Extending Biblical Literacy to All

Article excerpt


Hats off to Kristin Swenson: She has done what I really thought was impossible. She has produced an accessible, freewheeling newcomers' guide to the Bible aimed at attention-deficit-disordered teens, twenty-somethings and soccer moms that manages to avoid being lame.

The Bible is, after all, the immeasurably ancient and ageless foundational book of Western civilization. The epic of the Exodus may have taken place a full millennium before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle walked the streets of Athens. Isaiah prophesied in the streets of Jerusalem when Rome was little more than wild forest. The teachings of Jesus and St. Paul have shaped the Western world and far beyond now for close to 2,000 years.

Can the limitless spiritual, historical, mythological and poetic riches of the Hebrew Bible and the tremendous story of sacrifice and salvation told in the Christian New Testament really be explained in terms of hit TV shows and Hollywood movies without being bowdlerized? To a remarkable degree, though not totally, Ms. Swenson manages to do so.

Great biblical translations, commentaries and scholarship have the effect of a hot, bracing shower. They revive the commonplace, wash off the accumulated cliches and dull sense of familiarity and present the biblical text and teachings as something pristine and new.

Ms. Swenson is a meticulous traditional biblical scholar rather than an original one, at least in this book. But she does not dumb down the Christian story, which she presents to an intended audience of biblical illiterates or blase readers rendered indifferent by a mountain of cliches. There is something attractively striking in a discussion of the matriarch Sarah that points out her subliminal connection with the name of Sarah Connors, the mother of John Connors, the intended savior of mankind in the Terminator movies.

And while Ms. Swenson does not actually name Julia Roberts in her breakout role in Pretty Woman, she does make the delightful point that the prostitute Rahab in the Book of Joshua sets the template for every fictional cliche about good-hearted prostitutes that has ever been written or filmed since - not to mention being explicitly named by St. …