Book Club Discussion: Wrestling with the Bible

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’m running a couple of days behind, but am excited to begin our book club discussion today about Peter Rollins’ provocative book The Fidelity of Betrayal (Paraclete Press, 2008).

Rollins’ main thesis is that true Christianity always demands an act of betrayal from the faithful. This means that “we are led to embrace the idea of Christianity as a religion without religion…as tradition that is always prepared to wrestle with itself, disagree with itself, and betray itself.” Rollins writes that “this requires a way of structuring religious collectives that operate at a deeper level than the mere affirmation of shared doctrines, creeds, and convictions. It involves the formation of dynamic, life-affirming collectives that operate, quite literally, beyond belief.” (7)

In Chapters 1 and 2, Rollins uses the stories of Abraham and Jacob to show that God honors those who are willing wrestle with Him, (which in the story of Jacob happened physically!)

Rollins takes this a step further by explaining how the biblical text itself invites us to wrestle with and question its descriptions of God.

I was so very thankful to read his honest admission that:    

“We are presented throughout with images of the divine that are morally questionable. For instance, we must wrestle with the idea of the God of peace and forgiveness acting as a heartless warrior who endorses the Israelite massacre of three thousand Levites and the population of Canaan. We are driven to question the image of an all-loving God as nationalistic, as advocating the theft of land and of endorsing the ownership of slaves. And we must struggle with the idea that this God of liberation is slow to be moved by injustice, for instance, when the Israelites are enslaved by the Egyptians.” (40)

(Rollins also refers to the conflicting stories of the ascension of Jesus as an example of factual inconsistency in the text. According to Luke, the ascension happened on the day of the resurrection, whereas the writer of Acts records it as happening 40 days after the resurrection.)

If only more evangelical theologians would be as upfront and candid about these frustrating details! If only these  inconsistencies were not swept under the rug or abruptly explained , but brought out into the open, so that those of us who struggle with them would not have to do so in secret!

According to Rollins, there are currently two responses to the tensions found within the Bible:

1.    The assertion by biblical critics that these conflicts prove that the Bible is an entirely human construction.

2.    The attempt by advocates of biblical inerrancy to explain the tensions away in an effort to defend the idea that the text is divine.

Both approaches, writes Rollins, are highly influence by modernism.

“It is worth noting,” he writes, “that both biblical criticism and apologists for the idea of inerrancy are primarily concerned with the rational legitimacy of the text when viewed as a description of factual claims. While biblical criticism examines these claims without presupposing that the words are divinely given, the approach of the modern inerrancy writers is one that affirms the absolute factual accuracy of the text and then seeks to explain away any conflicts. While these two approaches may seem diametrically opposed, those who advocate the inerrancy of Scriptures today have actually been profoundly influenced by the thinking that gave birth to the modern, critical disciplines. While those who advocate biblical inerrancy reject many of the findings of historical criticism, they still attempt to justify their own claims via the rational approach that historical criticism also employs. In doing so, the fundamentalist is claiming that the truth of the Bible is tied up with factual claims that can be intellectually defended.”

“As such, those institutions that advocate biblical inerrancy expend a great deal of time and energy attempting to offer explanations that will effectively reconcile any problems that they are presented with in the Bible. Yet it is this very process of rational justification that makes fundamentalism a very modern phenomenon, one that sets it at odds with the more ancient tradition of inerrancy found within the Church.” (43-44)

Rollins instead advocates a more pre-modern approach to the biblical text, which requires a type of voluntary “second naïvete” on the part of today’s devotional reader. This enables the reader to set aside the modernistic impulse to either critique or explain away factual issues of the text in an effort to allow the text to transform. 

“A devotional reading of the story considers it to be an overflowing container of life-giving meaning and, as such, engages in an imaginative interaction with it,” he writes. (47)

With this approach, the reader is actually inspired by the apparent conflicts found within the pages of Scripture, rather than afraid of them. 

Rollins writes, “The sheer amount of ideological conflicts playing out within the text hints at the fact that the writers were writing about a reality that could not be reduced to one description, a reality that was testified to better in the clash of perspectives than in the development of a single, finely honed one.” (47)

This is very similar to Rollins’ approach in his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God, which I HIGHLY recommend, and in which Rollins argues that competing ideas within the Bible “help to prevent us from forming an idolatrous image of God, ensuring that none of us can legitimately claim to understand God as God really is. Consequently, the text bars any attempt at colonization by individuals or groups who claim to possess an insight into its true meaning.” (13)

In The Fidelity of Betrayal, Rollins goes on to criticize the Western Church’s almost frantic attempt at “closing over this traumatic rent in the text” by affirming some biblical narratives over others and by explaining away passages that are inconsistent with favored narratives.

But according to Rollins, “a truly devotional reading of the text involves encouraging this mystery to be made manifest as a mystery and exploring how we are to celebrate, affirm, invite, and recall that mystery. The theologian here acts as a type of anti-theologian, for instead of placing God (theos) into language (logos), the theologian can help us to dive into the deep abyss of that mystery and cherish its transformative power.” (56)

Writes Rollins: “The words of the Bible, wonderful as they often are, must not be allowed to stand in for God’s majestic Word, as if the words and phrases have been conferred with some sacred status and the phonetic patterns given divine power. Rather, the Word of God can be described as that dark core around which the words of the text find their orbit, the unspeakable Source within the text that cannot be reduced to the words themselves but that breathes life into them.” (56-57)

He says that even the “dream text” of the fundamentalists, a Bible without any tension or conflict, a Bible that is perfectly systematized, would be nothing less than “a form of exorcism in which the Word of God is cast out—removing the spirit until we are left with nothing but the letter of the law.” (57)

The point of reading the Bible, according to Rollins, is not to somehow uncover the mind of God, but to engage in a transformative dialog with the text. Under this rubric, an authentic spiritual experience is not limited to theologians and Bible experts, but is available to all.

It’s hard (perhaps impossible?) to imagine reading the Bible without our modernistic impulses guiding us. I’m often asked if I think that the story of Adam and Eve LITERALLY happened, if God actually created the world in seven days and if there was actually a physical tree from which the first human beings, created form dust, physically ate. The truth is, I don’t know. But I think it’s possible to be radically transformed by this story, regardless of which of the details can be proven scientifically. 

When Jesus referred to Old Testament stories, I don’t think that he was doing so to try to prove their historical accuracy. He always did so with a larger, more transformative, truth to communicate.

I know that we “emergers” tend to blame everything on modernism, but I often wonder if the Church has lost many potential participants as a result of its re-creating the faith into a set of propositional truths that must be empirically proven to be true. Some of my smartest friends have given up on Christianity altogether because they were under the impression (from both secular critics and advocates of biblical inerrancy) that the Bible must be without conflict or inconsistency or error in order to be relevant.

Its as if the modern Church has decided that what makes the Bible sacred is its inerrancy, that what qualifies it as the Word of God is its historical and scientific accuracy. Rather than starting from a faith position, the Church starts from an empirical, rational position.

Rollins’ idea that the Bible is meant to be wrestled with, that its conflicting ideas and interpretations actually preserve its sacredness, is truly least to me, as a constant doubter and wrestler by nature.

What do you think?

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