There's a phenomenon at large, prestigious colleges and universities that I think it peculiar to that kind of institution (although my experience of others is limited, and I can't be sure). I call it "Rock Star Professors." They are people whose lectures are performances in the best sense of the word. These professors are enlightening, amusing, and charismatic and a great many students sign up for their classes even if they don't have any interest in the subject matter.
James L. Kugel, now at Bar Ilan University in Israel, was just such a Rock Star Professor during the over 20 years he taught at Harvard. His introduction to the Bible course regularly drew 900 students, many of them not particularly interested in religion. When the enrollment for his course surpassed the similarly popular introductory economics course taught by John Kenneth Galbraith, the headline in the Harvard Crimson read "God Beats Mammon."
I've never had the opportunity to hear Kugel lecture, but if his new book How to Read the Bible is representative of his work, he is certainly engaging, enlightening and charismatic in print, as well. As it happens the subject matter is of great interest to me, but it's also something that can be written in a deadly dull style and Kugel completely avoids that.
His task in this book is to look at the Hebrew Bible (in English translation) from two distinct points of view: that of the people he calls the "ancient interpreters" (both Christian and Jewish) and that of modern biblical scholarship (incorporating linguistic, archaeological, and historical findings into our understanding). He begins by saying that, as an Orthodox Jew, the findings of modern scholarship that show that the Bible was written by a variety of people at a variety of times and that some of the "historical" sections could not represent actual history were very disturbing to him. He had some misgivings and indecision about entering into academic biblical scholarship as his life work. OTOH, Kugel expounds, he didn't feel he could just ignore what others had found out and he needed to come to some sort of modus vivendi that allowed him to continue to live an observant life and accept this information. From the totally opposite point of view, he points out that an understanding of how the Bible has been interpreted through history in both Jewish and Christian views is essential to understanding much of Western literature, art, and culture, so it's insufficient to just acquaint oneself with modern scholarship.
So Kugel compares and contrasts the two approaches, and does so with the genius of a great storyteller and showman. The Bible is - among other things - a collection of great stories and he tells them with aplomb and with an appreciation for the contrast between the traditional and scholarly views. Was the story of Adam and Eve one of the Fall of Man, as traditionally interpreted, or an etiological tale about the movement from hunter/gatherer society to a more agrarian culture, as archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests? Why are there three different "wife/sister" stories in the Bible, where a patriarch tries to pass his wife off as his sister? Who wrote the Psalms and what was their original purpose? Was David king of a great nation, protege of King Saul, and a flawed human being in his private life, or an upstart who launched a military coup and took over a small chiefdom? Did he even exist? Kugel expounds on all these questions with insight, skill and frequent laugh-out-loud humor.
How to Read the Bible is a fascinating book and chock full of Fun Facts to Know and Tell. Most of all, I found it left me feeling like I'd love to have James Kugel for a dinner guest. Or, barring that, at least get to be one of those 900 students listening to the Rock Star Professor.