HOW TO READ THE BIBLE
by Harvey Cox
HarperOne: Toronto ON.
Available March 1st, 2016
Paper, 257 pages, $20.00 CAD.
ISBN # 378-0-06-234316-1
Renowned religion expert and Harvard Divinity
School professor Harvey Cox deepens our
experience of the Bible, revealing the three
primary ways we read it, why each is important,
and how we can integrate these approaches for
a richer understanding and appreciation of key
texts throughout the Old and New Testaments.
The Bible is the heart of devotional practice,
a source of guidance and inspiration rich with
insightful life lessons. On the other side of the
spectrum, academics have studied the Bible
using scientific analysis to examine its historical
significance and meaning. The gap between these
readings has resulted in a schism with far-reaching
implications: Without historical context, ordinary
people are left to interpret the Bible literally, while
academic readings overlook the deeply personal
connections established in church pews, choir
benches, and backyard study groups.
In How To Read the Bible, Cox explores three
different lenses commonly used to bring the
Bible into focus:
• Literary—as narrative stories of family conflict,
stirring heroism, and moral dilemmas;
• History—as classic texts with academic and
• Activism—as a source of dialogue and engagement
to be shared and applied to our lives.
By bringing these together, Cox shows the Bible in
all its rich diversity and meaning and offers us a
contemporary activist version that wrestles with
issues of feminism, war, homosexuality, and race.
The result is a living resource that is perpetually
evolving as our understanding changes and deepens
from generation to generation.
I was born, as many of us were, in a Bible-
drenched country… In Protestant America,
with its historic aversion to “idols”, the Bible
was the only universally recognized sacred icon.
(One day I looked inside the (unused) Bible in
the home where I grew up. It seemed like a
preserve for family history, nothing more. I
I think of my personal history with the Bible
as unfolding in three stages. The first I call
the “narrative” stage. Like many people, I
simply took the Bible at face value and more
or less literally, although even as a youngster
I had my doubts about some of the accounts
that seemed improbable.
The second phase of my evolving understanding
of the Bible might be called the “historical” one.
It began when I was in college and continued
through seminary and beyond. In this period,
the emphasis was on the context in which a
a particular book was written, for and to whom,
when and why.
The third stage which has been developing over
my adult years, I would call the “spiritual” stage.
I do not, however, mean “spiritual” in a narrow
or merely inward sense but in a holistic one that
includes inner and outer, personal and social…
I will have more to say about all these modes
in the rest of the book…
All of these ways of grasping the Bible remain
part of my repertoire. But I believe they need
to supplement and complement each other in
order to get the most from any reading of the
biblical texts. That is something I attempt to
do throughout his book…
(I try to answer the question of how to start
reading the Bible, and go back to my three stages
of my life with the Bible – the narrative, historical
and spiritual. This means that the best way to
read any passage in the Bible is to incorporate
all three elements…)
First, never forget that the story is utterly
fundamental.. “What is happening here?”
Second, become an amateur history detective
and uncover the “who, when, where and why
about a particular text…” I will include “Study
Tips” throughout the book to assist with this
Then, move to the spiritual stage. Start to
engage the text in a no-holds-barred wrestling
match. Listen, and be prepared to change,
but also to argue. Respect the right of the text
to say what it says and not what you would
like it so say. But don’t be cowed by it. Insist
on your right to see things differently if you
do. This is what I mean by “dialogue,” and
if you open both your mind and your heart to it,
the spiritual meaning for today of any text
will find its way across the centuries.
I guarantee it.
– from the Introduction
By Dr. Wayne Holst
Few theological teachers of the past half-
century have covered the breadth of modern
themes and key issues that Harvey Cox has.
He has written many books. For me, here
are some that taught the most –
It all began in 1965 with a very popular book –
“The Secular City” in which the new author
started to introduce several generations of
students to what is now a taken-for-granted
reality – secularization; i.e. living without an
apparent need for God in our western societies.
Here he introduced many to liberation theology.
“Turning East’ (1978) started us thinking about
the value and importance of eastern religions
before many of us had any idea of their value
for human spirituality in our time.
“Many Mansions” (1988) was a book I used
in many religion classes to introduce the
modern necessity of interfaith relations.
“Fire from Heaven” (1994) is one of the best
introductions to the global phenomenon of
Pentecostalism, and still available.
“The Future of Faith” (2009) an insightful look
into the ways faith continues to be globally
vital and significant in spite of the rise of
the new atheism and the “nones” in our time.
Now, with this book, Cox takes us back to
our Judeo-Christian foundations – the Bible
– and our need to recover what we have
lost because it seems to be a dated book.
As much as we want to be spiritually attuned,
ecumenically open and wise to inter-faith
developments in our modern world, we need
to re-ground ourselves in the foundations of
the Jewish and Christian tradition. That
foundation is the Bible.
How can we truly know who we are while
encountering ‘the other’ in all its expressions
if we fail to come to terms with our religious
heritage? I can only contribute to the dialogue
if I know who I am as a Christian.
Cox continues to impress with his perceptions,
clarity and insightfulness. Age has not clouded
his vision (he is 87) and time has not dampened
his vitality and enthusiasm as one of Harvard’s
most popular professors.
You will not go wrong to include but another
book by Harvey Cox in your library.
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