The Human Faces of God: peer reviewing the biblical authors

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.

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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.

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