Renovatus Church has just started an awesome sermon series on how to read the Bible that will be either tremendously liberating or offensive for you to hear, depending on what kind of Christian you are. This week, Jonathan Martin shared the pulpit with Dr. Chris Green, a theology professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, to talk about what ought to happen to us when we read Bible stories that make God look ugly and arbitrary, like when He chooses one brother over another in the Old Testament or orders genocide. Jonathan and Chris argue that we’re reading it wrong if we don’t feel any sympathy for the people who get hurt, because the point is not merely to learn information about God but to gain the heart of Christ.
Jonathan sets things up by saying the following:
We go to these texts in a flat way looking for information about God, when in fact, in a strange way, it’s almost like we’re on trial for how we read the texts based on what we’re going to see there. What kind of God we see when we read these texts often says a lot more about us than they actually say about God. Often people are still reading scripture trying to find information about who’s in and who’s out, when so much of the thrust of the life and ministry of Jesus is the simple question: how are you going to treat the outsider? We’re still trying to figure out what scripture tells about who’s definitively in and who’s definitively out when scripture is trying to make us into people who will be Christlike, who will advocate for the outsider.
Living in the shadow of the Enlightenment, many Christians have the assumption that reading the Bible seriously and being moved by it emotionally are mutually exclusive. They think they’re simply supposed to accept without questioning the God who is portrayed by the text. They think they’re not supposed to feel bad for King Saul when God rejects him because he refused to genocide all the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 (I read it yesterday and it really bothered me; there’s not even a chance for repentance; it’s one strike and he’s out as king).
But what if these troubling passages are intended by God to test us? In 1961, Yale University psychologist Jacob Milgram performed a series of experiments in which students were made to believe that they were administering increasing voltages of electric shock to experimental subjects whenever they gave the wrong answer to a test question. The students heard recordings of actors screaming out in pain in response to the electric shock.
The goal of the test was to see whether the students’ obedience to an authority figure would trump their sense of compassion. 65% of the students continued the experiment to the point of administering a fatal 450 voltage shock to the phantom subject. What if God is using scripture to administer the equivalent of a Milgram experiment on us to separate the sheep from the goats?
If you are completely unbothered by the divinely mandated genocide in the Old Testament, is that not indicative of a lack of Christ within you? If there is a range of possibility within Biblical interpretation, do you choose the interpretation that makes you an advocate for the outsider or a reinforcer of dividing walls? Jesus always interpreted the Bible with an agenda that subverted the proud and championed the humble. There is nothing more abominably dishonest than to pretend to be “agenda-less” in your interpretation of scripture. “Not taking sides” means you are really taking your own side and reserving the right to remain aloof to those whose crucified existence Christ championed.
In any case, Chris Green relates a perspective he gained after hearing an interpretation of Jacob and Esau from a Jewish rabbi who argued that it isn’t supposed to teach us a doctrine about God so much as bother us into becoming the kind of people God wants us to become:
Here’s how the text works. At one level, if you’re reading for a doctrine, it’s going to seem like God is one who elects and God rejects. But at a deeper level… you feel for the rejected one. When you’re reading ‘Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated’, at the one level your brain is telling you that God chose one and rejected the other, but your heart is telling you I’m sympathetic to the rejected one. And that’s precisely the point: that God is trying to inculcate in us and nurture in us compassion and sympathy so that when we look at the outsider that’s how we feel. Because who is Jesus but the chosen one who gives himself up for the unchosen? The more like Christ we become, the more we give ourselves up for the unchosen. That’s what scripture’s always been trying to do.
The difference between Lifetime movies and quality literature is that real stories act upon our hearts in ways that transcend our rational apprehension. Really bad movies and stories put their moral point front and center in a really clumsy, obvious way. The problem with stories whose themes lack any subtlety is that their teaching doesn’t penetrate us at all. If the lesson is just something we regurgitate to get our Sunday school A+, then it doesn’t make its way into our heart to actually change how we act towards God and other people; it remains undigested ideology that we have trigger-ready to spit up into our arguments.
The Bible is actually profoundly good literature despite the way that so many Christians try to make it into a Lifetime movie. Its stories are filled with irony and moral complexity. Sure, Jacob got his father’s blessing, but then he ran away and thus lost everything. When he was reconciled with Esau, Esau had four hundred men and Jacob just had his little family and a few sheep herders. So nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
Of course, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated” isn’t even about the brothers anyway. It’s the prophet Malachi going off on the people of Edom in response to how they treated the Israelites. Paul uses this quote in Romans 9:13 with about as cautiously “accurate” exegesis as when he says that Jesus was the rock of Horeb that Moses struck to get water in 1 Corinthians 10:4. Modern, historical-critical exegesis (whether in its fundamentalist or liberal form) would be an entirely foreign concept to Paul who used scripture poetically, not “accurately,” with an entirely polemicized agenda of annihilating the self-satisfied Biblicity of his opponents in the circumcision party who said Gentiles had to have their wee-wees clipped in order to be accepted into the Christian community.
Paul didn’t go to the Bible “objectively” to determine what to do about the Gentiles. He knew what the Spirit had called him to do so he went to scripture to find the support for the arguments that he needed to advance. He didn’t logically deduce his account of Christ from the law and the prophets; he interpreted the law and the prophets based on his personal experience of Christ. I can’t imagine what Paul would do to the circumcision parties of today, his modern Galatian exegetes who have twisted his words that opened the kingdom to outsiders into a means of building more walls. The idolatry of gender is for many evangelicals today what circumcision was for Paul’s 1st century opponents.
Well I rambled a little bit. Bottom line is I think we’re supposed to seek the heart of Christ in our reading of scripture. It’s all God-breathed and useful to the agonizing process by which God messes with our hearts and reshapes us into Jesus, which will not happen if we’re looking for no more than dispassionate knowledge to use in theological swordplay. There is no such thing as a “straightforward” reading of scripture. The right reading of scripture always involves and depends upon our openness to the compassion that Christ is sowing into our hearts.
Using the example of Paul, Chris Green says, “Paul was completely Biblical both before and after he met Jesus; he was just differently Biblical.” Paul persecuted Christians out of the same zeal as Phineas who murdered a fellow Israelite for the sake of sexual purity in Numbers 25. Zeal, rather than faith, was his righteousness pre-Jesus. So many Christians today think that zeal for purity is the same thing as faith. I don’t think that zeal is all bad. I’m very zealous for God’s truth; but when my zeal lacks compassion, I’m un-Christlike to people who disagree with me.
According to Green, “What happens to Paul when he meets Jesus is he realizes that what God wants is not zeal to protect Israel and the boundaries that we’ve created; what God wants is faith that he’s a God who does the impossible.” If Paul were just “objectively” reading scripture and repressing the witness of his personal experience with Christ, that change never would have happened. Thankfully for all of us Gentiles, Paul let his heart completely mess with the way he read scripture.