The Word: Imagining the Gospel in Modern America

By Ann Monroe
WJKP. 2000. 208 pp. $21.95. ISBN 0-664-22141-6

Reviewed by George A. Johnson, Cary, N.C.


This book is the report of a journalist's investigation into the many ways in which the Bible is understood, used and studied in America, and her reflection as a reporter on the findings of her study.

Ann Monroe is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and currently a contributor to other publications including Sojourners and Mother Jones. She is persuaded that more Americans are seriously interested in the Bible today than most people seem to be aware. And that interest extends across the whole range of theological opinion in our land.

She begins her investigation by attending a Billy Graham crusade in Tampa, Fla., including interviews with many who tend to think of themselves as “conservative” and others who might well be regarded as “fundamentalists.” Later she attended the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco, which included such “liberal” or “progressive” scholars as John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg and Raymond Brown.

Monroe divides her report into two main clusters of investigation, the first telling of her interviews and observations among a variety of what she describes as liberal communities. Among these reports was her participation in a Roman Catholic Pax Christi retreat led by Ched Myers in Huntington, N.Y. Another was her attendance at a Bible workshop led by Walter Wink and his wife, June, at the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. — a church which Monroe says is about “as liberal as they come.” She interviewed Barbara Lundblad and James Forbes at Union Seminary in New York City, as well as the pastor and members of the Winnetka, Ill., Congregational church of which she was formerly a member.

The second part of her book recounts her visits and interviews among more conservative or fundamentalist churches and institutions. Among these were the Woodman Valley Chapel, the New Life Church and the Springs Community Church — all in Colorado Springs. Another was a report of her visit to the Precept Ministries in Chattanooga, Tenn., where Kay Arthur (author of How to Study Your Bible) is the leader.

At the end of each of these two major sections is a chapter on “Reconnoiters” in which Monroe draws certain conclusions from her observations regarding each group. Finally, she concludes her book with sections on Christian artists and poets as they seek to capture and express the mystery of the gospel. And this in turn is illustrated by two Bible studies that emerged out of different experiences of and approaches to the Bible.

One is by Earl McCloud, pastor of Faith A.M.E. Church in Atlanta, and his parishioners. The other is by Roger Ferlo, rector of St. Luke in the Fields Episcopal parish in New York City — where the author and her husband are parishioners.

In the final chapter, Monroe summarizes: “For conservatives, the Bible is in charge — beyond argument, beyond question, beyond objection.” “For [liberals], the Bible is whatever the reader makes of it: not a source of truth, but a taking-off place in the search for truth beyond it.”

She concludes that there really must be a better way than either of these — a way whereby readers may “look at the Bible not as [they might] want it to be, or as they have always been taught it was, but as it is, in its rawness, there on the pages in front of them.”

This book and its author are full of interest and enthusiasm. Her professional style of writing holds the reader’s attention. As a good reporter she is natural in conducting her interviews, and careful not to misrepresent a speaker’s words. It is an interesting book, and I recommend it.