I accept some of the thoughtful points made by the previous review but it's missed the intention of the book. I read this book when it first came out, and it was the first book I'd seen which offered to fundamentalists themselves the escape tools they might need to dig themselves out of their absurd position. In my dialogues with fundamentalists it proved to be a helpful corrective (I'm not recommending it as something to beat fundamentalists over the head with) as it proved its points clearly and with reference to key 'proof-texts' much used in debate.
The previous review's point that Barr's book offers little constructive with which to replace fundamentalism is well taken. The book is, after all, called 'Escaping from Fundamentalism.' It doesn't consider which Swiss border one might be escaping to, but it can at least reassure fundamentalists that when they understand the errors tackled in the book that they are not being disloyal to their Scripture. In this limited aim the book succeeds quite well.
James Barr can be an infuriating author. A profoundly learned man of good sense and acute in argument, he can nevertheless appear negative, and sometimes seems to drop discussions before he gets as far as reaching a constructive conclusion. In his response to other scholars (not an issue in this book, to any great extent) he often seems obsessed with trivia rather than the major points at issue. Nevertheless, of its date this is a good book, which shows well enough that liberal or mainstream Christians can escape fundamentalism without giving up on serious engagement with the Bible.
But debate has moved on a long way since 1983, and I would not recommend this book today to anyone starting afresh on serious biblical study, and coming from a fundamentalist background. Culturally and politically, we live in a different world, and indeed it is no longer even fashionable today to use the term fundamentalist in Barr's sense, to refer to an evangelical committed to an approach to the Bible which does not accept the possibility of its containing historical or doctrinal error. (The term tends to be used, rather, of conservative religious movements more widely, but often with a limitation to those who adopt extremist or violent positions.) Under the pressure of theological and cultural developments, moreover, many mainstream evangelicals have moved further from fundamentalism than they were in the 1970s and 80s, when, as Barr argued here and elsewhere, they often spoke with two faces, using fundamentalist language to appeal to a conservative religious community while denying in wider academic or ecumenical contexts that they were actually fundamentalists. This change means that Barr's arguments are no longer perfectly applicable to mainstream evangelical leadership and it is harder to accuse them of leading ordinary churchgoers astray about the Bible. Meanwhile, feminism and other movements have acclimatised Christians to the idea of seeing the Bible as an imperfect human response to divine revelation—something which Barr (though he might not speak in precisely these terms) had rather to labour to prove a generation ago.
So in reading this book, you are now reading history rather than contemporary theology.
Some books change your life. This one changed mine. Some bits are a bit slow going, and some bits I'm not convinced about, but on the whole it opened my eyes at I time when I needed them to be opened. If you have any experience of strict Christian living, whether in the past or in the present, you should read this book.
Given that the most 'successful' churches tend towards fundamentalism and that I wasn't really aware that evangelicals existed that weren't also fundamentalists, I found this book informative and pastorally caring for those within that tradition. It suggests that fundamentalism is a bondage to 'the law' and is the opposite of reformation principles and appeals to a particular type of person. He shows how one doesn't need biblical criticism to arrive at his position because the bible contradicts itself internally. He argues that as Jesus used parables, so God inspired scripture as a sort of parable — literal truth or otherwise does not matter. He argues a right understanding of prophecy, looks at the formulation of the canon and of textual errors. He shows how orthodoxy is not a static concept and how fundamentalism has never been 'orthodox' and urges a valuation of liberal Protestantism and of Catholicism, finally arguing that evangelicals have a lot to give the church in terms of persona relationship with God, but in terms of a view of scripture which is selective and wrong.
This book should be read by anyone who may have been immersed in fundamentalism but who is seeking something less rigid and more intellectually acceptable. At the same tine it is respectful of beliefs which may be deeply held and it is not trying to pull a person away from any adherence.