Harlots, Hell and Hope

I've been in a book club for 17 years--a group of dear friends who meet once a week to discuss religious books, a chapter at a time. We drink wine and laugh a lot; we share joys and heartbreak. We've been on a spiritual journey, although we didn't expect the trajectory it's taken when we began. Over the years, as we read--Frederick Buechner, St. Teresa of Avila, Barbara Brown Taylor, Philip Yancey, Phyllis Tickle, Richard Rohr--we grew, diving into areas previously unexplored (or ignored). We recently began jumping off the cliff of accepted theology with Love Wins (Harper One, $15.99) by Rob Bell, whose discourse (heretical to some) on hell and a loving God is hopeful and compelling. Then we tackled Brian D. McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity (Harper One, $14.99), which reassesses the biblical narrative as dynamic and progressive rather than static in the Greco-Roman thinking that's been the Western norm.

Bell and McLaren dig deeply into the political and social contexts of the Bible, as does Jonathan Kirsch in The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible (Ballantine, $18). He brings Dinah, Tamar, Zipporah, Lot's daughters and more to life, using rabbinical writings and archeology to uncover depths of meaning even an attentive read of the Old Testament might not uncover. We are now reading Bell's What Is the Bible? (Harper One, $27.99), which elicits numerous "Whaaaat?" moments (which he loves to do). The best chapter (so far) is "Who Paid Jesus's Bills?" Women, that's who, particularly Joanna (ironically, the wife of Herod's household manager). Or maybe the chapter about what Jesus wrote in the dust, and why. The beauty of these books is that they bring you both the forest and the trees, and reframe stories we think we know, but don't. --Marilyn Dahl

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