage corrupted. Bird seems to think that we should read the Bible at face value without our bifocals: one lens reminding us that we are sinful and live in a sinful world and the other lens reminding us that Jesus has redeemed us. To be sure, there is a lot of stuff in the Bible–stuff like rape, murder, slavery, and war–that God is not in favor of and certainly doesn't approve of, but is God at fault because the authors of the Bible truthfully report these events? Or is God evil because these things happen? Bird spends a lot of time in this book saying things about God that made me shudder. For all her talk about those who 'read the Bible literally' Bird seems to suffer from a profound sense of inability to distinguish one type of literature from another (she does acknowledge on page 7-8, and 11 that readers of the Bible should be aware 'of genre', but I do not recall that she employs this warning herself and her favorite term to use is actually 'myth'). In other words, she is, frequently, a worse literalist than those she accuses!
Pause for a moment and consider what that means.
I do not know too many preachers or scholars or theologians in general who would argue that there are not 'issues' when it comes to parts of the Bible. That is to say, I do not know of anyone who thinks that Genesis 1 and 2, for example, are telling us the exact same story of creation. On the other hand, I do not know anyone who believes this means they are also contradictory either. So too with the Gospels. Just because we are given four 'versions' of the Jesus story, where each author makes a particular point about Jesus (which I thought Bird handled and explained fairly well), does not mean that we are given contradictory stories about 'how to be saved' or that we have to decide 'which Jesus is the real Jesus.' Bird is rather difficult because she believes that variety means disunity and that differences mean contradiction. She actually had some good thoughts in chapter 9 ("Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?"), but she takes her conclusions from these thoughts in strange and rather unorthodox directions. Hmmm.
And to be sure, one really only needs to read her introduction to the book (xi-xvi) to understand what she is going to do with every single chapter in the book–whether writing about sex or violence or the virgin birth or John 3:16 (she made a big fuss out of John 3:16 only to tell us that we ought to read all of John 3; duh.), it is all too much for her. In her mind, we cannot trust many, many parts of the Bible because it contains things that do not pass her 'litmus test' of 'who God is and is not' (188). So she has created a god, held this god before her face while she read the Bible, and anything that does not comport with this god of her creation is suspect and therefore worthy of being tossed out into the rubbish heap. Think about that for a minute. Does that sound like the sort of author who is not trying to 'leave us in the lurch' or 'poke holes in' our faith? Hmmm.
Every now and again the book has text boxes where Bird engages in a brief excursus on some topic she finds particularly in need of reinterpretation (e.g., heaven and hell, the name 'christians', fun facts, depiction of Jews in the Newer Testament, etc.). There are also a few charts that are somewhat useful and also some charts for the reader to fill in to help better understand a concept she discusses (e.g., creation accounts, dualism in John's Gospel). Unfortunately, there is no index for subjects discussed or for Scripture referenced or discussed (although, to be fair, looking at the table of contents should give the reader a fairly good idea of what scripture can be found and where.) Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions which may or may not be helpful after reading the chapter they are attached to. Finally, I was frustratingly disappointed that there is not a single page of references. She quotes several scholars in the book and I would have been pleased if there were references where I could check her work or dig deeper for myself.
I'm not going to bother addressing her conjectures about the sexuality of people such as Paul (whom she conjectures, based on the letter to Philemon, might be a homosexual) or David and his relationship with Jonathan. I'm not going to bother addressing her quite apparent disdain for men and the way 'they' have handled Scripture throughout the generations and kept women like her from being 'ordained' (a wholly unbiblical concept in it's own right if she would take time to investigate it). Nor will I address her rather lazy attitude towards sexuality (all of it). And I'm not going to bother dignifying her stupid idea that it was 'actually God who has misled the humans, not the serpent' in Genesis 2-3. Hmmm.
All of this, and much more besides, gives me reason to pause and question what exactly her agenda is in writing this book. Bird assures us that her task is 'not to poke holes in anyone's faith' (19) but rather to go 'for the 'mark of an educated mind,'" (121; she assures us of these things frequently). But I don't think she accomplished either point. Her questions will cause weak minded people to stumble in their faith and intellectual people to question how she got this book published in the first place. What follows, on page after page, is simply lazy exegesis with a lack of enthusiasm towards understanding.
Her 'questions' and controversies have been written by others, have been answered by others, and these questions and controversies have always been full of holes, based on faulty logic, and, frankly, in no way intellectually astute. I tend to mine books when I read them so, yes, there are times when I think she has a rather brilliant insight (e.g., much of her discussion on Job was helpful and, in my opinion, on the mark; and in one of her excursions, the one on 'heaven and hell' (p 182-183), she makes some good points too; and other places). And, yes, she is decidedly correct that we should read all of the Bible and not just the parts that make us all warm and fuzzy. Furthermore, she is also correct that there are difficult things in the Bible for us to accept about God, about ourselves, and about the Christian faith in general; nevertheless, her questions have been answered a thousand times over by scholars, preachers, theologians (men and women alike). The nuggets I was able to mine in this book are too few and too far between to make this worth the time of serious readers in search of an intellectual pursuit or faith strengthening exercise.
There's just nothing new here (literally, she retreads time worn arguments with hip language for a new generation of skeptics and they will eat it up!) and it literally brings me to tears that she is in this place (and that she teachers students in a university). I think this book comes up way, way short on both supporting faith or providing stimulation for the intellect. I would like to meet the people she claims 'confront these issues in the Bible and come out the other side…often even stronger in their faith than when they began!' (187). Seriously.
So again I will note that I think this book has a niche audience and it is those people who already believe like she does. This book will in no way strengthen the faith of anyone and it will not provide intellectual stimulation for anyone either. In fact, you will probably left with the same 'sinking feeling in' your gut when reading it as Bird often expressed she had when writing it. The church right now needs a high view of Scripture and Bird's isn't even off the ground.