I’ve never been much of a skeptic or a doubter. At the same time, I’ve never found science or scholarship to be threatening. I find reality more interesting than conceit, and trust that whatever seems reasonably true and good is something I should embrace. God and Jesus have always seemed as true to me as history and photosynthesis.
After seminary and some personal crises of faith – mostly involving the Bible and politics – my faith in the traditional formulations of Evangelical religion in which I was reared began to crumble. My esteem for Jesus wasn’t on the chopping block, but almost every other aspect of my Christian identity was. At one point, I would have been very happy to drop the label “Christian” and just be a Jesus fan. The tenets and strictures that were being torn down on a daily basis far outnumbered new and constructive ideas. I was almost done.
But in the last five years or so, I’ve experienced the surprising excitement of reading, listening, praying, conversing, and thinking my way into some new arenas of Christian hope and identity. They are new to me, anyway. There are many ideas that have invigorated and sustained me as a Christian in this new season of my life, but here are three that changed everything and rescued my dimming faith.
1. The Bible as a Diverse Library
This is the main topic of this blog, so I won’t oversell the idea here. But the reason I’m so intent on calling my fellow Christians to reexamine their approach to the Bible is that my own spiritual progress remained stalled and stifled until my view of scripture had been radically transformed.
The Bible is a collection of diverse, disparate texts, often in explicit or implied dialog, often in disagreement, all unaware that they are destined to become part of a collection known as “the Bible.” These are ancient works of persuasive human creativity which we consider to be inspired and sacred, but which bear the markings of the human personalities which crafted them. To read the Bible as a unified, monolithic whole is to miss the trees for the forest. The “perfect” Christian Bible that teaches a simple, straightforward, linear theological plan is a fiction. This error has kept us from a) learning to discern and appreciate unique individual voices in scripture, b) comparing and contrasting those voices, discovering harmonies and confronting tensions, and c) isolating and embracing the uniquely authoritative voice of Jesus.
2. The Anti-sacrificial (Nonviolent) Reading of the Bible
Traditional readings of the Bible which deny or obscure its diversity and polyvocality almost inevitably confound the message and work of Jesus with elements of ancient sacrificial religion which pervade the canon. In this popular view, God really does require blood sacrifice and punishment to keep Himself satisfied, and Jesus is the ultimate human sacrifice, the one that finally got (some of) us off the hook. This reading, accepted by millions of Protestant Christians as the only responsible and correct one, does great injustice to the character and reputation of God and dilutes and complicates the gospel of Jesus Christ. It sees violence as woven into the very fabric of the universe, and divine violence as the inevitable climax of human history.
Through the work of writers, teachers, and luminaries like Brian Zahnd, Brad Jersak, N.T. Wright, James Allison, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Hardin and René Girard (to name just a few), I have encountered various strains of nonviolent and anti-sacrificial theology. These are careful and faithful readings of scripture that understand Jesus as a corrective and liberating revelation of God’s true nature. Girard (for example) identifies in the Bible two unique voices: the mythical voice of the “vengeful victim” (eg. Abel) and the fresh voice of a “forgiving victim” (eg. Joseph) who interrupts the cycle of human retribution. This reading sees Jesus as the ultimate forgiving victim, who exposed the violent sins of religion and empire on the cross, and announced divine forgiveness upon his peaceful resurrection. In a nutshell, it takes “mercy not sacrifice” very seriously.
Such an interpretive scheme doesn’t pretend that the whole Bible is inherently nonviolent or anti-sacrificial, as if to impose modern liberal sensibilities back onto the text (an easy but lazy critique). Instead, it finds prophetic threads of anti-sacrifice and forgiving victimhood inherent to the texts and identifies these as the divine voice by which all others are challenged. To my heart and mind, this reading illuminates and animates the texts of the Bible in shocking, beautiful and unbearably profound ways. It accounts for the true nature of the Bible and does not impose a false uniformity. It exposes the true depths of our sin and the staggering extent of divine forgiveness. It gives voice to victims and reveals God as a loving co-sufferer rather than a doer of harm. It illuminates the way to true salvation and peace.
3. Hopeful, Open-ended Eschatology
As a child I would lie awake at night, terrified that the rapture would happen at any moment and my life would be over. Of course, as a Christian, I understood that my “real” life would only just begin at that moment, but I didn’t care. The prospect of leaving behind the world of friends and movies and cartoons and girls and going to the boring eternal church service in the sky was horrifying. Likewise, for many conservative Christian adults, the “end times” are a terrifying and violent inevitability, a doomsday brought about by the rampant sin of unbelieving people. But for Christians who claim to believe in this imminent reality, shouldn’t the revelation of God and the culmination of His purposes be a thing of beauty and delight? Something is very wrong.
Embracing a diverse, human Bible and exploring its inherent witness to a nonviolent theology also opens the possibility for a more holistic and hopeful eschatology. If the Bible is not a strict, flat, literal blueprint for an immediate and bleak future; if God is not a bloodthirsty punisher; if salvation encompasses all of creation and not just civilized, self-interested humans; if religious war and divine violence are not the inevitable climax of history; then there is room for hope. There is as much room for human progress, climate rescue, and “peace in our time” as there is for eternal salvation, new creation, and the peaceable kingdom of God. There is real hope, not that we might survive Armageddon, but that we might reject it and choose life instead.