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Review: How the Bible Actually Works by Pete Enns

Hey there folks! Before getting into it, I want to say thank you to the good folks at HarperOne for providing me with an advanced reader copy for this review. It’s an amazing privilege that I got this opportunity, so big shout out to them for making this happen!

“The Bible is an instruction manual for your life.”

How many of you have heard some variation of those words?

That phrase was uttered countless times growing up in my church youth group, and it never really sat well with me. Like a robot made of cold steel, I felt that referring to the Bible as an instruction manual basically equates humans to an average household toaster. “Press lever down; wait for 30 seconds for your Pop Tart to finish cooking. Repeat until death in about 80 years.”

Furthermore, actually reading the Bible doesn’t exactly provide a lot of solid advice. I can’t exactly glean insights into how to promote ethical business practices for my technology-based role without making some assumptions and drawing my own conclusions. (It might surprise you to learn that Jesus didn’t own an iPhone.) And we all know that guy who can whip out any verse to suit his cause, regardless of how ridiculous it is.

How the Bible Actually Works essentially completes a trifecta of books by Peter Enns that began back in 2014. In his first bestseller The Bible Tells Me So, Enns shows us that our assumptions about faith, God, and the Bible totally get in the way of us actually reading the Bible for how it is. His 2016 follow up, The Sin of Certainty, shares why a preoccupation with correct thinking prevents us from truly understanding what the Bible is all about.

Where those first two books break down our incorrect thinking about the Bible, How the Bible Actually Works teaches us, well, how the Bible actually works. You don’t have to read those aforementioned books to jump into this new one (although they are great reads and highly recommended), but they definitely help to pave the way for this new one.

And, slight spoiler alert, the whole gist of this book shows us how we should treat the Bible as work of solidarity in helping us to formulate our own quests for wisdom.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what makes up this book, shall we?

I don’t know about you, but nothing turns me off faster than a spiritual book that gets way too full of itself. If you’re going to make me feel like I can never achieve your level of piety, count me out.

I’m glad to say that How the Bible Actually Works definitely steers clear of that self-aggrandizing camp. Enns writes in a way that is ultra relatable to every person regardless of their spiritual or educational background. If you’ve read his other works, you already know what I’m talking about. I feel like I could hand this book off to a non-Christian friend and have them feel like they’re not being talked down to, something that is far too common amongst Bible-based books.

And perhaps Enns’s biggest boon is his knack for witty, often hilarious quips. Here’s a great excerpt illustrating just that:

My main point, however, is that for Yahweh to be jealous about sharing his people with other gods, all concerned parties need to be operating on the same assumption, namely, that Yahweh actually has something to be jealous about. If my wife were to take a weeklong vacation knitting scarves on an island for grandmotherly women, spousal jealousy wouldn’t enter my mind — I’d probably welcome the challenge to see how long I could live on Entenmann’s, Wendy’s, and Maker’s Mark. But if she announced she was taking off for a month to live in a shirtless under-thirty male colony, I’d have different reaction.

The book is chocked full of great content like this, making it a very easy read. Between the jokes and relatability, this book is an easy recommendation solely based on the writing style alone.

As talented as a writer that Enns is, where his true value lies comes from his ability to articulate things from his extensive educational background that the average reader most likely would not know already. For example, check out this brief tidbit on biblical laws about cooking lamb:

Deuteronomy also includes a somewhat stunning trail. Exodus is clear that the lamb is to be roasted not to be boiled. Deuteronomy, according to English translations, only says that the lamb is to be cooked. So what’s stunning about this? That word cook in Deuteronomy is the same Hebrew root word for boil in Exodus. In other words, the very thing not to be done in Exodus is commanded to be done in Deuteronomy without breaking stride.

Not to get off track, but the choice to translate the same Hebrew root word boil in Exodus and cook in Deuteronomy is aimed at avoiding this contradiction. This isn’t the only place this sort of thing tends to happen in modern translations of the Bible, though the better ones will provide helpful notes.

A lot of books these days are notoriously bad for sharing one idea and rewording it over and over again, not really adding anything new to the conversation. This is definitely not the case with this book. I constantly found myself thinking, “Oh, I didn’t know that” or “Wow, that’s really cool to learn.”

The book is peppered with little nuggets of gold throughout, easily making it worth reading from cover to cover. And, well, I’m honestly pretty bad about skimming through books that seem overly wordy. Fortunately, I found myself drinking in every word of this book, not wanting to miss a single bit of insight. It’s clear that Enns has done his homework, and we as readers most definitely benefit from this.

Humor and facts aside, the real meat of this book lies in its real applicability to our own lives. Enns shows us that the Bible isn’t some dusty ol’ book that teaches nothing about ourselves in the modern era. Rather, How the Bible Actually Works reveals that the issues the biblical writers faced are none too different than what we experience today. Sure, they aren’t tit for tat on par with our modern circumstances, but Enns shows us the general swaths of solidarity we share with these ancient authors, particularly in how they were just as conflicted as we are in trying to tackle any given issue.

For me personally, How the Bible Actually Works makes me want to get back into the Bible more. I do a lot of writing on faith in this blog, but in this past year, I’ve sort of side stepped the Bible in favor of analyzing faith at other angles. And that’s mostly because I didn’t know what to do with the Bible. Back to how I opened this review, one can theoretically make the Bible say whatever you want it to say, but that’s if you intentionally choose to take things out of context and avoid a path of wisdom.

Granted, I’ll likely need the assistance of commentaries and the like to really understand that context behind each biblical story, but I am grateful to this book for having reinvigorated that passion for the Bible within me. How the Bible Actually Works has shown me that I can find wisdom in the Bible so long as I’m not imposing my own presuppositions into it.

And friend, I find that comforting to think about.

The Bible is a weird and often mysterious book, and Peter Enns shows us that there is wisdom to be gained below the surface of the messiness. How the Bible Actually Works paints for us a way in which to read the Bible with fresh, new eyes and shows us that the biblical stories live with us in solidarity even thousands of years after they were written. Enns’s relatable writing style and proclivity toward humor make the book a breeze to read through and accessible to all readers. It’s a no brainer: pick this book up. It’s a wonderful read you won’t soon forget.

How the Bible Actually Works releases on February 19, 2019. If you would like to preorder a copy, please visit And when you preorder, you’ll receive some extra free goodies. (Who doesn’t like free stuff?) Also be sure to check out Pete’s other books and his awesome podcast, The Bible for Normal People.

Written by

Machine learning engineer by day, spiritual explorer by night.

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