The tagline of the recently released How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams makes the following claim: “covers every book of the Bible in the tradition of the bestselling How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.” On my reading, however, the two could hardly be more different. For All Its Worth is an outstanding introduction for readers attempting to get a handle on basic challenges to reading the Bible, including the variety of literary genres employed in scripture, the disparate settings (cultures, places, times, etc.) in which the various texts were written, and the necessary task of interpretation. Thirty-one years after its original publication, it remains one of the first books I’d hand to someone interested in reading the Bible. In contrast, The Jesus Lens fails to inform interested readers of scripture on how to approach the Bible. Rather, it does little more than draw parallels (which are often a stretch, at best) between the life and ministry of Jesus and small portions of the messages in each of the books of the Bible, which are said to constitute the “Jesus lens” through which the Bible was intended to be read (9). Particularly telling concerning the difference between the two books is Williams’s assumption that there is no need to make a case for or convince readers as to the veracity of his assertion that the Bible is meant to be read through the “Jesus lens,” an assumption that stands in stark contrast to the 15 page introduction to For All Its Worth titled: “The Need to Interpret.”
In agreeing to review The Jesus Lens for Zondervan, I was asked to focus on a particular group of biblical books. I chose to focus on the minor prophets, in order to assess the manner in which Williams either allowed the prophets to have their distinctive voices or muted their voices. Unfortunately, the prophets’ voices are largely muted during Williams’s discussion of these books. He repeatedly jumps so quickly from judgment to hope that the prophetic message of judgment seems hardly worth taking seriously. Further, when he moves to hope he virtually always does so by speaking of Jesus, a tactic which will reinforce the commonly held notions that the God of the Old Testament is harsh and that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus are distinctly different (though I’d like to give Williams the benefit of the doubt and assume this was unintentional). Moreover, Williams utilizes penal and juridical metaphors virtually every time he makes mention of Jesus’s death, seemingly ignoring the fact that most of the prophetic language understood to be anticipating the Messiah fails to use such metaphors. In other words, Williams seems to be imposing his particular theological system on the prophets, instead of allowing them to shape his theological system. Why not view Jesus through the lens of the prophets (and other books/voices in the Bible) rather than vice versa?
Besides more substantial critiques, the book suffers from the use of trivial images and metaphors (e.g. “more unfaithfulness than a daytime soap opera” , “our relationship skills are about six fries short of a Happy Meal” , and “we have an uninterruptible, continuous Wi-Fi connection to the God of justice and mercy” ). I was also struck by the overuse of masculine pronouns to refer to God, which seemed particularly unfortunate when discussing texts in which God is portrayed using feminine imagery and metaphors. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the project is apparent in the seeming arbitrariness of its structure. It’s hard to make sense of the author dedicating just two more paragraphs to his discussion of Jeremiah (52 chapters) than his discussion of Obadiah (1 chapter) and including one more paragraph in his discussion of Philemon (1 chapter) than his discussion of Acts (28 chapters).
Last night, Zondervan put on a webcast with Michael Williams, in which he asserted that the majority of Christians learn about the Bible as a bunch of “unconnected details” and he wanted to “show how the pieces fit” and give them a “framework for how to make sense of all the Bible’s stories.” The bottom line, though, is that those who want to see how the pieces fit or understand how to make sense of all the stories would be far better served turning to any number of N.T. Wright’s books, particularly Simply Jesus, or Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy from Zondervan but what not required to write a positive review.