Category Archives: Books

The Bible Tells Me So Review: God Likes Stories

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This blog post is my review of the third chapter in Peter Enn’s brilliant book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. You can find the previous two under the Bible tag.

So far, I think this has been my favorite section of the book. After deconstructing what our expectations should be when we read scripture—especially the Old Testament—Peter Enns builds on these concepts and constructs something meaningful for us as readers.  He peels back another layer of these ancient stories and reveals the depths of what the writers were trying to communicate when they penned some of the greatest stories in history.

Enns begins by really tackling the hard truth: there is no such thing as “straight” history! It doesn’t exist in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyone who takes pen to paper and writes out an account of something that happened in the past, whether it was yesterday, or fifty years ago, or two thousand years ago, is going to write it from a particular angle. A different person might tell the exact same bit of history in a completely different way.

To illustrate this very important point, Enns explores the four Gospels and the choices each writer made when describing various key moments in Jesus’s life, such as his birth, the miracles he performs, his death, and his resurrection. Enns writes:

“Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority. All four Gospels are connected to history, but each also tells us a lot about how these writers saw Jesus, what they believed about him, what was important to them and their communities.”

He gives a few examples of how the three synoptic Gospels especially build off each other and tell the same miracle stories, but sometimes in different sequential order, or with different details that highlight a particular point that is in line with that particular Gospel’s overarching theme. Each writer shaped their telling of Jesus’s life in a way that was tailored to their own audience.

The implications of reading the Gospels in this manner are fascinating. For example, Luke’s Jesus is very kingly. The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary that is only present in Luke’s Gospel, immediately tells the audience that this baby is a descendant of David and Israel’s rightful king. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth reveals a different goal; he is echoing the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God used a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert; God used a star to guide the Magi to the infant Jesus. The historicity of some of these details may be questionable, but their implications for the significance of Jesus’ birth certainly is not!

After providing several more of these examples, Enns shifts his attention from the Gospels to the Old Testament stories and evaluates them using the exact same framework. In the Old Testament, as well, we can see plentiful examples of how the writers shaped the events of history to reinforce a particular overarching agenda. He walks through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. Just as with Jesus in each of the Gospels, we  see in these books that very different images of Solomon and David are presented. In the Chronicles, David is the charismatic, brave, bold king that Israel needed most at the time.  The Chronicles’ David is a symbol for Israel’s future: promising and full of hope.

In the Kings and Samuel books, however, we see a more human David; he has an affair with Bathsheba and murders Uriah, and at the end of his life he disrupts the order of succession by naming his younger son Solomon as his heir (speaking of which, the theme of younger sons being favored over their older brothers is also peppered all throughout the Old Testament). He also begins the process of building the temple despite God’s clear command to the contrary. He is, in short, a very different person from the heroic figure in 1 and 2 Chronicles.

Enns rounds out the “God Likes Stories” chapter in an incredibly fascinating manner. As the final chapters of this section unfolded, I became amazed at the intricate way that so many of the Bible’s most iconic stories are interconnected. The same themes emerge again, and again, and again throughout these stories. Applying this lens of the “present shapes the past” helps to bring these themes to light.

Reading these stories in this way also helps us place them within a genre appropriate to their content. All of the connections  and interplay between them point to the reality that each of these stories are myths. And before you start thinking that myths are just wild fairy tales spun out of thin air, just read Enns’ definition of a myth:

“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 myth of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis is a perfect example of this. In this story, Adam symbolizes Israel; God creates him, makes him a promise, and fulfills that promise until Adam disobeys God, along with his wife Eve. The two are then exiled—cast out from the garden. If that doesn’t echo Israel’s own relationship with God I don’t know what does!

Likewise, in the Genesis story, there is an ancient Mesopotamian myth that the god Marduk violently murdered the goddess Tiamat, rent her body in half, and formed the waters above the firmament and below from her carcass. In Genesis, God performs the exact same creative act, except he does it by his own spoken Word; he is uncontested among gods.

Speaking of water imagery, the connection between the Genesis story, the Noah story, and the Exodus story are fascinating. By separating the waters, God is creating order out of chaos (the untamed sea was a symbol of chaos in the ancient world). And when God flooded the world in Noah’s story, he unleashed the waters to their chaotic fury, but created a vessel of safety for Noah and his family. Likewise, Moses is rescued as an infant when his mother forms a basket for him to navigate the waters of the Nile. And later, we once again see the imagery of God parting the waters when he rescues the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians. The connections are endless!

Under the surface, each of these stories is declaring the sovereignty of God and his unrivaled power over the other gods of the day. The ten plagues, for example, are essentially a slap in the face to Egypt’s gods: they worshiped the Nile as a god of life; Yahweh turned its waters to blood, a symbol of death. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted as a frog; Yahweh multiplied the frogs of the land himself. And on it goes.

If we value these texts for nothing more than what we believe they can tell us about Israel’s literal history, we are missing the forest for the trees. We are overlooking the broader, deeper things that were going on when these writers immortalized these stories in writing. Enns explains this with wonderful clarity:

“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 writers were comfortable with changing, adding, erasing and exaggerating history to create meaning in their contemporary age, and the result is a Bible that doesn’t always behave how we expect it to, but is full of so much more dynamic retellings of God’s part in the history of Israel than we could imagine.

The Bible Tells Me So Review: Introduction

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading this new book released by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Let me just say up front that this book is fantastic. I’m enjoying it immensely: so much, in fact, that I’ve decided to do a chapter-by-chapter review of the entire thing. The perspective Enns brings to the table is such an important one, and I think that if we all read the Bible in this way we would find that we can read it with reverence and intellectual integrity without forcing it into a mold it was never meant to fill.

Right out of the gate, Enns makes it pretty clear that this is no typical perspective on how we as Bible-believing Christians ought to read the scriptures. He writes:

“In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. But they were also ancient—and that explains why the Bible behaves the way it does.

This kind of Bible—the Bible we have—just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.” (p. 23)

The basic purpose of the book’s introduction is to lay the groundwork for how Enns will be approaching the Bible throughout the book. He gives a basic overview of his life and how his views of scripture shifted radically shortly after he graduated from college. He was listening in on a theological conversation between an atheist friend and a Christian friend, and the reality that they had such knowledge and conviction about what they believed, and he felt ignorant by comparison.

This triggered a journey for him in which he studied the Bible, and then began reading all the books on theology, philosophy, church history, commentaries and more that he could get his hands on. He went to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in Old Testament Studies, where he encountered some of the bizarre ways in which the New Testament writers—especially Paul—interepreted the stories of the Old Testament. And he began to learn how comfortably those stories fit among their contemporary narratives.

“I feel I have been given permission to be honest with myself and with God about a Bible that behaves so unBible-like without being told God is deeply disappointed in me for doing so and might turn on me at any second.

I gained a Bible—and a God—I was free to converse with, complain to, talk back to, interrogate, and disagree with, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust, rather than needing to tiptoe around lest a grumpy God lash out with plague, famine, and sword if I get the Bible wrong—like an abusive, drunken father you don’t want to wake from his nap.

I was learning to trust God enough to know that, like family he will come through no matter what, that his love and commitment to me is deepr than how my brain happens to process information at any given moment, to trust that God will be with me, not despite my journey but precisely because I was trusting God enough to take it.” (p. 21)

As I read through Enn’s description of coming to terms with what the Bible truly is, and not what we force it to be, I was amazed at his ability to take the biblical texts at face value and yet remain respectful of its position as an inspired scripture that can teach us so many key things about God and ourselves. What this introduction showed me more than anything else is that you don’t have to bend the Bible to your will—or even to Church tradition—to let it transform you. You don’t need to have every passage hammered out into a malleable caricature of what is truly going on.

You can read the Bible exactly for what it is: ancient literature reflecting the ancient ideas of multiple men and women throughout history. They each colored history in their own ways for different purposes. And this doesn’t render it useless to us at all today; it just means we need to approach it with its context in mind, and read it in a way that is consistent with that context. Only then will the deeper meanings in scripture jump out that perhaps you had previous glossed over with an oversimplified or misinformed reading.

After driving this point home, Enns proceeds with introducing the first difficult topic he would be covering in the book: Old Testament violence. In my next installment of this series, I will provide an overview of Enn’s treatment of stories of God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament and why it is a poor reading of these texts to treat them as reflective of God’s nature or God’s judgment.

Plato, Socrates, the Bible, and Reinventing Hell

So I’ve been writing a lot about books lately, because I’ve been picking up some fascinating ones. Right now I’m reading this book called Inventing Hell by Jon M. Sweeney, and it’s really, really freaking me out. It’s screwing with my head and everything I’ve always believed about the Bible, and I just don’t know what to do with this new information I’m soaking in.

Before I get into all that, let me briefly explain what the book is about. Basically, it analyzes how we as human beings have conceived of the afterlife throughout history—specifically, what we have believed about hell. Sweeney mostly tackles this from a Christian perspective, delving into every Old Testament reference to the afterlife and explaining what most people believed about it in those times.

The bulk of his book, however, is devoted to discussing Dante’s Inferno and the incredibly pervasive influence this great work has had on how we conceive of hell today. It’s been pretty mind-blowing to realize that so much of what we believe about the afterlife is extra-biblical, and how the scriptures are anything but uniform when it comes to the fate of perished sinners.

I picked it up because I wanted to become more informed on what the Bible really has to say about hell, and if belief in its literal existence is biblically sound, or if it is simply a man-made doctrine like so many orthodox doctrines seem to be (technically, I guess you could say all doctrines are man-made, but that’s a whole new can of worms). But oh my goodness, have I gotten more than I bargained for by reading this!

So, all of this brings me to why I’m freaking out. In the chapter I just finished, Sweeney talks about the transition when people first began exploring the belief in the immortal soul. Almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament, it was generally believed that every human who dies descends to Sheol, which is a huge spiritual graveyard—essentially a permanent resting place which is neither benevolent nor malevolent.

All that changed when Socrates and Plato came on the scene, roughly 400 years before the birth of Christ. They introduced the idea that the soul is immortal and lives on after one’s body has died. Sweeney then spends a large chunk of the chapter outlining very specific ways in which Paul was heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates’ ideas when he penned the letters that would later become part of the biblical cannon. For example, Sweeney writes:

“For centuries, Christian theologians pointed to Paul’s words in Romans 1:21, saying that he was talking about some of the Greek philosophers when he said, ‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God.’ And so-called pagan authors like Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil were quoted and paraphrased, their words seemingly baptized as holy whenever necessary.” (Inventing Hell, p. 83)

And another, more thorough excerpt, in case that one didn’t really hit home:

“If you are an orthodox Christian believer, you probably never knew just how Greek you were. Even Paul’s most famous one-liner, about welcoming the soul’s release from the body at the time of death, wasn’t an original. ‘I say that to die is gain,’ said Socrates in the Apologia,  and then Paul: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21)! The idea of an ideal city, introduced by Plato in The Republic, also seems to be addressed in similar terms by Paul in his lengthy letter to the Romans. Enough. The comparisons could go on forever. Simply put, Paul learned from Greek philosophy and made use of the immortality of the soul in the formation of Christian theology.” (Inventing Hell, p. 84)

Now this is my crisis. Over the last few years I’ve essentially been putting a lot of the Christian beliefs I’ve always held as inerrantly true on the chopping block. Some I have reconsidered, and some I haven’t. But one that I have held on to quite tenaciously is the belief that the biblical cannon was assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and its content from Genesis to Revelation is divinely inspired by God.

I’ve always believed that, and I’ve never wavered, because how else am I to know what is Truth and what isn’t unless God has revealed it to us tangibly?

But now I am discovering that the theological foundation of the Christian faith, and in some cases the verbatim words themselves that Paul wrote and that most orthodox Christians consider to be God’s Holy Word, are based on the philosophical writings of two pagans! That is a really hard concept to grasph considering the high view of scripture I’ve always believed in.

Needless to say, all of this will take a long time to digest and process. I’m going to keep plugging along in Inventing Hell, because it really is a remarkable book and I’m learning all kinds of fascinating things. I just don’t know where I go from here, regarding what I believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible. I guess, essentially, I feel I have no rational choice but to add it to that growing list of beliefs that are going on that chopping block.

I’d really love your thoughts on this blog post. Reading Inventing Hell has given me so much to process, and doing so is always easier with the wise input of others. Specifically, I’d like to hear about how you believe Christians ought to reconcile the divine inspiration of scripture (if you believe in that, of course) with the fact that much of the New Testament is quite clearly based on pagan writings.

Brief Book Reviews: Pagan Christianity and A Christian Survival Guide

 

Please click the images for more information about these fantastic books!

Lately I’ve been reading a few books that have been turning a lot of customary Christian thought completely on its head. I must say, I am really enjoying breaking open the can of worms that is Christian tradition and digging into the ways in which so much of what we believe is human thought, and not necessarily rooted in scriptures.

One such book is Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. This book delves into all the basics of institutional Christianity. There is a chapter devoted to the church building, the liturgy, the sermon and pastor, tithing, the sacraments, Sunday School, and other practices that Christians generally take for granted as an unshakable part of Christian tradition.

The authors then trace each of these practices to their origins, and come to the mind-blowing conclusion over and over again that we do not derive the way we practice our faith from scripture at all. Rather, paganism had an incredibly pervasive influence on how Christianity developed in the centuries after Jesus’ death, when an organized religion began to emerge due primarily to the influence of Emperor Constantine.

The book was fascinating, and left me with a lot to question about how we “do church” today and what that means for my personal life and my continuing search for a community of believers with whom I can live out my faith in Jesus.

The second book I picked up, which I’m currently still reading, is Ed Cyzewski’s A Christian Survival Guide. Its tone is quite a bit different from Viola and Barna’s book, which is a little heavy academically and full of historical facts about the development of institutional Christianity.1404162367_thumb.png

Rather, Ed’s book is about a lot of the issues that Christians often find hard to reconcile with their own faith. He writes about prayer, and why it can be so discouraging because it often feels like God is silent in our prayers. He also writes about the problem of suffering, and doubt, and violence in the Bible, and questions about biblical inerrancy. I haven’t gotten to these chapters yet, but he also discusses Christian practices such as tithing, church-going, and evangelism.

What I am really appreciating about Ed’s book is that he writes with a gentle sort of conviction that has challenged me to think more deeply about what it means to be serious about my faith in a way that is not threatening. He doesn’t subscribe to a particular theological camp in his discussion of all the different issues he writes about, and he is careful to remind the reader that what he is offering are a few options in the quest to make sense of this world we live in, but that we are free to make up our own minds.

It’s a wonderful book, and I imagine took a lot of guts to publish it. Because the ideas Ed discusses don’t really fall squarely in either the conservative or progressive camps, but rather offer an alternative to the pitfalls of both, it can sometimes be an uncomfortable read no matter where you fall on the theological spectrum.

So basically, both books have been incredibly enlightening reads. I’m really glad that I read them back-to-back, because they balance each other out really well. Pagan Christianity pulls apart all the ways we have abandoned the practical, organic Christian community practiced by the early church in favor of rigid traditions heavily influenced by paganism. And A Christian Survival Guide provides useful, thoughtful tools for navigating problem areas in Christian theology and forging a new way that shifts beyond oversimplified, problematic doctrines and yet still remains molded to the fundamentals that the Christian faith holds dear.

 

Some Initial Thoughts on Jesus Feminist

This past weekend, I started Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist. I’m only three chapters in, and I’m already convinced that if I were to meet the author, I’d give her the biggest hug I could muster. Why? Because what she has to say about women, the Bible, and Jesus is so liberating. It feels so good to be given permission to be who I am instead of feeling like I have to tone down parts of me in order to be more “feminine”.

Growing up, this was always one of my biggest fears about marriage (yes, I’m a strange girl, and thought about marriage a lot even as a teenager). I would see my parents’ marriage and how it functioned: my mom is a naturally compliant person who is happiest when she can make everyone else happy. She has wonderful diplomacy skills, and she either desires or embodies so many traits that are stereotypically feminine: being a stay-at-home mom, cooking, being gentle and docile, etc. And my dad always performed the stereotypically masculine duties such as making decisions about finances, keeping the budget, mowing the lawn, that sort of thing. Their marriage functions well that way, because my dad has a very assertive, empowering presence that complements my mom’s compliant personality very nicely.

There’s just one problem: while I believe I inherited a lot of traits from my mom, I most definitely inherited a lot of traits from my dad too. I would never feel comfortable letting my future husband have the final say in important financial decisions, like my mom is. I would never feel satisfied and fulfilled as a stay-at-home mom. None of that is my personality, it isn’t who I am. I think there are many aspects of who I am that are considered feminine (one that jumps out is having a very empathetic heart), but I really don’t believe that I’m the sort of person who could fit seamlessly into a complementarian marriage like my mother does.

So because of all that, the prospect of marriage terrified me as much as it excited me, because I thought that I would need to fight against this part of myself that doesn’t fit the bill of how a wife should behave. The idea of submitting to a husband’s authority, of always having to be the one who takes the high ground to quell potential disagreements, bothered me immensely.  The idea that it would be my duty to defer to my husband’s decisions because I am a woman is, simply put, suffocating to me.

So when I read what Sarah Bessey had to say about how Jesus empowered women, and taught women, and afforded women the same regard that he gave for men, it was so freeing to me. I have an assertive personality, and that isn’t something that I need to suppress in order to be the sort of wife who would please God and her husband. Instead I must use that personality trait, that beautiful part of who I am, to strengthen the marriage I will have one day.

Shane Claiborne, David Platt, and True Charity

Last summer, I read David Platt’s book Radical for the first time. If you aren’t familiar with the book, the gist of it is that David is challenging us to rethink how we live our lives and use and value our money, based on the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. He refers to verses like Matthew 19:21 and Luke 18:18-22 to basically say that we’ve got to let go of our materialism and start trying to live like Jesus did. I didn’t like the book very much, and I couldn’t really put a finger on why except to say that reading it filled me with guilt instead of conviction, paralyzing shame instead of a desire to change the world by changing the way I live in it. And I wasn’t sure whether my own heart was to blame for that, or if the ideas in the book were.

Right now, I’m reading a different book: The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. On the surface, it’s message seems to be the same. Jesus hung out with poor people all the time, and we should care about social justice and ending poverty. We need to rethink how we value, spend, and save our money. As I read it, I even found parts that echoed David Platt’s sentiments almost identically. Consider these excerpts, pulled from each book:

“We’ve been very careful at the Simple Way never to claim that we have the corner on the market for “radical Christianity.” Nor have we even tried to spread a brand or model. And the incredible thing is that the stories of ordinary radicals are all over the place, stories of everyday people doing small things with great love, with their lives, gifts, and careers. I heard about a group of massage therapists who spend their days washing and massaging the tired feet of homeless folks. Some manicurists told me they go to old folks homes and ask which old ladies have no visitors or family, and then they sit with them, laugh, tell stories, and do their nails…There are lawyers who bail us out of jail, advocate for human rights, and go with us before zoning boards that have no categories for understanding how we live. The examples are as numerous as the number of vocations. But the calling is the same: to love God and our neighbors with our whole lives, careers, and gifts.” ~ The Irresistible Revolution (source)

“When I sit down for lunch with Steve, a businessman in our faith family, it’s obvious we have different callings in our lives. He’s an accountant; I’m a pastor. He is gifted with numbers; I can’t stand numbers. But we both understand that God has called us and gifted us for a global purpose. So Steve is constantly asking, “How can I lead my life, my family, and my accounting firm for God’s glory in Birmingham and around the world?” He is leading co-workers to Christ; he is mobilizing accountants to serve the poor; and his life is personally impacting individuals and churches in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe with the gospel.

Steve and others like him have decided that they are not going to take the command of Christ to make disciples of all nations and label it a calling for a few. They are not going to sit on the sidelines while a supposed special class of Christians accomplishes the global purpose of God. They are convinced that God has created them to make His glory known in all nations, and they are committing their lives to accomplishing that purpose.” Radical (source)

So what is the difference between the two? I was trying to figure this out, because at first I thought it was because Shane’s life experiences give so much more weight to his words. In college he and a group of friends stood by a homeless community as the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia tried to evict them from an abandoned cathedral. He spent a summer in India with Mother Theresa, caring for and learning about love from lepers. He had stories, and I believed him when he explained that living among and serving the poor opened his eyes to the heart of Jesus in a way nothing ever had before.

As I continued to mull over these two men’s books and the difference in my reaction to them, I realized that it went even deeper than the difference in life experience between the two men. Because really, God can use you wherever. We aren’t all called to the slums of India. Some of us might become David Platts who pastor mega-churches and talk about living a radical life for Christ even if we never leave the U.S.

What stood apart in Shane’s book, what reached into the core of me and infused me with a desire to love as Jesus commands us to love, is that Shane pushed not just for charity, not just for helping the needy. He writes,

“When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.” Charity wins awards and applause but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for living out of love that disrupts the social order that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.”

And:

“We are not a voice for the voiceless. The truth is that there is a lot of noise out there downing out quiet voices, and many people have stopped listening to the cries of their neighbors. Lots of folks have put their hands over their ears and drown out the suffering…it is a beautiful thing when folks in poverty are no longer just a missions project but become genuine friends and family with whom we laugh, cry, dream, and struggle.”

Wow. Powerful. And that’s where David Platt fell short for me. I felt like his book emphasized charity, but didn’t have much to say about solidarity in the way that Shane describes it here. Blurring the lines between rich and poor looks a whole lot more like the Gospel of Jesus than just wiser money management, alms-giving, or even living out a vocation that plays a part in helping the least of these (all of which both David Platt and Shane Claiborne support, as evidenced from the excerpts I shared from their books earlier in this post). And this is why I felt convicted by Shane’s book—because he reached into the heart of the matter, the heart of why poverty exists at all. It exists because we, the rich, the privileged, find it so easy to keep the poor at arm’s length. But when we get down into the slums with them, we’ll realize…they are also made in the image of Christ. They are also worthy and treasured by God. They deserve dignity too.

In closing, I wanted to share this blog post with you. It’s beautiful. And it just rocks my world when the story of this agnostic blogger feels so very much closer to the heart of what Jesus desires of us than what my own life has been. It’s high time I change that.