Review of ‘Saving the Bible from Ourselves’ by Glenn R. Paauw

Glenn Paauw, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

What is the Bible? What are we supposed to do with it?

The standard way to answer these questions is to outline what Scripture says about itself. A key prooftext is 2 Timothy 3:15–17. According to Paul, Scripture is “holy” and “God-breathed.” We’re supposed to use it to “make [us] wise for salvation” as well as for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training” so that we can be “equipped for every good work.” Wayne Grudem’s classic article, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture,” assembles a formidable array of such prooftexts and is well worth reading.

Glenn R. Paauw (pronounced “pow”) takes a very different approach in his thought-provoking book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves. He begins with how publishers format our Bibles rather than how Scripture speaks about itself. Why? Because, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, the medium shapes the message.

To see this, take out the copy of the Bible you read and open it. My guess is that it has, at minimum, two columns per page, chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. If it is a study Bible, it has all that plus book introductions, thematic articles, study notes, maps, diagrams, charts, tables, pictures and a handy concordance at the end to help you find the verses you’re looking for. Chances are, there are more words per page devoted to commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself.

I don’t know about you, but the only kinds of books I read that have all those features are textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, technical manuals and the like — reference books, in other words. If the medium shapes the message, then how publishers format our Bibles subtly but persistently teaches us to approach the Bible as a reference book. Approaching the Bible as a reference book is both overwhelming and underwhelming for readers, however.


Approaching the Bible as a reference book is both overwhelming and underwhelming for readers, however.


The more information publishers cram onto a page the more overwhelming Bible-reading becomes for the average reader. As Paauw puts it, “We have effectively buried the text and blinded readers with data smog.” I didn’t realize how smoggy my Bible was until I started using the ESV Reader’s Bible a couple years ago. That version presents the biblical text in a single column on the page and deletes chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. Prose sections are formatted in paragraphs, and poetic sections are formatted in stanzas. The result is a Bible that is beautiful and pleasing to read.

Paradoxically, however, the reference-book Bible is also underwhelming to the average reader. The standard Bible-publishing format has taught us to think of God’s Word as an encyclopedia of divine quotations organized around topics. Want to know what the Bible teaches about X? On this approach, all you need to do is look up X in the index — I mean, concordance — and find every verse where Scripture mentions it.

The problem is that not every bit of the Bible is as inspirational or as quotable as every other part. My dad graduated from a Christian college. Many of his friends signed his yearbook with a biblical reference, for example, “Jane Doe, John 3:16.” They didn’t quote the verse because most of the time, it was so well known that they didn’t have to. My dad — kidder that he is — signed his name with Exodus 22:18. Had anyone bothered to look up that verse, they would’ve found that it read, in the immortal words of King James, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

My dad’s antics make me laugh every time, but they also raise a serious question. If we have been subtly but persistently taught to read the Bible as a reference book of inspirational quotations, what do we do when discover that it contains Exodus 22:18? Or long stretches of ancient history? Or laments and imprecations? Or hard words from Jesus? Or challenging theology in Paul? Or the entire Book of Revelation?

Rather than approaching the Bible as a reference book — which both overwhelms and underwhelms the average reader — how about approaching the Bible without all the reference-book paraphernalia and the interpretive assumptions that go along with? What might reading such a Bible look like?

Paauw describes the resulting Bible this way: “a Bible that is presented as literature, eaten in natural forms, grounded in history, inviting in its narrative, restorative in its theme, engaged in community and honored in its aesthetic presentation.”

In other words, it’s a Bible with clear, easy-to-read pages rather than data smog. It’s a Bible attentive to the fact that prose looks different on the printed page than poetry, and that different literary genres have different interpretive rules and practices. When we read it, we encounter what Karl Barth called “the strange new world in the Bible,” attentive to the fact that God revealed himself to particular people in particular times and particular places, but in such a way that He changed them, their age, and their culture. Reading becomes a matter of seeing the Bible’s individual stories (about Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul) contributing to the Big Story (creation, fall, election, redemption, glorification) that touches on every aspect of our lives. Moreover, rather than reading the Bible as isolated individuals, we remember that God desires to save a people for himself, and thus read it as a fellowship of the redeemed.


This is an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and habit-reforming book.


You’ll need to read Saving the Bible from Ourselves to understand what Paauw is proposing in detail. Speaking for myself, I found his book eye-opening, thought-provoking, and habit-reforming. I recommend it highly, and I’ll no doubt read it again.

But before you go out and purchase Paauw’s book, let me encourage you to pick up a reader’s version of the Bible. Crossway publishes the ESV Reader’s Bible. Zondervan publishes The Books of the Bible, which uses the NIV. (Paauw served as a consultant on this project.) If not a reader’s version, at least pick up a single-column Bible that isn’t a study Bible. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find it easier to read the Bible for longer periods of time, and you’ll start to notice details that had escaped you before.

Second Timothy 3:15–17 is right, of course. The Bible is “holy” and “God-breathed.” It is “useful” in equipping us “for every good work.” Unfortunately, we’ve smogged up God’s Word with all the human additions we print on its page, making it harder to read and understand. It’s time to save the Bible from our well-intentioned publishing efforts, and Glenn Paauw’s book is a big step in the right direction.

P.S. This review was written for and appears here with permission.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with Glenn R. Paauw.

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Review of ‘The Myth of the Non-Christian’

Myth_of_the_Non-Christian_350_coverLuke Cawley, The Myth of the Non-Christian: Engaging Atheists, Nominal Christians, and the Spiritual But Not Religious (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

Have you ever purchased a baseball cap labeled, “One Size Fits All”? I have. Inevitably, it’s too big for my son’s head but too small for mine. One size doesn’t fit all.

One size doesn’t fit all in outreach to non-Christians either. Unfortunately, our evangelistic programs and apologetics arguments often act as if they do. Based on long experience in campus ministry, Luke Cawley recognizes the need for what he calls “contextual apologetics”: the “art of formulating appropriate and diverse ways of sharing Jesus, based on a thorough understanding of those with whom we are interacting.” (Cawley doesn’t draw a sharp line between evangelism and apologetics but considers them overlapping activities.)

This concern for contextual apologetics explains why Cawley opposes the use of the term non-Christian. “There’s no such thing as a non-Christian,” he writes in the book’s opening sentence. By this, he doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Rather, he’s poking a hole in the way Christians categorize “non-Christians” in one-size-fits-all terms. “‘Non-Christian’ is a category so broad it is obsolete,” he writes. Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, nominal Christians, and the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd are very different from one another, after all.

Moreover, he goes on, “It’s not even something people call themselves.” In other words, the vast majority of people outside the Christian faith identify themselves in terms of what they do believe, not in terms of what they don’t believe. To effectively engage them with God for the gospel, we need to take into account what they believe, how they act, what makes them tick. This requires that we be flexible in our outreach to them. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

That said, Cawley identifies three broad characteristics of effective contextual apologetics: plausibility, desirability, and tangibility. Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it true?” and relies on “words and arguments.” Desirability addresses the question, “Is it attractive?” and relies on a “focus on Jesus” (whom everyone seems to find an attractive figure). Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it real?” and relies on “form, setting, and relationship.”

Though these three characteristics can be distinguished, they usually work together. One kind of question may rise to the fore, but the other kinds of questions still lurk in the background. Knowing this, the wise evangelist knows how to speak to a person in the place where they actually are (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc.).

With these broad characteristics in mind, the bulk of The Myth of the Non-Christian examines three kinds of people common in the post-Christian West: spiritual but not religious, atheists, and nominal Christians. For each group, Cawley outlines “stories” that help readers understand the particular contexts of these three groups, “questions” that members of each group typically raise, and “practices” that seem to help move people in these contexts closer to Jesus.

And at the end of the day, Jesus is what contextual apologetics is all about. Cawley urges the importance of “arguing from Jesus” and “arguing toward Jesus.” The former “involves, in conversations and in talks, highlighting how Jesus and/or the Easter event might be relevant to the question in hand.” (Notice that “arguing” does not mean “shouting at” or “offering a syllogism.” Rather, Cawley means something like “engaging in face-to-face dialogue.”) Arguing toward Jesus means “highlighting how the discussion can only be resolved through a fresh investigation of him. Jesus is the endpoint of the argument.”

This doesn’t mean that contextual apologists can skip their homework, by the way. Throughout the book, Cawley emphasizes the importance of research into atheism, science, psychology, other religions, spirituality, history, and the like. To establish plausibility, we must be able to demonstrate that Christianity, properly understood, is intellectually credible. On the other hand, keeping Jesus as the argument’s endpoint reminds us that our conversations serve an overarching spiritual purpose—to move people closer to God, who has revealed himself through Christ.

I recommend The Myth of the Non-Christian to any Christian interested in evangelism and apologetics. As a vocational minister, however, I would especially recommend it to other vocational ministers and church leaders. It will help us understand the challenges in reaching post-Christian Westerners for Christ as well as best practices for doing so.

P.S. This review first appeared at

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Review of ‘Unburdened: The Christian Leader’s Path to Sexual Integrity’ by Michael Todd Wilson

UnburdenedMichael Todd Wilson, Unburdened: The Christian Leader’s Path to Sexual Integrity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015). Paperback

If you are a male Christian leader struggling with sexual temptation, I encourage you to read Unburdened today. It traces a path toward sexual integrity that you can begin to walk immediately. Michael Todd Wilson discusses topics such as

  • Risk factors that men generally and leaders particularly face when it comes to sexual temptation
  • The importance of adopting a grace-based rather than performance-driven approach to sexual integrity
  • Spiritual disciplines that move you toward sexual integrity, including: surrender, radical honesty, non-ministry God time, body maintenance, and intimate relationships

Whether your struggle involves pornography or inappropriate relationships, Unburdened will help you move toward “temptation-resistant transformation.” Not temptation-free transformation, mind you. Temptation remains with us all till Christ perfects us. Even so, resisting sexual temptation can become a new normal.

Wilson includes three appendices: “Sexual Integrity Action Steps” (a checklist for the spiritual disciplines listed above), “Mentoring and Leading Other Men Along the Path,” and “Additional Resources” (both in print and online). This is a welcome book on a topic that affects many, if not most, male Christian leaders.


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Review of ‘The Radical Disciple’ by John Stott

The-Radical-Disciple John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). Hardcover / Kindle

John Stott died in 2011, but his legacy lives on through his writings. The Radical Disciple is his final book, which he self-consciously wrote as a “valedictory message.” In eight short chapters, simply written but spiritually deep, Stott addresses “some neglected aspects of our [Christian] calling.” They are nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death.

Stott’s concern throughout the book is the discrepancy between Christians’ stated beliefs and their actual behavior. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’” Stott quotes Jesus saying in Luke 6:46, “and not do what I say?” Radical discipleship, then, is “wholehearted discipleship,” a form of following Jesus that is not “selective” about “which commitment suits us” and avoids those areas which are “costly.”

The “neglected aspects of our calling” relate to Western Christians’ practice of the faith. Were Stott writing at a different time or for different readers, no doubt his list would’ve looked different. As it is, the eight aspects he identifies have a prophetic edge to them.

Two chapters in particular struck me with particular force. The first is chapter 5 on simplicity. This is the book’s longest chapter and includes excerpts from “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-Style,” published by the Lausanne Committee in 1980. Americans—Westerners more generally—are among the world’s wealthiest persons by any imaginable metric. We are used to high levels of consumption. Unfortunately, American Christian giving habits have been declining for decades. The solution is a simple lifestyle that minimizes consumption and maximizes generosity.

The second is chapter 7 on dependence. In this chapter, the book’s most personal and intimate, Stott shares the personal indignities he experienced when he fell and broke his hip. Using his personal experience as a window onto Scripture, Stott writes, “I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else…’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others… ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).” This is an apt reminded that none of us can live in isolation from others. We need, and are needed by, family, friends, fellow citizens, and even strangers.

The Radical Disciple is a short book, simply written, and filled with the unique grace that is characteristic of a long-time disciple of Jesus Christ. It is worth reading and will repay re-reading, especially if its wisdom is taken to heart and put into practice.

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How Culture (Mis)Shapes Interpretation: A Review of ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes’

misreadingscripture Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. 2012. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

Who we are affects how we read the Bible, and culture shapes who we are to a significant degree. For example, a married, middle-aged man from Springfield, Missouri, interprets the Bible differently than an unmarried, teenage girl from Banda Aceh, Indonesia. This doesn’t mean that Scripture has no correct interpretation. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t assume ours is it.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien identifies nine key areas where Western cultural assumptions differ from biblical cultural assumptions. These areas have to do with mores, ethnicity, language, individualism and collectivism, honor/shame and right/wrong, time, rules and relationships, virtue and vice, and the identity of the center of God’s will. The authors devote a chapter to each area, mixing cross-cultural anecdotes (often drawn from the mission field) and examples from Scripture to show how Western ways of reading can misinterpret biblical teaching.

Chapter 3, for example, shows how, among other assumptions about language, Westerners prefer propositions to metaphors. “Because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguity of metaphors,” the authors write, “we tend to distill propositions out of them.” The biblical authors didn’t share our discomfort with metaphors, however. They “recorded the profoundest truth in similes, metaphors, parables and other colorful and expressive (and potentially ambiguous) forms of language.” The Western tendency to distill propositions out of metaphors “actually diminishes the breadth and application of the text.” What proposition better expresses, theologically and emotionally, God’s providential care of us than “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1)? Moreover, “the biblical writers use metaphors to connect central truths in Scripture.” When Jesus said of himself, in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd,” he drew on both Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34, where God called himself a shepherd. His opponents rightly discerned that he was claiming to be God (John 10:33). Unlike propositions, metaphors “say more with less.”

By identifying ways that Westerners misread Scripture, Randolph and O’Brien help them cultivate more faithful ways of reading and applying Scripture. I recommend this book to preachers, theological students, and would-be missionaries. It is written at an introductory level and includes a list of recommended books for more in-depth study of the relationship between culture and biblical interpretation.

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