The book of Genesis offers helpful answers to the biggest questions in life—Why are we here? What is God like? Why so much evil and pain? But readers often get tripped up by the ancient writing style and wonder: Did Moses really write Genesis? Many of the reports seem so odd—are they scientifically accurate? Does that matter? How does Genesis relate to other ancient accounts of creation, the origin of evil, and the great flood?
Bible Gateway interviewed Stephen M. Miller (@StephenMMiller_) about his book, A Visual Walk Through Genesis: Exploring the Story of How It All Began (Harvest House Publishers, 2016), which presents viewpoints from a wide range of Christian Bible experts, along with colorful graphics and a touch of dry humor.
With its emphasis on imagery and an informal style of writing, who would be most interested in reading this book?
Stephen M. Miller: My Uncle Foyster. He’s nearly 90. Likes pictures.
My pastor’s daughter is already reading the pre-release copy I gave him. She’s eight. It must be easy enough for a kid to read. But she’s pretty smart for a kid.
If the meat of this book is anything like you’ll find in other books I’ve written—and I hope it is—seminary students will read it and use it in their classes. So they tell me.
But I don’t write for any of them. They’re already Christians. I write for people who aren’t. I write for non, new, and nominal Christians who are curious about the Bible and Christianity.
They’re like New York City. If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere. If I can write a book about the Bible that’s engaging enough to attract people who aren’t even Christians, I’m betting Christians will want to read it, too.
The graphics and the casual style of writing I’ve used here and in other books about the Bible that I’ve written seem to help people notice my books on those stand-alone racks we all bump into in drugstores, rest stops, and airports.
I love seeing my books on those racks. Those racks take my books to the very people I write for. Those are the people I’m constantly reminding myself that I want to attract.
I know Christians read my books, too. Heck, most of my readers may be Christian. I’m okay with that. But I don’t write for them because they come to the Bible with a more reverend point of view and a gentler set of questions. I want to deal with the questions on the minds of Bible newbies. And some of those questions get some Christians a tad upset. If I’m afraid of upsetting those godly souls, I don’t think I can as effectively attract the souls without God.
Explain why and how you approach writing about the Bible as a journalist.
Stephen M. Miller: Well, the “why” I write Bible stuff in journalistic style has a lot to do with my education. I have one degree in news journalism, which I made good use of as a newspaper reporter. And I have a seminary degree in biblical studies and religious education, which I made good use of for more than a dozen years as a magazine and book editor for a Christian publishing organization.
I’ve always liked the old-school journalism approach. I don’t have to take a side on any controversial issue. I get to present various sides. And my goal, as a journalist covering the Bible beat, is to present the strengths and weaknesses of each side—to the extent that readers can’t tell what my opinion is.
That’s easy enough for me to do much of the time because I’m as confused as the next guy, and trusting a lot on Jesus for what I don’t understand.
There are plenty of Christian writers out there telling people what they should think. I’m happy to be one of the Christian writers simply telling people to think. For themselves.
The book of Genesis is comprised of multiple individual stories. How do they all tie together in a grand narrative?
Stephen M. Miller: I don’t know that they do.
What does the story of Judah having sex with his daughter-in-law because he mistook her for a prostitute have to do with Creation, the Flood, and Abraham making a contract with God and then sealing the deal by cutting on the dotted line?
What’s wrong with seeing each of the stories as individuals?
But I’m not sure Judah and the story of his passing fancy were critical to driving any of the major themes. It seems stuck in there like a sidebar that some editor thought was too interesting to delete.
On the one hand, probably most Christians would say the Holy Spirit inspired this story for inclusion into the Holy Bible. Others would say the Holy Spirit might not want the credit for that particular story, if “credit” is the word to use.
See, this is the journalism thing. I get to say that there are scholars out there teaching both sides of this coin. And I don’t have to call heads or tails.
Presenting both sides gives the skeptic room to breathe—and to consider the possibility that there’s room in Christianity for diversity in interpreting the Bible. And it gives the traditionalist pause to think again—and to consider the possibility that she might need to tweak her hermeneutic.
How do you weave modern understandings of science and ancient culture into your book’s content?
Stephen M. Miller: I report when science and the Bible clash. And I report when they don’t.
One of the cool examples in Genesis came out of something I read on NASA’s website. Listen to how NASA describes the beginning of the universe: “When the universe was young, it was nearly smooth and featureless. As it grew older and developed, it became organized.”
“Smooth and featureless.” Holy smokes. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the way Genesis describes pre-creation: “Earth was shapeless and empty” (Genesis 1:2, Casual English Bible).
Then God organized it. It’s all in Genesis 1.
NASA’s article sure did manage to stop my eyeballs. I wrote a sidebar about it in the book.
On the flip side of your science/Bible question, I also report what most astrophysicists and geologists say regarding the age of universe, earth, and upright human beings. Ditto for the absence of evidence about a worldwide flood that takes a boat up to the cruising altitude of a 747. I also report evidence for floods in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys in Iraq—where civilization began. These were floods that wiped out cities back in the days when people built their cities alongside rivers, for easy access to water and transportation.
So I report when science clashes with the Bible story and when it reinforces it. Then I let the readers chew on it. As followers of Jesus and students of the Bible, what we’re looking for is the truth. We find it by grappling with the facts. And when the truth remains a mystery that our facts can’t solve, we live with it. We hold loosely to our waffling knowledge and tightly to Jesus.
Describe a story or two in Genesis that readers new to the Bible would find surprising and explain how you’ve presented them in your book.
Stephen M. Miller: Remember the story of Joseph getting sold down the river by his 10 older brothers? They sold him to slave traders, and Joseph ended up as a slave in Egypt.
I’ll bet most preachers don’t even know this: by the time Joe’s story is over, this enslaved Jew enslaves almost all of the Egyptians. (OK, call him a Hebrew if you want to, but most Bible newcomers won’t know that Hebrews are the ancestors of the Jews. So I call them Jews. Editors hate it.)
Joseph turned them into sharecroppers of the Egyptian king.
He managed to do this because of a seven-year drought. He could interpret dreams and use them to tell the future. So the king had appointed him what sounds like his second in command of Egypt and boss of the grain reserves.
Joseph charged the people for the grain they needed to survive that drought. After they ran out of money and livestock to buy the grain, they sold their land to the king and agreed to work it for him as his slaves, giving him a share of every harvest.
That’s one odd reversal that I don’t think most people know about.
What are you trying to elicit in readers with your “Questions for Discussion or Personal Reflection” in the back of your book?
Stephen M. Miller: Those questions are just a shadow of the reality online. I wrote over 350 discussion questions for Genesis. I’ve included all of them online in the Casual English Bible. But inside A Visual Walk Through Genesis, we had to boil down the questions. Not so online. There, I put all the questions—sometimes in big fat paragraphs—online at the Casual English Bible website.
We added the questions to the book because we figured that some folks might want to use A Visual Walk Through Genesis as a resource for studying Genesis in small-group Bible studies. Or they could study it privately; that’s allowed.
I’m hoping the questions will churn up honest discussions about some of the tough topics in Genesis. This is a book with plenty of odd stories: a woman made from a rib, a talking snake, and a 100-year-old man getting his 90-year-old wife pregnant without Viagra. From time to time the discussion will get uncomfortable, especially if we have Bible newcomers in the group sitting alongside veteran Christians. It’s not always easy defending what we believe when we’re talking to people who don’t believe the way we do. But we need to be able to talk about it. I hope these questions help people do that.
Since the book explains Genesis chapter-by-chapter, how do you recommend a person should read your book along with the Bible?
Stephen M. Miller: Well, taking one chapter at a time they could read my book first and then read the Bible. Or they could read the Bible first, and then read my book.
But I tell people to open it up and read whatever catches their eye.
The trick is to read. My book is little more than an attempt to get them into a Better Book.
What is the Casual English Bible?
Stephen M. Miller: It’s a Bible paraphrase I’m working on.
With all the English Bible translations available, why are you creating a new one?
Stephen M. Miller: I want to. Life’s too short not to do what you want to do when what you want to do isn’t going to kill anyone.
I nibbled my way into this project, perhaps the same way a lamb nibbles his way into trouble.
This paraphrasing I’m doing started out as my own private devotional and Bible study. Whenever I come to a Bible passage that strikes me one way or another—as funny, or poignant, or surprising—I’d take a longer look at it and then put it in my own words.
I start by reading it in an interlinear, comparing the original words to the English words. I look up alternate meanings of the more important words. I also look at how other folks translated or paraphrased the words. And I read what some commentators have to say about the tough parts.
It’s all little more than Bible study. In fact I’m going to spend a Sunday morning showing my Bible study class how to do it for themselves (and I’ll hook the TV up to Bible Gateway to do it).
After doing all the reading, I make the passage my own. I put it in words I’d use to tell the story to someone who had never heard it before.
I wasn’t going to do anything publicly with this idea until I got knee-deep into writing A Visual Walk Through Genesis. That’s when it occurred to me that the paraphrase could help prompt some discussion in Bible study groups that might want to use my book as a resource.
In marketing terms, my paraphrase of Genesis became a value-added feature.
After paraphrasing Genesis, I moved on to paraphrase Luke, which I’ve already added to the website. Both are in beta testing. I’m now working on Luke’s sequel: Acts. I hope to do for Luke and Acts what I did for Genesis with A Visual Walk Through Genesis.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Stephen M. Miller: I use Bible Gateway every day and twice on Sunday. I love Bible Gateway as much as you can love anything that will never give you a hug. I don’t think the app is as good as the website. When I’m using Bible Gateway during Bible study classes, I always use the browser instead of the app. The browser lets me do more than the app does, and it seems easier to use—perhaps because it’s more familiar to me.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Stephen M. Miller: I’m a grandpa now. Grandson born this past December 30. Granddaughter born March 13. I’m double-dipped with God’s blessing in my life. And with Pampers in my home office.
“God gave you the kids you have. They are his gift, a reward to bless your life. Children… are as important to you as a quiver full of arrows is to an archer. That archer is one happy fellow when his quiver is full because he feels secure. Your enemies don’t stand a chance against you when your kids have your back.” Psalm 127: 3-5, Casual English Bible
Stephen M. Miller: You’re very welcome. It was fun. I hope you can tell.
Bio: Stephen M. Miller is the bestselling author of Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible: An Illustrated A-to-Z Dictionary of the People and Places in Scripture (Retailer’s Choice Award for best nonfiction book of the year), The Complete Guide to the Bible (500,000 copies sold), and many other books, which have sold 1.8 million copies. He and his wife, Linda, live in Kansas and have two adult children.
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