Should your heart mess with how you read scripture?

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.

11 thoughts on “Should your heart mess with how you read scripture?

  1. Pingback: Your Heart Messing with How You Read Scripture | Participatory Bible Study Blog

  2. I have been impressed with every post I’ve read in the last week here. These are exactly the things I’ve been thinking about lately.

    Your post makes me think of something C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Problem of Pain,” which reminded me that when we call things “good” even though we actually have gut-level problems with them (e.g. genocide of Canaanites, God “hating” people), it just makes the word “good” meaningless, and our idea of God suspect:

    “On the one hand, if God is wiser than we, His judgement must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil. On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our “black” may be His “white”, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good,” while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what”. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend.”

  3. I really like Martin and Green’s interpretation. I want to believe in its truth. So this comment isn’t trying to be antagonistic; I’m trying to work it out.

    Much of the work of Martin and Green (along with other opponents of a ‘monstrous god’) sounds so good, but also so facile. Don’t like a terror text? Don’t worry, it isn’t correct, it is a mirror for the reader. Don’t agree with God’s rejection of Saul? It is to teach us empathy. Genocide in the scriptures? Obviously that disagrees with what Jesus teaches; just let it go. To which I respond, ‘Yay! God fits [my] conceptions of good and evil!’ And then I feel like a cheat.

    “Bottom line is I think we’re supposed to seek the heart of Christ in our reading of scripture.” Agreed. Our goal is Christ-likeness. But so many people already have their conception of Christ, which is used to interpret all of Scripture. And the initial conception is usually seems slanted towards some already held position.

    It is my biggest issue with a cruciform interpretation of God and scripture. It assumes a solid enough understanding of Christ (and the resulting hermeneutic) to dismiss texts that disagree with it. It disdains the narrative as presented for a narrative as constructed. And not just with the OT or with Paul. Even the gospels can get re-interpreted via this initial idea of who Jesus is.

    Just because all readers come to the text with preconceptions does not mean all preconceptions are alternatively equal. And as much as I long to agree with the interpretations presented here, they can feel particularly divorced from a large swaths of the text. How much is interpreted away before the whole itself is dismissed in the interpretation?

    • I hear what you’re saying. I do think that it’s a legit question to ask what is the Bible supposed to do to us and read it with that purpose in mind.

  4. Few quick points:
    1. No, Paul was not a neutral reader. Nobody can be emotionally or theologically-distanced from the text.
    2. Paul did not twist it the texts, though. There is a clearly traceable redemptive-historical story-line of future Gentile-inclusion once somebody points it out, running from the call of Abraham to the prophets.
    3. As much as I might think the Rabbi’s point is an interesting way of of reading the texts, actually, the point of God electing Esau, Israel, etc. isn’t so much to give you pity for the non-elected but to marvel at the grace of a God who chooses the younger, the despised, the persecuted, the guilty, and protects them harm. God is subverting normal human expectation about who is picked. I agree that our heart should want everybody in, but with OT election, I think that’s an odd reading.
    4. Gender is not the same as the Gentile/Jew category distinction. Now THAT is you putting on, not Enlightenment, but Post-Enlightenment categories onto the text and reading the narrative against itself. It is not un-Christ-like to believe that God has creative intentions for the way his people use their bodies, acknowledge the corrupting influence of the fall in our natures, and yet still call people to enter in a new, Spirit-empowered life of holiness by grace.

    Alright, that’s it for me.

    • “2. Paul did not twist it the texts, though. There is a clearly traceable redemptive-historical story-line of future Gentile-inclusion once somebody points it out, running from the call of Abraham to the prophets”

      I’d like to understand this better, if you have a chance.

      • There’s no reason to conclude that Gentiles would not need to be circumcised even though Abraham is blessed for the sake if the nations. That’s a major innovation which ultimately has no justification beyond the Holy Spirit’s witness to Paul and Peter. I plan to look at how the discernment process happened in Acts 15 in a future post. That was actually the topic of Jonathan’s first sermon in the series.

    • There is likewise a traceable account in scripture of the conflict between those who think morality is about abstract honor and order (the Pharisaic) and those who think it is about the cultivation of mercy (the Samaritan). Jesus takes the side of the Samaritan over the Pharisaic. There is certainly a very good reason to be holy; it is for the sake of having a perfectly worshipful and thus hospitable heart.

      Your burden of proof for me is to show the necessity of gender/heteronormativity to worship and mercy. It’s a circular argument to say if you worship God, you’ll submit to MY interpretation of what He commands us to do. I have a different interpretation which situates Biblical sexuality in a paradigm that makes sense according to worship and mercy.

      I understand what chastity has to do with holiness as well not objectifying other people’s bodies and not fetishizing/idolizing my own sexual identity. I also understand why patriarchal gender norms protected women from sexual violence in ancient times. When you don’t have Law and Order Special Victims Unit, male
      libido is regulated through the male heads of household not “uncovering [each other’s] nakedness” (Leviticus 18). If men are compromised with either members of other households or each other, then the walls of protection collapse. Gender normativity under patriarchy has a real function of mercy.

      Living in a society in which we do not depend on patriarchal boundaries for sexual safety, I’m not seeing the love neighbor / love God issue at stake in heteronormativity. All the arguments I’ve heard that go deeper than proof-texts seem to be driven by a worship of the pristine simplicity of a theological system in which everything can be filed neatly under one “covenant” or another. That’s the only reason I can see why gender has to be a binary and not a spectrum. It’s ultimately a question of aesthetics. It seems to me that the more Gnostic position is to choose the pristine simplicity of the system over the incarnate reality of people who fall outside of the norm. I don’t see an incarnate God being worshiped here; I see the worship of a theology.

      I have what I consider to be an adequate account of what the Bible says about sexuality according to the concerns of worship and hospitality. In Paul’s most extensive discourse on it in 1 Corinthians 7, his ultimate concerns are pragmatic rather than essentialist. Be celibate if you can; marry if trying to be celibate is going to be a greater distraction. When Jesus cites Genesis in Mark 10, again it’s for pragmatic reasons: to protect women from being thrown away; it’s not gender for gender’s sake.

      Thus a permanently normative *binary* gendered order is not part of my understanding. Furthermore, I see my stance as an obedient imitation of the way in which I see Jesus use scripture in solidarity with those who are being judged by the religious insiders. And I don’t see anything particularly courageous about taking an interpretation that “ties up heavy burdens for others to carry” (Matt 23:4) in order to guard one’s own right flank from accusations of “compromise.” All of that wreaks of the pre-Damascus Road Paul to me: self-justification through zeal about others’ impurities.

      So that’s where I’m at. In terms of the standard accusation of compromise in order to fit in with the world’s sensibilities, more people litmus test our church for opposition to homosexuality than vice versa. Every time I use that word in a blog post, I risk losing another congregation member to the local “Bible” church. Is it not incredible that most evangelicals in our country draw the line on who’s a real Christian and who isn’t according to their stance on this issue? That fruit testifies as have many other fruits.

  5. I’m suspicious of hermeneutics that don’t explain what the text would have meant to its original audience. What was the point of these OT texts before the coming of Christ (or even anytime before our relatively modern sensibilities that are horrified by stories of divine violence)?

    • As a Christian, my answer to that question is to prepare the way for Christ by holding the story of the Israelite people together as they best understood it. Everything they learned in their journey of getting to know God laid the groundwork for the prophetic tradition and its nuancing of the temple cult, the vocation of the suffering servant as a nation, and ultimately their understanding of the kind of messiah who would come. The Jewish answer would obviously be different.

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