One of the hallmarks of Christian fundamentalism is biblical inerrancy, or the idea that the Bible is divinely inspired and therefore free of error. People who believe this tend to be deeply suspicious of biblical scholarship, especially when it proceeds from the assumption that the books of the Bible are so many cultural artifacts, written at different times to meet the needs of societies radically different from our own.
Or as Billy Sunday liked to tell his audiences, "When the Bible says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go plumb to the devil."
Michael Coogan is one of America's foremost biblical scholars, and the problem with his elegant little book is that Christian fundamentalists are simply going to ignore it. The fact that he went to Harvard is not likely to endear him to the Sarah Palins of this world , and while he wears his learning lightly, having any learning at all is an automatic black mark in large swaths of the hinterland.
For his part, Coogan makes it very clear that he has grown weary of turning the other cheek. His message to other biblical scholars is that they should take the battle to the enemy, the enemy being the "amateurs, the hyperpious and crazies" who would impose their understanding of the Bible on the rest of us.
Coogan lives and teaches in Massachusetts, and his tipping point came when opponents of same-sex marriage descended on the state, Bibles in hand. This sent him scurrying back to his own Bible to see what it really said, and the result is a thorough rubbishing of just about everything the religious right teaches about family, sex and marriage.
What makes Coogan's critique so devastating is that he knows the Bible inside out - not just its many books, but also all the other books that for one reason or another never made it into the canon. Add to this his complete mastery of the languages in which the Bible was written and you start to appreciate that most of what passes for exegesis is simply cherry-picking, if not outright wishful thinking.
Marriage is perhaps the best example. The U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, defines that wobbly institution as the union of one man and one woman. The idea was to discourage individual states from sanctioning same-sex marriages, and the people who supported the bill did so on the assumption that they were upholding the Bible's teachings on marriage.
A very strong case (Coogan's) can be made for saying that what the Bible actually teaches is that marriage is the union of one man and an indefinite number of women. Lamech had two wives. Abraham had three, Jacob four, and his brother Esau five. Nobody knows how many wives Gideon had, but between them they are supposed to have produced 70 sons.
Coogan's point is a basic one: If you are a Christian fundamentalist and believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, you don't get to pick and choose.
That still leaves the fact that there is nothing to pick and choose from when it comes to gay rights. The Bible is hostile to homosexuality, and here all Coogan can do is try to soften the blow by pointing out that neither Testament has a great deal to say on the subject, certainly when compared to today's crop of evangelical preachers.
Coogan's advice is that you ask yourself: What would Jesus do? This puts it too crudely, for he never actually uses the phrase, but as much is implied when he urges the reader to be guided by the spirit rather than the letter of the Bible. Or as Coogan himself puts it, "How - and even if - a particular text speaks to an individual or community in the present must be determined by testing it with the touchstone of fair and equal treatment of the neighbour, as seen in the strikingly similar sayings of Hillel [the Elder]and Jesus."
I mentioned that Coogan makes his home in Massachusetts, and in finding a workaround for the Bible he is knowingly following in the footsteps of that state's abolitionists. One of the great problems this group faced was that the fact that the Old Testament was generally accepting of slavery. To take the Bible at face value, as so many Americans did, was to cede the moral high ground to the South, and so the solution abolitionists hit on was twofold: They started dabbling in higher criticism, or what is today more generally known as biblical scholarship, and they directed their appeals to the spirit rather than the letter of the Bible.
A century and a half later, and we're still using the Bible to argue the pros and cons of basic human rights. But Michael Coogan's excellent book is a reminder that the Bible cuts both ways, and that in the right hands it might once again become a force for positive social change.
Jessica Warner is a member of the graduate faculty at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book is All or Nothing: A Short History of Abstinence in America.