John KALTNER and Steven L. McKENZIE. The Back Door Introduction to the Bible. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2012. pp 210. $22.95. ISBN: 9781599820897. Reviewed by Eric W. HENDRY, Plano, TX 75026
It can be challenging to find a good text that introduces the subject of serious biblical theology which is simultaneously insightful and engages the attention of the contemporary and growing population of university students who happen to be unfamiliar with Biblical texts. Kaltner and McKenzie’s new contribution (a follow-up to their The Uncensored Bible, HarperOne 2008) takes a fairly humorous if not irreverent look at the collected writings of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
There are many interesting, standard and well-established details within this text. Initially, I thought that Kaltner and McKenzie should be commended for the way they use humor in a manner which actually allows the reader to drop his or her guard and accompany the authors into the more weighty and serious intellectual fruit of good biblical research. At many points, however, I then found myself pausing to ask whether the depth of some material was well-suited for an introductory text, as, I would argue, there clearly seems to be an implicit presumption that students already know some Roman, Greek and Middle Eastern social customs and history, as well as a fairly clear expectation that students have developed an appreciation for (if they even understand) the wide variety of literary genres that appear within the various texts collected within the canon of the Bible. But let me speak to my more immediate impressions.
First, when the introductory chapter of an introductory text on the Bible, not simply once, but twice refers to the bodily functions of urination and defecation (pgs 4 and 6), readers can quickly and correctly expect to find an entire range of references, discussions, euphemisms and double entendres dealing with foreskins, circumcision, phalluses, breasts, menstruation, seminal fluids and blood – peppered across these fourteen chapters. Even so, there is scant mention of ancient Hebrew or Christian concepts regarding marital fidelity, the blessings of children, the benefits of extended families or community life, etc. While the authors’ lighthearted bodily euphemisms might have a certain market appeal, I do think the euphemisms lack a balancing counterweight.
Second, I found it unusual that across these fourteen chapters there was little to no mention of prayer, spirituality, liturgy, sin, redemption, the Temple, synagogues, the Holy Spirit or even all that much concerning the person or activities of Jesus. Yahweh is frequently mentioned, and there are seven entries for “Yahweh” in back index, but there are no similar entries for Jesus or the Holy Spirit, which seems strange. The simple fact that “Rahab,” “Jezebel” and “Onan” do get listed in the index, serve as an indicator of the limitations of this particular introduction.
Third, my strongest critique, cover to cover, is that the text seems to lack any coherent, overall organization. The authors state that the purpose of their text is to “point out some things in the Bible that make readers say, ‘Hmmm…’ and try to explain them” (pg 6). There are roughly eighty subtopics loosely related under fourteen random chapters, with some employing titles with catchy expressions from television shows or brief lines from pop songs that attempt to make it relevant to university students – but I wonder if contemporary students will even recognize or appreciate lines from pop songs dating back to the 1960s.
In many ways, I thought this text was more of an intermediate level re-introduction for advanced students, addressing some good tangents that aren’t always addressed in an introductory text. In other areas, the authors present consensus points that have been well established within theological communities for decades.
I did begin to wonder if biblically-uninformed students are equipped enough to see past all the humor and develop an appreciation for the biblical research behind it – or if they potentially might dismiss the subject matter outright because the humor could, at times, get in the way. I also began to wonder if feminist friends and colleagues would be offended by the obvious male slant in much of the authors’ humor, which is fairly important to consider when many graduate and undergraduate programs in theology and religious studies have seen tremendous growth in their female student populations – growth that has even outnumbered male student populations in many theological institutions and ministry-training programs.
I don’t know if I will use this particular text in introductory classes with undergraduate or even graduate students beginning their theological studies – either for basic biblical theology classes or for topical courses in biblical sexual ethics. Unfortunately, I think the lack of a consistent, well-articulated and coherent overall organization leaves the text with too many missing pieces – significant pieces that are well addressed in other introductory texts.