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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Online review only, listed in Volume 58, 2010

HUGH S. PYPER, An Unsuitable Book: The Bible as Scandalous Text (The Bible in the Modern World 7; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005). Pp. viii + 186. Hardback. 50.00.

This book is a collection of ten essays, seven of which were published in earlier manifestations, written over an eleven year period (1993–2003). Along with a synchronising and evaluatory introduction the remaining three appear for the first time in this volume. In the Introduction Pyper summarises each of the papers presented, places them in a wider context, and draws out common themes.

The author is currently Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. However, most of these essays were first written whilst he was at the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds (1992–2004), and those previously published have been revised or reworked to varying degrees for this volume. This volume is a convenient collection under one cover (albeit rather expensive) by a scholar who places himself at “the wild end of the discipline” of biblical scholarship (160), depicting himself as “a rather maverick Hebrew Bible scholar” (vii). P. was originally a research botanist and completed his theological PhD under the late Robert Carroll of the University of Glasgow. Various essays utilise his scientific background and draw on a wide assortment of western literature.

The influence of Carroll is acknowledged by the author (viii, 8) and is testified specifically in the last essay, “The Bible as Wolf: Tracking a Carrollian Metaphor,” with reference to Carroll’s monograph, Wolf in the Sheepfold (1991). Carroll’s influence may be seen in the rather challenging approach to traditional biblical scholarship, the wide ranging interests which serve as entry metaphors of various kinds to unlock the polyvalence of the biblical texts, and the uncomfortableness and the challenges arising from the commonly perceived texts of comfort. For every interpretation which the Church might force onto the text, there is a counter perception whose voice needs to be heard and which in turn challenges those who would attempt to control the meaning of the text. For every metaphor or theme there are contrary ones which are either implicit (for example, predator implies prey), or counter (wild in contrast to tame; speech in contrast to silence). The suitability or not of the Bible for children is explored both in the Introduction and specifically in a new essay, chapter 10, “What the Bible can do to Child: The Metrical Psalms and The Gammage Cup." The themes of ‘suitability’ and unsuitability permeate through the whole collection. Suitable for whom? What is the cost and what is being overlooked if the Bible is coerced into a ‘suitable’ straightjacket of respectability? A helpful example is the essay that explores the roles and the concepts of family in the Bible (Chapter 8: “The Rebellious Son: Biblical Family Values”). The theme of unsuitability is also in Chapter 7, “Reading Lamentations” with its complexity of metaphors and issues dealing with justifying violence and continuity and survival, of the community and of God.

A major theme is that of survival. The survival of community is a basic paradox explored in both Chapters 7 and 8, and more particularly in Chapter 2, “Selfish Texts: the Bible and Survival” which uses Richard Dawkin’s concepts of meme and the selfish gene within an evolutionary direction as a metaphor of the survival of the Bible over eras and areas and through various readers and readings. Yet the continuity of survival in the New Testament in particular is challenged by the radical concept of resurrection, which rends asunder the continuity of survival through institutions such as family, the understanding of death as extinction, and the concept of canon as an “instrument of survival.” Perhaps the most common thematic contiguity is that of “scandal,” which “is a profoundly biblical category” (1). Here, the author dialogues with and builds on the writings of Sören Kierkegaard. The Bible is a text which scandalizes the readers, just as the contemporaries of Jesus were scandalised by his words and deeds. But, the scandalising nature of the God depicted in the writings of the Old Testament is one that challenges, confounds and threatens. As well as Chapters 6 to 8, three further chapters explore the scandalous nature of the Bible: Chapter 4, “Readers in Pain: Muriel Spark and the Book of Job”; Chapter 5, “The Bible in Bloom” and Chapter 9, “Fleshing out the Text: Re-Reading Circumcision.”

The writings of Kierkegaard and Isak Dinesen are used to explore the silence within the text, specifically the gendered nature of the biblical text (Chapter 3: “Speaking Silence: Male readers, Female Readings and the Biblical Text.”

These essays entertain and challenge; they are explorative and make the reader consider his or her own relationship to the Bible and the God found therein, to the world and to society, be they readers either in or outside the church or synagogue, or in academia or other societal groups. If P. wants to disturb, he succeeds. He writes from a within a western post-modern perspective. I wonder how a critic from the developing world would respond from one of those contexts. The dialogue would be fascinating.

Review by
John Wright
RMB 2187