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Issue No. 117 (June / July 2008) – Mark Satin, Editor

   The Bible (?!?!) is our one essential political book

. . . and we need it now more than ever

Ever since about a half-decade before the Millennium, Americans have been assiduously discovering or re-discovering the Bible.

And that includes – I am tempted to say, that especially includes – politically minded Americans.

I am a latecomer to this trend.  I read the Bible for the first time at the end of last year, and I’ve been reading Bible commentaries and better translations ever since.

On another level, though, I’ve always been searching for a book like the Bible.

For my entire adult life, I’ve been searching for a book – a One Book, a Master Text -- that could show us how to change the world for the better.

And I’m not alone.  Many change agents (if they’re honest with themselves) will confess that they’ve been longing for that book ever since they can remember.

We are, after all, in desperate need of a text that can give us the DEPTH that’s missing from the public political discourse.

A text that acknowledges the COMPLEXITY that reflexive political correctness makes impossible.

A text that can give us believable, tough-minded INSIGHT into people and their foibles while at the same time giving us the COMFORT we need to persevere and the STRENGTH we need to prevail.

My search, and ours

Like many of you, my search goes back a long way.

In the 1960s, I gave Karl Marx’s writings a shot.  But they fell short.

After figuring that out (which took longer than it should have, alas), I pondered many newer putative Master Texts over the years . . . over the decades.  I’m sure you've encountered some of them too:

  • Ayn Rand’s libertarian classic, Atlas Shrugged
  • Malcolm X’s incendiary Autobiography
  • Herbert Marcuse's radical-left classic, One-Dimensional Man
  • Robin Morgan’s feminist anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful
  • Ram Dass’s spiritual counter-culture classic, Be Here Now
  • Robert Pirsig’s secular counter-culture classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Gerry Spence’s paean to law activism, Gunning for Justice
  • Irving Kristol’s magisterial Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea
  • Anthony Giddens’s radical-centrist classic, The Third Way

All have their strengths.  But in the end, none did for me what I most wanted from them, and what they subtly promised: To teach me definitively how to understand and change the world.

Many of us are saying things politically now that we only half-believe -- because they make us feel good, or because they make us look good, or because nobody seems to have the truly right answers, or because it's better than silently acquiescing in all the terrible things that burden this world.

I can understand that.  I've done it too.  But at this point in my life I have had my fill of political half-truths, political ism's, even those I've contributed to myself.  And I am haunted by a need to go deeper, or “furthur,” as Ken Kesey’s bus once put it.

So last November I began reading the Bible . . .

Central political text of our time?

. . . and now, half a year later, I am convinced that the Bible is the central political text of our time.  For at least five reasons:

-- It asks all the important questions that need to be asked (and answered) before we can move wisely into the 21st century; questions about ultimate goals, human agency, persistence of evil, nature of power. . . .

-- It provides a place where left and right can meet, dialogue, learn.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered richer dialogues among people of wildly different political persuasions than those in Bill Moyers’s book Genesis: A Living Conversation (n.b.: most people cited in this article are LISTED -- along with LINKS to their pertinent texts -- in the RE:SOURCES section below).

-- It tells difficult truths about human nature.  In today’s political climate, many change agents feel compelled to believe in the perfectibility of people, or at least that we’re all basically A-OK.  But most of those who’ve studied the Bible have dropped that stance.  “The people I see want to know why it is that they cannot restrain themselves from hateful, hurtful attitudes and actions,” says Harvard’s nondenominational minister Peter Gomes.  “The good are not as smart as they think they are. . . .”

-- It reminds us of our positive human potential.  Those old Bible stories are “telling me . . . that there’s always this potential to be more than what I’m willing to settle for,” says Vanderbilt University Bible scholar Renita Weems.  “I need to know that sometimes, because it’s easy to forget.  I need to know that I am made in the image of God. . . .”

-- It calls us to new and better political perspectives.  Moyers speaks of the Bible’s barely tapped capacity to inspire attempts “to find a new vision for America that has the authority and power of a religious vision but that is inclusive, not sectarian.”

Turn to the Bible by the American people

If only a couple of stray scholars and media personalities (and political journalists) were discovering or re-discovering the Bible, then perhaps it wouldn’t matter.

What’s happening, though, is a virtual avalanche of Bible discovery and re-discovery.

According to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, traditional forms of community may be disappearing – but support groups are arising to take their place.  About 40% of American adults are involved in support groups at this time . . . and about 44% of those are involved in groups that are described by participants partly or entirely as “Bible study groups.”

In other words, 17.6% of all American adults – about 40 million people – are engaged in Bible study at this time.

Support groups “seldom make the headines,” Wuthnow says.  “They are not the stuff that reporters care much about.”  But that doesn’t mean they’re not out there, deeply influencing the culture – including the political culture.

Some tips of the Bible-study iceberg are visible now.

On college campuses, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (ICF) has broader reach among caring students than Students for Democratic Society or Young Americans for Freedom ever did in the 1960s.

ICF currently has over 1200 staff members ministering to over 34,000 students and faculty on 573 U.S. campuses.  Besides weekly large group meetings, ICF sponsors student-led, small-group Bible study gatherings organized around dorms or burning topics of the day.

And don’t think ICF pulls in only traditional Christians.  Some of its Bible study groups are designed for people who might not feel comfortable calling themselves Christians, or even religious.

Politically powerful Americans constitute another tip of the Bible-study iceberg.  According to journalist Judy Keen, every week up to 50 people working in the White House / Eisenhower Executive Office Building complex meet during lunch hour Tuesdays or Thursdays for hour-long prayer and Bible study sessions.

One of the highest-profile Senators taking part in Congressional Bible study circles is Hillary Clinton.  And it’s not just an election-year ploy.  According to historian Paul Kengor, Clinton has been attending bipartisan Bible study and prayer groups ever since her days as Arkansas' first lady.

Turn to the Bible by political authors

One of the clearest signs that Bible study is becoming a national focus and a political focus is that well-known political authors are turning to Bible study.  Ten quick examples:

  • Alan Crawford, best known for his expose Thunder on the Right: The “New Right” and the Politics of Resentment (1980), recently published a number of thoughtful articles on the importance of Bible study and religious issues (see e.g., “Goodbye to All That,” Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2006);

  • Regis Debray, once a prominent publicist and theorist for Marxist guerrilla fighters, recently published God: An Itinerary (2004) and The Old Testament Through 100 Masterpieces of Art (2004);

  • Barbara Engler, author of Personality Theories (8th ed., 2008), arguably the most politically aware psychology text on the market today, is currently devoting herself to Bible study;

  • Michael Lerner, once a member of the notorious “Seattle Seven” and author of The New Socialist Revolution (1973), is now a rabbi and popular Biblical thinker (see his regular “Rabbi's Corner” commentary HERE);

  • Norman Podhoretz, once a flaming liberal and now a flaming neoconservative, recently published The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are (2002);

  • Richard Rubenstein, formerly the author of Left Turn (1973), whose first sentence was “My purpose . . . is to demonstrate that there is both a necessity and a potential for revolution in America,” recently published Thus Saith the Lord (2006), a book about the moral vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah;

  • Charlene Spretnak, pioneering theorist of ecofeminism and Green politics, recently published Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-emergence in the Modern Church (2004);

  • Michael Walzer, long one of our leading communitarian political thinkers, recently published an anthology called Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism (2006);

  • Garry Wills, once an influential conservative and now an influential liberal, recently came out with a series of books on Biblical themes (e.g., What the Gospels Meant, 2008; What Paul Meant, 2006);

  • Alan Wolfe, who began his academic career with books like The Seamy Side of Democracy (1973) and The Limits of Legitimacy: Political Contradictions of Contemporary Capitalism (1977), is now Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Emerging depthful and holistic way to read the Bible

One of the least attractive aspects of Bible study is the way people tend to cherry-pick what they want from the text – easy to do when you have 1,500+ pages to choose from, and multiple translations.

N.T. Wright, who’s taught the New Testament at Oxford and McGill, excoriates the political right for discovering “religious” meanings in the Bible and excluding “political” ones, “thus often tacitly supporting the status quo.”

At the same time, Wright excoriates the left for discovering “political” meanings and excluding complicating ones -- a process that “results merely in sloganeering.”

If today’s Bible study tends to feel different from yesterday’s, it’s primarily because more and more people and groups appear to be willing – even eager -- to deeply ponder the Bible as a whole.  I like to call it the “depthful and holistic” approach to Bible study.

“We don’t ignore any passage in the Bible,” says New Hampshire’s Episcopal Bishop, Gene Robinson.

“I [do] not want to ransack the Bible for relevant teachings, a process that almost always writes the interpreter’s prejudices into the text,” adds religious-conflict expert Richard Rubenstein.

The seven Commandments

Our emerging depthful and holistic approach to reading the Bible can be said to be based on seven interpretive Commandments, as follows:

1. Seek spiritual truth, not literal truth.  “Stories can be true without being literally and factually true,” says Marcus Borg, chaired professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University.  “Metaphorical narratives can be profoundly true even if they are not literally or factually true.”

Rather than focusing on “overly literal readings,” adds John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), we should look at every part of Scripture “in the light of the spirit of the whole.”

2. Don't confuse ancient people's prejudices with spiritual truth.  The Bible may be God's Word, but it comes to us filtered through the appetites, predilections, and prejudices of people who lived over 1500 years ago.  We've got to take that into account.

Sometimes it's laughably obvious when prejudices are being presented as gospel.  Robinson enjoys pointing out that, just before homosexuals are famously condemned in Leviticus, we're told not to eat shellfish and not to plant two kinds of seed in the same field.  So we can be pretty confident that those passages are not meant for all eternity!

Women and women's perspectives figure less in the Bible than they might have if Hebrew and early Christian power structures had been different.  But according to holistic interpreters, many women Bible characters are deeper and more significant than one-dimensional Bible teaching can convey.  Click on these recent books:

3. Don't overgeneralize.  "God may speak to particular situations in history," says Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.  Not every divine directive may reflect an eternal truth.

The prophet Isaiah told his people to beat their swords into plowshares, says Visotzky – and the prophet Joel told his people to beat their plowshares into swords.  When peace was called for, God spoke through Isaiah; when war was called for, God spoke through Joel.  Even God pays attention to context!

4. Think about how the Bible applies to our own world today.  It is NOT a dead historical document.  Independent Bible and religion scholar Karen Armstrong puts it well when she says that the Bible “must be read in conjunction with a sustained reflection on our own times.”  Not to facilitate “facile interpretations,” but to “enable us to enter more deeply into the complexity” of Biblical times and our own times.  Both at once!

5. Be compassionate.  Armstrong argues for a “charitable” and “compassionate” reading.  Try to find “truth and reason” even in the worst behavior of others, she says.  Try “to ‘feel with’ the other.”  Assume everyone is essentially like us.  You’ll be surprised at how much richness you’ll find by such a reading. . . .

6. Be humble.  The Bible is more than just another book.  Borg urges us to think of it as a mediator between humans and the sacred, “a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced.  [It is] a true story (and a collection of true stories) about the divine-human relationship.”

7. Spill your blood.  Read properly, the Bible calls us back to ourselves – our deepest selves.  “For the interpretation of Scripture to be revelatory,” says Visotzky, “we must reveal ourselves, too.”  That self-revelation may hurt sometimes . . . but it will be worth it in the end.  (To ease that process, Visotzky recommends studying the Bible with trusted others.)

What we’re discovering

When you read the Bible in the depthful, holistic way that more and more of us are gravitating toward, you’ll come up with insights and principles that are rife with political implications.

Here is a basketful of examples, all culled from some of my favorite Bible commentators, and all from texts published within the last 10-12 years (OK, all but Visotzky’s, which directly inspired Moyers’s seminal dialogues):


Why are there two separate and very different creation stories?  According to Avivah Zornberg, a Bible teacher in Israel, the first expresses the "majesty" of God and people, and the second expresses a world made up of “weaknesses and deficiencies.”  BOTH PERSPECTIVES ARE TRUE, and if we want to be effective we have to take both into account.


Why did God put a protective “mark” on Cain after he slew his brother Abel?  According to novelist Mary Gordon, God stepped in to “short-circuit the lust for vengeance which could go on forever. . . .  What God is saying [is that] the quest for vengeance, [even when] motivated by a desire for justice, absolutely obliterates the possibility of a good life” for anyone.


When God told Abraham and Sarah that they’d be having a child, both laughed – Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90.  But of course God had the last laugh when they conceived Isaac.  The story teaches “the absolute necessity of hope,” says Lewis Smedes, emeritus professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.  “Everybody has to hope.”


Hagar – Sarah’s slave – bore Abraham’s first child, Ishmael.  All went well for a while.  But after Abraham and Sarah bore Isaac, Sarah (with Abraham’s meek consent) cast Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.  Ultimately God hears Hagar’s grief and helps Ishmael “make a great nation,” arguably a pre-Islamic nation.

Here’s what Rev. Eugene Rivers, head of an anti-poverty and anti-gang group in Boston, takes from that story: “You can whine and complain about the injustice of it all, the fact that I wasn’t the privileged one.  Or you can see through the eyes of faith that every adverse circumstance is an opportunity to see God work out his ultimate desire for wholeness and reconciliation in your life.”


Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, in order to obtain his older brother’s inheritance.  Later, Jacob is deceived by his uncle, who promises him one daughter as a bride but under cover of darkness sends him another.  “Deception begets deception!” concludes Naomi Rosenblatt, psychotherapist and adult Bible class teacher in Washington DC.


In a fit of pique, God destroys nearly all Earth’s people and animals.  But after the flood waters recede, nobody’s improved – for example, the first thing Noah does is get stone drunk.  “Who hasn’t felt like wiping everything out to start over again?” asks Carol Gilligan, psychologist and author.  “I think this parable teaches us the lesson of the destructiveness of acting on regret in this way.”  It is a parable for every parent, not to mention every would-be revolutionary.


John Buehrens, former head of the Unitarian Universalist Association, summarizes one take on Exodus as follows:

  • 1. Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt [i.e., Bad – ed.]

  • 2. There is a better place, a world more fair, full of promise and hope

  • 3. The way to it is through the wilderness.  There is no other way to get from here to there except by the hard way, being tested as we go

THE DAVID STORIES (1 Samuel 16:11 through 1 Kings 2:12)

Robert Pinsky, once the U.S. “poet laureate,” stresses that David and Goliath – so often portrayed as irreconcilable opposites – were in fact relatives (David was descended not only from Israelites but also from Moabites, through his great-grandmother Ruth).  One of the chapters in Pinsky’s book on David is entitled “Cousin Goliath.”

David Rosenberg, a leading Biblical translator and interpreter, stresses the mature David’s human qualities.  He was “the first model of a post-heroic figure,” Rosenberg says.  “He was a holistic individual, we might say today, a man whose feminine side was not feared.”

When King Saul, David’s former mentor, pursued him, “he turned to the borders, the frontiers . . . the outcasts, from whom you can learn,” says Rosenberg.  And today it is time “to continue [David’s] war for learning from our enemies, and for independence of mind.”


Job – a good and faith-filled person – is made to suffer not only horribly but also seemingly undeservedly.  Both Borg and Buehrens argue that the Job story is meant to teach us tough-mindedness.

Borg says it points up the “inadequacy of conventional wisdom,” e.g. the notion that God necessarily offers peace of mind.  Buehrens says it points up that bad things happen to good people for at least four unavoidable reasons:

  • 1. Because there is randomness

  • 2. Because there are the sins of others

  • 3. Because there are sins we are implicated in

  • 4. Because there are costs in overcoming evil with good, because “even serving the moral possibilities within us can bring its own kind of suffering”

The Bible is nothing if not tough-minded.


I find many of the Psalms deeply moving and even inspiring (try #1, 6, 19, 23, 44, 46, 73, 89, 90, 96, 121, 130, 137, and 139, for starters).  Rosenberg explains part of their power when he says they’re “the original ‘God talk,’ revealing a love of intimacy in all its aspects.”  Buehrens gets at another part when he says they “encompass the full range of human emotions – yet within a framework of ultimate praise.”  Not a bad way for social change activists to approach the world!


Ecclesiastes is often taken to be a militant or cynical book – one reason it may be the favorite Bible book among political activists!  But Borg, an activist himself in the Protestant church, warns against both sorts of readings.

Take the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, he says, the one that begins, “For everything there is a season . . . a time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to kill, and a time to heal . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance. . . .”  You can interpret it the “folk song way” if you like, he says – ours is a time for peace not war, life not death, etc.  But is that the most profound or useful way to interpret it?

Similarly, you can interpret it in an Ingmar Bergmanesque / existential way – life is bleak, an endless cycle of meaningless repetition.  But is that the most profound or useful interpretation?

Consider a third approach, says Borg – “Imagine these same words as read by the Dalai Lama.  The meaning [would not be] ‘this versus that,’ and not ‘everything is meaningless.’  Rather: live fully, whatever time it is.  Be present to what is.”

Buehrens gets at that same understanding when he interprets Ecclesiastes to mean, “Life is brief, too precious to waste.”


It is hard not to see some radical-middle in the Biblical prophets.  As Rubenstein puts it, they criticized all sides and charted a new course for their people.  They rejected both integration into corrupt empires and violent resistance; instead, they tried to “find some way to maintain their identity and values without engaging in corrupt compromises or suicidal holy wars.  The prophets’ genius (or that of the God who spoke to them) was to discover this third way.”

Buehrens highlights another exemplary aspect of the prophets when he says they “challenged both rulers and conventional religionists to understand the real problems and their solution more deeply.”


Isaiah of Jerusalem, the so-called “first Isaiah” (Isaiah 1-39), expanded and deepened the prophets’ role, says Buehrens.  Beginning with Isaiah of Jerusalem, the prophets would seek to not only warn, but also to emotionally sustain their people . . . something many political Web sites might do well to emulate.

Isaiah of Babylon, the so-called “second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), pioneered in a different way.  According to Rubenstein, Isaiah of Babylon was the first to hold that the God who spoke through his lips “is Lord of all the nations, not just of Israel.  His promise of deliverance is extended to them as well.”  One only wishes that U.S. political activists – and Americans in general -- would care equally much about those outside our borders.


According to Rubenstein, Jeremiah was the first prophet to emphasize the need for an inner transformation prior to any (sustainable) outer transformation.  Two thousand eight hundred years before the New Age movement arose in the U.S., Jeremiah was urging that only a “radical change of thinking and behavior among the nation’s leaders and people” could avert catastrophes large and small. 

Buehrens agrees – for him, Jeremiah first raised the possibility of “authentic repentance and redemption” for us.  It’s a message we still need to hear.


Many good people feel that God’s demands on us are minimal (don’t violate others).  But according to Buehrens, the prophet Micah made it clear that God requires much of us – “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly.”  Maybe even to find a personal mission in the world.


Garry Wills convincingly presents Jesus not as a traditional political radical, and not as a defender of the smarmy status quo, but as an early advocate of a “systematic antipolitics” (I’d prefer to call it a healing and exceptionally loving and inclusive metapolitics).

For example, Jesus holds the bar extraordinarily high for activists when he says (in Luke), “Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you. . . .”

Or, for example, Jesus definitely wants to see “justice” done in this world.  But he consistently held that the highest human faculty is love: “A new instruction I have given you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, you must also love one another.  All will know that you are my followers by this sign alone, that you have love for one another” (John).

Buehrens makes the important additional point that Jesus wanted his followers to think of themselves as a “discipleship of equals.”  It’s not that Jesus pretended there weren’t real hierarchies of talent and competence – some of Jesus’s comments about his own disciples are pretty withering.  But “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

I have always wanted my newsletter to radiate a love and service orientation.  Obviously, it’s harder to do than one might think. . . .


Cherry-picking has sometimes turned Jesus into a virtual communist on this issue.  But according to Gomes, a major advocate for reading the Bible depthfully and holistically, Jesus was neither “for” nor “against” wealth.

Jesus does not oppose earthly treasure – in Matthew, he excoriates a man who hides his money in the ground (instead of using it to collect interest) – but Jesus is against what Gomes deftly calls “the seductions and illusions by which humans are tempted to worship only that which they can see and quantify.”

Wealth for Jesus is “a means and not an end,” and the “trick to moral, faithful living is not to confuse means with ends.”  Both extreme wealth and extreme poverty can create special challenges to goodness, but never are those barriers insuperable.

(Borg’s holistic reading of Proverbs – in the Old Testament -- uncovers the same three-dimensional approach to wealth there.  “In general, prosperity is seen as the result of following the wise way,” Borg says.  “The attitude toward poverty is more complex.  If possible, poverty is to be avoided. . . .  One saying affirms that both wealth and poverty can be dangerous snares.”)


Buehrens does not takes Jesus’ resurrection literally; but he definitely takes it seriously.  For Buehrens, the resurrection “symbolizes the truth that God will not stay dead, no matter what.”  And it helps us “see Christ in other people,” and “see Christ alive now, in others.”


According to Gomes, Paul is above all the slayer of foolish optimism.  The material on Paul teaches that, “in this world, virtue and suffering are not opposites, as we would find it so convenient to believe; suffering is [often] the consequence of . . . virtue.”

For Buehrens, Paul’s overriding message is equally profound (and useful).  It is that “mere outward conformity to ethnic custom [does] not matter, only inward spiritual change.”

As someone who once spent over a year on the road organizing a political group, I was enthralled by Garry Wills’s chapter “Paul ‘on the Road,’” stressing Paul’s capacities as an effective (church) organizer and “heroic traveler.”  I am sure you can’t keep that up for years and years without some sort of Spirit force behind you.


Revelation is a frightening book to many people today because it seems to portend a second coming of Christ and massive punishment of nonbelievers.  Many evangelicals love Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s novel Left Behind because it paints a vivid picture of how “the saved” will disappear and how the rest of us will try to cope.  (Hint: Not real well.  But it is a fun read!)

Most people who approach the Bible deeply and holistically are skeptical of a literal second coming.  But they like it as a metaphor.

Borg puts it nicely when he says, “I do not think it makes sense to expect a visible second coming of Christ.  The belief can be understood metaphorically, however, as an affirmation that Jesus comes again and again in the lives of Christians[, and especially] in the experience of the Spirit as the presence of Christ.”

Borg additionally reads Revelation as indirect political criticism – and not just of Babylon (or ancient Rome):  “’Babylon the Great’ is not a code name simply for Rome; it designates all domination systems organized around power, wealth, seduction, intimidation, and violence.”  Sound familiar?

Conclusion: The Master Book for Our Time

Political journalist Christopher Hitchens recently attacked the Bible as primitive and irrelevant.  When I read his words I felt embarrassed for him – like I would for a brother – like I did for Utne Reader many years ago when it attempted to attack Huckleberry Finn.

I hope I’ve shown that the emerging new depthful and holistic approach to reading the Bible brings that book to vivid life . . . and illuminates crucial meta-political insights and understandings.

I hope I’ve shown that the 40 million Americans who are now engaged in Bible study groups (not to mention the countless others who are reading the Bible on their own) are not just wasting their time!

I hope I’ve shown that the Bible is the very best tool we have for accessing the complexity, the many-sidedness, and the terrible bitter truths of our world . . . as well as its sublime promise.

I hope I’ve shown that the Bible is the one essential social change manual for grown-ups, be they 18 or 81 years of age.

After four decades of trying, after all the Karl Marxes and Robert Pirsigs and Ayn Rands, my generation found no better book than the Bible to help us think through our substantive political goals and ideals.

Neither did the last generation.  And neither did the generation before that.

One begins to suspect that God – who confessed to being a jealous God – may have intended it that way.




For some passionate and depthful responses to this article, click HERE.


Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version, large print edition (American Bible Society, 1995) – this is the first Bible I read, back in November and December of last year.  Its advantage is that it uses extremely simple English, so it’s easy to zip through – a nice experience for someone like me, who’d never read the Bible and was a bit intimidated and wanted to experience the Biblical stories as if I was reading them as a child for the first time.

The chief disadvantage is that the simple language – any middle-school student could follow it – blands out many of the passages that make the Bible a profound and uniquely valuable book.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, large print edition (Harper Bibles / HarperCollins, 2007) – this is the Bible I read after the one above.  It’s one of the most academically respectable translations – both the New Oxford Annotated Bible and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible are based on it (see below) – and it traces its lineage back to the King James Version.  But it’s in absolutely up-to-date English.  When the hip radical writer Naomi Klein quotes from the Bible in her book The Shock Doctrine (2007), she wants you to know she’s quoting from the NRSV.

Some evangelicals (by no means all) are dismayed that the NRSV uses largely gender-neutral language, and is therefore less than a perfectly " historically correct" translation.  But that’s a small price to pay for feeling that God is speaking to everyone.  Today God would.


Stephen Harris, Understanding the Bible, 7th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2006) – it is impossible to understand the Bible without historical and theological context (I’m sure you’ve already discovered that the hard way!), and this is the academic textbook I used to help me navigate my Bibles.

It’s one of the most popular such texts on the market, and for good reason -- it is crystal-clear and wonderfully informative.  New copies now cost $57, but you can purchase copies of perfectly fine earlier editions for under $10 from used booksellers on the Web.  I read the 5th edition, from the year 2000.

I much prefer Harris’s stand-alone text to the physically awesome New Oxford Annotated Bible (3rd ed., 2007) and New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003), which are heavily footnoted Bibles for classroom use.  After trying out both study Bibles, I concluded that most of their footnotes would be of interest largely to future seminary students or academic historians.  Also, the avalanche of footnotes bogged down my reading (and doubled the weight of the Bibles!).  At 640 pages, Harris gives enough information to illuminate the Bible without turning you into a Mr. or Ms. Gradgrind.


Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography (2007)

Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (2001)

John Buehrens, Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals (2003)

Carol Gilligan, from “Apocalypse,” chap. 4 of Moyers (below)

Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1996)

Mary Gordon, from “The First Murder,” chap. 3 of Moyers (below)

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), chaps. 7 & 8

Judy Keen, “White House Staffers Gather for Bible Study,” USA Today (13 October 2002)

Paul Kengor, God and Hillary Clinton: A Spiritual Life (2007)

Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (1995)

Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation (1996)

Robert Pinsky, The Life of David (2005)

Eugene Rivers, from “A Family Affair,” chap. 6 of Moyers (above)

Gene Robinson, “Forum with Bishop Gene Robinson and Host Michael Krasny,” KQED Radio (3 July 2008) (Robinson has just published In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, 2008)

David Rosenberg, The Book of David: A New Story of the Spiritual Warrior & Leader Who Shaped Our Inner Consciousness (1997)

Naomi Rosenblatt, from “Blessed Deception” chap. 8 of Moyers (above)

Richard Rubenstein, Thus Saith the Lord: The Revolutionary Moral Vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah (2006)

Lewis Smedes, from “A Family Affair,” chap. 6 of Moyers (above)

Burton Visotzky, Reading the Book: Making the Bible a Timeless Text (1991)

Renita Weems, from “In God’s Image,” chap. 1 of Moyers (above)

Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (2006)

Garry Wills, What Paul Meant (2006)

N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of Scripture (2005)

Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community (1994)

Avivah Zornberg, from “In God’s Image,” chap. 1 of Moyers (above)


WHY "Radical Middle"?


50 Thinkers and Activists DESCRIBE the Radical Middle 

50 Best Radical Middle BOOKS of the '00s


100 Great Radical Centrist GROUPS and  Organizations

25 Great Radical Centrist BLOGS


Generational Equity and Communitarian platforms 1990s

First U.S. Green Party gatherings, 1987 - 1990

Green Party's "Ten Key Values" statement, 1984

New World Alliance, 1979 - 1983

PDF of  the Alliance's "Transformation Platform," 1981


What the Draft Resistance Movement Taught Me

What the Civil Rights Movement Taught Me


New Options Newsletter, 1984-1992 (includes back issue PDFs!)

New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society, 1976,  1978 (includes 1976 text PDF!)


50 Best "Third Way" Books of the 1990s

25 Best "Transformational" Books of the 1980s

25 Best "New Age Politics" Books of the 1970s


10 Best U.S. Political NOVELS

50 Current Political IDEOLOGIES

50 Current Political  MANIFESTOS