Simon Loveday’s The Bible For Grown-Ups is an engaging and accessible book, which encourages the reader to take (according to his subtitle) “a new look at the Good Book”. The childishness implied by his title seems to be the wholesale acceptance of the Bible as a controlling text for human life, or the outright rejection of it as a fabrication or an entirely worthless system of oppression. Against these two attitudes – which rest on similar assumptions that the Bible is a monolithic and coherent book of “rules” – Loveday poses his own reading.
His approach begins with the history of the texts we possess in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and with reading them as individual works. His chapters discuss questions such as “So – who did write the Old Testament?”, “The historical context: the world in which the Old Testament took shape”, “Who did Jesus think he was?” In elaborating these issues Loveday draws effectively and neatly on areas of Biblical scholarship, with names like John Barton and Geza Vermes looming large in his bibliography.
This part of the book fulfils a similar function to Barton’s own What is the Bible?, or Bart D. Ehrman’s The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, making the findings of modern Biblical research available to a more general readership. Loveday is an engaging and likeable writer, and much of the appeal of this section comes from his explanation of how the Bible can be read in a sophisticated manner like other texts, without putting on religious “blinkers” which shut out the view. There are some areas where I’m not sure his account of the field is entirely accurate – he appears to mix up stages of the Quest for the Historical Jesus and (for me) he is far too keen to impute simple-minded piety to the entire Patristic and medieval tradition of interpretation – but there is plenty to enjoy here.
The final, shorter, section focuses on “A Vision of Freedom”, Loveday’s own preferred interpretation of the Bible. In this he carries out an attentive literary reading of some Biblical passages, and constructs a distinction between “religion” and “vision” as his model for reading. For Loveday, religion is summed up by its connection to the verb “to bind”: it is a system of captivity, exclusion, and control. “Vision” on the other hand, allied with Socrates, Jesus and the poets of Plato’s Republic, is liberatory, imaginative and creative. As I understand Loveday’s reading of the Bible, he sees it as “vision” emerging from, and transcending “religion”. The texts contain material which encapsulates both, but the value of the Bible is in its potential to offer “vision”.
The Bible For Grown-Ups is an attractive and faintly idiosyncratic read: it introduces a lot of material which many people will probably not be familiar with, in order to present Loveday’s own intellectual and literary journey through his reading of the Bible, and to explain the destination he arrived at. I have some reservations about the process especially in the light of his conclusion. It feels a little odd to set “religion” up against “vision” after drawing on the conclusions of hundreds of years of devout scholarship carried out within religious traditions.
There is also a vagueness about his handling of the Biblical texts at times, which I think stems from trying to bracket out “religion” or “theology” when dealing with books which are explicitly religious and concerned with critique and dialectic within religious systems. His discussion of universalism, for example, ignore Origen and the long theological tradition which considers the question, describing it instead as a recent movement in Biblical scholarship. Trying to put “theology” to one side is entirely commendable, especially given the book’s ambition to read the texts for what they are. But doing so can risk falling into the same trap as the fundamentalisms Loveday wishes to rescue the Bible from, reducing people’s engagement with the books and their worlds as finding what’s written and believing it.
That said, this is a timely book and one which deserves a wide readership. Loveday’s own gusto shows itself in every page, and his quest for a nuanced and literary engagement with the Biblical texts should hopefully prompt others to make their own explorations.
The Bible for Grown-Ups: A New Look at the Good Book, Simon Loveday (Icon: 2016) 978-1785781315, £10.49 (£6.64 Kindle) I am grateful to the publishers for providing a copy for review.