Why Progressives and Liberals Need to Read Disarming Scripture Too

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dr James McGrath recently interviewed me about my new book Disarming Scripture. It seems that much of the time I'm addressing folks who are, for lack of a better word, recovering evangelicals. James instead comes at things as a progressive/liberal. In the intro he writes, "I had seen lots of interviews and blog posts about the book’s challenge for those with conservative views of the Bible, and wanted to find out how Derek saw its message for progressives and liberals."

The following interview was originally published on Patheos (Exploring our Matrix)

JM: What led you to decide to write this book in the first place? Was it primarily your own wrestling with the Biblical texts that had a disturbing character to them? Or was it what people do with the Bible, using it to justify violence? Or some combination of the two, or something else?
DF: It began as a personal struggle of faith. I saw these “texts of terror” and was deeply disturbed by them. If this was part of my Bible how could I say that it was good, let alone the Good Book? However, it developed out of that personal focus into a broader one as I began to see how people in the past, and people now were really being hurt by these texts. In short, I began to see what Jesus was seeing in his time and how people—those he called the least, the poor—were being hurt by how the religious leaders of his time were reading Scripture.

The light-bulb moment that lead to the book was when I discovered that the way I had learned to read the Bible as an Evangelical looked a lot like how the Pharisees were doing it, and that the way Jesus was reading it was completely different. The Pharisees’ reading can be described as unquestioning obedience, and the way Jesus reads can be described as faithful questioning. As I dug deeper I found that Paul was doing the same thing as Jesus, and I found that this way of faithful questioning has deep Jewish roots going back to the Old Testament itself, which is not one single homogenized view, but instead a record of dispute where its canon contains authors presenting opposing arguments. Job argues with Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes contradicts Proverbs, Ruth questions Ezra/Nehemiah. In each case we have people questioning religious violence. Such questioning, I am convinced, is not a sign of a weak faith, but an absolutely essential part of a healthy faith.

JM: Your book is presented in most of the publicity materials as controversial. From my own progressive/liberal Christian perspective, however, it didn’t sound controversial at all, but exciting. And it turned out that some of the points you make – challenging inerrancy and infallibility, plotting a trajectory through Scripture, and using Jesus’ model of Scriptural interpretation as our own – are ones that I’ve often sought to make. And so let me ask you this: what do you see as the main message of your book for readers who are already sympathetic to your approach? Is it likely to be just encouragement in what we already think, or do you think your book has a challenging and potentially controversial message for Christians moderates, liberals, and progressives?

DF: I’m glad you find it exciting. I do too! Controversial is a term marketing people like to use, so I’m not so sure about that. What I would say though is that the book is equally challenging to people from a variety of perspectives including those coming from mainline, progressive, and anabaptist backgrounds. It’s challenging for two reasons:

First, the book takes a really honest look at the troubling texts of Scripture, which is something a lot of progressives tend to avoid. We want to instead focus on the parts that are about caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, and so on—and those parts are indeed in there! But there are also some deeply disturbing and awful things in the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, that we need to face.

Progressives and Mainliners often give the impression that this is all just a matter of misinterpretation—if we would only understand the genre, cultural context, or this or that word in the original language, then it would all be fine. Again, that is all important. But the fact is, there are some things in the Old Testament—things like genocide, infanticide, rape, slavery, and even cannibalism—that are really just as bad as you think they are. It’s not just a matter of misinterpretation. We need to face that head on.

Secondly, the book takes these things that many progressives are drawn to—like reading the Bible through a Jesus-lens, reading on a trajectory, and so on—and really works out how to do that practically. So my hope is that a progressive reader would find that the book is saying things that are on the tip of their tongues, but really working out in a deep and practical way how that works out in our lives of faith together.

Take for example the idea of reading Scripture like Jesus. This begs the question “which Jesus?” Is it the Jesus that someone like Shane Claiborne sees, or is it the Jesus of Mark Driscoll? Hyper-conservatives would agree that we should read the Bible with a Jesus-lens, but would arrive at widely different conclusions about what that looks like. So how do we determine what is right?
What I propose in the book is that Jesus did not appeal to authority arguments, but was constantly drawing us away from them and towards evaluating things on their merit. We should “look at the fruits” he says. That is, we should evaluate the effects in people’s lives and determine if it leads to flourishing or to harm. That’s hard work to be sure, but in the end where Jesus is leading us, if we learn to adopt his approach to Scripture, is to being morally emancipated. It’s about learning to be moral adults, about learning to see what Jesus sees, having the mind of Christ, rather than shutting off our minds as we read.

JM: Suppose someone decides to push back and question the notion of a trajectory, suggesting that the Bible is simply diverse, how would you make the case to them that the Bible, taken as a whole, points in a particular direction, even if it doesn’t speak with a single unified voice on the subject of violence?

DF: Well, actually, I would agree that the Old Testament, in particular, is simply diverse. It is a multi-vocal text written by multiple authors expressing multiple, and at times, contradictory views and moral visions. The way to identify the trajectory we should take as Christians is to look at what Jesus embraces and what he rejects from the Old Testament. Jesus embraces a narrative that is focused on compassion, and we can find that narrative running throughout the Old Testament, but it is not in fact the majority narrative. The narrative Jesus identifies with is the minority voice in Scripture, the voice of protest in the name of compassion. That minority voice—the one crying out from the wilderness, from the margins—is the voice of the suffering servant. The majority voice is the voice of power and domination. It’s also important to stress that Jesus would not want us to identify with that minority voice simply because he does, but because we see what he sees, because we get his heart for the least. We follow in his way because we recognize that it is good, because we get why grace is amazing.

So when I talk about trajectory, I’m actually referring to how we read the New Testament. We need to learn to identify where they were headed and take it further, rather than reading the New Testament as the final word. We need to see it as the floor, not the ceiling. A clear example of this is slavery. The New Testament, read in a flat way, says “you can own slaves, just be nice to them.” However, today we regard slavery as utterly wrong. A trajectory reading thus recognizes that the New Testament was taking important steps away from slavery, and continues in that same direction, moving to abolish it.

We can and must apply that same trajectory approach to a host of other issues—gender equality, sexual minorities, race relations, corporal punishment of children, our criminal justice system, how we deal with international conflict, and our country’s addiction to violence. The bottom line here is that the goal of a trajectory reading is to read Scripture in a way that leads us to love, leads us forward, putting us on the cutting edge of moral advance, rather than tethering us to the past. That is what Jesus was doing in his time, and it is our task to continue this in our time. I think that’s exciting, and something our world desperately needs.

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PODCAST: Luke Norsworthy interviews me about Disarming Scripture

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Here's an interview I did with Luke Norsworthy on his podcast "Newsworthy with Norsworthy" discussing my new book Disarming Scripture. You can listen here, or get it on iTunes. Enjoy!


The Scripture Cannot Be Broken... Or Can It?

Saturday, December 06, 2014

There are a number of trump card proof-texts that get brought out to defend the way of unquestioning obedience. One of them comes from Jesus himself when he says, "The Scripture cannot be broken."

Checkmate. End of discussion.

The problem is that this "plain reading" of Scripture completely misses the context of what Jesus was actually saying. Let's take a look:

The setting is one of violence in the name of religion. John tells us that the "Jews" were going to kill Jesus for blasphemy. It's important to stress that Jesus was a Jew, too. So the problem is not with "the Jews" or even with "the Pharisees" but with religion being used for harm. The problem is with violence in the name of religion. So when Christians later persecuted Jews, and based this on John's statement that "the Jews" wanted to kill Jesus, this is an example of tragically missing the point. 

The NT critique of the Pharisees (including John's term "the Jews") is misunderstood when it is read as a critique of Judaism. It is rather an intra-religious critique within Judaism of a particular way of reading the Bible which is characterized by unquestioning obedience regardless of the harm it does. This toxic way can be found in all religions. So to read this right we need to begin by looking at our own hearts and lives--getting "the plank out of our own eye" as Jesus says before we go pointing our finger at some other group.

Okay, with that very important idea in mind, let's return to the text. Jesus, likely with a sarcastic tone, asks them which of his good deeds they are going to kill him for? They answer, 

"For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God" (John 10:33). 

This is where Jesus says that famous line that is so often taken out of context,

Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34-36 NASB)

Note first of all that Jesus does not say "it is written in the law" but "it is written in your law." Why does he stress your law? I'll return to that in a second, but first let's look at the Psalm Jesus is quoting. This is Psalm 82 which begins,
God stands in the assembly of El;
in the midst of the gods he renders judgment. (Psalm 82:1 NET)
This reflects a very early view which saw Yahweh as a member of the pantheon of gods presided over by the high god El. At this stage Judaism was not yet a monotheistic faith and instead believed in multiple gods. The move towards monotheism at this stage was to regard Yahweh as above the other gods. (Note that the reason "gods" is not capitalized is not pejorative, but because it refers to the concept of a god, as opposed to a proper noun which is always capitalized.)

The reason the Psalmist says Yahweh stands superior to the other deities is because Yahweh shows justice in caring for the oppressed,
He says, “How long will you make unjust legal decisions
and show favoritism to the wicked? (Selah)
Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless!
Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!
Rescue the poor and needy!
Deliver them from the power of the wicked! (Ps 82:2-4)
Note that the one speaking here is Yahweh and those addressed are the other gods. Next we come to the part Jesus quotes, 
I said, 'You are gods; all of you are sons of the Most High...' (verse 6)
 and it continues,
 '...Yet you will die like mortals; you will fall like all the other rulers.' (verse 7)
So it's a Psalm about Yahweh executing judgment on the other gods in defense of the "poor and needy."

We can see progress here in that their view is moving away from a pagan conception of amoral tribal  deities exercising raw power to harm the weak, and towards a conception of deity characterized by defending the oppressed. The idea is emerging that God is not just about raw power, God is good, God is righteous, God is just. This is a radical idea in a world of despotic kings and tribal warfare. God is not defined from the perspective of the powerful, but from the perspective of the poor and needy. 

At the same time we are still at an early stage, both in their view of God as one among many other gods in the pantheon of El, and also in that the way the poor and needy are defended is by killing others. We are a long way here from the way of Jesus and enemy love. When Jesus, God incarnate, comes to defend the poor and needy he does not do this by killing anyone. The expectation however was that the Messiah would do exactly that. They awaited a warrior-king messiah who would kill the enemy oppressors, the hated Gentiles. Jesus was a very different messiah who declared God's way entailed a message of redemption for both Jew and enemy Gentiles.

While the judaism of Jesus time still embraced violence as a means to bring about justice, it had changed quite a bit in regards to how it viewed other gods, developing into a strictly monotheistic faith that denied the existence of all other deities. What we need to appreciate here is the irony of Jesus' statement that "the Scripture cannot be broken" since Jesus is rather obviously not reading the very Scripture he is quoting as it was intended by the original author. No one was, because Judaism no longer believed in multiple gods as it had before. 

What this gets down to is how we read Scripture. If we read it in a wooden "God said it, that settles it" way then we need to believe in multiple gods. It is written, "I have said you are gods" and the Scripture cannot be broken. That gets us into a pickle.

That "pickling" is exactly what Jesus is doing in his encounter with the religious fundamentalists of his day. He is trapping them in their own logic. He says "it is written in your law" stressing the your in order to emphasize their particular way of reading which was characterized by unquestioning obedience even when that interpretation led to harm. 

What we need to do instead is learn to read the Bible like Jesus. His way of reading allows for questioning, allows for change, always motivated by compassion. Scripture should not be followed unquestioningly even if it hurts people, rather Scripture serves a servant function which is meant to lead us to love. It is read right when it leads to love, and it is read wrong when it leads to hurt.

When Jesus says "the Scripture cannot be broken" it is said with a sting and a smile, knowing he has caught them in a trap of their own making. We read this best when we imagine Jesus saying it with a wry smile on his face, "the Scripture cannot be broken." 

It is sarcasm. It is said ironically. This kind of wry humor is typical of Jewish exegesis. This type of humorous response of Jesus is typical. Think of his retort "Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar" Or the story of the good Samaritan where the hated Samaritan is the example of the good neighbor. We find example after example of Jesus making these "gotcha" statements, and I think it would do us a lot of good to imagine him getting laughs from the people when he said it. 

We laugh at a good joke often because it is true. It's so spot on, so painfully ironic that we have to laugh. Comedians and prophets in this sense are not so far apart.



Announcing the Disarming Scripture book release and blog tour!

Monday, December 01, 2014

I'm thrilled to announce the official release of my new book

Disarming Scripture:

Cherry-Picking Liberals,
Violence-Loving Conservatives,
and Why We All Need to Learn
to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did

The book is available on Amazon both in paperback and Kindle and there's even a holiday special for the paperback where you can get 30% off!  Just use the code HOLIDAY30 at checkout. Awesome!

There's also a blog tour for the book planned. Throughout the week there will be reviews, interviews, excerpts, and insights for Disarming Scripture from some really great bloggers. I'll be updating this post with the tour stops as they appear, so be sure to check back here often for those updates as they come in!

I'm also looking forward to hearing from you--both here on this blog as well as in the reviews on Amazon--as you read the book. As an author I really value the chance to connect and interact with you, and look forward to lots of great conversations as we wrestle our way to a Jesus-shaped reading  of Scripture.


Stay tuned for more blog tour updates as they come in!

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