The Bible We Wish We Had And The Hermeneutic Of Denial

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Peter Enns has spoken of differentiating between the Bible we wish we had, and the Bible we actually do have. We might expect that if God were to write a book for us, it ought to contain perfect, unchanging, absolute truth which is plainly understandable. That is the way we think the Bible ought to be, similar to how we assume that if God is good and powerful then the world ought to be a place where there was no suffering or injustice.

But there is a big difference between the way we wish the world was, and the way we wish the Bible was, and the way they actually are. As Enns writes in The Bible Tells Me So

"This kind of Bible— the Bible we have— just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith... When we try to squish the Bible’s diverse voices into one voice, we are no longer reading the Bible we have— we are distorting it and cutting ourselves off from what it has to offer us."

Nowhere is this more true than in how conservative Evangelicals approach the issue of homosexuality. The assumption is that we can take what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, and trust that this can be taken as a timeless and binding view that we must uphold and defend, regardless of what science and life tell us, regardless of what our conscience tells us, regardless of what others tell us first hand. We are "safe" to discount others, discount our own moral conscience, discount what we find in our lives, and instead trust in the Bible here.

This was exactly the hermeneutical approach taken by conservative Christians in their defending of the perpetuation of institutionalized slavery in the United States. However, rather than finding a better way to approach Scripture based on understanding the mistakes of our past, conservatives continue to use this same approach of unquestioning obedience. 

To do this, they need to deny that there ever was a problem with how their Christian forefathers used that same approach to the Bible to justify slavery. For example, Tim Keller makes the claim that, "there was never any consensus or even a majority of churches that thought slavery and segregation were supported by the Bible.” The implication is that supporting slavery was always a minority view in the church. As I have pointed out before, that is simply not true. The reality is, the church has a long history of endorsing slavery based on the authority of the Bible, including the New Testament, which says that Christians can own slaves.

Others have argued that because slavery in ancient Rome was not based on race that this somehow makes it okay. This of course ignores the fact that slavery has always been characterized by dehumanizing violence, including rape. There is simply no way to paint slavery of any time as morally acceptable. Not the slavery of the Old Testament, not the slavery of Rome, and not the slavery endorsed by the church for centuries and centuries.

In his book Every Good Endeavor, Keller writes that, "Many critics of Christianity simply assume that the Bible wrongly endorsed slavery and that therefore it may be wrong about other things it teaches. Actually, biblical theology destroyed the coercive heart of the institution of slavery within the Christian community and finally led Christians to abolish the inevitably oppression-prone institution itself."

What Keller does not say is that the way of reading the Bible so that it leads to the abolition of slavery is a categorically different approach than the one he takes in regards to homosexuality. If we read the Bible as a timeless and eternal guide for God's morals, then we must conclude that either God wants slavery or that the Bible is wrong and cannot be trusted. That's one way, and it is a dead end.

In contrast, we have the way of reading the Bible that does lead to the abolition slavery. This involves learning to read the Bible on a trajectory, accepting that the Bible does not always provide us with timeless eternal truths that we must unquestioningly perpetuate and defend, but instead requires that we question and grow and develop -- moving in some cases beyond where the Bible is stuck in the morally wrong assumptions of the religious and political culture of the time. 

What we find is not a timeless and eternal blueprint, but a view that is on the one hand limited by the blinders of the surrounding culture, and at the same time giving us clues of how we need to grow beyond that, towards transforming our world to more and more take on the values of Jesus' politics and economy where, as Paul says, "There is division of slave or free... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).

If we want to read the Bible like that in regards to slavery, then we need to do the same in regards to homosexuality. Now, of course just because the Bible is wrong in endorsing slavery does not automatically mean that it is wrong in condemning homosexuality. However, it does necessarily follow that we cannot simply claim in regards to homosexuality that "this is what the Bible plainly teaches" and defend that. We need to instead look at the evidence in our lives and world, and learn how to morally discern what is good in connection with life and reality.

However, the predominate "party-line talking points" approach of conservative Evangelical leaders today (such as Keller, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today Magazine, and so on) in regards to homosexuality is to not do that at all. Their strategy in the culture war is to instead utterly ignore everything but what "the Bible clearly teaches." This approach is an exact mirror of how Christians in the past defended slavery in the United States.

Conservative Christians like Keller continue to make the same mistake today with the issue of homosexuality that their forefathers made in the past with slavery. Nothing has changed in how the Bible is approached. Nothing is learned from the past. Instead we have a hermeneutic of denial -- denying the reality of the past and the harm it caused, and denying the harm that same approach of unquestioning obedience continues to cause today.

It seems clear to me that the priority is not on caring for the oppressed and the marginalized, but rather defending the way we wish the Bible was. Conservative evangelicals wish the Bible were a book they could unquestioningly look to for timeless and absolute moral guidelines, and have so based their faith on that assumption that to question it is to question the very inspiration of Scripture and with it the very foundation of their faith.

That's why they so vigorously defend it, they feel threatened. It's understandable that people who feel threatened become blind to how they are hurting others. It's understandable, but it's not okay. In focusing on defending their system of the Bible they wish they had, the focus is placed on defending that fictional view, at the expense of hurting the very people Jesus said we should especially care for.

Labels: , , ,


How To Read The Bible Spiritually, Not Religiously

Saturday, November 14, 2015

What is the foundation of our faith? What is our faith based on? One of the most prevalent approaches within Evangelical circles is to make the Bible the primary foundation. This is typical of Calvinism, and in its stronger forms can involve a distrust and dismissal of things like prayer, worship, and mystical experience. In other words, anything that might be connected with feelings and emotions is seen as suspect. The rational is equally mistrusted. People are taught that they can't trust their own thoughts or moral judgments. 

The problem here is not with the Bible, so much as it is with a particular way of reading the Bible which results in a faith that is disconnected from our experiences, relationships, feelings, and thoughts -- in short, disconnected from life and what makes us human. 

That means that rather than having an experience of God, rather than having a living relationship, all there is is the Bible. It is not the Bible as a means to lead us to God, but the Bible as a replacement for God. The Bible being our one and only source, becomes our de facto god. 

When we then discover that the Bible is morally fallible, this shakes the very foundation of our faith. We then need to figure out for ourselves what is right and wrong, but we have zero tools for doing this. Since we've been taught for so long to mistrust our own ability to make moral judgments, these parts of our brains are like atrophied muscles.

That brings us to the Charismatic movement which also has had a huge impact on Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, it does not offer much of an alternative. Here the problem is not that feelings are involved, but that very little thought has gone into how to connect our own life experiences with the Bible. Really all we get is something like "Just make sure that it does not go against the Bible, your pastor, or what your church friends think (in that order)" In other words, it boils down to falling back on authoritarianism, which is where we started. There's no thought of how we can be counter-cultural (including religious culture), or how we can question abusive authority like Jesus did.

What I'd like to propose is a third option that goes like this: We live our lives, and we have experiences. Say, for example, you experience what it is like to be loved unconditionally by someone. Like that guy who wrote Amazing Grace, you experience how that kind of "unmerited love" breaks you, changes you, heals you. Or maybe you experience what it means to forgive someone who has hurt you, and how your hurt and the relationship itself is healed and renewed through that. You live those things, and in that experience you recognize that, while these things were by no means easy or comfortable -- in fact, it was extremely hard and difficult -- yet, nevertheless, there was something amazing going on, something deeply good, something... God

That's spirituality, where we connect those deep things in life to meaning, where we see what maters, what we were made for, where we recognize our telos.

Then you pick up the Bible and read where people are making those exact same connections, living out those same things, and you say "Yes! That's exactly what I'm experiencing, too!" The Bible then is not read as a catalog of dogmatic statements detached from life, but becomes a means for us to explain and understand what we experience, connecting it to meaning. 

That's the function of story, and why a movie or novel can bring you to tears as it helps you connect life experience with meaning. The Bible is filled with stories, and the New Testament in particular is a testimony of a people's encounter with God among us.  Their purpose in writing is for us to encounter the same living Someone that they had. That's why John writes,

"We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!" (1 John 1:3-4 MSG)

The Bible helps us to connect the dots between our own life experience of what is truly and deeply good, so we can recognize, as we walk in grace and forgiveness and love, "God is in this! This is the way! This is the life! This is the truth!"

The Bible has a vital role to play here in that it helps us to connect the dots, pointing us to Christ. But equally important is that we are living our faith out, growing in it, walking it out. Even better is to be walking it out together in a Jesus-shaped community which may, or may not, meet in a building with a pointy roof on the weekend to sing songs and listen to a talk. The important point here is not the thing that happens on the weekend, but that there is actually a community, a group of people who are all living this out in their day-to-day lives. When that's a reality then it becomes possible to benefit from the shared wisdom of others who have been down the road you are now on. However, when church is instead a thing we attend as spectators, that's not actually community at all.

Here I see the most fruits from those in the peace churches -- Quakers, Mennonites, and Anabaptists. They seem to have a deep history of walking out what it means to live in forgiveness, grace and enemy love. So those are the traditions I'm looking to, and hoping to learn from, as I stumble along towards the light.

Labels: ,


My Disarming Scripture interview with David Peck

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A while back David Peck interviewed me for an episode of the Drew Marshall Show. We talked about my book Disarming Scripture, the problem of violence in the Bible, as well as the dangers of fundamentalism.

If you missed the live radio broadcast of that interview, you can now listen to the full audio interview on David's podcast Face2Face. Enjoy!

Download audio

Labels: ,


Wrestling with God's Violence in Matthew's Gospel (Part 2)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Last time we discussed the problem of God's violence in Matthew's Gospel. In short, we find in Matthew's Gospel a clear and beautiful articulation of how we are to walk in Jesus' way of radical forgiveness and enemy love. However, the more we learn to walk in this way, the more we see how it is incongruent with the violent picture of God we also find in Matthew's Gospel. Rather than God looking like Jesus, God instead looks like an angry human king.

In particular, we looked at the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 where we read that the king (presumably representing God in the parable) was "furious" ordering his bond servants to "put those murderers to death and set their city on fire" (v7). We also hear about a man without wedding clothes who also outrages the king. The king again orders his servants to ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’ (v14).

The typical way this parable is read is to see the authority figure making an "example" out of the man without wedding clothes. In other words, things like public beatings and executions have the intent of showing the justice of those in authority and sending a message of "that's what you get" to the populace. 

We see this in the preceding chapter in the parable of the tenants where we find a related theme of tenants who have mistreated the master's servants and son. Jesus asks "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" and the people answer, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end" (Mt 21:40-41). So when the authority comes and sees that the people have been bad, what is the "right" thing for the authority to do? The people say the right response is one of violence. That is their expectation. That's why executions in the past were not done in secret, but in the public square where everyone would gather to watch the hanging or burning at the stake. Jesus was crucified at the top of a hill by the Roman authorities, left to hang naked for everyone to see.

This is somewhat reversed in stories where the "rebels" are the ones we relate to. The Jews had long been oppressed by foreign powers -- first by Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, and then finally— centuries later in the time of Jesus— by the Romans. Israel was passed on as the spoils of war from one successive occupying power to the next. So their messianic hopes revolved around the coming of a warrior-king messiah modeled after David, the warrior-king. Here the expectation was that instead of the Roman Gentile king violently punishing the people, things would be set right by the messiah violently punishing the Gentiles, and being set in place over them as the rightful king.

So the one who is king is changed, but the way a king acts with violence is the same. It's a reversal of power, but the means of power is unchanged. The "good" king is just as violent as the bad one. It's simply a matter of what team you are on.

This is not just how it was seen at the time of Jesus, it is equally how we see things today. Consider the plot line of stories like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It's about a little guy (a farm boy named Luke or a tiny Hobbit) who must take on pure evil, and the means to doing this ends up being violence. For example in Star Wars the movie ends with farm boy Luke blowing up the Death Star. Boom! This is followed by scenes of people cheering. But that "Death Star" was filled with humans. So why are we all cheering that? One reason is because all the "Storm-troopers" (who represent Nazis) wear masks covering their faces. So this is a story that is masked. The masks dehumanize them, and so it is okay to see them killed in mass. In the movie the heroes frequently grin or cheer when they kill one, like it's a fun game. The violence is seen as just and good by us.

So this is not just a story from a past primitive people, it is a story we still tell today. It is a story that has characterized how we see things for centuries upon centuries, and still does. Killing "bad guys" is what justice looks like. That's the story we believe. That's the story of our world, our culture, adopted and given legitimacy by our religion.

Until it is unmasked by the cross.

Here we have a story of a king (Caesar) who has a man (Jesus) publicly executed. This is supposed to show everyone the authority of Rome, shaming the crucified one, showing his sinfulness, weakness, and illegitimacy. As Paul says, Christ became "a curse" when he hung on the cross (Gal 3:13).

But the Gospels do not tell the story like this. They do not tell the crucifixion as a story of a just punishment of the guilty, but of the unjust punishment of the innocent. God is not seen in the punishing authority of the king, but in the weak and shamed victim--Jesus. "God was in Christ" Paul tells us (2 Cor 5:19).

The cross unmasks the illusion that the authority's violent show of power represents justice. The scapegoat is innocent. The authorities are in the wrong. This is not revealed by Jesus conquering the authorities by violence, but by suffering violence. Again, Paul writes "having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15). Rather than the authorities making a public spectacle of the scapegoat, the scapegoat makes a public spectacle of the authorities.

We see this with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and today in places like Ferguson where the authorities' violence reveals their injustice to the world. We see that the one who we had previously seen as bad (the black man) is in fact the innocent victim of violent abusive power.
Once our eyes are opened like this, we see everything differently. Stories that before celebrated violence now are upsetting to us because they no longer seem just and good. Once we have stood at the foot of the cross, the story in Matthew of a king punishing a man without wedding clothes can never be the same. We begin to ask whether God in Christ would not identify with the man, rather than the king. The man was without wedding clothes, but Jesus "had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isa 53:2). In the Gospels we hear the story of a king who has his servants arrest, beat and crucify a man. When we then read a story of a king who has a man tied up and cast into darkness, it's hard not to see Jesus in that man.

Now, did Matthew see Jesus in the man in his telling of Jesus' parable? Was the intent of Jesus'  parable to portray the king as unjust, rather than as representing God? Perhaps. But it is not necessary that it does. It is often the case that Jesus' parables begin with the common assumptions of the culture. Jesus begins there, and then pull us towards a new way of seeing. We have seen that the people assumed that it was good for a king to act in violent retribution, exclaiming, "bring those wretches to a wretched end!" We have also seen that our stories today still often are characterized by that same assumption where we cheer when the bad guys are killed. It is entirely possible that this parable begins with that pre-cross assumption that it is good when kings punish the disobedient.  But reading it post-cross we need to question the goodness of the violence of the powers and authorities, and indeed we need to question whether God is like a king at all. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus says,
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28).
So if God is like Jesus, then God is like a servant, and not a like a king. When we read through the lens of the cross, this undoes all of our stories. It undoes and unmasks the stories that define us, including the stories we find in our sacred texts. We stumble over this parable in Matthew because we have had that story unmasked by this very Gospel. The cross has taught us to stumble. For we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23). As it is written:
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” (Rom 9:33)

May our stumbling at the foot of the cross lead us to fall into the arms of Jesus.

Labels: , ,


This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.