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Understanding the Bible


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About the Author

John Buehrens was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1993 to 2001 and is now minister of the First Parish in Needham, Massachusetts, and special assistant to the secretary general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. He is coauthor, with Forrest Church, of A Chosen Faith.


This book began as a study/discussion guide for an adult education series taught by the author, with a focus on biblical literacy as background for ethical living. Past president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Buehrens (coauthor, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism) emphasizes eight social justice themes of the Bible that are meaningful to religious liberal readers. He reassures them that literal interpretations are not the only way to regard the complexity of the Word. In other words, he demonstrates that it is both intellectually respectable and politically savvy to know your Bible well. The text is brief, and Buehrens's Bible interpretation is accurate, albeit basic. Coverage of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures is balanced, and both Christians and Jews will delight in his appreciative chapter on the Psalms. The maps and chronologies in the proof copy are barely adequate, but this type of reference material can be readily found elsewhere. Recommended for most public libraries serving diverse, liberal communities, though it will not likely be a hit in the Bible Belt.-Joyce Smothers, M.L.S., M. Div. student, Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

According to this engaging but not always convincing liberal gloss on the Good Book, biblical literalism is an idolatrous departure from the Bible's "enduring but non-literal wisdom," which progressives can reclaim through informed interpretations of biblical metaphor and symbolism. Drawing on historical and contemporary Bible scholarship, Buehrens, a Unitarian minister and co-author of A Chosen Faith, gives an illuminating if brief rundown of each book in the Bible, one informed by feminist, literary and lefty political critiques. The results are mixed. Themes of liberation and social justice emerge in the Exodus narrative, the Prophetic books and the Gospels. But on fundamentalist hot-button issues like homosexuality and women's rights, the Bible's clear statements defy interpretive rehabilitation. Faced with outright prohibition on a man "lying with a man as with a woman," Buehrens suggests that "the inner spirit of what is intended" there might be different. He champions "reading against the grain": with that interpretive strategy, the New Testament's urging of submissiveness on wives and servants, for example, attests to husbands' and masters' anxiety over the egalitarianism of Church congregations. And his anti-literalist, Bible-as-metaphor approach sometimes throws the religion out with the bathwater, as when nonbelievers are reassured that stories of miracles and resurrections can also be seen as metaphorical rather than actual events. Unfortunately, Buehrens's laudable attempt at "reading the Bible to overcome oppression" drains away much substantive content. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

'Biblical literacy is not just for Biblical literalists. To grasp the nuances of Western art and literature or the religious subtext of Western law and society requires a working knowledge of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Yet, to the uninitiated, the Bible is daunting. One opens its pages only to get lost in its maze. John Buehrens has performed a great service for the many religious liberals and seekers who would explore the Bible if only they could find a trusted guide. Addressed to thoughtful skeptics who know enough to be skeptical of their own ignorance, Understanding the Bible is an accessible, unpretentious introduction to the most influential writings of all time.' --Forrest Church, author of The American Creed and Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday

'Understanding the Bible is a thoughtful and honest introduction to the tragedy, compassion, mercy, justice, grief, and ecstasy that we share with the tellers of biblical stories and with the stories themselves. Read Buehren's enlightening as well as entertaining work and you almost certainly will find yourself learning, thinking, and laughing as you reach for a copy of the Bible to read it again or for the first time.' --C. Welton Gaddy, President, The Interfaith Alliance

'Spiritual seekers of a liberal persuasion have too often dismissed the Bible, perhaps because of unhappy childhood experiences with literal interpretations. The Bible is neither history nor science, but rather stories of human struggle and divine presence throughout that struggle. John Buehrens engages us in the powerful stories of the Judeo Christian scripture, returning to us a rich heritage without which we would be both culturally and spiritually impoverished.' --Marilyn Sewell, editor of Cries of the Spirit

'If with Saint Augustine, you 'believe in thinking and wish to think in believing,' John Buehrens' book is for you. He spells out clearly the historic importance and textual complexities of the Bible, which then enables you to stand face to face, soul to soul, with blazing biblical insights sorely needed in these dark days.' --William Sloane Coffin, author of A Passion for the Possible

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