Peter Enns. The Bible Tells Me So…: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It. HarperOne, 2014. (267 pages)
To seekers and pilgrims who need to think out loud,
others who would like to,
and those who value and support them.
* * *
— VIA REVIEW —
Enns does one of the most magnificent jobs elucidating not only the problems with the ways in which we read our Bibles, but the philosophical, theological, and hermeneutical solutions. No doubt will this ostracize Enns (and others) from the more conservative and fundamentalist strands of Evangelicalism, but that is nothing new, as the tribal impulse is still alive and well. Regardless, for those who are serious about the Bible, and more serious about the Bible than one’s own dogmatic opinions or ideologies about the Bible, Enns offers an amazing, eye-opening, and accessible journey.
Christianity Today article. HarperCollins page. By Common Consent review. The Gospel Coalition review. Apologetics 315 review. Rachel Held Evans review. Till He Comes review. Friends of Justice review.
I had two points of contention:
In other words, archaeology and the biblical story don’t line up well at all. (59)
The problem with this statement is that, like the rest of the work that Enns does, this applies to some parts of the Bible. But for many others, archaeology and the biblical story line up very well, and that is true when it comes to archaeology in Israel, as well as in Egypt, and Iraq. So, while I would affirm that archaeological discrepancies do exist, to state that “archaeology and the biblical story don’t line up well at all,” misrepresents the entire field of biblical archaeology and over exaggerates the shortcomings.
I have to say, I’m a lot less bothered by a Bible that tells ancient stories than I am by the thought of God exterminating a population and giving their land to others. (61)
The problem with this op-ed statement is that many in Evangelicalism are not bothered in the same way that Enns is (just read Michael Krugar’s review for The Gospel Coalition, or Pat Robertson’s explanation). The reason this is significant is because it leaves Enns open for critique of his own personal biases that may distract from the philosophical merit of his hermeneutic. What Enns is doing is too important to be sidetracked by the potential ad hominem commentary.
— NOTES —
Chapter 1–I’ll Take Door Number Three
When the Bible Doesn’t Behave
Strictly speaking, the Americans with Disabilities Act is unbiblical. (5)
The Bible Isn’t the Problem
The real shame is that it’s hard to talk about Bible-induced stress with the very people you’d think you should be able to talk to–religious leaders, teachers, and church friends. …we have all heard of stories where people have become casualties for asking questions about scripture. (8)
I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously, but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it. (8)
The problem isn’t the Bible. | The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear. (8)
If we come to the Bible expecting something like a spiritual owner’s manual complete with handy index, a step-by-step field guide to the life of faith, an absolutely sure answer-book to unlock the mystery of God and the meaning of life, then conflict and stress follow right behind and, like a leech, find a place in your heart and soul to latch on.
| When we are taught that the Bible has to meet these unrealistic expectations for our faith to be genuine, the end product is a fragile, nervous faith. Faith like that produces stress, because it has to be tended and defended with 24/7 vigilance in order to survive–like an abandoned baby robin in a shoebox. And even with constant tending, it still may not survive. (8-9)
So, let’s stop making it that way by setting the Bible up to be something it’s not prepared to be and then anxiously smoothing over the rough parts to make it fit false expectations. The cost is too high.
| So here’s my not so radical thought: What if the Bible is just fine the way it is? What if it doesn’t need to be protected from itself? What if it doesn’t need to be bathed and perfumed before going out in public?
| And what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have?
| Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith, and maybe God wants us to wander off the beach blanket to discover what that is.
| Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually a thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of our inner disquiet, a warning signal of a deep distrust in God.
| A Bible like that isn’t a sure foundation of faith; it’s a barrier to true faith. Creating a Bible that behaves itself doesn’t support the spiritual journey; it cripples it.
| The Bible’s raw messiness isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s an invitation to a deeper faith. (9)
My life, in Brief, and Such as It Is
Concerning Camels’ Backs and Beach Balls
Door Number Three
I gradually came to see–as I continue to see more with the passing years–that moving on from my familiar patterns of life and thought was a gift from the good and wise God. I needed to learn (apparently the hard way) that trusting God is not the same thing as trusting the Bible–let alone my own ideas about the Bible. (21)
So What’s My Point?
My goal for this book, then, is to assure people of faith that they do not need to feel anxious, disloyal, unfaithful, dirty, scared, or outcast for engaging these questions of the Bible, interrogating it, not liking some of it, exploring what it really says, and discerning like adult readers what we can learn from it on our own journey of faith. (22)
This book, in other words, is a giant permission slip to let the wrestling begin. (22)
Judaism embraces debate as a vital part of its faith. Disagreements are preserved (not silenced or marginalized) in official core texts of Judaism, like the Talmud and medieval commentaries on the Bible. (23)
When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. (23)
Ironically, a safe, well-behaved Bible gives us an easy side path to evade this journey of faith, to give the appearance of piety, and in doing so sells the Bible short. We respect the Bible most when we let it be what it is and learn from it rather than combing out the tangles to make it presentable. (24-25)
So this book is about finding some space to be honest with ourselves about the Bible and trusting God in the process. Reading the Bible as God’s Word means accepting its own invitation to walk alongside ancient pilgrims, grappling with the bumps and bruises, gaps and gashes, valleys and plains of their journeys, and in doing so see a reflection of our own. (26)
Chapter 2–God Did What?!
How Not to Treat Other People
It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday. (30)
Those Wicked, Horrible Canaanites
If we read this in another ancient book, we’d call it propaganda–a story to justify, not explain, hatred of the Canaanites. (34)
To sum up: so far, God’s plan to form a nation out of Abraham’s descendants is punctuated by a foreboding sense that the Canaanites are dead meat. (35)
Bottom line, the extermination of the Canaanites is not an afterthought. According to the Bible, Israel’s God planned it from the days of Noah and the flood, and he carries out the plan with bracing determination and precision, patiently encouraging and even training the troops to get it done. (40)
“If Jesus Sends People to Hell, What’s So Bad About Killing Some Canaanites??”
The question remains, “Why is God acting like Zeus or a fascist dictator?” (42)
…let’s all agree that Jesus wasn’t a meek and mild peacenik. He, along with the Old Testament and his fellow Jews, believed that “wrath” was a perfectly good word to describe how God feels about sin. But that’s got nothing to do with hell–at least what Jesus means by it. … Actually, we’d be best off stopping using the word “hell” altogether, since even Jesus never uses it. (42)
“Valley of Hinnom,” later Gehenna, refers to God’s punishment to come upon his own people for failing to recognize God’s presence and follow God’s ways. Jesus, preaching to his fellow Jews, jumped all over this symbolism of God’s punishment. (43)
What Jesus means by “hell” isn’t worse than what God did to the Canaanites. (43)
…the biblical writers believed, God is a warrior who likes waging war against the enemy and acquiring land. He doesn’t buy into the system reluctantly. War brings him honor and glory. (45)
God’s Nicer Side
In my opinion, the book of Jonah gives us a look at the Israelites thinking out loud about this “us versus them” mentality that we see most everywhere else in the Old Testament. Jonah versus Nahum is a good example of the kind of diverse thinking we find in the Bible… (47)
Worst. Sinners. Ever.
…giving Canaanites first prize in the “worst sinners ever” contest is a caricature, and a bit of propaganda. (50)
However immoral the Canaanites were, the real problem isn’t what they did, but where they did it. (51)
To sum up: Why did God single out the Canaanites for extermination? The factor that distinguished the Canaanites from everyone else, the reason they “deserved” to be exterminated, wasn’t their immorality, but the fact that they (like everyone else) were an immoral people who occupied the land God promised to give the Israelites. To leave any Canaanites alive would (1) contaminate the land and (2) threaten Israel’s devotion to their God. (53)
It is what it is and there is no getting around it. If we were reading a story like this in some other religious text, we’d call this genocide, ethnic cleansing, and barbarous–pure and simple. (53)
A lot of deeply unsatisfying answers are out there. I think they are wrongheaded and cause more stress to defend than they are worth. Now the question is how to move forward. … We can’t rush this next part. (53)
It’s a Tribal Cultural Thing
God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites. (54)
I’m not arbitrarily picking and choosing what to keep and what to throw out. Really. | I am respecting the Bible’s ancient voice, trying to understand what that ancient voice is saying, and then (and only then) make a decision, as best as I can, about what to do with it. Where the “get God off the hook” solutions all falter is that they are not asking ancient questions, but modern ones.
| Listening to the ancient voice of the Bible means asking why the Canaanite extermination is in the Old Testament at all and how it would have been heard at that time. | To answer these questions, we need to step outside of the Bible and into the world of the Bible. Doing so will help us see that respecting the Bible does not require us to endorse everything the Bible says about God or Israel’s past. The Bible won’t fall apart in the process. Neither will God. Neither should we. (54)
Digging for Answers
Israel’s beginnings are mysterious from an archaeological point of view, so we can’t be dogmatic about explaining how and when Israel began. But it does seem that a nation eventually called “Israel” probably came on the scene gradually and relatively peacefully.
| The Israelites were probably originally made up of a mixture of groups: an indigenous population of Canaanites and outsiders, likely nomads or others who wandered into this part of the world after Egyptian and Hittite decline left a power vacuum in the region. (60)
It seems that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1000 BCE), stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old. These stories probably tells us more about Israel’s later conflicts with the original population of the land (during the time of Israel’s kings) than what happened centuries earlier. The presence of similar exaggerations, like we saw with King of Mesha, supports this view. (60)
That exact explanation may not be completely right, it’s not a hill to die on, and we do need to keep an open mind. But it’s a reasonable explanation given what we know at present. What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. | And that puts the question “How could God have all those Canaanites put to death?” in a different light, indeed. | He didn’t. (60)
God Lets His Children Tell the Story
Why would the Israelites write a story about God that isn’t true–and what are we supposed to do today with a Holy Bible that makes up lies? At least that’s how some might ask the question. (61)
I have to say, I’m a lot less bothered by a Bible that tells ancient stories than I am by the thought of God exterminating a population and giving their land to others. (61)
If God, in whatever mysterious way we can imagine, is behind scripture–if the Bible is God’s Holy Word–and if we, too, are to meet God in its pages, why would God allow himself to be cast in the role of a majorly hacked off tribal deity if he wasn’t. (62)
The Bible–from back to front–is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time. (62)
It’s not like the Israelites were debating whether or not to go ahead and describe God as a mighty warrior. They had no choice. That’s just how it was done–that was their cultural language. And if the writers had somehow been able to step outside of their culture and invent a new way of talking, their story would have made no sense to anyone else. (63)
Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away. (65)
Why This Chapter Is So Important and So Dreadfully Long
But there is no need to feel embarrassed or unfaithful by acknowledging that ancient writers wrote from an ancient mind-set. When ancient Israelites wrote as they did about the physical world, they were expressing their faith in God in ways that fit their understanding. It shouldn’t get our knickers in a twist to admit that, from a scientific point of view, they were wrong. That doesn’t make their faith or the God behind it all any less genuine. (70)
Chapter 3–God Likes Stories
To do their thing, storytellers “shape” the past. They decide what to include, what order to put things in, how to compress or combine scenes to save time and get to the money shot, and so on. They also invent dialogue and scenes to knit the narrative together. They have to, since much of the past is inaccessible to storytellers–they themselves weren’t there to see and hear what happened. | And even if they were, the past is a fragile thing. It is never just “there” waiting for us to press replay. (75)
Recalling the past is actually never simply a process of remembering but of creating a narrative out of discrete, imperfect memories (our own or those of others), woven together into a narrative thread that is deeply influenced by how we see ourselves and our world here and now. | All attempts to put the past into words are interpretations of the past, not “straight history.” There is no such thing. Anywhere. | Including the Bible. (75)
The biblical storytellers recall the past, often the very distant past, not “objectively,” but purposefully. They had skin in the game. These were their stories. They wove narratives of the past to give meaning to their present–to persuade, motivate, and inspire. | To make that happen, like all storytellers, biblical storytellers invented and augmented dialogue, characters, and scenes to turn past moments into a flowing story–not because they were lazy or sneaky, but because that’s what all storytellers need to do to create a narrative. They shifted and arranged the past, or wove together discrete moments, all for the purpose of telling their story for their audience. (76)
What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves. Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with him more deeply. (77)
The Stories of Jesus
The Gospels differ because their writers lived at different times and places and wrote for different reasons decades after Jesus lived. Each writer produced his own portrait of Jesus that captured the faith of the community he wrote for. (78)
…even though Matthew, Mark, and Luke are clearly consciously connected to one another somehow, each Gospel writer also clearly has no problem whatsoever going off and telling the story of Jesus in his own unique way. (79)
Little Baby Jesuses
Matthew intentionally, creatively, connects Jesus to Moses, because this is Matthew’s way of deeply connecting Jesus to Israel’s story. By making Jesus “Moses 2.0” he is telling his readers that Jesus needs to be understood not at a distance from Israel’s story, but as God’s way of taking Israel’s story to the next, climactic stage with Jesus at the center rather than Moses. (84)
Perhaps by the time they wrote their Gospels, some forty years after Jesus’s life, after the resurrection, the bigness of it all, not fully grasped at first, had begun to come into its own. Perhaps over time the Gospel writers had to create scenes of guiding stars and angelic choirs in retrospect to get the real Jesus across, the Jesus they were coming to understand. (85)
Who Saw the Big Moment?
The Stories of Israel
Chronicles isn’t mopping up what’s left over from Samuel/Kings. It was intentionally crafted to give a very different take on Israel’s past. (91)
…these stories are not giving us history “straight” but history as the writers see it–better, history as they want their readers (which now includes us) to see it. | They weren’t trying to pull a fast one, nor were they sloppy. That’s modern thinking relying on modern rules of history writing. These two biblical storytellers shaped the past–created it to a certain extent–because their present–circumstances demanded it.
| You might even say, for these writers, the past serves the needs of the present. (94)
The Past Serves the Present
Bad leaders is for this writer the reason why the nation of Israel split into competing northern and southern kingdoms and both had populations carried off into captivity. (96)
David and Solomon of 1 and 2 Chronicles are a blueprint for the future, where a king would arise to lead them again to political independence, free of foibles, with no internal political resistance. (97)
Fretting over how the Bible presents the past, which is so unlike our way, and then smoothing over the differences to make the Bible behave, betrays a deeply held, likely unconscious, false expectation that the Bible should act according to our alien expectations. (98)
Wherever biblical writers talk about the past, we should expect them to be shaping the past as well. | The more comfortable we are with this idea, the better off we will be when we turn to one of the more controversial portions of the Bible when it comes to history–Israel’s stories of the deep past, its origins long, long ago. (99)
A Warm-Up for the Main Event
27 of 34 books (=80 percent) of all the narrative Old Testament books deal with some aspects of Israel’s monarchy and its aftermath; or if you will, 67 percent of all the narrative chapters in the Old Testament. (101)
The period of the monarchy is not only the meat of the Old Testament narrative of Israel. It’s also the period when Israel’s grand narrative was written. (102)
But even from a commonsensical point of view, when would the Israelites be more likely to write down the story of “This is who we are”? As a loose association of families and tribes wandering in the desert, jotting down notes along the way? Probably not. They would be more likely to write their story after they had settled down in the land, had a chance to catch their breath, and reflect–which is to say, after they had a story worth telling and a “national consciousness” for wanting to tell it. (102)
Early on, when the Israelites were first starting out as a nation, they became more conscious of themselves as a nation began telling their story. At the end, when all seemed to come crashing down, they had to tell their story, their whole story, from the deep past, from the beginning. And they shaped that past to help them work through their present. (103)
…if Israel’s storytellers took the recent past, like the stories of David and Solomon, and shaped them creatively to speak to the present, we can bet good money they shaped the distant past with the same creative and present mind-set. (105)
…the stories of the deep past (Israel’s origins) were written to echo intentionally the present (the period of kingship ending in crisis). (105)
A Sneak Peek at the Political Map
Babylonian culture is far older than Israelite culture, and so it seems that the Israelites modeled their creation story along the lines of the Babylonian story, not to copy it but to do it one better. (107)
Playing Favorites with Little Brother
Israel’s origins stories, with God’s preferential treatment of the younger sibling, were written to explain why the southern kingdom, the “younger brother,” survived Babylonian exile whereas the elder (and larger and more powerful) northern “brother” was wiped off the pages of history by the Assyrians 150 years earlier. (112)
Adam, Who Art Thou?”
If humans were already created in chapter one, this Adam guy God created in chapter two doesn’t seem to be the first human. So who is he? Adam is Israel’s whole story told in two chapters, Genesis 2-3. (113)
Obey and you stay; disobey and be exiled. Israel’s story follows the same pattern. (114)
The Adam story plays on the idea that exile is a kind of “death”–a spiritual death, separation from God’s presence. That’s why “on the very day” that Adam eats from forbidden fruit he doesn’t actually die, but he is driven out of the Garden. (114)
The story of Adam, from life with God to death in exile, is an abbreviated version of Israel’s story. Rabbis have noticed this since at least the medieval period, and for good reason. (114)
The Exodus Story
I feel pretty strongly, actually, that the exodus story has some historical basis; it wasn’t made up out of thin air. (117)
Through this story, Israel’s storytellers were tying their people not simply back to Adam (even though that’s pretty far back), but to the first moments of creation itself and the cosmic realm–to the opening chapter of the Bible, to Genesis chapter one. (118)
When Gods Fight
Myths were stories that were part of ancient ways of describing ultimate reality, which is found not here and now but on a higher and more primal plane of existence, the behind-the-scenes actions of the gods in primordial time. The ripple effects of those “back then and up there” actions were believed to echo in the here and now with every sunrise, budding plant, birth, and pretty much everything else that surrounds us. | Myths, in other words, were deeply meaningful stories that connected the present world with the heavenly and eternal realm. (119)
Myths also played a role in national origins stories. “Who we are as a people is ultimately rooted in the actions in the divine sphere long ago; we are here because of what the gods set in motion in days of old.” (119)
What’s with All the Water?
Many biblical scholars relying on geological findings believe that a great deluge in Mesopotamia around 2900 BCE was the trigger for the many flood stories that circulated in the ancient world… (124)
In all three stories–creation, Noah, and the exodus–God is in full control of water: When water is held back, there is life. When released, there is destruction for God’s enemies but safety and a new beginning for God’s people. (125)
…especially here in reading the stories of Israel’s deep past we need to be extra careful not to allow our point of view to dictate how the Bible behaves. (126)
But the Bible itself complicates matters: its writers are clearly engaged in consciously shaping the past rather than simply reporting it. (127)
As a person of faith, journeying onward along the Christian path, I want to do my best to take the Bible for what it is. I want to try, as best as I can, to watch how the Bible behaves and then try and understand what sorts of things the Bible is prepared to deliver. I want to align my expectations with the Bible as an ancient text and accept the challenge of faith: letting go of how I think things should be and submitting to God.
| There’s an irony: the passionate defense of the Bible as a “history book” among the more conservative wings of Christianity, despite intentions, isn’t really an act of submission to God; it is making God submit to us. (128)
Over the years I’ve grown more and more convinced that “storytelling” is a better way of understanding what the Bible is doing with the past than “history writing.” (128)
The Bible, then is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves–and God. | The Bible calls that change repentance. (129)
Chapter 4–Why Doesn’t God Make Up His Mind?
Raising Kids by the Book (FYI, It Doesn’t Work)
Life mocks our puny attempts to nail down a sure set of parenting rules. (134)
The Bible itself makes this quite clear by being so utterly disinterested in giving straight answers to questions we’d think really should have straight answers. (135)
Maybe the Bible isn’t God’s owner’s manual for us that answers all our questions about God and lays a script out for us to follow as we walk along the Christian path. (136)
A book like that shows us what a life of faith looks like. | As all good stories do, the Bible shapes and molds us by drawing us into its world and inviting us to connect on many different levels, wherever we are on our journey, and to see ourselves better by its light by stirring our spiritual imagination to walk closer with God. | That’s how the Bible acts as a guide for the faithful–by being a story, not by giving us a list of directions disguised as a story. (136)
If there’s a sense in which the Bible “tells us what to do,” I think that’s it: as a model of the diverse and unscripted spiritual life, not as our step-by-step instructional guide. (136)
“If I Wanted to Tell You What to Do, I Would Have”–God
Proverbs doesn’t tell its readers what to do, because Proverbs teaches wisdom. (138)
Wisdom is about learning how to work through the unpredictable, uncontrollable messiness of life so you can figure things out on your own in real time. (138)
So what does Proverbs say about wealth? Different things. But what does God want me to do? Wrong question. (140)
Treating Proverbs–or the Bible–as an ironclad, fixed-in-cement rule-book isn’t an option. We need to think for ourselves and figure out what to do with what we read. Maybe we shouldn’t expect the Bible to hand us answers to life to be checked off one by one. (141)
When Biblical Writers Get Cranky
Qohelet is the most pessimistic person in the entire Bible. You can’t count on God, he says, and wisdom makes no practical difference, because at the end of the day we all die anyway. (143)
Here’s the point: the Bible, a book that tells us about God, has right next to each other two books that have such different takes on God. (144)
“Don’t Quote the Bible at Me, Please. I’m God.”–God, to Job and His Friends
So it seems like God isn’t operating by the book. The book doesn’t limit God. There is more to God than what the book says. God is bigger than the Bible. (149)
Is There More Than One God? (And, No, This Isn’t a Trick Question)
No, I don’t for one minute think there are heavenly board meetings or battles among the gods. | But I believe the Israelites believed these things. (152-153)
They confessed Yahweh’s greatness the only way they could in that culture, the only way that would have ever dawned on them: in contrast to the gods of the other nations. (153)
Leaving some of the Bible behind is only a problem when the Bible is seen as an A-Z sourcebook of timeless information. It’s not a problem when the Bible is seen as a model for our own walk with God, where who we are and where we are affects how we understand and connect with God. (154)
God Seems Like a Regular Joe
Seeing God as a character in the story who can be talked to, reasoned with, shows regret, finds things out, and changes his mind can be troubling because it doesn’t sound very much like the sovereign signal-caller of the universe. | What kind of God takes advice from puny humans and then calms down? What kind of God needs to be calmed down in the first place? What kind of God regrets what he’s done? What kind of God needs to test his subjects so he can be sure of their loyalty? | Why does the Bible have to make this so complicated? Why can’t the Bible have God act like God, everywhere? (158)
But this ungodlike God of the Bible gets at the very heart of both Jewish and Christian beliefs about God. This God doesn’t keep his distance but embraces human experience and becomes part of the human story. He is “on the scene” with bracing regularity.
| In the Christian story, God steps further down. He becomes one of us, God in the flesh. | We actually need God to be less of an on-high-keeping-his-distance kind of God, and more a God who reacts, changes his mind, and can be reasoned with. (159)
God Lays Down the Law…Sort Of
Over the last several hundred years, biblical scholars have proposed theories to explain why these contradictory laws exist in the same book. One explanation has gotten the most traction–actually, almost universal traction: Israel had more than one “legal tradition.” (162)
These traditions (or “law codes” as they are sometimes called) were produced independently by–stoop me if you’ve heard me say this already–different groups of Israelites, living at different times and in different places, and each reflects different ways of understanding what God’s will is for them. (162)
The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual but a story–a diverse story of God and how his people have connected with him over the centuries, in changing circumstances and situations. | That kind of Bible works, because that is our story, too. The Bible “partners” with us (so to speak), modeling for us our walk with God in discovering greater depth and maturity on our journey of faith, not by telling us what to do at each step, but by showing us a journey of hills and valleys, straight lanes and difficult curves, of new discoveries and insights, of movement and change–with God by our side every step of the way. (164)
Chapter 5–Jesus Is Bigger Than the Bible
Jesus Gets a Big Fat “F” in Bible
Loosey-goosey handling of the Bible gets you a bad grade, because you can’t just make the Bible mean whatever you feel like making it mean. You have to stick with what the text says. Everyone who takes the Bible seriously knows that. | Except for Jesus. (168)
Jesus didn’t read his Bible the way we today might expect him to. … First, Jesus was Jewish. … Second, Jesus often read his Bible in fresh ways that challenged old ways of thinking about God and what it means to be the people of God. (169-170)
Jesus…didn’t stay inside the lines the way many Christian readers today assume the Son of God would. Jesus, of all people, did not feel bound to follow strictly what the Bible said. Jesus was no rulebook reader of the Bible. Jesus was bigger than the Bible. (170)
Jesus Was Actually Jewish (Go Figure)
Debating the Bible, especially Torah, and coming up with creative readings to address changing times was a mark of faithful Judaism. Jews were not “legalistic” about handling the Law, which is still a common Christian caricature. (174)
Remaining faithful to the Bible here and now meant having to be flexible. The debates of the day were about how to be flexible and creative, not whether scripture was still binding. That was the world Jesus was a part of. (174)
Jesus Messes with the Bible
Jesus: Moses 2.0
According to Jesus, to understand God and his kingdom, Torah as it stands does not have the final word. It needs to be reshaped. “Fulfilling Torah,” ironically, means going beyond the words on the page and to another level, which is where you find the heart of God. For Jesus, that meant intensifying the requirements of Torah in places. At times, it meant going in another direction. (181)
Jesus Picks Fights
Jesus Was a Human Being
Chapter 6–No One Saw This Coming
I Could Tell You But You Wouldn’t Understand
The Bible was nonnegotiable as God’s word, but it wasn’t God’s final word. Jesus was. (195)
If we miss that lesson–if we look to the Bible as a collection of unchanging information about God and miss how the reality of Jesus necessarily transforms Israel’s story–we will miss what the earliest Christian writers have to say. | We will miss Jesus. (195)
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“It’s All About Me.”–Jesus (According to Luke and Matthew)
Here in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is not telling his disciples to stick literally to the script. He is telling them to reread the script in light of his death and resurrection.
The need to explain Jesus as both surprise ending and deeply connected to Israel’s story drove the Gospel writers to do some creative reading. Sticking to what the Bible says wasn’t their goal. | Talking about Jesus was. (205)
Are We There Yet?
They’re not talking about going to heaven after they die. They’re talking about politics. (207)
The Gospel writers redefined the familiar idea of “exile” and what it meant for that exile to come to an end. (207)
Jesus, Savior of the
If you are expecting Paul to read the Bible like it was set in stone, you will find yourself getting pretty nervous. For Paul, now that Jesus has come, the Bible was more like clay to be molded. (214)
God’s Answer to a Question No One Was Asking
Following a false messiah meant potentially missing the real one when he comes, which would be one big fat disaster. (215)
If a dying and rising messiah, as surprising as it was, is God’s solution, what exactly is he solving? What is the problem that needs this kind of messiah? | If this Jesus is God’s answer, what is the question?
| Paul eventually came to the conclusion that God was answering a question that gets at the core of not simply the Jewish drama, but the human drama, a question that no one was yet asking in quite the same way. (216)
If Jesus dying and walking out of a tomb is God’s solution, maybe the problem–the deeper problem–God has in his sights is…death. (217)
Likewise, sin–disobedience to God and unjust actions toward others–was also a universal problem. Jesus’s death was not simply another Roman execution, but sacrifice for sins–not just for Jews, but Gentiles, too. (217)
Explaining how the Jesus story made Israel’s story an every-person story is more or less what Paul’s letters are about, not every word or verse, but the heart of them. And to pull that off–namely, to convince his fellow Jewish Christians–Paul had to present Israel’s story as a universal story. (218)
“Torah? Oh That. It Was Only Temporary.”–God (As Told to Paul)
…faithfulness to God would no longer be defined by Torah-keeping. (220)
If there is any cure for thinking of the Bible as a once-told-forever-binding source of information about God and his people, Paul is it. (221)
To sum up: Paul says Torah was never central to God but only temporary, a placeholder playing a supporting role until Jesus came to replace it. (223)
Paul transforms Israel’s story from a Torah-centered faith of one small ethnic group to a universal story that decentered Torah and put the crucified and resurrected Jesus in its place. Despite the surprise factor, Paul argues, what God is doing now in Jesus, not Torah, was God’s plan all along. (223)
“Why Don’t You Just Go Castrate Yourself,” and Other Spiritual Advice
Sticking to the Bible at every turn, like it’s an owner’s manual or book of instruction, as the way to know God misses what Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers show us again and again: the words on the page of the Bible don’t drive the story, Jesus does. Jesus is bigger than the Bible. | For Christians, then, the question is not, “Who gets the Bible right?” The question is and has always been, “Who gets Jesus right?” (227)
Chapter 7–The Bible, Just as It Is
For Those on the Go, the Entire Book in Exactly 265 Words (With Brief Commentary)
The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.
The Biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was.
The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago.
Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so.
A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.
This is the Bible we have, the Bible where God meets us. (232)
A Quick Thought About the Universe and God Laughing
To sum up: the universe is beyond comprehension. | Christians believe that God, the one responsible for the incomprehensible–in a further incomprehensible move–entered into the human drama.
| So, right off the bat, I’m going with mystery as an operative category for talking about God. | And I expected to be surprised by this God. | Which brings me to the Bible. (234)
Not That I’m trying to Tell You Want to Do, But…
The Bible is God’s Word.
The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith. The Bible doesn’t say, “Look at me!” It says, “Look through me.” The Bible, if we are paying attention, decenters itself. (237)
The Bible is not a weapon.
An unsettled faith is a maturing faith. Feeling dis-ease and challenged in my faith may be God pushing us out of our own safety zone, where we rest on our own ideas about God and confuse those ideas with the real thing. God may be pushing us to experience him more fully, with us kicking and screaming all the way if need be. (239)
Let go of fear. In the spiritual life, the opposite of fear is not courage, but trust. (240)
Branch out. Some think the presence of diversity in the church is a problem that needs correcting: “they” haven’t gotten the memo yet that “we” are right, and as soon as “they” fall into line, God’s will will finally be done on earth as it is in heaven, amen. | For any one group today to think it has the best grasp on the creator of the universe is a form of insanity. Run away–far and quickly–when you see this. (240-241)
…if your present community sees your spiritual journey as a problem because you are wandering off their beach blanket, it may be time to find another community. One should never do that impulsively. But if after a time you are sensing that you do not belong, that you are a problem to be corrected rather than a valued member of the community, maybe God is calling you elsewhere and to find for yourself that “they” aren’t so bad after all. (241)
…debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants. (242)
Christian, don’t expect more from the Bible than you would of Jesus.
A well-behaved Bible is one that rises above the messy and inconvenient ups and downs of life. A Bible like that is an alien among its surroundings, a brittle scroll kept under glass, safe and sound from the rough handling of the outside world.
| Such a Bible is nothing like Jesus. It also doesn’t exist.
| The Bible looks the way it does because, like Jesus, when God shows up, it’s in the think of things–as Matthew’s Gospel says, Immanuel, God with us. This is the paradox, the mystery, and the Good news of the Christian faith. | If we let the Bible be the Bible, on its own terms–on God’s terms–we will see this in-fleshing God at work, not despite the challenges, the unevenness, and ancient strangeness of the Bible, but precisely because of these things. Perhaps not the way we would have written our sacred book, if we had been consulted, but the one that the good and wise God has allowed his people to have.
| If we come to the Bible and read it this way, in true humility, rather than defending our version of it, we will find God as he wants to be found.
| The Bible tells us so. (244)