Posts Tagged ‘confrontational readings’

“We might not like it, but it’s in the Bible, so…”

March 21st, 2011 | 36 Comments

I’m very much disturbed to see how often it is that Christians are so devoutly interested in upholding their scriptures that they don’t mind if either God or neighbor gets black and blue in the process.

The trick to being an evangelical these days seems to be the willingness to maintain that evil is not necessarily evil when it comes to God. Besmirching His character under the ironic cover of defending God, what passes for good Christian apologetics is actually much more of a defense of prized doctrines such as inerrancy or Augustinian/Reformed soteriology than the only thing worth defending, viz. God’s character. Defending both our carefully constructed doctrines and God’s character cannot always be done simultaneously because they are often at loggerheads (or else many popular apologists would be without a job). Slick, ear-tickling apologetics serve the much-in-demand function of reassuring people that the Bible is everything they think it needs to be in order for their faith to remain comfortable and unquestionable.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more successful result if someone were consciously trying to relieve Christians of their responsibility to grow up into mature men and women of God. Unlike what I wanted to believe long ago, I do not find it so easy to believe that the truth can be discerned by looking for “that than which nothing more counterintuitive can be conceived.” Now I am convinced that we need to be willing to question things that conflict with our conscience. In some cases, we may have to disagree with Scripture; in many others, we may find that we have simply been forcing something unnatural onto the text.

Regarding the atrocities of the Canaanite conquest: do you think it’s better to worship a God whose morality requires exceptions and redefinitions of key concepts than to live with the uncertainty that perhaps even the biblical authors were not fully aware of the depths of God’s grace? Are you content to excuse even the worst charges against God if by any means it vindicates your Bible and the comfortable theological confidence it gives you?

Regarding the destiny of unbelievers: are you willing to accept lying down the damnation of your unbelieving brothers and sisters, shrugging it off with a mere, “Like it or not, that’s what the Bible says”? Forgetting the examples of Moses and Paul, are you content to cling to that ill-founded defense in assurance that your own fate is secured? Search your heart: are you nursing a strong prejudice against the idea of inclusivistic or universalistic Christianity in order to ensure the relevance of your religion’s special claims? I beg you to reconsider your priorities. As with the brutalities described in the Old Testament, if the Bible truly does unequivocally aver that some souls can never be recovered (which I doubt), it should be the fervent hope of every lover of God that the Bible is wrong about it. Where is the passion for what is right and compassionate that motivated the characters of Job, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and Paul to contend with their Maker over their understanding of His words? “The Bible says it” simply isn’t good enough.

I’ll be blunt: Holy Scripture or “historic, orthodox” doctrines notwithstanding, the only way God is worth worshiping is if He’s good and loving through and through. I will not subjugate love to scarcely warranted glory or petty retribution disguised as justice. My faith is in a God whose soul is more lovely than ours, who has a higher, more wholesome sense of love and justice than we are able to walk in as humans. My hope is built on nothing less than this!

The Human Faces of God: peer reviewing the biblical authors

March 9th, 2011 | 46 Comments

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 10: “Into the Looking Glass”

By this point in the book, and undoubtedly long before, what everyone’s asking is, “So what’s his solution?” How can we read this very human book with all its human flaws and still think of it in some way as scripture?

Much of this chapter retreads familiar territory in light of Stark’s answer. One might be surprised that they’ve already encountered his answer to that question several times throughout the book. The answer: by confronting the text head on. The earliest texts set the precedent when they argue with one another. Many of the chapters describe a changing understanding of God and His ways, and despite the claims of the canonicists, we cannot assume that we are the beneficiaries of an interpretive victory won long ago by those who had the most recent word on the subject, whether author, canon, or council: that would be similar to what Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery”, the assumption that the later a belief, the better. Instead, we have to engage the text in a way analogous to the old classical model of the dialectic, i.e. not as an infallible rule or unaccountable master, but as one of our teachers who is occasionally presenting something incorrect. Stark has referred to this type of engagement with the text as a confrontational reading more than once before this chapter. Perhaps another way of thinking about it would be peer review, in which even those accounted as experts (the biblical authors in this case) occasionally have their consensus overturned by new data presented by new researchers.

The key insight from this chapter is laid out in the first section, which at last elucidates the somewhat ambiguous title of the book. Stark’s point is this: the Bible is a mirror. When we read the Bible, we are looking at humanity’s attempt to understand the divine. We cannot even hope to accurately see God’s face in the text until we stare those ancient human faces in the eye and make the intentional and painstaking effort of wiping the egg from our moustaches, washing the toothpaste off of our chins, and taking the beam out of our eyes. When we read the Bible, Stark argues, we are not looking at God, but at ourselves, in all our human shortcomings and failures, subject as we are to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It is not only Scripture for us insofar as it accurately speaks to us and convicts us of our shortcomings through its true teachings; no, we cannot fully claim it as our Scripture until we acknowledge our weaknesses, temptations, and unfavorable tendencies writ large within the text, indicting those human flaws in the justification for actions prescribed and described in the text and even in the very motivations for the writing/editing/compiling of the text. We can’t just learn from good examples and ignore the mistakes of our community, both historical and current, by covering up for them or cleverly explaining them away. For Stark, we can only ever hope to use the Bible effectively as Scripture if we consciously read it as a record of history that, when found wanting, we can then do our best to avoid repeating. Stark argues that God may indeed speak to us through the text, but often He does so in pointing out the pitfalls of human nature that produced the text.

The rest of this first section reexamines some of the material from previous chapters under a confrontational reading to show what sorts of insight might be gleaned. I will only focus on a couple of them.

Stark argues that the development of monotheism from polytheism evident in the Old Testament doesn’t mean we just uncritically declare monotheism as the winner. He points out certain harmful tendencies of monotheism that are often noted by anthropologists and sociologists, paraphrased as “if you cannot kill or enslave them, convert them” (p. 221). Indeed, in chapters 4 and 5 he already showed that monotheism in Israel developed amidst such mindsets. But we only notice that when we entertain the possibility that the Bible is not inerrant and is never unchallengeable.

Many conservative American Christians will find the specific “condemned texts” he selects and draws lessons from to be at odds with their politics. But it is such close identification of Christianity with that particular conservative stance that he thinks the text warns us about in cases like the sacrifice of innocents: “…we continue to offer our own children on the altar of homeland security, sending them off to die in ambiguous wars…” (p. 222). Still, no particular party or political ideology is immune from the charge of hero worship and propaganda that he takes to be the most valuable moral of the David and Goliath story.

Reading biblical propaganda such as the legend of David and Goliath at face value may have its rewards; it is certainly an inspirational story. But such a reading can also foster delusion. Moreover, such a reading is not as interesting or as relevant as a critical reading. It is the critical reading that prepares us to face the real world where the true giants are the centralized powers that mask themselves with the ruddy faces of shepherd boys and good ol’ boys. (p. 225)

This doesn’t undermine his main point here, but I daresay that if he thinks a critical reading is more interesting and more relevant, he hasn’t tried to teach the story to young children!

This is the chapter that picks up where he left off in chapter 8, “Jesus Was Wrong”. He spends several pages talking about the problems with the apocalyptic mindset that, as he argued in chapter 8, Jesus was functioning from within. Stark makes a lot of hay pointing out the shortcomings of a dualistic, “black and white” way of viewing the world (“You’re either for me or against me”). The dualism of God vs. the world is somewhat impotent to effect the changes it most wants to accomplish, because waiting for God to come sweeping down on a wire to fix everything stymies progress in the interim:

Time and again, the Christian commitment to justice has been undermined by the expectation of an imminent end. Generation after generation, those who suffer are told to wait it out; authentic justice is impossible this side of the eschaton, but there is hope to be had in the conviction that the end is nigh. Yet the end has never been nigh, and there is no reason to believe that it is nigh today. (p. 227)

Here he acknowledges something I anticipated in my review of chapter 8, that to say that someone thought in apocalyptic terms is not to say that the entire set of his ideas could be boiled down to and dismissed as “apocalyptic”. Stark suggests that if we could recover those aspects of his thinking that Richard Horsley identifies as going back to Mosaic covenantal sources (such as “mutuality and debt forgiveness”), we will find positives in Jesus’ teaching that have the most potential for those “searching for strategies of resistance to domination and for those communities who have voices in democratic societies” (p.229). Supporters of capitalism and personal economic liberty are likely to find it more difficult to let Jesus get that right than the apocalyptic worldview.

As an aside, this highlights a limitation in Stark’s presentation at points throughout this book, and especially here: if he is trying to convince inerrantists they’re wrong, either he needs to underplay the politics (I get the feeling he’s doing his best to do this and falling short) or allow room for fuller argumentation, which certainly seems impractical in this type of book. He seems to work from the impression that getting someone to abandon inerrancy will make the shackles of conservative politics fall off their wrists, which may indeed happen for many, but in the case mentioned above there is a (probably unavoidable) limitation in his argumentation that requires a prior sympathy for social justice in order to have much persuasive value.

But now those wanting to know how what value Jesus being wrong could possibly have had are presented with Stark’s answer:

The revolutionary impulse was right. The curse upon the existing world order was valid. The expression of hope in a new beginning was vital. The creation of counter-cultural communities which function as signs of this new beginning was not only noble but necessary in order for the revolution to be successful. But the waiting for a miracle to make it all happen–that was wrong…Their apocalyptic framework was most likely the best they could do given the limitations of their time, place, and political climate. But we live in a different world. We do not have to wait for the miracle. (p. 230)

This is the recurring type of lesson learned by the negative example recovered in a confrontational reading, and it’s the primary contribution of this book. Admitting there are errors is only the beginning. Stark counsels us in Shakespeare’s words to “gather honey from the weed”, appropriating what works and, vitally, leaving in what doesn’t to serve as an ever-living reminder. This is why the Marcionite charge won’t hold up against Stark and his reading. He rejects it as among the worst possible solutions because it is antithetical to the approach he advocates. There is no more powerful a reminder of the dangers of mowing grass barefooted than when I see my cousin’s feet with its missing toes; when he wears shoes, it’s all too easy to forget. Abandoning inerrancy is only half the battle: we can neither merely cut out the offending texts or acknowledge errors while focusing exclusively on the positive, inspirational messages in what’s left. We must confront the writers of Scripture and their respective communities, and by confronting them, confront ourselves and our own communities of belief.

The final part of this chapter is devoted to diagnosing and addressing objections to a rejection of inerrancy. Stark indicts the mindset that wants all or nothing and a final, infallible, unquestionable authority as “the mark of profound immaturity” (p. 233). This plays into his earlier remarks about the importance of developing as moral agents and inerrancy’s thwarting of this endeavor. “Our Scriptures are like our parents. As much as we disagree with them, we cannot escape the ways they have irrevocably shaped us; nor, in many cases, should we want to” (p. 234); but as we mature, we learn that we can build off of their foundation and learn from their mistakes, and so must we do with Scripture and Christian tradition based off of the readings handed down by our forebears. In this I am reminded of the reminiscence of Rachel Held Evans in Evolving in Monkeytown how the moment she realized her adulthood was when she was able to confront her father’s inadequate theological response to a searing question about suffering. In failing to have a good answer to his daughter’s question, her father did not fail as a father, but had at last succeeded: he had finally produced a woman. As Paul spoke of Torah, the Bible as a whole is a pedagogue that is only as successful as its ability to train us to acquire and apply our understanding beyond its tutelage.

As a parent of small children, I found that this leaves me wondering exactly how I should present the Bible to my children who are nowhere near the maturity level from which Stark wants us to read the Bible: as they get older I can educate them in the dangerous human tendencies on display in the Flood narrative, but I cannot simply wait until they are old enough to understand the nuances before they learn the story. Perhaps a crisis is necessary: perhaps they can take stories like that at face value and I can draw out the good values in them until they’re old enough to 1) face the truth that the story never happened, 2) realize there are some immoral ideas behind that conception of God, and 3) appreciate the lessons we can learn from those bad examples. But hey, Stark never said it would be easy.

The most likely objection to all of this I (and Stark) have been saying is that with this approach, and a rejection of inerrancy in general, we are left “picking and choosing” what is to be accepted and what is to be discarded. But as Stark argues in this chapter, the simple fact is that everybody chooses. Arminians, Calvinists, universalists–all Christian traditions presuming inerrancy choose which passages to read the others through, proposing new interpretations for (or burying) those passages which contradict their anchor doctrines. The other problem is that, even if the Bible were inerrant, no one has access to its infallibility. It is all filtered through our differing mindsets developed in our wildly different communities and cultural histories.

For Stark, being a Christian means using Jesus as our starting point, allowing his valuable teachings to guide us and to serve as both a launchpad and as a home base for our moral development. Living the Christian life is much more about developing workable ethics than defining rigid doctrines. It’s about accepting God’s call to implement his vision for humanity, a vision a church bound up in inerrancy has lost.

Who will get the most value from this book? From my perspective, it’s highly useful for readers like me, who are already convinced that the Bible is not inerrant but want something to do with the passages that cause problems for us. I have approached most of these posts with an inerrantist reader in mind, and when standing back and aggregating the concerns my posts anticipate on their behalf, I still find that it would be a good resource for the type of questioning believer most likely to want to read this book. For the dyed-in-the-wool inerrantists who most want to believe Stark is full of baloney…well, I’m sure he was never under any illusions about overcoming their doubts anyway. I advise commending this book to those in your circle of influence most likely to engage you on these topics, since a book like this is best read in community. In fact, the ideal scenario is for a small group study with plenty of interaction. The possibility of a future edition with study questions at the end of each chapter has been mentioned; I dearly hope that comes to fruition.

I’d like to warmly thank Thom Stark for this book. No, I am not convinced of every one of his particular critiques of the biblical authors nor of the universal applicability of all the principles by which he finds the various texts wanting, but neither does he expect me to be; that would be a replacement of one unappealable magisterium with another. Thom makes the important point that each individual and community must make the judgments as best they can in their circumstances. Regardless, I can confidently assert that for his main arguments, he has made his case.


For more discussion of this material and to hear Thom’s answers to some of my lingering questions, please note our interview with him on the [ad hoc] Christianity Podcast.

The Human Faces of God: making excuses for your alcoholic uncle

February 21st, 2011 | 6 Comments

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 9: “Textual Interventions”

If you hadn’t known it before picking up this book, at least by chapter 9 you’d be pretty sure that inerrancy is a wholly unsuitable expectation to place upon Scripture because it is built upon a vehement denial that the Bible ever speaks from the inaccurate perspectives that Thom Stark has pointed out so far. Inerrancy is one “reading strategy” as he puts it, one method for coping with those problems. Unsatisfactorily, it does so by denying that there are in fact problems.

He’s already discussed the shortcomings of that strategy, however. Chapter 9 is dedicated to describing and to varying degrees critiquing three other popular reading strategies, sometimes but not necessarily used in tandem with inerrancy. He refers to these as “enablers” because they are too often chosen in order to allow us to recast difficulties presented by the text in terms that exonerate it, thereby exempting it from critical scrutiny. His preferred reading strategy, a full explication of which will not appear until the next chapter, he refers to as a confrontational reading but also, in contrast to the “enablers”, a “textual intervention” that will not allow the inaccuracies and destructive behaviors affirmed by the Bible to go unchallenged. (The metaphor of the “alcoholic uncle” referenced in the title of this post appears within this chapter when discussing the need for textual intervention.)

In chapter 6 he noted that the allegorical treatments of the more brutal Old Testament passages by Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and other early interpreters showed that they at least were more aware than many modern apologists that the meaning of the texts was obviously incompatible with any vaguely Christian moral system. This realization was their motivation for finding another way of reading those texts, such as allegorizing the violent purging of Canaan in terms of the grueling process of personal sanctification. But Stark doesn’t think this is ultimately the best way to handle these texts, because rather than actually dealing with what the text is telling us, allegorical readings give us a way out of indicting the tragic reality behind those passages, whitewashing the turpitude of those who authored them and offered them up as sacred writ. “Such readings are dishonest with the text, and can blind believers to problematic aspects of their faith heritage, whereas confrontational readings of the scriptures produce humility in religious believers” (210). Moreover, a denial of the actual meaning behind many of those stories is disrespectful to the victims of the more horrific events justified in the text as divine in origin (to whatever extent those events actually transpired as described).

Another alternative is championed by those who are convinced that picking apart the details or the redaction history of a narrative in Scripture and digging as deep as possible in order to recover the original intent and intended application are ultimately irrelevant to what Scripture means for us: what matters is the text as handed down to us by our predecessors in the community of faith known as the church. It’s a hermeneutic that self-consciously depends on theological traditions, especially those developed and affirmed by the early councils. It is because of that emphasis that it has been called a canonical hermeneutic. From the conviction that what matters for the community of faith is the reading handed down to us for our encouragement arises a certain nonchalance among many advocates of canonical readings that will suffer all the historical layers of the texts to be peeled back and the original meanings exposed; many are quite familiar with and accepting of an historical-critical approach to the Bible that Stark has been presenting the fruits of throughout the book. But with information recovered by such critical studies they will not bother to grapple: their response is, rather, “So what?” What matters is how the text as historically interpreted and thus providentially provided can be used to build up the faith of the faith communities of which we’re a part. In contrast, Stark contends that we cannot blindly trust that God’s hand was in the passing down of readings of Scripture, since not only the readings of the historical church but even the very passages that made it into the canon were mostly written and chosen “by the religious and political elites in order to serve their own interests” (p. 211). I found that to be a confident statement that deserved much support, but got none except a footnote referring the reader to another book. He has, of course, mentioned quite a few passages in the Old Testament that seem to have been essentially propaganda, but he made no such case for the New Testament or the canonization process itself. The conservative reader will find this criticism of canonical readings utterly underwhelming. Another misgiving Stark has with this approach is the question of who defines the canonical reading in the first place. The readings of the historical community of faith were hardly consonant with one another, and still less unanimity remains for our benefit. “The result of such readings is not a biblical theology; it is a theology that is imposed upon the text in a way that is methodologically uncontrollable” (p. 212). I would suspect that most advocates of this hermeneutic would recognize this difficulty and say that God is still providentially ordaining modern readings in ways that are not subject to external verifiability but for internal applicability. Although Stark does not make the correlation, this strikes me as a rather neo-orthodox approach to Scripture.

The final approach to Scripture that Stark addresses, the subversive reading, is popular nowadays among many of the liberation theology persuasion. This approach essentially inverts the obvious reading of a passage and in many cases even goes so far as to claim that this counter-intuitive reading was actually the intended reading of the passage. So, for instance, behind Jesus’ famous advice to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” while on the surface defensive of the status quo of taxation, there seems to actually be an implication that God’s interests and Caesar’s interests are diametrically opposed, and that the money coined by Rome was unfit for the devout to keep in their possession. Similar subtle but unequivocal anti-Empire undertones in Paul have gained notoriety in recent years. Stark does not deny the reality of many of these subversive readings. That these passages are truly against the imperial powers of the time is not to be challenged: what Stark finds unsatisfactory about heralding the recovery of such original but long obscured readings is that they are insufficiently subversive. Because Jesus’ and Paul’s criticism of Rome was so underplayed and hidden in plain sight for the original audience’s benefit, the opposite meaning for subsequent audiences has too often prevailed. Human government’s divine right to virtually unlimited force as apparently affirmed in Romans 13 as a temporary measure until the any-day-now eschaton was ripped out of that context and turned into a condemnation of the Christian’s right to protest an abusive government. But recovering the historical intent is not enough for Stark and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, whom he quotes extensively: what is needed is a complete deconstruction of the concepts and terms in which those passages were situated. In other words, even Jesus’ teaching that the powerful would be brought low and the low brought to power, while understandable as relief for the desperate in the immediate context of the first century, still implied the legitimacy of the powerful/weak opposition model of human interaction, albeit with the new faces for the slaves and masters.

…[W]hat is necessary is an analysis of the way that the perpetuated inscription of the categories of empire and patriarchy have impeded progress toward human rights, democracy, and authentic human freedom…If we do not come up with new language to depict our relationship with the divine, then the categories of empire will continue to dominate our thinking, even if their use by Paul and other early Christians was only ad hoc and subversive. Applying the language the emperor used for himself to God ony legitimates the ideology of empire, and ensures that categories of domination and subordination will continue to be second nature to human societies, generation after generation. [p. 217]

As a liberation theology manifesto, this works fine; as a criticism of inerrancy, it’s rather esoteric and probably too underdeveloped to do much good for those not familiar with “the language” of liberation theology. For instance, most average evangelical Christians will ask questions such as, “How should we view our relationship to the divine apart from submission to authority? Should our enlightened ideals about the relations between humans also be the guiding principles by which we understand and order our relation to the divine?” Others will ask, “Are all democracies preferable?” Others, “Are all aspects of patriarchy oppressive?” I myself wish he had supported his contention that willful submission to a wise lord or obedience to a loving father (the latter is more common, admittedly!) are metaphors that need to be deconstructed right out of commission. The answers to these obvious questions are assumed or at least too obliquely addressed within this chapter, which hastily barrels on to completion shortly after the above quotation. Having been assured of the validity of those “subversive readings” by Stark, many readers will find those readings to be an attractive view that his criticism does not sufficiently problematize.

The next, final chapter will deal with what this chapter was (mis-)named: “textual interventions”, confrontational readings of Scripture that value the original meaning of the text, but love it too much to leave it that way.