Saturday, January 11, 2014
Many people have proposed the need to interpret Scripture through a Jesus-shaped lens. Some recent proponents include Peter Enns in Inspiration and Incarnation, Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible, Eric Seibert in Disturbing Divine Behavior, as well as Wayne Jacobsen in his video series The Jesus Lens, and many others.
It's an attractive proposal, but as soon as we attempt to practically apply it we bump into a lot of questions as to what this would look like in practice. The first question is what one means exactly. There are basically two camps here:
One uses the Jesus lens to show how all Scripture points to Christ and thus would argue that troubling texts like the commands to commit genocide are actually good and loving (Wayne Jacobsen for example takes this approach). Others would instead use the Jesus lens as a way of evaluating which texts reflect Christ and which do not and conclude that genocide and Jesus are incompatible (an example here would be Eric Seibert). So while I have a deep appreciation for Wayne Jacobsen in many regards (there is a lot of great stuff in his series!) I disagree with him here, and instead take the approach of Eric Seibert.
This still leaves us with the question of application: how does this second approach of using a Jesus lens to critique religious violence play out in practice exactly? This is of course a huge topic, which I will be addressing in detail in my forthcoming book, but the value of a blog like this is it allows for a conversation to take place and thus for theology to be interactive, communal, and collaborative. With that relational goal in mind I'd like to address a question that was asked in the comment section of a recent post here.
Re: using a Christocentric hermeneutic to critique OT (or even NT) texts... once you make the decision to use Christ's way of using Scripture as a way to make judgment calls on whether, for instance, Numbers 31 accurately reflects who God is, then one has to call into question how we can be sure that the Gospels themselves are fully accurate in their portrayal of Jesus. Should they be considered 100% reliable, or do certain parts need critique as well... and if we do critique a NT portrayal of Jesus, what reliable yardstick must we use?
Reading theologically, our primary focus needs to be on ethics and discipleship, so by asking "are they 100% reliable?" I don't take this to mean "are they historically reliable in regards to science and miracles?" (a question that modernism seemed to get stuck on) but rather "are they completely reliable as a guide to life and behavior as we seek to follow Jesus today?"
Of course the expected answer would be "Yes they are!" but this very quickly gets us in trouble. Consider Jesus statement "if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off." Raise your hand if you have obeyed this 100%. Gosh, that's funny, I don't see any hands (or should I say mean amputated stumps?). How about where Jesus says "If anyone does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple." Which of you who are parents hate your kids? Would you want to go to a seminar on parenting where they taught you to hate for Jesus (and also taught your kids to hate you, too!). I don't think so.
So when reading Jesus it becomes imperative that we not simply and uncritically apply what he says without question. In fact, taking Jesus literally would clearly lead to abuse--hatred, chopped off body parts, and so on. We thus need to really think through how we can apply the teaching of Jesus in a way that is not hurtful. While I don't know anyone who has chopped off a limb, there are quite a few people who have been told by their pastor or priest to stay in a physically abusive domestic environment because Jesus would want them to.
The point of all of this is that we must question as we read the New Testament, we must seek to understand, otherwise if we instead simply blindly accept and obey without understanding this will inevitably lead to abuse and hurt. Obedience is not possible without understanding. So we must approach the text critically, we must question. Anything less is morally irresponsible. Jesus' own practice of questioning Scripture models this for us, and it applies equally to our reading of Jesus. The main thing Jesus is trying to do with his provocative statements of "love your enemy" and "hate your family" is to get us to think, to get us to question our assumptions of how the world works and what justice and power are like.
Now there's more to be said here. For example I have not addressed the New Testament in regards to the issues of slavery, child abuse, and state-sanctioned violence, all of which it does not seem to speak out against in a way that we would want to today. That brings up the question: do we follow the NT in what it affirms (and thus we can keep slaves as long as we are kind to them) or should we go further in the trajectory it begins which leads us to abolish slavery, not hit our kids and outlaw capital punishment.
I would argue for a trajectory approach here. So again, we see that we are not viewing the NT as 100% reliable if that means they are the final word as to Christian practice. In that regard, let's again have a show of hands of who here owns slaves? Nobody. We now call that human trafficking. It's the other things that we are inconsistent with--corporal punishment and how we see the legitimacy of the state to torture people or to kill them in the name of justice, claiming to be a "Christians nation" as we do.
Let me end with the question of the yardstick we must use as we evaluate what it means to faithfully follow Jesus today in the 21st century, especially when this takes us beyond where the NT itself stopped in the 1st century. I'd suggest that the yardstick is what the Anabaptists call the "hermeneutic of obedience." That is, as we as a community seeking to follow Jesus and his way of enemy love put this into practice in our lives, we will be able to evaluate from that life of discipleship what faithfulness to Jesus needs to look like. We look at the fruits, the results of the life we are living as to whether it produces flourishing and peace or whether it results in harm and damage. That's our yardstick, and that is the yardstick that Jesus' first disciples used, too.
That's my proposal. But since our yardstick is one formed together in Jesus-shaped community, this is something that we need to work through together, in a dialog not a monolog. So let's talk about it together in the comments!