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

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.

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  • Thanks, Steve. Great review. In reference to the subversive stuff, I’ll just note that folks like Horsley and Elliott themselves do from time to time point out what Schussler Fiorenza argued more programmatically in _The Power of the Word_, namely, that there is the danger that hidden transcripts will be counter-subverted, and therefore are not a permanent solution to the problem. I just think that concession isn’t given enough space in their writings, and so I added my “vote,” as it were, to that side. But I do point out both in chapter 9 (I think) and chapter 10 that Jesus and Paul are not to be blamed for reproducing the categories of empire. I make a point that they probably did the best they could given the volatile situation they were in. So the thrust, then, is not that subversive readings are “bad,” just that they are incomplete deconstructions of worldly power. Necessarily incomplete, and it’s our responsibility to complete them. So I don’t “object” to subversive readings where they are necessary for survival (like, for example, in ancient Palestine or modern-day Latin America). I just mean to point out that it’s okay for people with freedom of speech to finally move past those categories inherited from decidedly “ungodly” sources.

    I’ll also say that you’re right to point out that the content of this chapter wouldn’t have spoken to a lot of the conservative readership; and I should have made this clearer perhaps, but the fundamentalists were not my primary audience in chapter 9. I wanted to speak to the canonicists and the liberationists, albeit briefly. I didn’t give as much space to defending my positions because I felt the points I was making weren’t terribly controversial from the perspective of the New Haven and Boston schools to whom I was speaking, but that they just needed to be spoken in order to fill out the picture I was painting. For instance, you’ll note that I used Brueggemann (a canonicist) to critique Childs (a canonicist). So the points I was making aren’t news to them. Like I said, chapter 9 was more about casting my vote in this debates (while introducing non-initiates to the issues) than making an extensive argument.

    • Fair enough; I can appreciate that. It’s just that thus far my review approach has been to place my mind into the mode of my conservative inerrantist friends, and so I sought to speak from their envisaged confusion at your change of target. This doesn’t mean the chapter’s really faulty, but that that particular audience might feel suddenly detached or disengaged, and just when they’re dying to see where you’re going with all this! It might well be the final straw to have them ditch this chapter and move on to The Answer of chapter 10 — which probably wouldn’t wound the universe or anything.

  • Yeah, I just reread the chapter and I do make it clear on pp. 214-16 that the subversion of the public transcript by the dominated classes is the best they can do in their situation, and that I am not rejecting that strategy, but rather calling for those of us who are free to do so to move beyond the categories they had to employ for their own survival. So I would have to offer a minor correction to your presentation, particularly where you say, “But not Stark.” I just think it’s important to keep both sides of the coin in mind.

    • Yes, that was extremely badly worded on my part. In fact, I was surprised I had put it that way when I scrolled back up to see what you were talking about, because as I did point out in the review, you actually defend that strategy and ultimately argued that it simply wasn’t enough. That said, it took me a few minutes to realize that you weren’t putting subversive readings on the same level of usefulness as allegorical and canonical readings. For a couple pages I kept waiting for a big “but” that explained why subversive readings are faulty before I realized you just found them incomplete. The inerrantist is likely to get the impression from the beginning of the chapter that you were setting up three reading strategies that were all to varying degrees “bad” rather than incomplete alternatives. Whether that was a weakness in your presentation or in my reading of it must be decided by others.

      Thanks for responding, Thom — I was counting on it! (It’s weird to call you “Stark” in these reviews, but I didn’t know you when I started, and it’d be weird to change midstream.)

      • No doubt it’s a weakness in my writing!

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