God literally walked in the Garden

A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths, John Barton, Allen Lane/Penguin.

The Bible is meant to be a particularly familiar work, read widely, saturating Western culture with its phrases and stories, heard by millions every Sunday, but John Barton’s hefty and excellent history emphasises just how messy and unwieldy and even strange it is. A History of the Bible covers both how the Bible was compiled and how it has been read. Already with the former, this can be tricky, as the original authors are somewhat lost to us, and much of the Bible’s books, especially in the Old Testament, are patchwork in character (at times with obvious discrepancies between parts), meaning, as Barton puts it, we get, even within books, authors in dialogue, and styles clashing.

The Pentateuch is a composite work spanning centuries, and is not by Moses, there is not much before the Exile that historians can agree on in Israel’s history as outlined by the Bible, the Gospels are taken from earlier works, and have their own emphases and foci, and not all Paul’s letters are by Paul. As Barton, a scholar and Anglican priest says, taking note of the benefits of modern scholarship in illuminating the Bible’s messiness doesn’t have to undermine faith, but the fact that there are different versions of particular books, obvious contradictions, and differences in authorial tone make the ideas of inspiration and inerrancy complicated, to say the least.

The Bible has always been read through the eyes of faith. Jews and Christians, the Church Fathers and fundamentalists, Orthodox and Westerners, and even Luther and later Lutherans all read it in very different ways. And obviously the Bible contains a mix of genres, although what is what is disputed, Genesis being a prime example, and the Gospels – what exactly are they? They were written down long after the events described and are not verbatim transcripts.

It is perhaps an obvious point that Jews and Christians read the Old Testament (Tanakh) differently (which surprises some Christians, but the very name ‘Old Testament’, used exclusively by Christians, should make that apparent). In Judaism the Bible has been used as a guide for living, but it has been viewed as less uniform than Christians tend to do. Jews tend to see it as less self-contained than Christians also, as in dialogue with the Mishnah, and they play down the universalism that Christians read back into it. Barton also notes that original sin as a concept is nowhere near as widely held in Judaism. Christians of course often read into the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus (especially at Christmastime). But one has to use some creativity to do so.

The Church Fathers were happy to do so, reading much of the Bible allegorically. Origen and Augustine both thought the Genesis Creation account was obviously not meant to be read literally, with Origen particularly scathing. He asked how one could be so ‘unintelligent’ to believe that night and day literally existed before the Sun and Moon were created, that God literally walked in the Garden and that there was an actual ‘tree of life’ with real fruit.

But the allegorical reading got out of hand at one point, not just because allegory was possible, but because the whole point of reading the Bible was to find references to Jesus everywhere one looked. So, the Exodus story and even the Song of Songs are ‘really’ about Jesus’ relationship to the Church. And some reputable exegetes even added another layer of allegory onto the parables, which were already allegorical.

The Reformers rolled this back somewhat, though Luther had a far less reverential attitude to the whole canon than many Christians do today. He was famously happy to jettison (or at least relegate to an appendix) books that seemed irrelevant to the ‘core’ theological message of salvation through grace alone. (Although Barton says he appreciates much of Lutheran teaching, he notes that the rejection of a literal reading of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis makes the grand theme of sin and salvation – what he calls disaster and rescue mission – problematic. But then maybe he forgets that the non-literalist Augustine is usually blamed for the origin of the original sin idea, so maybe it’s not as problematic as Barton thinks, and one can hold, as Augustine supposedly did, both together.)

Interpretation, and even what was to be included in the Bible, is guided by belief. The two are in dialogue. (And to think that we can interpret the Bible free from any preconceptions is a fallacy.) An example Barton gives is the doctrine of the Trinity, for which there is rather slight foundation in the New Testament, and in Mark’s Gospel we have what might be counted as evidence against, when Jesus says, ‘Why do you call me good? Only God is good.’ (Although we could interpret this as a veiled way of saying, ‘do you realise you are recognising that I am God?’) This doesn’t discount Trinitarianism necessarily, it just points to the interaction of Scripture, belief and tradition.

Puzzling, inconsistent behaviour

The Lost Art of Scripture, Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head.

Karen Armstrong’s latest book is an epic study of the ways scripture – Indian Vedas, Jewish and Christian scriptures, the Quran, the Analects of Confucius and more – developed in the religious traditions of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and it takes someone with her octopus-like reach to draw all these traditions together to find general themes and poke at and shake up common notions of what scripture is. The book necessarily begins back in the mists of time, but it immediately challenges modern, Protestant ways of thinking about scripture as written down, canonised and unalterable, as well as the individualistic and critical mindsets we bring to it, legacies of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

A theme running through Armstrong’s book is that our society has a bias towards the left-brain, towards the analytical and self-centred, whereas scripture has traditionally appealed to the right-brain, which taps into the artistic, the imaginative and the metaphorical, as well as the holistic. Scripture is not something ‘out there’ to be consulted, like a dictionary or operations manual, but something that begins to infuse the religious person like a body-building supplement.

Scripture also originated as a communal exercise. It’s often forgotten that scripture was originally shared orally before it was written down and was inextricable from rituals celebrated in community. Scripture was sung, chanted and performed. This aided memory, a way, for the illiterate, to access holy words. The Quran, Armstrong notes, makes more sense when chanted. Medieval monks chanted and sung and infused their bodies with scripture, in the same way perhaps that black slaves or prisoner road gangs incorporated the rhythm of songs into their working. And this was after texts began circulating. Before then, way before, holy texts were not texts but stories doing the rounds and passing down the generations.

And scripture spoke publicly to the community from the community’s centre about higher ways of living than the daily business of accumulation and exploitation. Scripture, while it told stories of how the world began, also reminded its listeners of higher purposes. Scripture tells us not only how we came to be here, but how we should live while we are here. It has its subversive side and Armstrong notes that the idea that a king was not the final arbiter but was beholden to a divine moral code that covered the whole community was a revolution.

Solitary reading of scripture is something of a historical anachronism. Although the Reformers’ democratisation of Bible reading brought many benefits, an unintended consequence was the fracturing of a communal understanding of scripture. (And, as has been pointed out before, the idea that an individual can choose to disbelieve scripture if they wish, quite in indifference to community, is also something of a historical anachronism.) Though they stated that individuals could read the Bible for themselves and its meaning was clear, the Reformers then spent decades at each others’ throats over the meaning of particular texts, including the meaning of the Eucharist, blatantly disproving their theory about scriptures’ monchromatic clarity. Ironically, although the Reformers wanted a more personal transformation of the heart through access to scripture, their attitude was more left-brain in their desire to pin down scripture’s meaning.

Varying interpretations had not always been so problematic. In Judaism, with its strong tradition of midrash, scripture is not scripture unless it is interpreted, and reinterpreted with changing contexts. Reading the Torah by itself has often been considered as deficient as, we might say, eating salt by itself. (Christian interpretation changes, but we don’t always acknowledge this.) And this is all because the meaning of scripture is (sorry, Calvin and Luther) not always clear (which is why we have so many commentaries on it). Part of scripture’s role is to remind us that the sacred is difficult to grasp. For all their theological theorising, medieval theologians were often not trying to ‘prove’ God but showing how God’s ways are not our ways. Armstrong suggests that the puzzling, inconsistent behaviour of the God of the Hebrew Bible, which critics of religion often point to as proof of the Bible’s ridiculousness, is not just accidental.

There is a strong tradition across religions of the divine being unrepresentable by conventional human expression, be it visual, literary or logical. The Jewish scholar Maimonides said it’s better to say that God doesn’t exist (seeing as our concept of existence is inadequate to explain the divine). But post-Reformation, and post-Enlightenment, scripture is judged with an eye connected to the left-brain, meaning that those who respect scripture (and we should recognise these good intentions before we scoff) mistakenly think that respecting it demands literalism, while religion’s opponents, using the same eye, dismiss scripture as unsupportable by science. Squeezed between these two extremes, the rest of us miss out on the rich alternative world scripture conjures. This is not just a new-fangled criticism. Saint Augustine expressed the same view.

If all this is true, then it follows that scripture doesn’t have all the answers, either. Armstrong points out that the Indian Mahabharata, with its epic tales of men and gods parades a host of problems but falls short on solutions. Often, as with the Hebrew psalms, scripture can be simply an expression of human emotion, but directed at the divine, whether praise or lament. The Buddha suggested that because life is complicated, we can’t expect one-size-fits-all solutions.

While some contemporary Christian readers might find their feathers ruffled by Armstrong’s pointing to what Christianity has in common with other religions rather than why it is exceptional, an attendance to the wider religious world is beneficial. She helpfully notes (though of course she is not the first to do so in this case either) that when religions are under pressure (as they have been in recent centuries from pluralism, cultural and literal war, and Western dogmatically rationalist perspectives), scripture loses its playfulness and begins to be used as an unassailable proof of particular beliefs. Literalism breeds certainty and immovability, not to mention exclusion and self-righteousness, often betrayed by, Lord help us, torturous justifications for particular interpretations. But a universal scriptural theme across the traditions is transformation. By both the twelfth-century Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi and Pope Gregory we are told that scripture should not confirm our ideas but should change them. It provokes rethinking, repentance, reorientation. In the Bible, from Isaiah to Jesus’ parables to the messages of Paul, we see images of a worldview turned upside down. Scripture is not scripture unless it helps change people. I like the fact that Armstrong reinforces this enzymic characteristic of scripture.

More message than messenger

Angels: A Visible and Invisible History, Peter Stanford, Hodder.

French theologian Jacques Ellul once wrote, in typically contrarian fashion, that the Old Testament idea of angels is more message than messenger, and that speculating about what kind of individuals they are is a distraction from focussing on God’s word. But of course, over the centuries there has been much speculation. Saint Augustine thought angels were beings of pure light. Thomas Aquinas thought they were made of condensed air. As is clear from this nonsense, it isn’t easy to describe something without physical existence. And the history of angels is one of confusing the metaphoric with something that can be proven.

Weirdly, among Westerners, belief in angels surpasses belief in God. Peter Stanford, in his cultural history of angels, suggests that there is a New Age influence at work here, and an attraction to something more personal than creeds and doctrines, as well as the fact that in a suppressive scientific age, angels are a way to talk about the spiritual. During hard times it is also comforting for some to believe they have a personal, spiritual guardian.

Indeed, the more recent idea of an angel is a guardian angel. Stanford mentions it only in passing, but in the nineteenth century there was a huge trade in paintings and prints of guardian angels watching over children on rickety bridges or cliff edges, the most famous, almost iconic, images being by Bernhard Plockhorst and Hans Zatzka. To our eyes these might seem sentimental and kitschy (which actually endears them to some collectors), but they express a commonly held belief about the role of angels. Yet this concept of a guardian angel is a tricky one. When children die, are their guardian angels incompetent and negligent?

The earliest Christian art didn’t depict angels with wings. They were in appearance more seemingly human, like the visitors to Abraham (but subdued). These Genesis angels are far from the cherubim and seraphim of Isaiah, although the angels that bar re-entry into Eden are closer to Isaiah’s fiery creatures. In the Old Testament angels and God are often conflated, as in the story of Jacob wrestling with God/an angel, which brings us back to Ellul’s point. Karl Barth wrote that we can’t think of angels as independent individuals, as humans are. He rules out the concept of guardian angels. Saint Paul, too, thought angels a distraction from Jesus, who replaces angels as connections to God.

Over the centuries, though, ‘angelology’ only got stronger, and, says Stanford, the concept of hosts of angels was so ingrained in a Western spiritual worldview that their existence was simply not questioned. In the organisation of the cosmos (in Stanford’s image), God was the CEO and angels the middle-management, handling the details. The Jewish scholar Maimonides suggested that the ‘message’ the angels carry can be thought of as force and movement originating from God. Angels were sorted into hierarchies, depending on their roles, as in a lovely illustration that originally accompanied Hildegard of Bingen’s writings, of concentric circles of cartoon-y angels surrounding a white void at the bull’s eye to symbolise God’s mystery.

Rather than merely guardians, monastery founder Saint Benedict thought that angels report back to God on our bad behaviour, which fits with the Islamic idea of the angelic as both protection and surveillance. In the Middle Ages angels found competition from dead saints, though Saint Francis was an angel man, frequently seeing them and conversing with them, as painted by Giotto in Assisi. Giotto’s angels in a chapel in Padua do anguished somersaults as they witness the crucifixion, at odds with the older image of angels as passionless, characterless creatures.

In the Renaissance, angels were given more character, and got mixed up with the cupids of Greek mythology to create the familiar, comic image of winged toddlers. Probably the most reproduced image of these putti is Raphael’s portraits of two bored-looking cherubs at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna painting seemingly leaning on the altar. These messy-haired scamps are far from Augustine’s beings of pure light.

The contemporary proliferation of images of these cherubs suggests an emotional connection, a longing for something or someone to bridge the personal and divine, to connect God and human beings, close to us, sharing our fears but able to communicate with God. Stanford is sympathetic to such a longing, but, then again, as Saint Paul notes, we already have that figure in Jesus.

A Sunday joyride

The Book of Revelation: A Biography, Timothy Beal, Princeton.

Picturing the Apocalypse, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear, Oxford.

After Donald Trump’s election, a bookshop in the US posted a sign saying that post-apocalyptic fiction had now been moved to the ‘current affairs’ section. This joke works because of the wider cultural association of ‘apocalypse’ with the end of the world, but apocalypse is a Greek word meaning simply revelation or unveiling. There is more to the Revelation story than unimaginable, world-ending destruction, although that is naturally the most attention-grabbing aspect of the book.

The language and symbolism John (whoever he may be – theories differ) used in the Book of Revelation has both inspired and confused Christians and non-Christians. Martin Luther famously viewed it as inscrutable, and set it and the letters of James apart from the other books in the contents page of his German New Testament, effectively relegating it to an appendix, though Lucas Cranach’s illustrations made it, ironically, one of the most popular parts of the Luther Bible, and Luther did use it to interpret current events. Countless others have done the same, in order to try and predict the future, though this is not the way it was originally interpreted. Most scholars agree that the symbolism simply referred to Rome, and John had to write in code to veil his criticisms.

In Timothy Beal’s book (part of the Princeton ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series), he explains that Saint Augustine, typically, both recognises the symbolism and the dangers of taking it too literally and thinks through in great detail all the implications, such as what resurrected bodies would be like. The medieval Joachim of Fiore thought it was the key to the whole Bible, like the solutions page to a newspaper’s puzzle section, and spent much time working out the chronology.

As a key to reading the signs to predict the imminent future, Revelation has inspired endless interpretation, especially regarding the ‘real’ identity of the Beast, its mark, the whore of Babylon and the like. In the Middle Ages the apocalyptic villain was Islam, or Protestantism or Catholicism, depending which side you were on. In the Cold War, Americans identified the USSR as the Beast, or, later, suspected international bodies such as the UN or EU. Black South Africans utilised Revelation’s imagery against the apartheid regime. Ronald Reagan, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have been targets, and there are already conspiracy theorists crunching the numbers regarding Trump. (Weirdly, the fact that these identities keep changing in every era doesn’t seem to upset the tenacity of belief by whoever is currently doing the identifying.)

The book has been a particular inspiration for artists, but this is tricky, as John’s visions, described in words, often defy painterly representation. Beal takes only a selection of artistic representations, but one of the most interesting is that of James Hampton, an American whose work now sits in the Smithsonian Institution. In his garage, and using household items such as chairs, light bulbs, cardboard tubing and, crucially, miles of silver and gold foil, Hampton created a glittering throne room, annotated with biblical texts and his own indecipherable language. Beal describes it as the greatest work of American folk art.

In Picturing the Apocalypse, a more thorough but more academic book, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear describe how in the early Middle Ages artists, fascinated by Revelation, often made a series of illustrations, taking Revelation’s scenes one by one, in almost comic book-like fashion. Later artists tended to cram a number of scenes into one picture. A particularly intriguing example is the fifteenth century Apocalyptic Panel of Hans Memling, which is dominated by John himself, then Christ on the throne, in an unusually calm panorama. The four horsemen are almost insignificant details, and not particularly fearsome, in comparison to those of Durer, Cranach and later comic art representations. They look like they are out for a Sunday joyride.

Other artists take one scene to be representative, such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, an iconic image standing in for Revelation’s whole. The Romantic painter John Martin painted huge canvasses, like the artists of the Hudson River School, of the sublime outdoors, with humans appearing only as tiny, marginal figures. As well as Noah’s flood, the apocalypse lent itself to Martin’s grand, brooding depictions, with tumbling mountains and fire-filled skies, although the lifelike renderings tend to make the paintings strangely static. In recent decades, artists like Gordon Cheung, whose works have an affinity with Martin’s panoramas, have associated the apocalypse with the ravages of the global financial system and impending environmental collapse. The Manga Bible passes over Revelation surprisingly briskly, though perhaps reinforcing the difficulty of reproducing John’s visions visually. Their fantastical nature sometimes seems better suited to other art forms.

Apocalyptic themes run through classical music, and heavy metal, where the horror movie imagery fits the violent music. (For some, such as Metallica and Iron Maiden, Revelation’s imagery simply fitted with their interest in mythology, science fiction and the supernatural. Others tended to, notoriously, extend the interest in the Satanic into their personal lives.) But the apocalypse was a surprisingly small influence in African American music. An exception is Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting ‘John the Revelator’.

Apocalyptic themes are found in a panoply of films and novels, often in the wider sense of simply the end of the world. The ridiculously lucrative ‘Left Behind’ series of novels and films sticks more or less literally to the script of Revelation itself, appealing to the American evangelical temptation, despite Jesus’ warnings otherwise, to read the signs and calculate the dates. Timothy Beal describes, as a young evangelical, being spooked by film evocations of the End Times, which were used by youth ministry teams to scare teens into prayerful vigilance.

Apart from James Hampton and Hans Memling, most of the artists listed above utilise the power of the war-like and destructive imagery of Revelation, but the culmination of Revelation is joyous and harmonious. This is one of the ironies of Revelation, and something often marginalised in artistic representations of its lurid, unsettling imagery – that it ends well, and God is in control.

Us and them

The Prodigal Prophet, Timothy Keller, Hodder.

The Judgment of Jonah, Jacques Ellul, Wipf and Stock.

The biblical book of Jonah is odd, like a fairy tale with its storm and giant fish, but more than this, and more than a primer on mission, which it is often categorised as. It is included in the prophetic books, but unlike them is addressed to a foreign nation, not Israel. Jonah is almost an existentialist anti-hero, not like other biblical heroes such as Abraham, Samson and David, or even some of the other prophets (though Jonah is similar to some Hebrew biblical heroes in his reluctance to be called). He runs away from his calling, succeeds at Nineveh despite his lack of enthusiasm, is angry at God for the fact of Nineveh’s repentance rather than destruction, shows more interest in his shade tree than in a city full of people, then despairs of life.

Tim Keller’s recent book on Jonah emphasises Jonah’s intricately symmetrical structure (despite its somewhat truncated ending), and he makes parallels with Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, suggesting that Jonah is like the younger son who runs away, and then mimics the older son’s anger at the father forgiving rather than admonishing. In both stories the father/God is consistent and persistent.

Keller draws from Jacques Ellul’s book on Jonah and it is instructive to read the two in parallel. I like reading Ellul because although his logic sometimes takes some getting used to, he always approaches things from an eye-opening and counterintuitive, or at least heterodox, angle. It can be said that the Book of Jonah contains a lesson for Israel about the universality of their God, and therefore might stand as saying something about mission. But there is more going on. Jonah’s mission is impossible, eye of the needle stuff. It is a suicide mission, as ridiculous to the preacher as to the preached to. It is as nonsensical and challenging as God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Yet, as Ellul emphasises, God prevails, despite Jonah. Ellul writes, rather disconcertingly, about God’s will not being thwarted, despite the inadequacy of human will and ability. As always with Ellul, this is an interesting starting point for thinking about what we strive to do in the Church.

Ellul makes the point that God calls to specific action, not to the general ‘mystical vocation’ of being ‘Christian’, which tends to be a disposition awaiting action, not action itself. Calling ourselves Christian can be a form of identity politics, if we assume a likemindedness, rather than simply admitting we are a motley group the Spirit works through. This ties in with Keller’s words, which are directed fairly pointedly at Americans who think America and Christianity are interchangeable (Keller describes Jonah derogatorily as a patriot), or even those who think that the Church is more important than God’s calling. There are plenty of warnings in the New Testament about the Kingdom of God and the conventionally religious being two separate groups. Keller points out that the sailors preached to Jonah, not the other way around. (And, lest we point the finger, Ellul warns that the judgement of the Bible is foremost for us, not others. If the Bible makes us feel righteous, says Ellul, we are not reading it fully.)

So the Book of Jonah is as much about Jonah’s failings as anything, and about God’s persistence nevertheless. Keller says the book is primarily about grace, which is the point of the prodigal son story too. Keller does uphold atonement theology, saying, in effect, that evil must be punished (God does not excuse Jonah or Nineveh), but I prefer Ellul’s emphasis on Jonah as an archetype of the person separated from God, in despair (being in the belly of the whale is described by Jonah as being in hell), saved by a God who allows human autonomy with its adverse effects but is infinitely patient for reconciliation. In this regard, Jonah and Nineveh are one and the same. There is no ‘us and them’. We are ‘in the same boat’, says Keller (rather neatly considering the setting of the first half of the Jonah story). This is a message of Jonah, echoed in the New Testament, but it must be constantly re-learned, against the divisions that sprout in the world.

Keller and Ellul diverge somewhat on the Book of Jonah’s abrupt, open ending. Keller, perhaps taking too literal a view of Jonah’s existence beyond the literary, indicates that we can assume the story turned out well and Jonah was able to return and have his story recorded. Ellul sees the ending or lack of it as indicating that the work of God is ongoing, that God continues to call the unworthy to his tasks.

Oppression and liberation

The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, Meredith Lake, NewSouth Publishing

While the Bible was an important part of the culture of Australia’s British colonizers, and subsequently Australian society, the history of the Bible in Australian culture is as much a history of counterculture, as Meredith Lake’s commendably comprehensive coverage shows.

It is no surprise that when a country that identified itself as Christian, Britain, sent convicts to Australia in the First Fleet they also included a crate of Bibles. Although Australia, unlike the US, was not settled by Europeans for religious reasons, the Bible was part of everyday British life, as well as a tool for rehabilitation of prisoners, even if some officers didn’t really believe it, and some convicts tore up Bibles and put them to other uses.

Biblical texts were well-known by convicts, many even sporting the texts as tattoos. More deeply, some identified with Biblical characters, many of whom were travelers and exiles, and the Bible’s proclamation of God’s love for the oppressed and outcast gave hope. The Bible was, Lake says, ‘both a tool of imperial oppression and a text of liberation’.

Missionaries in the nineteenth century noted that the colonizers did not always live up to Christian ideals, but German missionaries, for example, took an interest not only in spreading the Gospel but also in the riches of Indigenous culture. They were pioneers in translation work, which helped Indigenous languages survive, often against colonial Anglicans who insisted that the Bible should be read in English, as that was the language of the new Australian ‘civilization’.

Against the imposition of civilization, which often simply meant displacement, Indigenous Australians found inspiration in the Bible, as did black Americans. Bibles in Indigenous languages created the realization that ‘white man’s culture is not Christian culture’. The Bible spoke of a common humanity, especially against Darwinist racial theories that were prominent in the later nineteenth century, and religious ministers too denounced settler injustices, such as at Myall Creek, in just these terms.

In the later nineteenth century the proliferation of Bibles was seen as a sign of modernity as obvious as steam trains or the telegraph, and contributed to a rush of church building, giving the lie to the caricature that Australians have always been an irreverent, Godless lot, although some, such as Henry Lawson, found in it literary rather than spiritual worth.

In the twentieth century the Bible continued to have an ambiguous place in a society that upheld God, King and country, exemplified by the curious story that pacifist dissenters in World War I were permitted the Bible in prison, but found the pages with the Sermon on the Mount torn out. Lake notes that the Bible is probably more prominent on Anzac Day than on any other, reflecting perhaps a long-term association of the Bible with conservative values, though as with the jailers of the WWI pacifists, that sometimes requires selective reading. And recent church activism supporting refugees makes a contrary case.

There are passages in the Bible that put the brake on modern individualism and encourage order in society. But there are also parts that are ‘disruptive’, as is evident from the recent history of activists and artists who, away from the mediation of the Church, find themselves rocked spiritually by what they find in the Bible when they actually open it. Some dismiss the Bible because they think they know it, but it continues to surprise.

In her last chapter Lake touches briefly on aspects of the Bible’s place in the new millennium, such as in new apps and refugee advocacy. There is more to be said, and more changes to come, with Bible reading having disappeared from mainstream society, now as specialized as reading the Greek classics, while, on the other hand, the rise of Christianity in Asia and the global South means biblical literacy will be part of the fabric of future Australian immigration. A similar book to Lake’s in a hundred years’ time might have as surprising a story to tell.

(Originally reviewed for Journey magazine.)