Book Review: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth

Book Review
How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth Book Review. 3rd Ed.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003

“Just read the bible and do what is says!”. Good advice, yet quite incomplete. How does one read the Bible? Is it read like a novel? Like a history book? Like a list or rules? Do we pride ourselves on a literal reading? If so, are we to build parapets around the roofs of our houses as Deuteronomy 22:8 demands? Do we feel as though the Bible is a templet for our pet doctrines? Are we free to ignore sections at will? Does the God of the Bible hold us accountable for these decisions?

So, the burning question is how do we read the Bible? The Bible is like no other book in history, yet it contains many known genres. It is more widely read than all other written works, and for good reason. It has impacted the course of history like no other work before or after it. Because of this monumental question, we have books such as How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Douglass Stuart and Gordon D. Fee.

The world at large, and the church specifically, hold the Bible in a special regard. Both those who are converted to Christ and those who are not are often familiar with certain stories and passages. The language of the Bible has worked its way into our everyday vernacular. Because of these and other reasons, there is a wide variety of views of the Bible. People often do not know the difference between reading the book of Job (a book so ancient, it has no reference to the Law) and Romans. In Job, we are rejecting good advice from poor comforters and in Romans we are receiving all the advice given! Stuart and Fee have written How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth to address these issues and to help guide all who are serious in properly reading and interpreting the Bible. One would be at odds to name a more important study skill.

The way the book is constructed is immensely helpful in aiding the purpose of the authors. How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth wisely begins with the addressing the need of interpretation. People often do not realize they already interpret anything they read. Would you read the newspaper the same way you read a heart-felt poem? Of course not! One cannot simply read the Bible completely devoid of interpretation. The authors make a valid point: you are interpreting anyway, you might as well interpret correctly.

From there, the book then goes from help in choosing a translation to a systematic process of how to read each Bible genre. I particularly appreciate the book’s structure, which is very easy to follow. Stuart and Fee address how to read the Epistles, the Old Testament narratives, Acts, the Gospels, the parables, the Law, the prophets, Psalms, Wisdom and finally Revelation. Of course, these could be further broken into sub-groups, but these include nearly everything found in scripture. These literary genres are also often tied to one another and may go from genre to genre in a single book (or chapter!). When one masters the skills in how to read each type, it’s smoother sailing.

I believe Stuart and Fee did achieve their goal in guiding the reader to a fuller understanding of Bible interpretation with this book. This is conditional on the reader following the guidelines of course. For an example of such guidelines, we should attempt to grasp the text as it was written “in their town”, or exegesis. The task of exegesis is outlined in a way anyone can understand the subject. “Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning” (Kindle location 385).

We read a passage, was it poetry? Was it a list? Was it hyperbolic? Did Jesus really want us to gouge out an eye or cut off a hand? He said to do so in Matthew 5:29-30 if the offending eye or hand causes one to sin. What is the price of a literal interpretation when it was not meant as such? It this case it could be a limb! In fact, the hyperbole Jesus was using was much more powerful than a literal interpretation. Reading the Bible with the correct mindset, and submitted to the Holy Spirit, brings liberation as apposed to the bondage of false belief.
Another very important point How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth drives home is the all-important subject of context, namely, the literary context. This is mentioned throughout the book. This means “first that words only have meanings in sentences, and second that biblical sentences for the most part only have clear meaning in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences.” (Kindle location 458). Without grasping what context really is, one cannot correctly interpret scripture, much less skillfully apply it the way God intends.

Personally, I tend to agree with the authors of How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth and nearly every point. I have actually read the book twice and find it to be incredibly helpful in my own devotional reading as well as sermon/lesson prep. They do tend to take some hard stances on the book of Revelation which I would personally tread lighter, but with Revelation, that is to be expected at times. They see the great city as Rome for sure. Rome is only mentioned in Acts (the last 1/3 or so of Acts is dedicated to Paul’s trek to Rome), Romans 1:7, 15, 15:22 and 2 Timothy 1:17. This is only minor and they are probably right.

I would heartily recommend How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth. In fact, when I first read it about 3 years ago (an earlier edition), I was already recommending it to many people. The second reading was only richer and more rewarding. The parables and proverbs took on a whole new life and I tried to view them (as best I could) as those who heard them for the first time. The puzzling laws in Deuteronomy became examples of God’s care and His desire for the Israelites to be set apart from pagan practices. The dragon and locusts of Revelation were not longer simply enigmatic monsters in my mind.

I would recommend How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth to anyone (professional minister or not) who desires to learn the skills of proper Bible interpretation. There are many books on this subject, yet this particular work as gained notoriety for it’s logical sequencing, easy to understand language, and tried-and-true hermeneutical techniques.

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The Shack Review

Premiss of The Shack

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young is a riveting parable which aims to expose the role of the Triune God in tragedy. According to Young, The Shack is a story which creates a space for people to hear whatever the Spirit would be telling them in whatever place they are in their journey (Young, & Young, 2012, Kindle location 24).

In The Shack, we meet a man by the name of Mackenzie who finds a letter in his mailbox in an ice storm. The letter is an invitation to meet Papa at the shack, which infuriates Mack. The reader does not know why the anger wells up at the sight of the letter until the back story is revealed. On a camping trip with his children, his daughter Missy ends up missing. Young takes the reader through the long ordeal of searching for Missy, every minuet precious. A tip comes in which leads Mackenzie and the authorities to an old secluded shack. It is there where Missy’s bloody clothing is discovered confirming the worst. This is why the letter upset Mckenzie. Why would God lead him to the shack? The shack meant only pain and regret.

Mckenzie decides to head to the shack out of a deep seated curiosity and hunger for what God might say. He even totes a gun along in the possibility Missy’s killer might meet him there. When he arrives, he notices the blood stain left by Missy’s clothing. After a time of sorrow he begins to fly off the handle at the perceived absence of God and the sheer absurdity of him even being at the shack, a place of hurt and darkness. Mack even contemplates taking his own life with the fire arm.

As Mack is leaving, the snow begins to melt and the sun permeates the sky. As he looks behind him, he sees the shack is now a beautiful little cottage house. Inside he meets Papa, a large black woman who exudes joy and wisdom. Next, Mckenzie meets Jesus, a hardworking carpenter, and Sarayu, the Holy Spirit.

Needless to say, the sight of the Trinity perplexes Mack. This is not at all how he pictured God, especially Papa. Papa was Nan’s (Mack’s wife) favorite name for God. Mack tended to see God much life Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, powerful, bearded, distant. Mack’s view of God now also included “uninvolved, uninterested” after Missy’s murder. Papa, in this case, was nothing of the sort.

Papa teaches Mack about love and wisdom, Jesus stresses the presence of God and sacrifice, and Sarayu portrays wisdom, joy, and emotion. This is a very shortened list. In this visit Mack walks on water when Jesus is with him, he works in a garden with Sarayu as he learns more of the process of God’s work, and Mack’s defense melts in the presence of Papa more and more.

Mac learns about the role of God in the midst of suffering and grief. Jesus teaches Mac He was there with Missy, He never left her. Mack is allowed to see Missy as she is now, and this brings a sense of healing to him.

Near the end of Mack’s time with God (in this way), Papa (this time revealed as a male hiker) leads Mac to Missy’s body, which included clues left by “the ladybug killer” which Papa brings to Mack’s notice. Retrieving Missy’s body helps bring closure to Mack and Nan.

A theological take-away from The Shack

God’s providence and wisdom is a theological take-away from Young’s work. Deuteronomy 29:29 says “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” A take away the reader might grasp is God’s ways are not always visible or obvious. In fact, Papa did not answer all of Mack’s questions directly. The reader of The Shack might even grow frustrated with the lack of answers. Mack lost his daughter to murder, and who knows what other abuses she endured, so one might feel Mack deserves the answers he seeks. Even in the presence of the Trinity, Mack would encounter the great sadness, as Young put it. The great sadness was Mack’s depression. It would descend at any time, even after a great encounter with God. God’s providence and wisdom helped Mack to trust God, even a little bit. God seemed OK with baby steps towards trust in His providence and wisdom.

A psychological take away from The Shack.

A powerful scene in the book, from a psychological perspective, was from the chapter entitled “Here Come da Judge”. Past a waterfall and it a dark room Mack meets the personification of wisdom. She is beautiful and calming. Mack is asked about his children, about his love for them. Mack unwittingly describes the Father’s love for His children, yet when asked if God loves all His children the same Mack becomes furious and denies the prospect with reckless abandon. How could God love all His children the same when He allowed Missy’s abuse and murder? This made no sense psychologically.

When asked to judge Mack feels shocked and totally inadequate. Wisdom’s assault was unrelenting. Do those who beat their wives or children deserve judgement? What about those who…..abuse and kill girls? “YES!” screams Mack, “Damn him to hell!” Mack had no problem pronouncing judgement on such a monster, for it is this type of man who caused him unmentionable psychological pain. The problem is, says Wisdom, how far back do you go? To judge one is to judge God. God will enact justice, to be sure, but in light of the sacrifice of Christ. The episode ends in Mack taking a baby-step toward Christlike selflessness in offering himself in place of his children, the end object of the judgement path. The psychological impact must have been enormous for Mack (and for the reader).

In the beginning of the book we read about a man who had basically shut down, enjoyed ice storms for the solace they bring, and had resigned himself to the sentence of animosity toward God. His mind was always in the bulls-eye of the great sadness. He did not know where or when his depression would descend, but after this episode of meeting the personification of wisdom, he began to experience a psychological breakthrough. The depression might return, but the renewing of his mind aided in the defense against its permanence.

An emotional take-away.

The Shack is an emotional book. One cannot help but to feel for Mack and Nan. The reader shares the hurt they carry and empathizes with their agonizing questions, however logically unreasonable they might be.

After the reader finishes The Shack, he or she will most likely feel quite spent. The emotions of the water rescue, the loss of Missy, the hope she is ok! Missy is not ok, she has been murdered. The essence of the murder and abuse of an innocent girl pervades the book. All questions of justice and God’s providence are stemming from the murder. This is the framework and the reader experiences all the words of God while still reeling from this preventable tragedy.

Since this is a reflection, I Reuben, must interject here. Reading The Shack was an emotional experience, I read in bated breath, laughed, choked back tears, experienced anger, and deep liberating joy. Even the next day, my worship to God had changed. Since this section is on emotion, I find it difficult to put this into third person speech. I cannot understand how one reads The Shack devoid of emotion. All the best parables are emotional! Yet, the emotion of the story is a cause for caution.

Evaluation and Recommendation.

The Shack is recommended with some caveats. It is a parable, a story, and a work of fiction. The book is not intended as theology, yet it contains specific theological statements. For example, Jesus says “I have no desire to make them Christians” (p. 182). The term Christian is not a purely human invention, the term Christian is explicitly biblical (see Acts 11:26, 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16). James Be DeYoung even asserts Wm. Paul Young is an universalist in his book Burning Down the Shack, a claim which Wm. Paul Young denies (DeYoung, 2010, Kindle location 94).

The emotion of the story is so strong, the imagery so striking, the scenes so memorable, a reader could misinterpret some of the statements and see them as doctrine. The Shack contains very little scripture quotes. If one understands it as a parable, and not as systematic
theology, the point of the book can be quite liberating.

Ultimately The Shack is about forgiveness. God forgives all who repent, and because of His example, we can forgive even the vilest of crimes. God does not will anyone parish (see 2 Peter 3:9). It feels like a thousand pounds removed from the shoulders to fully realize redemption is God’s domain. We declare the gospel, yet the work of the gospel is done (John 19:30).

The Shack is recommended to those who are grieving and are stuck in their spiritual growth. In his book Finding God in the Shack, Randal Rouser praises The Shack for addressing “the dark night of the soul” and for bringing us face to face with the possibility of forgiveness for even a child killer (Rouser, 2008, Kindle location 71). It is not recommended to new Christians, for they are best served through biblical discipleship. It is best the reader approach the work with the full knowledge of its fictional persuasion. A concern would be one would quote passages of The Shack instead of the Word of God, seeing this parable as a special revelation, which it is not. The Shack is a shining example of the power of story to accomplish a strong point. The best parables are emotional and evoke reactions. On this account, The Shack does its job superbly. The power of forgiveness rings true in its pages, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting…it’s about letting go of another person’s throat” (pg. 272).

References
DeYoung, J. B. (2010). Burning down “The shack”: How the “Christian” bestseller is deceiving millions. Washington, D.C.: WND Books.
Rauser, R. D. (2009). Finding God in The shack. Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster
Young, W. P. (2007). The shack (C): A novel. Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media.
Young, W. P., & Young, W. P. (2012). The shack: Reflections for every day of the year. Newbury
Park, CA: Windblown Media.

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