‘Take this book back again’: the Bible and the development of a returns policy

While watching Bill Maher’s recent rant, I was reminded of, and challanged by, another, and much more impressive, ranter – Søren Kierkegaard – and the Dane’s tirade against Bible commentators:

‘The Church has long needed a prophet who in fear and trembling had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. I am tempted, therefore, to make the following proposal. Let us collect all the Bibles and bring them out to an open place or up on a mountain and then, while we all kneel, let someone talk to God in this manner: Take this book back again. We Christians, such as we are, are not fit to involve ourselves with such a thing; it only makes us proud and unhappy. We are not ready for it. In other words, I suggest that we, like those inhabitants whose herd of pigs plunged into the water and died, beg Christ “to leave the neighborhood” (Mt. 8:34). This would at least be honest talk – something very different from the nauseating, hypocritical, scholarship that is so prevalent today.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.” Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it)’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (ed. Charles E. Moore; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), 201–2.


  1. I don’t wade into a discussion about the killing of Bin Laden (which, I agree, was deeply disturbing), so much as to point out that it seems to me to have become the opportunity for people, on various sides, to appeal to a rhetoric that pretends to a kind of clarity that I myself am deeply suspicious of – a journalistic rhetoric of the obvious that eschews the difficult task of patient judgment and discrimination. It is obviously the case that this was an assassination motivated by revenge, even though it violates the logic of revenge, and regardless of the content of the directive that Obama issued, which we have yet to see. It is obviously the case that an entire tradition of moral deliberation that would construe love of one’s enemy to be, under certain, very specific, conditions, not violated but actually fulfilled through the use of force, is utterly silly simply on the incoherent grounds that Jesus said that we must love our enemies. This sort of argument is itself silly – it doesn’t even have enough patience to hear what the tradition is actually saying.
    None of this is, of course, to defend Obama’s decision. I’m not exactly clear what that decision was, and this lack of public accountability I find deeply disturbing. But our response to this ought not to be to engage in journalistic rhetoric that is so sure of its own ability to see things for what they really are – whether this rhetoric comes from a George Bush Jr or an Obama or a Bill Maher, but to engage in a kind of patient discrimination, a patient and difficult interrogation of the assumptions of a culture that is, it seems to me, descending into the realm of the trivial.


  2. “The Bible is very easy to understand”… but SK isn’t, and we might misunderstand what he is trying to say here (and what he isn’t trying to say), if we were to forget what he had written in Fear and Trembling.


  3. if i had to be stuck on an island and MUST choose between Bill Maher or Soren Kirk to be my fellow survivalist I most assuredly will pick Mr. K. I might regret that decision for a few weeks because this island mate never provokes me to laughter (unlike Bill), but at least he makes me think – shallow laughter or deep thoughts that linger like fresh herbs on the palate – yes, Mr. K indeed.


  4. SK doesn’t make you laugh? What about that story about the man who goes to his friend’s house for lunch? After eating, he gets up to leave, agreeing to meet his friend the following day at the same time. ‘I’ll be there’, he says. Then, as he’s walking out the door, a sudden gust of wind brings a tile from the roof crashing down on his head and he dies. What he ought to have said to his friend, SK observes, is ‘I’ll be there… unless, of course, a random gust of wind brings a tile crashing down on my head and kills me’. Or what about the story of the man who hears a sermon on the Abraham and Isaac story, and then goes home and kills his own son. The pastor comes to visit him in jail. ‘Why on earth did you kill your son?’, he asks, and the man says, ‘But I was only doing what you said I should.’ SK is nothing if not a kind of comic genius. I would take him to a desert island precisely because he does make me laugh.


  5. Andre, good point, but as I said the diff is “shallow humor” vs. thinking. Sure a philosopher can make you laugh and I agree SK can to, but then again his humor is a tool to make you think more deeply.
    I like your examples.


  6. I think you raise a really interesting issue here. Does SK’s deployment of comedy function as a tool – as a means, that is, to some end which, however we define it (‘thinking more deeply’ etc), cannot be identified with something intrinsic to the comic mode of discourse? Or might not the comic mode of discourse itself embody its own perception of the world? In other words, is SK using comedy to get us to see something that is beyond, or alongside of, or (at any rate) different from, the comic (so that comedy is simply a tool alongside other tools), or is he trying to get us to see the world in a comic way? The question goes to the heart of what I am beginning to think is a difficult problem regarding SK’s deployment of irony. But one could also, perhaps, approach this question from a reading of, say, J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, where the comic is offered up as a mode of reading the world. Here the choice is not between humour on the one hand, and serious reflection on the other; but rather between one mode of reading and inhabiting the world, which we call “the tragic”, and the comic, understood as another mode of reading and inhabiting the world that goes beyond the tragic.


  7. 1. “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him” (Matthew 9:9). Christ called him to “follow him.” Simple as that. Count the cost, which is to know your life will get worse, but know that following Christ is to bring God glory and brings you life in a restored relationship with the Creator. Follow him.

    2. “Take this book back again. We Christians, such as we are, are not fit to involve ourselves with such a thing; it only makes us proud and unhappy. We are not ready for it…This would at least be honest talk – something very different from the nauseating, hypocritical, scholarship that is so prevalent today.” The Bible per se does not make you “proud and unhappy” nor does biblical scholarship make one hypocritical. The realization of biblical truth, however, does bring you the increased awareness of your own downfall as a sinner and makes you see in a greater light the gravity of your sin. You make yourself hypocritical by not following Christ and not fully counting the cost: persecution, ridicule, rejection, etc. Like I said before, follow him. Count the cost. Let God’s Word steep in you, let it grow within you, then go out and share the Good News. Great Commission, Matthew 28:16-20.
    3. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Word is good for 4 things: for 1) teaching (“make DISCIPLES of all nations” -Matt. 28:19…It does NOT say ‘make CONVERTS of all nations’); 2) reproof; 3) correction; 4) training in righteousness (sanctification, what you do after you have accepted Christ into your life as your Lord and Savior, etc.).


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