There’s much to like in Iain Provan’s Seriously Dangerous Religion. The book presents the Bible’s answers to a set of ten perennial questions about the world, God, sexes, evil, creation, society, hope. He compares the biblical answers to the answers of other religions and worldviews, including Western modernity. Though daunting in size, the book is highly readable. A skilled exegete, Provan’s readings of particular texts are frequently insightful, sometimes arresting.
The book has a practical, pastoral, apologetic turn that makes it immediately useful in churches. For instance, Provan writes, “By ‘love,’ I mean ‘keeping’ other persons. I am to look after them actively and to look out for their interests, as best I can and as often as the opportunity presents itself. I am to do this in line with God’s own character and actions in the world, and in the light of God’s own specific commands about what love entails, rather than making the mistake of thinking that I can myself, without God’s help, ‘know good and evil.’ I am to imitate and obey God, rather than falling for the heroic myth that we human beings ourselves, as individuals and groups, are the measure of what ‘right’ means” (212). As can be seen from this quotation, Provan believes in the goodness of God’s law, and believes that the Bible has normative force.
At a number of points, I disagreed with his interpretations. He argues that the garden of Eden was in no particular place, but rather was a picture of the world as a cosmic, sacred temple. The garden is not a place but a “state of being in the world” (32-40). With the temple-creation analogy I have no quarrel, but it seems crucial in Genesis 1-2 to distinguish the “holy space” of the garden from the rest of the world. Adam is placed in a world that is already mapped, with a bounded garden-space within the land of Eden and a world outside. Those zones of creation become crucial for grasping the theology of both Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch – indeed, of the entire Old Testament. The future of the world is to become a garden-city-temple, but that’s not where the world starts. (Besides, naming the rivers that flow from the garden is a strange way to communicate that it’s not locatable on a map.)
The result is that “seriously dangerous religion” loses some of its danger. Provan is perfectly willing to say that the Bible is a danger, for example, to proponents of the “naked public square” (401). But the final chapter is mostly reassuring: The Bible is not nearly as scary as many think. That’s an important thing to say, so long as we haven’t trimmed some of the Bible’s sharper edges along the way.