Canaanites, Reality Checks, and Letting the Bible Out of the Box

I’ve always been a Bible nerd. 

Growing up in an evangelical church, I memorized all the verses in my AWANA notebook and boasted enough badges and pins on my bright red Sparky vest to rival a five-star general. I was elected president of the Bible Club in high school, and in college I minored in biblical studies at a college famous for teaching students to analyze the world with a “biblical worldview.” The fat study Bible I carried under my arm bore the highlighter marks of a devoted reader, its pages wrinkled and worn. 

I’ve also always had questions about the Bible. 

Have I ever mentioned that I won the "Best Christian Attitude Award" four years in a row in elementary school? Or that my bangs accounted for about 40% of my body weight? 

Have I ever mentioned that I won the "Best Christian Attitude Award" four years in a row in elementary school? Or that my bangs accounted for about 40% of my body weight? 

Once, in Sunday school, I raised a slap-bracelet-bedecked hand to ask why God drowned all the world’s animals in the Great Flood—save those on the ark—when it was people who had sinned, not innocent penguins and kangaroos. (She told me to go home and ask my father.) 

In high school, in the midst of yet another noble attempt to read the Bible in a year, I remember drawing breath upon reaching the story of the Battle of Jericho and realizing that after the walls came a-tumblin’ down, the Israelites “destroyed with the sword ever living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys,” all on God’s orders. In any other context, this would be condemned as genocide. Why would a good and loving God call for the slaughter of little children? 

A tipping point occurred during a sleepy, 9-a.m. Introduction to World Literature class when my class read the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem purportedly written before the book of Genesis, which tells the story of a worldwide flood, a favored family, and an ark full of animals, only with Sumerian gods and heroes at its center instead of the familiar Yahweh. The similarity in style and content between the stories I knew from the Bible and the myths of other Mesopotamian cultures suddenly made those strange tales of talking snakes and forbidden fruit and boats packed with animals seem colloquial, routine—nothing more than myths operating from the religious and literary conventions of the day. 

There were other issues too: The way the accounts of Israel’s monarchy contradicted one another, the way Jesus and Paul quoted Hebrew Scripture in ways that seemed to stretch the original meaning, the fact that women were considered property in Levitical Law, the way both science and archeology challenged the historicity of so many biblical texts, and the fact that it was nearly impossible for me to write a creative retelling of Resurrection Day because each of the gospel writers tell the story so differently, sometimes with contradictory details. 

The Bible just didn’t seem to want to behave the way I was told it was meant to behave—as a scientifically-provable, historically-accurate account of God’s actions in the world and a cohesive, inerrant rulebook for how to think and live as a Christian. 

Invariably, when I expressed concern over these issues, well-meaning apologists would refer me to Gleason Arche’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a heavy volume that seeks to provide the reader with sound explanations for every conceivable puzzle found within the Bible—from whether God approved of Rahab’s lie, to where Cain got his wife. But encountering a 500-page book listing hundreds of apparent biblical contradictions, half of which I didn’t even know existed before, did not have the desired affect and in fact only made things worse. 

After about a decade of doubt, study, and frustration, I made a resolution: to pursue the truth about the Bible without compromising my intellectual integrity, regardless of whether that pursuit led me to affirm my long-held presuppositions or whether it forced me to change my mind. I wanted to accept the Bible on its own terms, without projecting my evangelical community’s expectations upon it. I wanted to let it out of the box. 

Truth be told, this is a somewhat futile endeavor, as no one can approach a text with complete objectivity, somehow setting their culture, experience, background, gender, and ethnicity aside. But the pursuit did start me on an exciting, surprising journey toward loving the Bible more for what it is, not what I want it to be. 

Life would never be the same. 

"The Bible Tells Me So"

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, one of my favorite guides on this journey has been Old Testament scholar (and friend) Peter Enns. Pete’s books, blogs and articles just make sense to me—as a skeptic, as a literature lover, and as a Christian. The guy speaks my language, and he consistently writes with unusual wit, clarity and honesty.  

This is especially true of his latest book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, which released last week and which I highly recommend. 

I’m not sure how else to describe this book except to say that reading it is an experience. Never have I encountered a book on biblical interpretation that manages to be as simultaneously challenging and funny, uncomfortable and liberating, intellectually rigorous and accessible, culturally significant and deeply personal. It’s a book that invites the reader to really wrestle with Scripture, and it’s not for the faint of heart. 

Enns begins by observing that “when you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn’t behave itself like a holy rulebook should.” There are contradictions, discrepancies, bizarre stories, ethically-troubling scenarios, and puzzles. But “the problem isn’t the Bible, Enns contends. “The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.” 

“What if the Bible is just fine the way it is?” he asks. “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-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible we actually have?” 

Enns goes on to tell his own story of asking tough questions about the Bible as a devoted Christian and a scholar, often at great personal and professional cost. “My goal with this book,” he writes, “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 in our own journey of faith…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.” 

And then he dives right in, starting with what are perhaps the most troubling, problematic, and upsetting passages in Scripture: those that describe Israel’s conquest of Canaan and the supposedly God-ordained ethnic cleansing that conquest entailed. 

Enns skillfully dismantles some of the common responses to these passages—that the Canaanites were super-duper evil and therefore deserved to be exterminated, that war with the Canaanites was inevitable, that God’s bloodthirsty portrait in Joshua is balanced out by more flattering portraits elsewhere in Scripture, that questioning biblical accounts of God-ordained genocide is sinful because God can do whatever God wants to do, etc—before offering his own controversial, yet well-argued, conclusion: “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” 

I told you this book is not for the faint of heart. 

Enns argues that as ancient tribal people, the Israelites saw their God in tribal ways. In describing their relationship with God and the world around them, they spoke their own cultural language. “The Bible,” writes Enns, “is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time….The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” 

This doesn’t mean that the Bible "lies," or that our ancient ancestors were barbarians to simply be dismissed. It just means that whenever God enters the human story, God speaks to (and through) people using their own language, their own view of the world. And we make an enormous mistake when we project our modern, Enlightenment-shaped presuppositions regarding history and storytelling onto writers who were addressing ancient, pre-modern questions through ancient, pre-modern literary genres. 

Furthermore, Enns argues, the ancient tribal description of God is not the last word.  

“These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time,” he writes, “but not for all of time—and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up ‘explanations’ to ease our stress. For Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read—which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.” 

Enns goes on to explain how much of the Old Testament was written while the people of Israel were in exile and therefore seeks to respond to questions of Jewish identity. The stories of Genesis and Exodus, Joshua and Judges, and many others can be better understood as origin stories that helped the people of God make sense of their place in the world.  

“The biblical writers were storytellers,” says Enns. “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. 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 and lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons.” 

This is not only true for the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures but also for Jesus and for the authors of the New Testament. Jesus, like other first-century Jews, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended the boundaries of the words of Scripture. “A crucified and resurrected messiah,” writes Enns, “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.” 

Citing multiple examples from Genesis to Revelation, Enns shows how the many writers of Scripture used stories, poems, letters, and accounts written in their own voice, with their own assumptions and agendas, to tell the story of God, which, in various and complex ways ultimately bears witness to Jesus Christ. 

“The Bible doesn’t say, ‘Look at me!’” writes Enns. “It says, ‘Look through me.” 

All of this leaves us with a Bible that includes fissures and tensions, contradictions and questions, a Bible that invites wrestling, conversation, and a variety of interpretations (which Enns is quick to note is a reality that has long been celebrated, rather than glossed over, in the Jewish community). 

It’s hard to do justice to The Bible Tells Me So with a summary, and already I’ve seen several bloggers misrepresent it, (most having not bothered to actually read it).  One does not have to agree with all of Enns’ conclusions to be challenged and inspired by this book, and one need only look to the list of sources in the back to dig deeper on one’s own time. 

What I appreciated most about The Bible Tells Me So was its tell-it-like-it-is approach. The book takes you from one reality check to the next—bringing science, history, archeology, and scholarship into the conversation without apology—but with gentle good humor and disarming honesty.  This is one of the only books I’ve ever read that addressed the conquest of Canaan without either glossing over the genocide or offering feeble, inadequate defenses of it. It looks Scripture straight in the eye, without flinching, and in so doing manages to be both unsettling and profoundly liberating. 

Enns concludes: 

“This is the Bible we have, the Bible where God meets us. Not a book kept at safe distance from the human drama. Not a fragile Bible that has to be handled with care lest it crumble in our hands. Not a book that has to be defended 24/7 to make sure our faith doesn’t dissolve. In other words, not an artificially well-behaved Bible that gives false comfort, but the Holy Bible, the Word of God, with wrinkles, complexities, unexpected maneuvers, and downright strangeness. This is the Bible God has given his people. This Bible is worth reading and paying attention to, because this is the Bible God uses, as he always has, to point his readers to deeper trust in him. We are free to walk away from this invitation, of course, but we are not free to make the Bible in our own image. What the Bible looks like is God’s call, not ours.” 

I’m beginning to think I will always be the sort of person who struggles to reconcile my love of Scripture with my questions about it. 

And thanks to this book, and others, I’m beginning to think maybe that’s okay. 

***

Check out The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns.  Note: Though I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book by the publisher, I was not compensated for this review or discussion. 

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The Other Lie (by Lisa Sharon Harper)

Believe it or not, this week marks one month since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event which sparked protests across the country and ignited some important conversations about race in America. To help us reflect on what has happened since that day—and what still needs to happen in response—I’ve invited my friend Lisa Sharon Harper to share about her experience in Missouri and to pose some tough questions about the past and future. 

Lisa is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith–which releases this month. She has written extensively on tax reform, comprehensive immigration reform, health care reform, poverty, racial and gender justice,  and transformational civic engagement. Those familiar with Lisa's work know that she’s an all-around woman of valor—smart, compassionate, bold, and kind. May those with ears, hear....

***

He stood. Nervous; he shifted his weight from left to right, then leaned left again, as if asking the wall to hold him up. He looked at me, unsure.

I nodded as if to say: “It’s okay to say it.”

The tall, dirty-blonde, clean-cut, forty-something ministry leader stood before about 20 Evangelical pastors and ministry leaders from across St. Louis, MO. They were squeezed around two long tables in a slightly raised and sectioned-off area of the dining room. The general public sat on ground level within ear-shot of our “private” conversation. 

This dialogue at Three Kings Public House, a Washington University area bar and grill,  was convened to help St. Louis’ evangelical clergy begin to process their responses to the explosive conflict taking place only 20 minutes away in Ferguson, MO. 

Moments before the 40-something stood, I had shared about the biblical concept of shalom. White, black, and Asian-American leaders of evangelical churches, networks, and ministries considered the implications of three spiritual truths:

1)   Every human being on the face of the earth—every person in this restaurant, every person on the street, and every single person in Ferguson—is made in the image of God. 

2)   That means, all things being equal, every single person on earth was created with the command and the capacity to exercise Genesis 1:26-27 dominion, which means to steward or in modern terms, to exercise agency or lead. 

3)   To diminish the ability of humans to exercise dominion, is to diminish the image of God in them—and to diminish God’s image on earth. And the fastest and surest way to diminish the ability of humans to exercise agency, to —to lead is through poverty or oppression.

The pastors reflected on how it made them feel (in their gut) to imagine being led by the residents of Ferguson. For Isaiah 61 says, our society’s healing will come from their leadership.
The 40-something leaned against the wall, then stood straight, looked at the group and spoke the words: 

“As a white man,” he said, “I have been taught that I was created to lead everyone else.”

Another St. Louis faith leader stood and confessed: “It never even occurred to me that I would be led by the people of Ferguson. It never entered my mind as a possibility.” 

Last week, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today called The Lie. That article shined light on a core spiritual lie at work in Ferguson and across our nation. 

“Here it is,” I wrote, “plain and simple: Black people are not fully human. In most crass terms—they are animals.”

Today, one month after the shooting death of Michael Brown, I turn the coin to find another spiritual lie on the flip side.

Here it is—plain and simple: White people alone are fully human. In most crass terms—they were created to exercise dominion over everyone else.

Over the top?  No.

Look full in the face at American political history…and current reality:  

Twenty-five years before the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Franklin argued that whiteness is superior and dubbed the English to be the only truly white people.

White dominion.

Fourteen years after the Declaration that declared “all men are created equal” our founding fathers passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared only white men could be naturalized into American citizenship. The Act barred both free and enslaved blacks from the rights of citizenship, laid the foundation for the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, and triggered more than a century of Supreme Court cases like Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922), where Ozawa argued that as a Japanese man, he was white. 

White dominion.

Flip forward. Blacks secured civil rights, but survey the economic landscape 50 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as Nicholas Kristof did in a recent New York Times column, "When Whites Just Don’t Get It." The economic disparity between blacks and whites is worse now than it was before the Civil Rights Movement, Kristof warned. In fact, it is actually worse in the U.S. right now than it was in Apartheid South Africa. Let that sink in for a minute.

White dominion.

Now consider the five unarmed black men killed by police in the last month: Michael Brown, and Ezell Ford, and Eric Garner, and John Crawford III, and Dante Parker. According to a recent study these men and boys were the tip of the ice berg: 313 black men were killed by cops, security guards or vigilantes in 2012—that’s one death every 28 hours. An Aljazeera America report identified the common denominator between most of these deaths saying: “people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands and that the police initiate violence, despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.”

White dominion.

Finally, consider the militarization of our society’s response to recent racialized conflict: From tear-gassed protesters and check points on Ferguson thruways to calls for a militarized response to immigrant children fleeing oppression in neighboring countries. 

White dominion.

Recounting our nation’s recurrent history of white militarized backlash after periods of ethnic progress, Dr. Carol Anderson, Associate Professor of African American History at Emory University, surmised in a recent Washington Post commentary that Ferguson was not about black rage against cops, but rather about white rage against progress. I put it in theological terms: Ferguson was about the death of white dominion and the ruling set of our nation fighting to hold onto a lie.

Within 29 years, whites will be an ethnic minority in the U.S. That demographic shift poses a grave threat to white racialized political, social, and economic dominance. Always the steely-mouthed sounding board of her party,  Ann Coulter characterized the demographic shift as feeling like rape.

Ann Coulter’s feeling of violation reveals fear rooted in a core spiritual lie: She either fears 1) that something is fundamentally wrong with a world where whites don’t rule, or 2) that non-white people are incapable of leading. As a result, in 29 years our nation will falter. In either case, the root of the fear is a theological lie that whites should rule over everyone else and, by implication, whites alone are fully human. 

Now here’s the kicker about core spiritual lies. Lest you think that Ann Coulter stands alone, core spiritual lies are “core” because they infiltrate the basic belief system and structures of a society. Most people live their daily lives in obedience to and guided by the lie. 

In the United States, a ruling class has being established; along with it an assumed underclass. We see it clearly when we observe disparities in schools, healthcare, housing, food access, and justice. This is sin. Images of God are being diminished across our land.

In Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, my coauthors and I offer Nehemiah as an example of one who confronted the lies of his time. He entered into lament, understood the impact of the lies, and confessed the ways he and his people contributed to his nation’s devastation. 

Now, imagine this: What would it look like for the people of God to cultivate the image of God in every corner of our nation? 

And what if we did this through just investing, through disciplined consumption, and by legislating toward a world where governance affirms the truth (not the lie) - that all humanity is created in God’s image and therefore, has capacity to lead? 

There is no supreme humanity. There is only humanity.

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“God and the Gay Christian”: An Invitation

Later this week (or maybe next week), I’ll be sharing a post I’ve been working on for months now entitled, “Why I Changed My Mind About Same-Sex Relationships.”  

The post has been a long time coming, but as I’ve been in conversation with my gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends (both those who support same-sex relationships and those who hold the more traditional view), as well as those Christian brothers and sisters with whom I respectfully disagree, I’ve come to believe it’s important to not only be upfront about where I stand but also to explain how I got there.

Certainly there are many other Christians struggling to make sense of what Scripture says about gender and sexuality and who long to do the right thing on behalf of the LGBT people in the Church and in the world. Contrary to popular belief, those journeys are rarely easy or straightforward. Like so many other people, I didn’t arrive at my own conclusions easily or carelessly, but only after many sleepless nights, hours of study, and lots and lots of listening. 

I also believe it is possible to discuss same-sex relationships, as well as other issues related to gender and sexuality, with respect, kindness, passion, and grace, and I hope to model that as best as I can here on the blog, in conversation with you. 

Truth: Matthew's one of the smartest, kindest guys you'll ever meet. Also, his energy and idealism are contagious. I inform him regularly that he's messing with my cynicism. It's delightfully annoying. :-) 

Truth: Matthew's one of the smartest, kindest guys you'll ever meet. Also, his energy and idealism are contagious. I inform him regularly that he's messing with my cynicism. It's delightfully annoying. :-) 

As part of this conversation, I’d like to invite you to participate in a special discussion group here on the blog around Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. He’s also a friend. [Check out this video where Matthew presents much of the content found in God and the Gay Christian.]*

During the course of the discussion, we will also take a brief look at the response to Matthew’s book released by the Southern Baptist Convention.

I plan to host discussions on Wednesdays, following this schedule: 

Wed, September 17: Intro, Chapters 1-2
Wed, September 24: Chapter 3
Wed, October 1: Chapters 4-5
Wed, October 8: Chapters 6-7
Thurs, Oct 9: Chapters 8-10 

In the interest of keeping the discussion civil and diverse, we’ll have a few ground rules: 

1.    The comment section after each post will be carefully monitored and discussions will only last for 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. (I reserve the right to shut down the thread earlier if the conversation gets out of hand.) 

2.    I will be very engaged in the comments following each post, facilitating and monitoring the conversation throughout the day. Matthew will also join in when he can. I want this to feel as much like a real book club discussion as possible. 

3.    It is important to me that the comment section be a safe place for those who hold a variety of views on this subject, including those who disagree with me. No one will be turned away simply because of their ideas, experiences, or convictions. However, I will promptly delete any comment that is hateful, reactive, misleading, or off-topic in order to create a safe environment for those who really want to talk. 

Lord willing, we’ll begin the conversation next Wednesday.  In the meantime, check out God and The Gay Christian as well as The Reformation Project, which seeks to equip LGBT Christians and allies to reform church teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity (and which has a conference coming up in November). 

*Note: Though I was provided with a complimentary copy of God and the Gay Christian from the publisher, I was not compensated to review or discuss the book (or any others) on the blog. 

Questions? Ideas? 

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.