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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2011
Number 74
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Author's reflections

Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (Harper, 2010)
By Kristin Swenson

The Bible. That’s all a person needs to say to elicit swift and definitive reactions. Everybody seems to have a notion of what you mean and strong ideas and feelings in response. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in introducing Bible Babel to people has been correcting the clear but frequently misplaced preconceptions that they have about my book and what I’ve hoped that it would do out there in the world.

Some assume that Bible Babel champions the “Good Book” with interpretations of its words for our lives. Others, by contrast, figure that with it I must be trying to undermine the power and validity of God’s Word in some academic evisceration of the foundations of their faith. Truth is, both of those preconceptions are well-grounded; but not because I do what they expect. Rather, there are oodles of books and authors that fit the profiles they assume.

I published Bible Babel to do something different. Itis not a religious book. Neither is it scornful or dismissive of those for whom the Bible is their sacred text. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to learn in great detail (and to make a living continuing to learn) all sorts of things about the Bible, from its original languages to the ways that people interpret and apply it in movies, literature, music, and art. I wanted to put some of that information into the hands of general readers so that people could interpret the Bible for themselves and evaluate the ways that others use biblical texts.

Just before the book came out, I had an impassioned conversation with my cousin’s wife’s father. (Ok, the relationship doesn’t matter. Here’s the point.) He asked about Bible Babel, and I gave him a kind of half-hearted explanation thinking that he probably wouldn’t be all that interested anyway. He was incredulous.

“How can you possibly talk about the Bible without promoting your own interpretation?! It’s the Bible after all!” was his reaction.

Taken aback, I asked, “What is the first book in the Bible?”


“Right-o, and that’s not a matter of interpretation. Whether you like it or not, Genesis is the first book you read when open the Bible, any Bible. Bible Babel simply gives people information like that and hopefully a bit of fun along the way.”

The Bible is a unique and complicated book. It’s tough to read, much less to make any sense of, without a reliable guide and some solid background information. I wrote Bible Babel simply to give people access to basic information about the Bible ? what the Bible is, where it came from, what’s in it, and how people get so riled up about it ? and I wanted to do so in a way that’s inviting and engaging, whatever one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. I also hoped that with such information people would hesitate to turn the Bible into a weapon to beat up on others.

The Bible is everywhere. Hollywood, politics, literature, and pop music are rich with biblical references, language, and themes. Yet there are few opportunities to learn about it. Some people learn particular texts, even memorize passages, in their religious communities, and they may be intimately familiar with what’s in the Bible. But seldom have they had the chance to learn what “the Bible” means to other faith groups, about the Bible’s original languages and the implications of translation, how the Bible developed, an unbiased treatment of the ways in which people use the Bible to argue different sides of the same controversial issues, and to identify and make sense for themselves of the ways in which biblical texts show up in contemporary culture.

With Bible Babel Ihave tried to package such information into one book ? readable and even entertaining for anyone curious about the Bible.Although I have a Ph.D. in biblical studies (“the history and literature of ancient Israel,” to be exact), I wanted to avoid jargon or, frankly, excessively detailed information of an academic sort. I sought to pack the book with the kind of information about the Bible that makes my students react with “that is SO cool!” and “How come nobody every told me that?!”

Publishing the book with Harper was a great experience. I have a terrific agent who “got” the book, and I lucked out with a sharp, committed editor who was delightful to work with. I’m happy to say that those common preconceptions I mentioned above evaporate when people read Bible Babel. And the books received some fair, keen (and kind) reviews, which help prospective readers understand what they’re getting into.

I continue to conduct book talks and signings around the country; to chat with people in person (book clubs and religious reading groups), on the television, and radio; to write about the Bible and biblical literacy for online and print publications; and to participate in events celebrating the joys of reading, exploring and developing the craft of writing, and discussing intriguing and perplexing ideas and issues. I am now in the process of developing a reading guide for book clubs and reading groups and a study guide for college classes.

As much as I enjoy visiting with people interested in Bible Babel, I’ve also been happily working on my next book project, a fuller treatment of a subject, the Bible’s supernatural beings, that I treat only briefly in Bible Babel. Bringing in regular references to popular culture and traditional images and ideas (angels and demons and even vampires, oh my!), it’s been great fun already. We Bible scholars may be a dusty, musty bunch, and our books may quickly be replaced or otherwise go out of style, but the subject of our study ? the world’s all time best-seller ? is ever new.

Kristin Swenson, a contributing editor, is associate professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Visit her and her Bible Babel blog at

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