A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics
By John Dickson
Reviewed by Bishop Tim Harris
Tim Harris is Assistant Bishop in Adelaide.
Let me say at the outset that I think this is a terrific book. It is written in winsome style with candour, clarity and character. Even more impressively, it achieves a depth of thought and engagement that is particularly challenging to attain when writing a primer genre of book. It will stimulate and provoke many of the right sorts of questions for those genuinely seeking to understand the Bible’s great narrative and the worldview it reflects.
In many ways, I am the wrong person to review this book. I would love to hear feedback and reflections from the book’s intended audience. I know well the theological framework Dickson articulates, a biblical theology framework that comes with an extensive and sophisticated in-house terminology and short hand. The extent to which John has successfully stepped outside this and employed accessible language and explanations is for others to determine, but my impression is that he has made an excellent attempt to do so.
Firstly, a brief overview. The chapter titles pretty much flag Dickson’s narrative approach: How everything is good (the creation story); Why so much is bad (Adam’s story and ours); Life in three dimensions (the blessings of Father Abraham); The good life (Moses and his law); Justice for all (The violence of Joshua and the love of God); Kingdom come (the promise and failure of King David); Hope against hope (the Christmas story); The wait is over (almost): (Jesus and his gospel); The great work (the “Church” after Jesus); and finally, How everything is good again (the re-creation story). Those familiar with paradigmic biblical theology (as with Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom, and many others) will quickly recognise the contours of this narrative.
A good many sections stand out as particularly well-presented. The literary character of Genesis 1 as a type of prose-poetic ode, located in the world of ancient near eastern creation narratives, is expressed with clarity and sufficient reference to other ancient texts without overdoing things. Similarly, the explanation of ‘the tree of determination of good and evil’ (39) is very well handled.
Interwoven through all this is an effective selection of citations, giving candid expression to challenges relating to many passages, together with some pertinent quotes which speak profoundly (and concisely) into such debates. Dickson reads widely, and is abreast of many contemporary contributions for and against sceptical arguments.
Something I especially appreciate is the fairness Dickson demonstrates in hearing and presenting alternative views. I didn’t detect any proverbial straw men in this regard, but a respect for questions and challenges where they have something to say (the use of the scathing West Wing exchange in the words of (fictional) President Jed Bartlett regarding Old Testament law codes and homosexuality is but one stand out example, 81-82).
The chapter on Abraham is excellent. As Dickson notes, an understanding of the promises to Abraham and God’s work in reversing the damage of prolific sin in and through Abraham and his family is absolutely vital to perceiving the greater biblical narrative. Dickson’s explanation of the Abrahamic promises in the context of contemporary hopes, desires and dreams just nails it.
As one would hope, the stand out chapter is the one concerning Jesus and the gospel. These types of chapters are deceptively difficult to write; what to include, what to leave to one side, which debates to comment upon. I think Dickson gets the balance pretty much right (with justifiable cross reference to his more historically orientated books for more detail). Especially engaging is the ‘Crib Notes to the Gospel’, 161-171), with a wonderfully succinct overview of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom, miracles, discipleship, the cross and resurrection (although a pity the ascension seems to have been largely left out).
You may have noticed my review to this point has been singularly positive! Are there points at which I might offer a stronger critique? Well, a few. Along with a few other reviewers, I think Dickson tiptoes around the Six-Day Creationists just a little too much. Better to name and articulate a position (as Dickson does well), without the need to anticipate the reactions from one particular quarter. Other groups will react critically at other points, so why single out one perspective to critique quite so guardedly? However, this is a minor quibble.
Notwithstanding the undoubted strengths of this book, it did read as being shaped around the author’s particular agenda, and less around questions a sceptical reader might raise when trying to read scripture on its own terms. For instance, some introduction regarding the languages of the Bible would be helpful, and also the nature of the biblical canon as a mini-library in a book, written and compiled over a considerable period of time and reflecting a diversity of authors, styles and even personalities. Dickson emphasises the greater narrative development and coherence of Scripture, but others would be struck by its diversity.
More particular questions are absent, such as what to make of the large numbers encountered at various points (e.g. the ages of various figures in Genesis, and the population numbers in Numbers etc.), which some readers view with some scepticism). The chapter on Joshua, touching on holy war and the judgement of God upon the Canaanites, explains some elements (judgement arises out of God’s love and righteousness), but doesn’t address why innocent individuals are caught up in corporate acts of judgement – again, a common question from readers troubled by these passages.
Other questions curious readers might wonder about regarding the four Gospels might have been addressed, even if only briefly: what are we to make of the relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke, and where does John’s Gospel fit in?
Having noted the above, I want to affirm the clarity of all that is addressed, and my admiration for Dickson’s self-discipline as an author in not trying to cram in too much in a book of this nature. The ‘crib notes’ summary of the apostles’ teaching (189-199) is a great case in point. So much more might have been added (I would have liked to see some reference to the game-changing role of the Holy Spirit in transforming the believer’s mindset, e.g. Romans 8:1-11), but Dickson otherwise maintains admirable restraint and keeps on task with the major narrative.
The final chapter draws various threads together, most importantly the biblical movement from creation to new creation. A measure of good writing is the capacity to finish well, and Dickson again delivers, highlighting the Bible’s relevance to the big questions of life and its diverse experiences, blended with some very poignant personal anecdotes and reflections.
John Dickson is to be commended in providing a great resource shaped effectively for its intended audience. I hope thought will be given to developing small group resources to accompany this, or even some bite-sized video clips.