I often wonder if Martin Luther, when he demanded that the unwashed masses be allowed to read the Bible for themselves, was aware of the mere anarchy he was loosing upon the world. Within a generation of the Reformation’s beginning, dozens of Christian sects had sprung up in Europe, each claiming its own interpretation of Scripture to be the correct one, and each appealing (ironically) to an alleged Scriptural clarity to prove its points.
And it only got worse from there.
As I’m writing this, the Pew Forum claims there are 41,000 Christian denominations worldwide, most of them owing their existence to some idiosyncratic understanding of Scripture.
The fact is, as much as we might try to fight it, the Word of God is a dangerous thing. In various places, it describes itself as “like fire . . . and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29) and “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Heb. 4:12). When the God of the Universe speaks, no one is safe, nor should anyone expect to be, given the source—how can the profane stand in the presence of the holy? “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts . . .’ declares the Lord” (Is. 55:8), so is it any surprise that so many find the Bible confusing, frustrating, frightening, and—worst of all—boring?
No wonder so few have read the whole thing. Polls show that while about 80% of Americans consider themselves Christian or Jewish, 80% of Americans (the same 80%?) haven’t read the Bible, because who would choose to struggle through 2,000 pages of troubling ideas when they could be playing Xbox instead? Making things worse, Christian communities that both take Scripture seriously and encourage people to wrestle with it honestly are few and far between.
And that, friends, is why we need books like Jana Riess’s The Twible.
Riess, who works as a professor of Religious Studies at Miami University in Ohio, realized a few years ago that, despite her impressive credentials (including an MA in theology from Princeton), she had never read the Bible cover-to-cover. Determined to rectify this, she spent several years reading a chapter a day, and condensing it down to a 140-character tweet for her social media followers. Upon finishing her adventure, she collected all 1,189 tweets into a print volume, supplementing them with additional commentary from both herself and an assortment of rabbis, priests, and pastors, plus some cartoons. The result seems instantly disposable on the surface, but the snarky sheen belies a surprising amount of depth.
Tweets in The Twible range from serious (Lk. 23: “There’s nothing funny about Jesus dying on a cross. Sorry. Catch up with me in the next chapter.”) to jokey (Ps. 127: “Blessed is the man who has a quiverful of sons. His ginormous family shall have joy and their very own reality show on TLC.”) to downright cheesed-off (Num. 31: “In Exodus, the Midianites were our friends. But now, G says to kill them all [except the virgins so we can rape them later]. Uh, WTF?”), but they all have a raw immediacy that’s undeniable, whether reverent or otherwise.
And that’s the best way to take The Twible: as the story of one woman struggling with the challenging parts of Scripture and rejoicing in the parts that bring freedom. Riess, as a Latter-Day Saint, can hardly be considered an orthodox Christian, and many Evangelicals will bristle at some of her looser interpretations of Scripture; she dismisses the historicity of Jonah in a single sentence, without even citing a source. (She believes in a miracle-working, resurrected carpenter, but a dude living in a fish? That’s just silly). Those seeking transcendent theological truths from a book named after an unpronounceable portmanteau, though, are clearly barking up the wrong tree. What The Twible represents is not a rigid magisterium but a personal struggle, both with and against devastatingly holy truths: the story of a single sojourner, swirling among the billions.
At the same time, Riess, as a religion professor, is careful not to make the same mistake that both starched fundamentalists and militant atheists so often do—that is, to assume she’s the first person to open a Bible. The supplemental material, presented in sidebars, weaves together a diverse variety of perspectives from both Christian and Jewish commentators, in addition to a few snarky thoughts from Riess herself (e.g., “Five Deuteronomic Laws We Really Hope You’re Not Observing”). Highlights include thoughts from Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris, who opines that the minutiae of kosher law stem from “[a] God who cares so much as to desire to be present to us in everything we do,” and Lutheran pastor Martin Marty’s thoughts on reading the utterly hopeless Psalm 88 to his dying wife. (Marty’s thoughts in particular are beyond heartbreaking and nearly steal the show from Riess’s snark.) The perspectives offered are both deep and broad enough that anyone who dives into The Twible will undoubtedly find themselves emerging on the opposite shore having learned something.
In the introduction, Riess writes, “I love the Bible. I tell you this now just in case you begin to wonder about my feelings down the road, when you see me railing at God,” and The Twible absolutely delivers on that promise: there’s a lot of affection, and a lot of anger. What the average Evangelical reader gets out of The Twible will depend on how he or she distinguishes between honest anger, opportunistic snark, and straight blasphemy. But if you’re thinking of writing it off as the latter, allow me to remind you of what God does in Genesis 32. Faced with the opportunity to give his people any name he chooses (“God’s Girl Scouts”? “WE♥YHWH”?), he chooses to christen them “Israel”—“Wrestles With God.” Maybe true worship isn’t always found in blind submission, but in wrestling with the Creator’s holy will, even when it’s ugly or terrifying in your eyes.
I find myself uniquely situated to review The Twible, as I’m currently laboring over a similar project: a humor book that will lay bare some of the ugliest moments in Scripture. There are, no doubt, both Christians who would prefer to skip over these stories and nonbelievers who would hold them up as evidence that the Bible is less than divine, but I find it hard to take either position seriously. If the Bible is holy, then everything in it must be as well; and if the Bible is Truth, then of course it speaks even to the ugliest moments in life. If every part of the Bible were instantly appealing to a casual reader, would that really be evidence that it came from an incomprehensibly transcendent source? Such a tome would more likely be the work of a demon—or worse, a salesman.
The mystery of the Bible is that it is the rock on which the Church is built, and yet we all can still struggle all our lives to stand on it confidently. And while doctrinal orthodoxy is indeed an important concern, so too is the need to make room for the individual to wrestle honestly with the difficulty of grasping Truth—to dig through the darkness and muck in the ink and the pulp of Scripture, until, bloody and bruised, we drag God from its crags and into the day, gasping for breath and choking on light.
And that, intentionally or not, is the story The Twible tells. It’s sarcastic, and angry, and sometimes really ugly—and in the end, beautiful.