How hard could it be to read a book? How hard could it be to read one book in particular, namely, the Bible?
Sometimes it seems crazy to think that we need to learn how to read and interpret the Bible, yet if you’ve ever tried to jump straight in (especially as a new Christian) it can be a bit daunting. From the peculiar-sounding Levitical laws to Jesus’ miracles to Paul’s theologically packed run-on sentences, it’s easy to lose our courage and give up our ambitions to read the Word. Am I really supposed to care about this obscure Jewish law? I’m not supposed to really believe that these stories of Jesus performing miracles are true, am I? Can’t I be content to let the Bible nerds sort out Paul’s writings? Pastor Jim Nicodem, noticing these challenges, wrote the Bible Savvy series as an attempt to help Christians become personally acquainted with God’s scriptures.
The series is broken down into four books: Epic (The Storyline of the Bible), Foundation (The Reliability of the Bible), Context (How to Understand the Bible), and Walk (How to Apply the Bible). They’re short, highly readable books that should be accessible to just about any Christian. There’s certainly more that could be said on each topic, but their strength lies in just how concise they are.
The first, Epic, does a splendid job at illustrating the unity and cohesiveness of the biblical plotline. Nicodem soundly and caringly confronts the notion that we can read the Bible as a vast array of proverbs or nuggets of wisdom to live by; certainly the Bible contains those, but if we do not understand that this was written to a specific people in a specific place, time, and culture, our propensity to misinterpret its meaning runs high.
The second little book, Foundation, takes a step back and asks the crucial question, “Before we start reading the Bible, shouldn’t we make sure that it’s historically reliable?” Nicodem seeks to have a higher-level conversation about the rationality of trusting a 2000+ year-old book to guide and lead our lives.
Context uses the image of a jigsaw puzzle to help us understand that when reading scripture, we ought to be concerned with comprehending the larger historical, literary, theological, and immediate settings. Nicodem rightly argues that ignoring these contexts can lead us to some pretty zany places. Many so-called biblical contradictions are easily resolved when verses are understood in light of the larger picture.
The final volume, Walk, helps bring it all back down to earth by explaining how we can answer the question, “So what?” So I understand where this passage sits within the larger biblical narrative, I understand that I can trust its historical reliability, and I know the context of this passage like who wrote it, who it was addressed to, how its theological arguments line up with other passages, etc. Why does any of this matter to a 21st century guy like me? Not only that, but if it does, how can I draw those connections for myself? This is where Nicodem really shines—he breaks down the process into the acronym COMA (Context, Observation, Message, Application) and walks through examples of how you and I can take words written to a very different people and find them affecting our own lives too.
The series as a whole is well-written, funny, friendly, gracious, and welcoming. He’s sensitive to the new believer and the non-Christian in all the right ways: rather than dumbing down his theological vocabulary to avoid so-called “Christianese,” he warmly invites others into it and shows why words like hermeneutics and justification are helpful. He’s wonderfully aware of his target audience and almost never writes over their heads. Finally, he avoids the trap of so many theologians and keeps things short, concise, and clear.
The one weak link in the series that is worth noting has to do with the second book, Foundation. This, in my opinion, was well-intentioned but fell short in terms of academic integrity. I want to charitably assume that he was just trying to keep things simple, but a book that makes such a weighty claim as the reliability of scripture needed a little bit more backbone. I was concerned when I read declarative truth claims without any footnote, such as on pages 65-66 when Nicodem references a 1993 archaeological finding of “some writings” from the 9th century BC that prove the authenticity of King David. Yet if the very historicity of King David is on the line, I thought I would’ve deserved a footnote so that I could have read about this myself. I could Google it, but it didn’t sit well with me when I was just expected to take Nicodem at his word. Another example is on page 70, where he discusses excerpts from rejected gospels about clay birds and talking crosses to explain why they were not accepted into the Christian canon. Yet there are no footnotes again! He ends that passage by saying, “I’m not making this up,” but I have no way to verify the validity of what he’s saying. Not so good for a book about reliability and trustworthiness. I don’t mean to imply that the whole book is unsupported—he footnotes a lot of things for those who would want to look them up. I was disappointed overall, though, because many of those references were to popular-level articles and books. It just seems to me like the only people who are actually stumbling over the reliability of the Bible would want something they could really sink their teeth into. Give us some primary sources, man!
Those critiques notwithstanding, I would still heartily recommend Bible Savvy to new Christians, especially Context and Walk. I plan to keep it on my shelf to lend to folks I disciple or who are ravenous to get more out of their time spent in the Bible. You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $22 or you can pick up the individual books for around $9-11.