At one point near the end of Iain Provan’s Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why it Matters, Provan writes, “I hope. . . I have done a decent job of explaining biblical faith.” Such a modest statement belies an underlying sense of frustration concerning the necessity of such an explanation. Though the book acts mainly as a biblical theology driven by a narrative critical reading of Genesis, SDR also acts a response to a “thoroughgoing modern assault on the Old Story from all sides,” namely, proponents of the so-called “Axial Age,” “Dark Green Religion,” and “New Atheism.”
In his previous book, Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was, Iain Provan soberly dismantles the idea that the key to solving our ecological crisis is to give up on monotheism and retrieve earlier myths that arose between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE or in prehistoric primitivism, respectively. In Seriously Dangerous Religion, Provan includes other subjects of his frustration, namely, the “New Atheists” and really anyone else who ignorantly dismisses the Old Testament as a trustworthy guide to modern life, or worse, considers the Bible a dangerous tool promoting violence against people and the earth.
Seriously Dangerous Religionis a more constructive response to Christianity’s critics than Convenient Myths. Most chapters begin by posing broad philosophical question—”What is the World?” “Who is God?” “Who are Man and Woman?” etc.—which Provan answers through close readings of Genesis. Genesis, he explains, is the foundational story upon which we “can build a moral vision,” and though his book is primarily theological, the moral vision Provan details in his exegesis of Genesis makes up the heart of SDR—the “why it matters” from the title. “How am I to relate to God?” asks one chapter, followed by “how am I to relate to my neighbor?” (‘Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none’) “How am I to relate to the rest of creation?” (by “look[ing] after the earth on behalf of its owner”), and “Which society should I be helping to build?” (“biblical faith does not advocate passivity with respect to politics, but it does not advocate, either, a utopian approach”). These questions are all answered based on Provan’s exegesis of Genesis in the context of the Canon while directing the reader back to the earlier chapters that lay the theological foundation for his ethics.
One of the more unique aspects of SDR comes at the end of each of the chapters where Provan compares what the Old Testament says about the world, God, and our neighbors to other religions, including, but not limited to Ancient Near Eastern polytheism, Platonism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Thus, SDR is no less than a biblical theology, a collection of detailed exegeses, a biblical ethics, and comparative religion, all packaged in the conceit of a response to the Bible’s critics.
Though Seriously Dangerous Religion ostensibly continues an ongoing conversation (argument, really) between Christianity and its cultured despisers using a multiplicity of tools to construct a sound argument, one cannot help but notice a sideways glance toward a large contingent of Christians themselves—those who hold the Bible in one hand while in the other hand degrade God’s creation, exploit the poor and weak by destroying the Sabbath, mistreat the foreigner, and more. The exegesis and interpretation, therefore, shows that the Bible is not what the New Atheists, Dark Green Religionists, and Axial Agers think it is, but nor is it what many of the Bible’s popularizers think it is, either.
As careful and reasonable Provan is in his writing, he still participates in an argument and argument invites response, even by those largely sympathetic to his positions. What follows is a dialogue between Christian scholars of the Old Testament and Theology and Provan, himself, regarding SDR. Ephraim Radner expresses concern that the very nature of apologetics is not dangerous enough to warrant the title of the book, despite Provan’s skills in undertaking the project, especially given the mysterious nature of suffering in the matrix of human life. Sara Koenig questions the assertions of truth underlying Provan’s argument and which he addresses directly in chapter 13. That is, is “what the Bible really says” really just “what Iain Provan prefers the Bible to say?” Douglas Earl expresses a similar concern regarding the certitude of Provan’s claims, arguing that SDR is more colored by Christian tradition than is let on in the description of his exegesis. In other words, SDR is not “what the Bible really says” but what Christian tradition says the Bible really says. Stephen Chapman expresses a related concern, but wishes Provan had engaged more explicitly with Christian tradition in his book. More importantly, Chapman is impressed by the breadth of Provan’s engagement with other religions and wonders how accurate are the descriptions of those religions’ beliefs. Lastly, Barnabas Asprey is concerned that Provan is repeating some of the mistakes of the biblical theology movement by offering a perspective, “detached from any reading tradition.” Provan has responded to each of these panelists and we invite the conversation to continue between them and you.
About the Author
Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.