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.