The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, A Second Look

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Dismissal Solution club (I'm the second from the left)
As some of you know, I’ve been digging into Greg Boyd’s new book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God As some of you have pointed out to me, he liberally cites my work in Disarming Scripture. So naturally, I hold a particular interest in Boyd’s most recent thoughts on the subject, both because the topic is very close to my heart, but also because I’m frequently referenced in the book.

I am currently about half-way through the first volume. The first part if the book really impressed me, because Greg boldly confronts the problematic frequent OT depictions of a "violent warrior god," insisting we must "abandon all attempts to defend" these depictions, and instead "permanently crucify" this understanding of God, replacing it with an understanding of God revealed in Christ crucified. You can read my review of that part of the book here.

But then I got to chapter 8, in which Greg addresses the works of Eric Seibert (Disturbing Divine Behavior), Peter Enns (The Bible Tells Me So), myself (Disarming Scripture), and others, grouping us all into what he calls the “dismissal solution” (more on that unflattering term later). Greg defines this “dismissal solution” as seeking to “discredit” the OT based on “historical, ethical, theological, and logical grounds” (341). He then identifies Seibert and Enns as falling into the above “historical” category, and further names me and others as belonging to his “dismissal solution” as well, saying,

“Something similar could be argued about the work of C.S. Cowles, Derek Flood, and Dora Mbuwayesango, who reject violent depictions of God primarily on theological grounds, as well as about the work of Wes Morriston, Randal Rauser, and Paul Anderson, who advocate similar solutions, primarily on ethical grounds.” pp. 342-343

Note above that Greg identifies my rejection of violent depictions of God on theological grounds, rather than historical grounds. I’ll return to that shortly, but first let me address the historical grounds that he identifies with Seibert and Enns. Greg does not actually disagree with the archeological evidence these claims are based on (extensive archeological findings in the later part of the 20th century have convinced the vast majority of scholars today that the genocide accounts recorded in the book of Joshua are largely fictional), but argues basically that the moral message of the text is not changed simply because the historical veracity of the account is disproven. I agree. The moral message remains horrible in these texts describing merciless genocide in God’s name. The portrait of God here remains awful.

What is significant is that if the genocide accounts are a fiction, this makes it rather clear that the claim that God commanded them is equally a fiction. This matters because many biblical accounts use the evidence of miracles to back up their position. So we ask, if genocide is wrong, then why did God cause the walls of Jericho to fall down as the Israelites marched around them allowing them to then slaughter every living thing inside in the name of the Lord (Joshua 6)? When we learn from high-precision radiocarbon dating that Jericho was destroyed more than a century before Joshua ever got there, that kind of changes things. God, in fact, didn’t say this and didn’t do that because the entire thing simply never happened.

Again, this does not solve the problem of these violent depictions of God entirely. It does not change the fact that the violent ideology behind them is clearly deplorable. Nor does it change the indisputable reality that this very ideology has been used to justify very real historical genocide and bloodshed in the name of God ever since— genocide perpetrated by the Christian church no less. Greg however claims that Seibert and Enns believe the problem is solved with this historical evidence, and thus with this archeological evidence proceed to “dismiss” these violent depictions of God, and includes me in there too,

“[I am not] suggesting that these scholars altogether dismiss violent divine portraits, as if they found nothing of value in them. To the contrary, Seibert, Enns, Flood, and others have worked hard to pull positive lessons out of them. Yet, each author ultimately assumes that the problem posed by the biblical authors ascribing violence to God is to be solved by denying that the violence ever took place.” p. 343, emphasis added

I’m not sure what Pete would say about this charge (I’m hoping he blogs about it soon), but I am fairly certain he is misreading Eric’s position, and I certainly can say that he is misreading mine. As I read it, Eric Seibert’s larger goal is to develop a Christocentric hermeneutic, which is incidentally what Greg has been working to do as well thus far in his book. This is also my goal in Disarming Scripture. Namely, I reject committing violence in God’s name (which is not quite the same as rejecting “violent depictions of God” since it focuses on our moral actions, rather than on our theoretical understanding, meaning my core focus is practical, focusing on how we live) by adopting the way Jesus and Paul read Scripture, who both also rejected justifying violence in God’s name.

I would propose that Greg actually agrees, or at least he has in everything he has said previous to this chapter. For example, Greg refers to these “violent depictions of God” as “sub-Christ-like” (118), “sub-Christian” (376), “anthropomorphic projection onto God” which religiously is “essentially pagan” (196), reflecting the “limitations and sin” of the “biblical authors depictions of God” (376). He describes them as “horrific” (291), and states, “However revolted we are by violent divine portraits, must we not conclude that God must be unimaginably more so?” He further declares these texts “fallen” (332), and “evil” (288), and states that we should not follow them or allow them to shape who we understand God to truly be,

“If anything in the law or prophets fails to agree with Jesus, however, the implication is that it is Jesus who should be followed. Nothing in the law and prophets should be allowed to compromise what Jesus reveals about God’s character and will.” pp. 51-52

Greg avoids using the word “reject” although this is for all intents and purposes practically what he is doing. Along these lines he states that “We certainly ought to reject their violence” but that we “must do this in order to look past the surface meaning” (451). In other words, as far as what these texts actually say, as far as what the biblical authors intended them to say, Greg agrees we should reject them. He however wants us to continue to look deeper to find a hidden message beyond this. An evaluation of whether he successfully can show this hidden message will need to wait since Greg has not said anything about this yet in the book.

In his summary at the end of the chapter Greg writes, “I do not believe the Dismissal Solution is a viable option, at least not for those who feel compelled by our faith in Christ as Lord to embrace his high view of Scripture” (378). Since a central focus of my book was based on identifying how Jesus read Scripture, particularly in regards to religiously justifying violence, I must object to the overly-general and anachronistic assertion that Jesus holds to a “high view of Scripture” (a modern category), which frankly contradicts what Greg himself has written previously in his book where he agrees with me on how Jesus actually reads Scripture,

“One of the clearest expressions of the superior authority of Jesus is that while he certainly shared his Jewish contemporaries’ view that all Scripture is ‘God-breathed,’ he was nevertheless not afraid of repudiating it when he felt led by his Father to do so (Jn 8:28, 12:49-50, 14:31). While conservative exegetes have made valiant attempts to avoid this conclusion, it is hard to deny that Jesus taught things that “blatantly contradicts and overturn multiple Old Testament passages and principles,” as Derek Flood notes.” p. 67

In discussing Jesus “revoking the lex talonis” (an eye for an eye) he writes,

“Jesus was calling on people to respond to wrongdoers in a way that is ‘the direct opposite’ of the OT, as Flood notes. It is understandable that so many have attempted to soften this contrast, for, among other things, it conflicts with many people’s understanding of biblical inspiration to grant that Jesus explicitly repudiated commands of the OT. But these attempts simply have not been compelling.” p. 72

So Jesus “repudiates” Scripture. Repudiate is a synonym for reject. So Greg could have just as easily written that I “repudiate violent depictions of God primarily on theological grounds” and added by the way that Jesus does, too. This may “conflict with many people’s understanding of biblical inspiration” but that is nevertheless precisely how Jesus reads Scripture. Greg goes so far as to state that “This means to be considered a child of the Father in heaven by Jesus, one had to be willing to break the OT commands to retaliate” (73).

That’s why reading this chapter is so baffling. It feels like the Greg who wrote this chapter has not met the Greg who wrote the first part of the book before it. I also find it hard to overlook the pejorative way that Greg frames the entire chapter, beginning with how he introduces his “dismissal solution” at the outset of the chapter, claiming it finds its origins in the heretic Marcion,

“The first proposal, to be addressed in this chapter, was put forth by a second-century preacher named Marcion. He was uniformly branded as a heretic by the proto-orthodox theologians of the time because he solved the problem posed by the OT’s depictions of God by simply dismissing them, along with the entire OT, as an authority for Christians. I will thus label this response “the Dismissal Solution.” p. 336

However, Greg’s central claim is that his so-called “Dismissal Solution” “...assumes that the problem posed by biblical authors ascribing violence to God is to be solved by denying that this violence ever took place” (343), which Greg admits Marcion never actually said, “Contrary to a common misunderstanding of his position, Marcion did not reject the OT on the grounds that it was historically inaccurate or in any other respect untrue” (337).

Why not instead claim that this perspective finds its origins in Anabaptism, since as Greg notes, they did actually make this claim (127). Since Greg is sympathetic to Anabaptism this would then be both more accurate as well as more generous. Let’s be honest, associating those of us who he groups in the “dismissal solution” with someone who was “uniformly branded as a heretic” really can only serve as a form of guilt by association. I would have hoped for Greg to show a little more care in his words. To be clear, I am frankly not terribly worried about being accused of being a heretic. Looking at church history I observe that the heretics were usually the good guys. However, it is meant to discredit, and I’m sure that since Greg has surely been accused of being a heretic plenty of times and is surely not happy about that, I would appeal to Jesus’ motto of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” here.

Along these same lines, the term “dismissal” is clearly not one that any of us would chose to describe our position since it not-so-subtly implies that we are not really dealing with the issue or taking it seriously. In case you might think this was accidental, I note that Greg writes,

“I am compelled to take the genocidal portrait of God in this narrative just as seriously as I do any other canonical divine portrait. And this is the primary difference between my approach to violent divine portraits and the Dismissal Solution.” p. 370

It strikes me as rather self-evident that if a person writes an entire book on a subject, they can hardly be accused of not taking it seriously or of simply “dismissing” it. So how about we call it the “Repudiation Solution” instead, and you can call mine the “Repudiate Like Jesus Does Solution” or if you prefer, “Cruciform Repudiation” which does sound a lot catchier.

Greg is certainly welcome to disagree with me and others (as I’m sure he disagrees with those Anabaptists). I also welcome his attempt to build further upon the work we have done, taking it to places beyond where we were able to go. However, I wish he would then frame it in that way. Indeed, the only way one would be able to somehow look beyond what the texts say to find this “deeper” meaning, as Greg aims to do, is by first identifying that the “surface” meaning is in conflict with the God revealed in Jesus. In that sense, the work that I and others have done can be seen as building the foundation for what Greg aims to do. So why not suggest that he sees the need to build further, rather than seeking to repudiate and discredit what we have said? Why the stress on framing Seibert, Enns, myself, and others as rivals to him? It seems so unnecessary, and indeed unfortunate.

Again, as I mentioned earlier, Greg has not yet made his case for how to find this “deeper” meaning hidden in the text. So I will keep reading.

Continue to Part 3. Go back to Part 1.

UPDATE: Greg has responded to this review on his blog, and also on his podcast (the part with me begins at a little after 3 minutes in). Although I'm pretty sure it was recorded earlier, I actually found what Greg said on the podcast more helpful than the blog. He reflected that perhaps he had been too "harsh" or "pejorative" saying "It's always good to question yourself, and maybe I overplayed that." He also clarified that while he agrees that we must reject violent OT passages as being incongruent with the cruciform God, he sees this as a stepping stone which should lead us to wrestle with the text as part of our sacred Scripture seeking to understand how even this can point us to Christ. I appreciate him being reflective and gracious and agree that we should always question ourselves (I hope I can exhibit that too!), and I also appreciate him challenging all of us (myself included!) to continue to dig and wrestle with these difficult texts.

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The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, A First Look

Sunday, April 23, 2017

I’m reading through Greg Boyd’s new 2-volume work Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. I naturally don’t want to make any final assessments until I have read it all the way through, but I thought it may be of interest to share what Boyd is saying as I go. So I will largely simply be citing passages from the book, selecting the quotes that stand out to me, and mostly just letting these citations speak for themselves, perhaps adding a bit of context where necessary, and re-ordering them a bit as needed for the sake of clarity here. This is thus not a review nor is it a summary. Rather, it's stuff I personally found provocative and worth sharing in the hopes of sparking conversation.

In this first post I'll cover the introduction through chapter two. We begin with the introduction to volume 1 where Greg outlines the basic argument of his book. Greg first recounts how he came to write the book, a journey that led him to part ways with his fellow Evangelicals in regards to the interpretation of violent portraits of God in the OT.

“I can no longer agree with many of my fellow Evangelicals who insist that we must simply embrace these violent divine portraits as completely accurate revelations of God alongside the revelation we are given in Christ.” p xxix

“I was also supposed to accept every other portrait of God in Scripture as revelatory as well, including the violent portrait. Hence, like most Christians, I had a mental picture of a God who was Christ-like to a degree but who was also capable of commanding merciless genocide and bringing about familial cannibalism.” p xxxi

Greg consequently developed what he terms a “Cruciform Hermeneutic” which could be described as the thesis statement of his book,

“The driving conviction of the Cruciform Hermeneutic is that since Calvary gives us a perspective of God’s character that it is superior to what people in the OT had, we can also enjoy a superior perspective of what was actually going on when OT authors depicted God engaging in and commanding violence.” p xxxiv

It’s important to note that this does not mean that Greg intends to use this hermeneutic to explain and justify these violent passages. Greg explains that he felt compelled to break with “most Evangelical books addressing this topic” which, as Greg puts it somewhat in  tongue-in-cheek fashion, attempt to “put the best possible ‘spin’ on violent portraits of God in the OT” (p xxix). Rather, this hermeneutic aims to completely change how we understand depictions of a violent warrior god found in the OT.

“Scripture’s violent divine portraits become mini-literary crucifixions that function as harbingers of the historical crucifixion. … For when the sin of the world was nailed to the cross with Christ (Col 2:14), the sinful conception of God as a violent warrior god was included. Hence, the revelation of the agape-loving and sin-bearing crucified God entails the permanent crucifixion of the violent warrior god.” p xli-xlii

So what does the "crucifixion of the warrior god" mean practically? As Greg explains in chapter one,

“I am convinced that it is only when our conviction about the supremacy of the revelation of God on Calvary causes us to abandon all attempts to defend the violent behavior ascribed to God in the OT that we can begin to see how these violent portraits actually bear witness to God’s true, cruciform character.” p 36

To put that in perspective, Greg’s goal in writing the book is to show how it is possible to affirm the inspiration of all of Scripture (or as he prefers to say, the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture), including these violent portraits, while at the same time recognizing that they are, at face value, at odds with and opposed to the revelation of God in Christ. Therefore

“We must trust God’s character as it has been revealed in the crucified Christ, to the point that we have no choice but to call into question all portraits of God that conflict with it, even as we continue to faithfully affirm that these portraits are ‘God-breathed.’” p 34

In other words, Greg stresses that if we wish to get to the point of being able to understand how these passages are God-breathed and point to Christ, the place where we must start is in fully recognizing the degree to which these passages are in conflict with the revelation of God we see in Christ.

Key to doing this, Greg argues, is to learn to read Scripture in a way that places absolute normative and interpretive priority on God revealed in Christ. In other words, Greg maintains that in order to read all of Scripture rightly, we must begin with Jesus and the God that he reveals.

“ ‘God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.’ … He is not part of what the Father has to say or even the main thing the Father has to say: as the one and only Word of God (John 1:1), Jesus is the total content of the Father’s revelation to us.” p 40
This revelation of God in Christ should then shape how we read all of Scripture, and in particular in regards to violent portraits of God in the OT, Greg insists that it is Christ who needs to shape our understanding of these passages, rather than these passages that shape our understanding of Christ,

“The centerpiece of the message of the NT is that we worship a God who defeats evil by dying out of love for enemies rather than by killing enemies, and he calls on his people to do the same. … This revelation should never have been qualified by, let alone trumped by, the OT depictions of a ‘god who fights.’” p 24

Greg therefore flatly rejects a common assumptions within Evangelicalism, which is that all of Scripture is equally authoritative. Asserting instead that,

“If anything in the law or prophets fails to agree with Jesus, however, the implication is that it is Jesus who should be followed. Nothing in the law and prophets should be allowed to compromise what Jesus reveals about God’s character and will.” p 51-52

He further comes against a very common practice within Evangelicalism of trying to let the rest of the Bible temper and modulate Jesus.

“How misguided it is for followers of Jesus to allow any portrait of God or any teaching of the OT to in any way qualify or compromise the portrait of God and the teaching we are given by Jesus.” p 73

“The NT presents Jesus as the definitive revelation of sub-Christ-like portrait of God in the OT should ever be allowed to qualify it.” p 36
So in sum, Greg describes the frequent OT depictions of a "violent warrior god" as "sinful" and "sub-Christ-like," insisting we must "abandon all attempts to defend" these depictions, and instead "permanently crucify" this understanding of God, replacing it with an understanding of God revealed in Christ crucified. Taken all together, those are some pretty bold statements. Personally, I like bold. The world has plenty of dry boring books on theology. Heaven knows I've read a lot of them. This book is certainly not that.

I'll keep reading, and hopefully have further posts to share in the future as I work my way through the book. But I think there is certainly plenty to chew on here, even in these first two chapters. But at this point let me turn it to you: Are these ideas familiar or brand new to you? Do you find his statements affirming and reassuring? Or do you find them threatening and frightening? What are your thoughts?

UPDATE: Continue to Part 2

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The Shack and a God of Color

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

When God was portrayed in William P. Young’s bestselling novel The Shack as a black woman it got some white conservatives upset. The same thing happened again last month when the film adaptation was released starring Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures) as God, or “Papa” as she is referred to in the Shack. Apparently when God is portrayed as a lion, that’s totally fine, but when God is portrayed as a black woman this gets some people quite offended. Color me unsurprised.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I’m a little bit afraid that it will be a bit too sappy and on the nose for my own personal taste. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of depicting God as a black woman, and I’m convinced there is something quite profound there, if we are willing to look past the “offense of the cross” to see it.

Of course historically, Jesus was unquestionably a person of color, despite the many depictions of him as a blond-haired blue-eyed white man. But there is something much deeper going on than skin color. Jesus explicitly chose to associate with those who were at the bottom of society, those who were considered the “least of these.” To proclaim Jesus as Lord is to say that the Caesar is not. It means the dethroning of the god of empire, dominance, force, wealth. As Jürgen Moltmann put it,

“For Christ's sake I am an atheist, an atheist in respect to the gods of the world and world history, the Caesars and the political demigods who follow them. Only a Christian can be a good atheist.” (The Crucified God, p. 195)

I own a great debt to what I have learned from white male theologians like Moltmann. But I feel compelled to go in a more radical direction. When I look at how white evangelicals in America have abandoned Jesus to follow empire, mammon, hatred, and state violence, I feel tempted to become an atheist, and I certainly do declare with Moltmann my categorical rejection of their false gospel. While in the past I could think that these “hyper-Calvinists” where perhaps a loud and angry minority, I cannot ignore that 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump. 

For decades I have, like many others, attempted to walk a middle ground, stressing that liberals and conservatives both have valid perspectives, and also both have some big blind spots. However, there has been a major shift within conservative Republicanism over the last several years culminating in the most recent political election.  This shift is characterized by a movement away from compassion towards an outright fostering of hatred and fear, seeing those from other races, other countries, other religions as the “enemy.” Really it is a move away from democracy towards something more akin to dictatorship. In light of this, I simply cannot in good conscience maintain a position of being “in the radical middle” politically and socially. I feel that I have a moral obligation to categorically name that movement as representing the polar opposite of Christ and his kingdom values, and openly opposing it in Jesus' name. I refuse to normalize this by acting as if voting for Trump was a legitimate choice for followers of Jesus to make. This is not politics as usual where there is room to be neutral. There is no place to watch from the sidelines, as if I were morally above it all. If I care for the least, as Jesus does, I must stand with them. With the incarnation Jesus shows that holiness does not remain separate, detached and above it all, rather purity requires getting dirty.

Because of this decline of conservative politics into moral bankruptcy, and the evangelical church's blindly following them into this seemingly bottomless pit, I find myself often exclaiming in disbelief, “What is wrong with the church?!” But as I ask this, I have to stop and wonder why it is that I assume that this is the church? As you may be aware, when national statistics refer to “evangelicals,” they exclusively mean white evangelicals. Black evangelicals are not counted. So when I exclaim, “What’s wrong with the church?” or “Why does the church not care about social justice?” there are plenty of people of color who could answer back “Excuse me? What church are you talking about?”

To put things in the starkest of terms, it’s clear that when slave owners worshiped God in their Christian churches, they saw a very different God, a very different Jesus, than their slaves did when they worshiped God in their churches. For those slaves, Jesus was the one who had come to set the captives free. Knowing what I do about the historical Jesus as well as the Jesus of the New Testament, I can say unequivocally that the slaves were much more in line with the real Jesus.

We don’t have institutional slavery anymore in America, and I used to think that racism was a thing of the past, too. Something that we fixed back in the 1960s. Or at least it was something you could only still find in the deep south. I was so very wrong. Michelle Alexander opened my eyes to see the extent of how profoundly broken our criminal justice system is, as well as how wide-spread systemic racism is within our nation’s police force. I’ve learned that nearly all black parents need to talk to their children about how not to get killed by police. As a parent myself that really hit me hard.

While I have just woken up to this disturbing reality, it’s something African Americans have been living with for... well, for my entire life. I see the angry white atheists, and believe me, I understand their righteous anger. But I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to convert to atheism, even in a Moltmannian “Christian atheist” way. I’m convinced that’s a very “white guy” thing to do. I want to do something more radical, and I hope more life-giving. I want to convert and become a black Christian. In fact, I’d like to become a black female Christian. Can I do that? Well, I’m just going to.

Of course I can’t change my skin color (I can’t even get a tan). But I do want to sit at the feet of people of color, and especially of women, and learn from their faith. I’ve done that already in an intellectual way over the years, having read lots of feminist and black liberation theology, and have found this to be tremendously rewarding to learn from this “theology from the margins.” But I want to take that to a deeper place. I feel honestly like my own faith depends on it. 

My faith in the “church” I have known as a white evangelical has been shattered. I no longer believe in that religion. But I see hope in another church. I want to learn how they can hold on to hope in the face of so much injustice. I want to learn to see through their eyes, to learn how to channel this anger and hurt and fear into action for good in the face of an empire that calls itself “Christian” when it is clearly not. I want to worship and trust in the God they have seen all along. 

I am not talking about theology here, about something I can do in my head and in isolation. I am talking about church, about community, about learning from the lived example of others who have been walking for a long time in the place where I have only begun to walk.

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