The Bible enjoys the nickname “the Good Book” for good reason. Millions of Americans report understanding the Bible as the Word of God. The Bible has provided fuel for social reformers and has sparked the imaginations of beloved artists, musicians, writers, and home décor designers. Convictions about the Bible’s universal benevolence regularly combine with capital to influence American politics, law, and textbooks. The Good Book garners such popularity in the U.S. that in the last century the Bible has become a commodified good successful enough to be “the best-selling book” in this country, year after year.
Not everyone sees the Bible as fundamentally good, though. For some, the Bible’s benevolence is not immediately available. Many enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans in the nineteenth century, for example, had to work hard to make the book of their enslavers into one that spoke goodness into their own lives. Frederick Douglass, the self-liberated Black man who became a famous Christian abolitionist, loved the Bible and simultaneously was wary of supporting efforts to distribute Bibles to enslaved people in the American South. He worried, in part, that the liberative message he wrestled from the Bible would not be obvious enough to others.
In the same century, women’s rights proponents in the U.S. alternately approached the Bible with trust, suspicion, or sheer pragmatism. They did not agree about whether the Good Book was good for their cause. While many, such as Sojourner Truth and Sarah Grimké, passionately recruited the Bible, others were wary. Some women’s rights activists sought to push the Bible out of the conversation entirely. Still others saw the Bible not as irrelevant but as blameworthy. Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously viewed the Bible as a cause of women’s oppression, even as she used the Bible as a battleground by publishing her own version. The Bible had such the reputation as the Good Book, however, that even Stanton balked at the idea that a guest in her home might reach for a nearby Bible to raise their seat at the table. The Bible would boost no one.
For others, the Bible’s reputation for benevolence is a curiosity, more entertaining than embattled. If nothing else, the Bible is a good read. For many, though, the Bible’s benevolence is a ruse. The Bible is bad, full stop. New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have lambasted the Bible as an evil book. The Bible’s god, they claim, is a “moral monster”—vindictive, fickle, selfish, and a genocidal maniac. For biblical scholar and evangelical-turned-agnostic Bart Ehrman, the Bible is a failure. The Good Book does not satisfactorily explain, for him, why humans suffer. For many, it is their own suffering at the hands of Bible-wielders that has led them to reject the Bible.
The goodness of the Good Book is not a given.
Neither is the Bible’s goodness an illusion, though. Better: its goodness is a construct. The Bible’s benevolence, like the Bible itself, is made and remade.
Enter what I call the business of Bible benevolence—the intellectual, rhetorical, and moral work of rendering the Bible the Good Book. Such labor is often accomplished through clever use of building materials and production techniques spanning the gamut from strategic translation and definition to historical contextualization and creative invention. Bible benevolence is not the exclusive domain of any group in particular. Lots of people are invested in this project, across religious traditions, denominations, and the political spectrum. Almost anyone who reads a Bible devotionally is engaged in a Bible benevolence project. Any time debates populate the national news wherein commentators argue about “what the Bible actually says about” an issue, the Bible’s goodness is at stake.
Yet the goodness of the Good Book is precarious, ever in need of renewal and revision. The perpetual nature of Bible benevolence results in part from the nature of the Bible itself. The Bible is simultaneously a collection of ancient texts and a modern construct. Its contents originated in antiquity, in diverse geographical settings, resulting in a vast chronological and cultural distance between the people who composed and compiled the literature that became biblical, on the one hand, and the people in the U.S. who scripturalize this literature to make sense of their lives in modernity, on the other. The fact that goodness is a contested category and that social mores keep changing means the Bible’s benevolence requires constant upkeep. Goodness is not fixed, or timeless.
White evangelical Protestants are one subset of religious adherents who engage in such upkeep work. They have risen prominently to public scrutiny and academic analysis in recent years because of their outsize political influence in the United States. They have publicly engaged in a series of creative negotiations to square a commitment to the Bible as an unassailable good with historical realities and biblical contents that could pose a challenge to the Bible’s benevolence. White evangelicals have a standard, if not official, set of Bible benevolence moves they employ as they create a plausibility structure within which the Bible can be thought of as scripture, as the Good Book. I call this set of common rhetorical tactics, for short, a script. The arguments in the script do not always appear in the same order, with the same language, or with the same tone—but the basic lines are generally the same.
Significantly, the arguments in the script cannot all be true at the same time. Fascinatingly, apologists present them as though they are.
Rather than accept a paradox that the Good Book is not good sometimes, white evangelical Bible apologists create different, more elaborate paradoxes in which a whole system of competing and even contradictory notions must be held simultaneously. For white evangelicals, God can be both merciful and just, both three and one, both invisible and incarnate—but the Bible can’t be both good and bad. Not for lack of imagination, ingenuity, or confidence, though. White evangelical Bible benevolence relies on exercising a robust imagination when it comes to ancient history, creative engagement with widely accepted rules of logic, and the brashness to insist that they have satisfactorily answered critiques. The stakes, and consequences, of white evangelical Bible benevolence come into clearer focus with the right questions posed to their fantasies, ingenuities, and responses to charges of harm. What is unimaginable, and why? What is not worth being creative about achieving? By what standard is goodness measured? What do they find satisfying, and expect everyone else to as well?
Praise for Good Book
“A smart, fearless deconstruction of evangelical attempts to ‘save‘ the Bible, Good Book is compellingly written, persuasively argued, and brilliantly feminist. Jill Hicks-Keeton has written a necessary book for our moment.”
—Rhiannon Graybill, Rhodes College
“Good Book is essential reading for anyone who struggles with the logic of evangelical biblical interpretation and can’t quite put their finger on why. Hicks-Keeton lays bare the rhetoric of self-salvation that threads through New Testament interpretation in evangelical circles to reveal the sheer political power that generates enormous economic benefit for purveyors and sows social discord in faith communities. Good Book is a timely intervention when people need spiritual connection and meaning-making–but for whom ‘the Bible-benevolence script’ offers neither.”
—Katherine A. Shaner, Wake Forest University School of Divinity
“Evangelicals have long engaged in the ruse of selective literalism, but Jill Hicks-Keeton’s remarkable book demonstrates the many ways ‘Bible redeemers’ have twisted the Scriptures to their own purposes. ‘It takes a lot of work to make Jesus good for women,’ the author argues, and Paul is even more of a challenge. The author‘s obvious command of the Bible makes her arguments difficult to refute. This is a wise and provocative—not to mention controversial—book, one that every Christian should take seriously.”
—Randall Balmer, author of Saving Faith: How American Christianity Can Reclaim Its Prophetic Voice
“The Bible looms large in our society and casts a long shadow. Hicks-Keeton sheds light on shadow by examining how the insistence that the Bible is good serves other agendas that perpetuate harm. This book is for anyone who wants to wrestle with the Bible‘s complex legacy and continued influence in our lives.”
—Blake Chastain, host of Exvangelical and author of The Post-Evangelical Post (Substack)
About the Author
Jill Hicks-Keeton is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford, 2018) and (with Cavan Concannon) Does Scripture Speak for Itself? The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation (Cambridge, 2022).