Tag Archives: bible


Do I Believe In Demons?

I get questions like this a lot. “Do you believe in demons?” “Do you believe in the Devil?” Sometimes it’s an inquisition, a checkpoint to gauge how far I’ve strayed from someone’s personal standard of orthodoxy. Other times it’s just friendly curiosity. Either way, people hoping for a simple “yes” or “no” will likely be disappointed by my answer. My response is rather complicated and begins with a clarification of the question.

What do you mean by “demons”? That might sound like an obnoxious deflection, but it gets to the heart of the matter. The important question underneath this whole discussion isn’t whether or not I have decide to believe in some specific reality called “demons” or a “devil,” but rather how I read and interpret the texts of the Bible.

Many Christians point to personal experiences of oppression, deliverance, or some sort of psycho-spiritual phenomena as proof of a demonic realm, and I wouldn’t presume to contradict or belittle anyone’s experiences or beliefs. I have seen and felt my share of the weirdness. But our choice to interpret such experiences in light of biblical language isn’t “proof” of anything, it merely highlights the lens through which we make sense of our lives. Angels, demons, the devil/the satan, and even divinity itself for that matter are all ideas that have clearly evolved over time, even among the different eras, texts, and traditions of the Bible. How we read those texts and how we connect them to our personal experiences is ultimately a matter of subjectivity and will.

Two Ways to Go Wrong

I think there are two major errors we can make concerning spiritual entities and experiences: completely dismissing the idea and mocking those who claim to have profound spiritual encounters, or believing with absurd certainty in a taxonomy of spiritual beings that colors and skews our response to everything that happens to or around us. It is foolish and small-minded to eschew spiritual “otherness” altogether, but even more reckless to declare ourselves demon hunters. There are certain spiritual mysteries in this world we share, and the authors of the Bible explored them using certain sets of ideas and words. That is our starting point, not the conclusion of the matter.

All of that is why I cannot reduce my answer to a simple “yes” or “no.” Now to a more robust response to the question, “Do I believe in demons?”

Josh the Spiritually Agnostic, Sensitive, Skeptical Christian

Here is a quick overview of my response, followed by a few paragraphs of explanation: I am generally agnostic regarding the existence of “personal” spiritual beings like demons, angels, the adversary, the accuser, etc., though I am deeply sensitive to the things I understand them to represent; I am exceedingly skeptical of religious traditions which emphasize spiritual “warfare” as the defining reality of life, especially those which effectively burden and terrorize hurting people, and I prefer instead to foster and calibrate my sense of spirituality according to the ethos and spirit of Jesus.

I know the word “agnostic” hits most Christians in a very negative way, but I don’t see it or intend it like that. I mean to say that I am earnest and open-hearted vis-à-vis the Bible’s spiritual language, even though I recognize it as an evolving pageant of distinctly ancient categories and constructs. After all, which “satan” am I meant to believe in? The “son of God” from Job who acts as a divine prosecuting attorney? The spirit that enters David and makes him defy God by taking a sinful census? The physical being who tempts Jesus away from his messianic vocation? The giant dragon in Revelation? It’s very difficult to track this being across the canvas of biblical thought as a consistent and tangible figure, yet it is easy to recognize the profound spiritual truth at the heart of each of these images. 

Thus I am committed to an intentional sensitivity to the satanic dangers of accusation and condemnation, the demonic spirits of rivalry, exclusion, and violence which always creep around the edges of our feelings and experiences. This is not “just a metaphor,” it is the very spiritual reality to which the many biblical metaphors are pointing. And this enemy doesn’t dwell in some outward dimension, it is a much more present danger as it lurks in the shadows of our own hearts.

Meanwhile, churches and preachers which project a fully literal and anthropomorphic view of such devils and spirits tend to sensationalize and abuse the notion of spiritual danger, blaming every sickness and inconvenience on “demons” and reveling in spectacular and emotional shows of deliverance and triumph. In their mission to seek out and kick demon butt, however, they miss the mundane but insidious spirit of accusation and vengeance in their own hearts. It’s easy to cry “devil!” when someone is thrashing around onstage under hot lights, it takes more intelligence and sensitivity to acknowledge our own demonic enslavement to war and security, religious supremacy and exclusion, self-righteousness and hate. 

And this is why I defer to Jesus on matters of spirituality. Jesus, of course, employed common ancient language about “spirits” and “the satan,” but it would be a mistake to assume this means he endorses and affirms everything you’ve ever heard or read about such things, even from the Bible. Jesus subverted the established religious and apocalyptic categories of his time, and I believe there is more meaning in the nature of his subversion than in the categories themselves. Jesus didn’t use demons and spiritual enemies as a platform for the intimidation or coercion of others, it was always bound up with his ethical vision of a world where the satanic is ultimately overcome by love. Jesus didn’t blame misfortune and sickness on devils and sin, in fact he urged his hearers past that regressive mindset. His vocation wasn’t to hunt and fight demons, it was to liberate and heal people. Any true Christian spirituality ought to be grounded in that same commitment to hope, reconciliation, and love.

So I guess my ultimate answer is that I don’t really “believe” in demons, devils, or hell, I believe in Jesus.


From “Under God” to “Religious Freedom”: Our Reckless Culture Wars

American Christianity has a shameful track record of organizing and defending its own interests under banners of patriotism and slapdash theology. In the 1940’s and 50’s it was “Spiritual Mobilization,” a movement of conservative capitalists and corporate leaders pitting Christian rhetoric and celebrity preachers against the threat of communism and the social programs of the New Deal. This was a fully political movement, though the participation of pastors (like young superstar Billy Graham) baptized the effort in Christian language and spiritual urgency. These men basically invented a new gospel and placed it in the mouth of Jesus, a gospel of rugged individualism and the freedom to amass wealth and influence unhindered.

When the Eisenhower administration bought into Spiritual Mobilization and embraced its “back to God” agenda, the movement grew from a far-right campaign into a national craze. This is when and how “Christian America” was born, argues Kevin M. Kruse in his well-researched book One Nation Under God. This is the (historically recent) origin of American cultural memes like “In God We Trust” and “Judeo-Christian values.” In a way, Eisenhower derailed the efforts of the capitalist and evangelical leaders of Mobilization by transforming their political platform into a mainstream American fad. By the time Ike left office, our currency bore the “In God We Trust” slogan and the phrase “under God” had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance. A new and pervasive sense of patriotic identity and pride invigorated religious Americans of all stripes (sorry atheists).   

In hindsight, however, that mid-20th century “under God” movement was a rather reckless and vapid exercise. James Fifield, Graham, and the Spiritual Mobilizers garbled the Christian gospel into something unrecognizable in the name of political expedience, and Eisenhower hardly did better by amplifying patriotic God-talk and draining it of any real substance. Either way, the innovations and proclamations of that era did future generations of religious Americans no favors. In fact, they laid the foundation for the “culture wars” of our own day.

How “In God We Trust” Led To The Fight For “Religious Freedom”

As raucous and spirited as Eisenhower’s national revival had been for a seeming majority of Americans, it gave way almost immediately to a series of unhappy legal battles in the 1960’s and 70’s. The issue, unavoidable in hindsight, was how far the government could go in recognizing and celebrating the Christian aspects of American heritage without crossing constitutional boundaries regarding the establishment of religion. What started as a series of benign gestures of generic religiosity soon gave way to courtroom showdowns over things like school prayer and public Bible reading. It sounds nice and harmless enough to gather all God-fearing Americans together under some slogan, but eventually the complex realities of religious diversity become painfully clear.

Prayer and Bible reading left public schools out of legal necessity as a function of true religious liberty, a sobering reality check in the wake of Eisenhower’s happy but generic God crusade. As a result, however, the specious narrative of the government “kicking God out of our schools” was written in ink and the combative mood of conservative Christianity has only intensified since. The latest chapter in that self-victimizing narrative sees Christians on the far right contesting for “religious liberty,” which apparently consists of little more than their own inherited privilege and their imagined right to see their moral proclivities enforced at state and national levels. 

For all of its deep flaws, at least the Spiritual Mobilization movement paid lip service to the religious freedom of all Americans. Today’s “religious freedom” movement seeks its own welfare by actively promoting the marginalization of others. The sin of the earlier movement was inventing and peddling a false Christian unity which ignored diversity and excluded outsiders by negligence. Today’s culture warriors can no longer ignore their diverse neighbors, and so must name and target them explicitly. Tolerance is withheld and service is denied, and all in the name of a “Christian America” that was manufactured and marketed mere decades earlier. 

Like Spiritual Mobilization before it, “religious freedom” is a reactionary political movement that appropriates and melds Christian and patriotic rhetoric to establish and protect its own concerns and privileges. Neither movement bears any resemblance to the religious traditions they exploit, and both actually defuse and pervert the teachings of Jesus and the values of the church. Mobilization transformed the message of Jesus into a credo for the self-made businessman, and “religious freedom” sees the realities of diversity as a threat to God’s “design” for American society. Both seek to wield the Bible and the name of Jesus as instruments of personal advancement and domination. There is nothing authentically spiritual or Christian about either one.

Every Knee Shall Bow - J. Kirk Richards, 2008

Every Knee Shall Bow: The Bible’s Critique of Empire


This meme kicked me in the eyes over the weekend. It’s a particularly grievous example of a common Christian posture, a not-so-subtle threat on behalf of Jesus: worship me now or worship me later, but you WILL worship me! Of course Jesus never said anything like the words in that image, but it is rather loosely based on words written by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

Most scholars agree that this passage comprises an extended quotation from an early Christian hymn about Jesus, a song which echoes Hebrew Bible texts like Isaiah 45 and subverts Roman imperial propaganda. But questions like context and source material have been of little interest to Christians throughout history who are content to take this text at face value as an ultimatum to nonbelievers. Believe now or be crushed later.

At the same time, there are many of us who reject such a reading as utterly antithetical to the very ethos and heart of Jesus. How could the same prophet of peace who loved us and gave his life for us now demand our allegiance and subjugation? That’s what despots and emperors do, not the Prince of Peace. And this gets to the heart of the matter.

Scripture vs. Empire

What’s missing from the discussion is an appropriate contextual understanding of the texts in question. As I indicated above, passages like Philippians 2 are not random proclamations out of time and space, they are subjective and derivative, products of a time, place, and tradition. Specifically, they are subversive parodies of imperial rhetoric. These are the kinds of things ancient people would say about kings and emperors (if they knew what was good for them), boldly revised with Jesus as their subject. In Isaiah 45 (the source material), it is YHWH who rescues and liberates the people, not the corrupt and oppressive kings of the nations. And here in Philippians (the subversive hymn), it is not Caesar who warrants worship and devotion but Jesus, a different kind of lord.

And there’s the rub: implicit in the name swap is also an exchange of values. Caesar demands worship under threat of violence, Jesus does not. Jesus is exalted as a divine and peaceful alternative to empire, not a sanctified version of the same monster. After all, as Jesus himself told us, the kingdom of God is not established by rulers “lording over” others, but by self-denying love that heals and saves others. The church’s mistake has been to imagine Jesus as the ultimate super-emperor, rather than the game changing, world saving anti-emperor. His kingdom is not defended against hated enemies with swords and battles, it is celebrated with feasts where everyone is invited and fed and loved. 

Ignoring the Critique

Why have so many Christians seemed unmoved and uninterested in the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire? This informed and clarified reading has become a fixture of biblical scholarship and has been largely embraced by “progressive” Christianity, but most mainstream Christians still resist or ignore it. Why is that? How has something that now seems so loud and unmistakable been essentially filtered out of our reading of the Bible for so long?

Could it be that American Christianity was formed and codified in a time when our home empire was unquestioned as a benevolent and even divinely sanctioned force for the salvation of the rest of the world? Has our commitment to the imperial rhetoric of our homeland inoculated us to the Bible’s anti-imperial posture? And/or, has Jesus been elevated to such a lofty but generic divine stature that the earthly and political dimensions of his life and legacy have been effectively rendered moot? Has worship of Jesus as supreme leader been so fervent and intense that the cause and content of that worship has gone unexamined? Have we really imagined that the meek and mild savior grew up to be a cosmic despot?

However we got here, this much seems self-evident: when you use Jesus to threaten and intimidate others, you have lost Jesus. When our proclamations of worship and devotion to Jesus are little more than sanctified and absolutized totalitarian threats, we have betrayed the very spirit of love we profess to represent. In the Bible’s anti-imperial critique, authoritarian language is reappropriated and turned inside out. The intended effect is an unmasking and mockery of earthly oppressors and a subversive proclamation of alternative values. Peace not war, forgiveness not accusation, advocacy not coercion. Our calling is not to Christianize empire, but to destroy it with love, to render it obsolete with service and empathy. That every knee might bow to the reign of peace and every tongue confess the supremacy of love.


The Bible’s Vision of Justice: Enough Food For Everybody

No, this is the fast I desire: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

We are at a major disadvantage when we read the Bible for a number of obvious reasons: time, culture, language, geography, etc. One specific and major but hard-to-see reason we often don’t “get” the Bible is that we (most of us in the western first world) have virtually unlimited access to food and goods, goods that have been processed and prepared by invisible industries and sold to us in small packages in convenient public transactions. We have bought into a system that promises the automatic meeting of our needs so we can concentrate on more important things. So it seems absurd for me to suggest that the Bible’s consistent central theme has to do with something as mundane as the distribution of food.

To us it sounds downright silly. In our world, it seems like there are far more critical things to worry about than where food comes from and where it goes. So few of us actually work to produce our own food, and we regard the hunger and need of others as an unfortunate glitch in an otherwise fair and benevolent system. And so we cannot fully appreciate the fact that JUSTICE in the world of the Bible (and in much of our contemporary world) is primarily and fundamentally about equitable access to food.

Don’t believe me? Consider this quick survey of the biblical library:

  • In the foundational story in Genesis, Adam and Eve are charged with caring for creation and holding “dominion” over it. From the beginning, food is the currency of justice. God expects the earth’s resources to be distributed fairly, even generously. In our relative affluence and comfort we have too easily read this as the origin story of our privilege, but the moral of the story is that food justice is the human’s first responsibility. (Gen 2)
  • In the story of Joseph, the innovation that saves Egypt, the Hebrews, and Joseph’s own life is an advancement in the storage and distribution of food. (Gen 41)
  • In the Exodus story, the miracle of manna is about the people having enough food for today, with no scarcity and no hoarding. Everyone gets what they need as a sign of God’s provision and justice among them. (Exo 16)
  • The Torah’s agricultural laws and the institutions of Sabbath and Jubilee are explicitly designed to foster and maintain food justice, to keep the powerful few from controlling the people’s resources, so everyone – even the poor and the alien – has what they need to live. (Exo 20, Lev 23, Lev 25)
  • When Israel’s prophets rail against the people for the sin of “forsaking God,” this sin is most often manifested as the failure to enact God’s distributive justice. Hospitality and food are the measurement of righteousness. (See especially Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah 55:1, Isaiah 58:6-7)
  • In the New Testament, Jesus resists a dare to turn stones into bread, denying his own privilege and choosing to trust God in solidarity with those in need. (Matt 4)
  • Jesus multiplies bread and fish for a crowd, blatantly enacting distributive justice. (Matt 14, John 6)
  • Jesus oversees a miraculous catch of fish, demonstrating God’s generosity with natural resources. (Luke 5, John 21)
  • Jesus teaches us to pray for our “daily bread,” a prayer for food justice today and forever. (Matt 6, Luke 11)
  • Jesus tells a parable about judgment and the rubric for justice is not something abstract like religious belief or allegiance, it is whether or not the hungry got fed. (Matt 25)
  • Jesus spends his last evening with his followers sharing a Passover meal, breaking bread and pouring wine. Jesus identifies his own body with the food humans share to stay alive. (Matt 26, Luke 22)
  • The risen Jesus shares food with his followers (Luke 24) and multiplies their food resources (John 21). 
  • Paul scolds Corinthian Christians for failing to understand the Eucharist’s inherent theme of food justice, as wealthy churchgoers turn the communal feast into a party and leave nothing for the working class latecomers. (1 Cor 11)
  • Revelation, one of the New Testament’s (many) visions of eschatological justice, envisions an earthly city that is a heavenly blessing to the rest of the world. Healing and life flow from it like leaves from the “tree of life.” At long last, the dream of global justice is realized. (Rev 21-22)

This is a very truncated and incomplete list. Every biblical story, every appeal to justice, every metaphor for God’s kingdom has something to do with agriculture and/or the distribution of resources. When food isn’t on our list of urgent daily concerns, we miss and forget how the Bible equates God’s will with food equity. In our prosperity and complacency, we have favored legal and punitive visions of justice over the Bible’s practical and agrarian ones. For the humans who wrote the Bible, God’s will and God’s justice are fundamentally concerned with egalitarian access to creation’s bounty, and God’s reputation hangs on the way humans live and eat and share.

Ho boy, has Josh lost it? Is he just a crazy liberal trying to tell us the Bible is really all about privilege and socialism? Not exactly. What I’m trying to do is invite all of us to a more fundamentally pure and authentic “square one” for reading the Bible, because I do believe that our wealth and insulation have blinded us to its real context and message. We gloss over agricultural language as if these were merely metaphors for loftier spiritual concerns, and we miss the gravity and urgency of hunger and want that is still a present reality for many of our neighbors at home and around the world. We agonize over doctrine, belief, and authority, arguing about God’s will in the abstract as our brothers and sisters starve to death. The bottom line is that same system which promises us plenty keeps others hungry. This is the single greatest injustice of our world, and every one of us could do something about it today. 


Good Friday Is (Mostly) Bad

If you’d asked me ten years ago why the commemoration of the torture and death of Jesus is called “Good Friday,” without hesitation I would have rattled off an answer about the good and necessary things that Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross for my sins. There was little nuance or irony in my understanding of the event or its observance, it all made perfect sense thanks to doctrine and theology. Jesus knew he had to die, he died, and that was a very good thing. Even his killers were, in some sense, just fulfilling an important duty that had been prophesied since ancient times. 

Today I want to toss all of that aside and recover the bitter tragedy of Jesus’ death.

It’s worth noting that the name “Good Friday” is a holdover from a time when “good” was a synonym for “holy,” not a comment on the value or efficacy of the event. In Germany, for example, the same observance is called Karfreitag, “Sorrowful Friday,” a name far more suited to the day. This is a day of harrowing loss and deep regret, not triumph or accomplishment.

While most Christians appreciate the pathos of the crucifixion as a dramatic downbeat before the glory of resurrection, many are baffled by the suggestion that Jesus’ death was anything other than a smashing success. Our doctrines of atonement and salvation and our retroactive appeals to “God’s plan” make the crucifixion little more than a pageant, a religious ritual manipulated by Jesus to trigger some sort of cosmic legal transaction.

I believe that we ought to see Jesus’ death for what it was: the unjust scapegoating and murder of an innocent victim by reckless powers of religion and empire. It was a scandalous and hateful event that did nothing more to please God or fulfill a theological need than any other human perversion of justice in history. To suggest otherwise is at least absurd, if not libelous toward the character of God.

Doesn’t The Bible Say That Jesus Had To Die?

A quick Google search for “why did Jesus have to die” reveals a mountain of detailed and footnoted Christian explanations of how and why the crucifixion was theologically necessary according to scripture. There is no single Bible verse that says “Jesus had to die because X,” so these presentations must cherry pick verses from popular passages on death and atonement like Isaiah 53, Hebrews 9, and Romans (though seldom from the gospels). They conclude that “God cannot let sin go unpunished” or that “only a perfect sacrifice could pay for sin.” This is the Protestant commitment to sacrificial logic, to the belief that God could only “deal with sin” by orchestrating the ultimate sacrificial death. 

There are at least two major errors in this view of the cross, apart from the way it plays with proof texts. First, it ignores and undermines Jesus’ peaceful and anti-sacrificial vision of the divine. Second, it dehumanizes and mystifies an event that ought to be a horrifying outrage. This sort of doctrinally-motivated revisionism turns Jesus’ bold but tragic self-sacrifice into a cosmic charade, a religious ritual that perpetuates the lie of divine wrath and bloodlust. If Jesus had to die, it was because of human treachery, not biblical necessity.

Why Good Friday Must Be Bad

There is a massive irony in the way Christians have emptied the crucifixion of its messy human drama. By imagining that Jesus was knowingly fulfilling some cosmic plan of salvation, and by even suggesting that the human perpetrators of Jesus’ execution might be agents of that holy plan, we forfeit the opportunity to see the crucifixion as a grotesque real-world collision of human sin and divine mercy. We’ve traded genuine horror, heartbreak, and a real chance at self-reflection for more dubious religious ritual.

Why and how has this happened? Because modern Christians are not nearly as outraged by empire and religious scapegoating as the Bible’s authors are, and because we are far too comfortable with the notion of a God who uses violence to solve problems. The passion story is not about heavenly powers coming down to earth to fight a battle in the body of a man, it’s about divine mercy and pardon revealed amid human injustice and hate. These two do not swirl together, holy violence producing divine mercy. The violence is human, and the mercy is divine. 

Good News On a Bad Day

The murder of Jesus was a heinous sin, like the scapegoating and murder of every innocent victim in history, and where was God? Not pulling strings or drinking it in but suffering, dying, and announcing forgiveness upon his killers. This merciful posture is God’s role in the crucifixion, not complicity or wrath. And this is the only thing that can be called “good” about Good Friday: that amid the blood and filth of human violence and scapegoating, God is revealed in the sufferer and not the killer, in humility rather than conflict, and in pardon instead of retribution. This is the good news in Good Friday, a hint of the glory of Easter obscured now by loss and sorrow.

I am profoundly grateful that Jesus gave himself, that he died in solidarity with every victim of sin, declaring pardon for every perpetrator of sin. I am moved and struck dumb by the courage and mercy of the crucified Messiah. But I refuse to call his death “good,” and I am appalled by the notion that such a senseless tragedy might have been necessary. If it was inevitable, it was not because of prophecies or God’s plan, it was because of the madness of a world that cannot abide the embodiment of divine peace and forgiveness. And if Jesus achieved anything, it was not to satisfy God’s wrath or provide magic blood for an efficacious sacrifice, he succeeded in exposing our addiction to violence and scapegoating and revealing the unexpected divine pardon that is our only hope.


The Problem With “The Bible Says”

Our old, flat, and uninformed way of reading the Bible has become at best an unhelpful burden, at worst a liability. The church’s insistence on handling the Bible as a singular and consistent whole rather than a library of diverse voices continues to stifle and sabotage our ability to grow and learn. Worst of all, it has built an echo chamber of tepid and contradictory religion where the radical voice of Jesus can no longer be distinguished or heard.

Simply reporting that “the Bible says” this or that isn’t helpful in itself and can actually be detrimental and misleading. Yet this continues to be this basis for authoritarian Christian claims, often over the lives and fates of others, and not just inside the walls of the church. If “the Bible says” something, it must be true, and it must be prescriptive at least for the lives of Christians if not for all humankind. This elevates the texts of the Bible to a dangerous and impossible level of authority, consistency, and relevance. It also relativizes and neuters the subversive teaching of Jesus.

Context is Everything

If one day your spouse or roommate announced, “The library says that April is the cruellest month!” and then proceeded tearing out calendar pages and barricading doors, you might think they were nuts, or you might even join their strange crusade. But if you knew that those words were written in the early twentieth century by the English poet T.S. Eliot in a poem about death called The Waste Land, you could calmly engage them in a conversation about what those words might mean to them personally.

Context reveals the subjectivity and humanity of a text, which is precisely why Christians interested in an authoritarian Bible ignore it, and want others to ignore it too. They simply expect the “clear meaning” on the face of the text to be unquestioned and obeyed. The problem is, apart from context, the only “clear meaning” is the one imposed upon the text, explicitly or by way of unspoken assumptions. And when we do allow context to illuminate meaning, the shape and application of that meaning is often not as clear and straightforward as we’d like it to be.

Some Things “the Bible Says”

Here are just a few examples off the top of my head of things “the Bible says” that are not as straightforward as they seem.

    • The Bible says that the earth was created in six days. (Genesis 1)
      Actually, the book of Genesis opens with a song celebrating nature. It uses a distinctive seven-day schedule as an orderly and easy-to-understand framework in which to explain creation, often in contrast to the chaotic and violent creation myths that were popular in that ancient world. We know a lot more about the cosmos today, so what kind of language might we use to describe the fundamental integrity of the universe?
    • The Bible says that the punishment should fit the crime, i.e. “an eye for an eye.” (Leviticus 24:20)
      Actually, while some Torah laws appeal to this principle, later dubbed lex talionis, others call for harsh punishments and even execution. Elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers to forfeit all retaliation and to confront evil with nonviolent resistance. Does this perhaps represent a trajectory away from violence and retribution? How do we approach questions of justice and punishment in our own time and culture?
  • The Bible says that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18)
    Actually, this is a common claim in some portions of Torah and some prophetic texts, but it also openly rejected in the writing of Jeremiah and the teaching of Jesus. How does it change our understanding of history and our view of the future if we get past the idea that God punishes us for the “sins of the past”?
    • The Bible says that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. (Luke 16:19-31)
      Actually, Jesus adapts a very common Greek fairy tale as a parable about the subversion of wealth and class in the kingdom of God. How might Jesus reconfigure some of our best known myths and stories to demonstrate our inside-out values?
    • The Bible says that there can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. (Hebrews 9:22)
      Actually, the unknown author of Hebrews says that “according to the law, there could be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” It’s part of a complex and often strained argument for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. How would we as Christians respond to this kind of argument today?
    • The Bible says that wives must submit to their husbands. (Colossians 3:18)
      Actually, the apostle Paul wrote letters to his first century congregations teaching them to organize their relationships according to mutual love and respect. Language of “submission” was commonplace in that ancient world, but Paul’s point was about reciprocal love rather than strict hierarchy. How should we approach family relationships today in a way that reflects our understanding of Christian love?
    • The Bible says that women cannot teach or lead men. (1 Timothy 2:12)
      Actually, the author of Timothy (probably not Paul) wrote a rant against a particular group of women who were apparently stirring up trouble in one of his churches. What do the contents of letters like these reveal about the evolution and struggles of the earliest Christian churches? What issues in our own day might correspond to those faced by the ancient churches, and how might we respond to them? And while we’re here, does the controversy about the authorship of Timothy and Titus have any bearing on how we read and interact with the Bible, or on our concept of “biblical authority”?
  • The Bible says that the world will end in Armageddon, a cosmic battle between good and evil. (Revelation 16)
    Actually, the book of Revelation is not a prediction of the sorts of things that will or must happen in the future. It was a creative apocalyptic response to a specific first-century crisis, the martyrdom of Jewish Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire. The author was attempting to reassure suffering people that Rome would fall and God’s kingdom would be established, and images of dragons, plagues, and war were his way of condemning Rome’s oppressive regime. What does the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire say to us as modern Americans? How does our view of the future change if holy war is not a foregone conclusion?

Each of these biblical statements represents the work of a subjective human author, and each invites us into a world of thought and imagination. There are a thousand conversations to be had, fresh in each generation, and always new voices to be added. It is never enough to simply throw “the Bible says” at someone, as if these texts were objective axioms from the very mouth of God, and as if our own humanity and the humanity of the Bible’s authors never entered into the equation. If there is truth and value and glory in the Bible, we will find it together through humility and listening, by embracing honesty and subjectivity.

Stud bibs

Study Bible Roundup: Ezra

Today I’m introducing a new feature called Study Bible Roundup. In these posts, I will select a challenging story or passage from the Bible, and then survey the commentary in four popular “study Bibles”: The NIV Study Bible, The ESV Study Bible, The American Patriot’s Bible (yes), and The Extreme Teen Bible (yup).

If you grew up in a conservative and/or evangelical church tradition, I don’t need to explain study Bibles to you. For everyone else, these are giant tomes which contain the full text of a popular Bible translation along with commentary from editors, usually pastors and apologists. Study Bibles often claim to be objective and scholarly, but typically cater to specific markets or denominations. These are the only safe and approved educational apparatus available to many Christians.

My goal in this exercise is to see how these commentaries handle the text in question. Do they consider history, language, and politics in their analysis? Do they acknowledge potential issues in the text and, if so, what responses do they offer? I’m not expecting them to reach certain conclusions, I’m just looking for a well-rounded and intellectually curious presentation. For this first installment, we’ll piggy-back on our previous post about the book of Ezra. Will our study Bibles acknowledge and address objections to the content of Ezra, specifically the mass deportation of women and children? Let’s take a look.

NIVNIV Study Bible

While I give the NIV commentary credit for a fair amount of historical detail (mostly geographic trivia), its exposition of Ezra 9 and 10 is basically a covert apologetic. Covert because it never openly acknowledges any potential difficulties in the text, yet it consistently builds a case for the necessity and propriety of Ezra’s edict about “intermarriage” (the word is used pejoratively). 

Two rationalizations are offered for Ezra’s deportation, one scriptural and the other historical. First is an appeal to Malachi 2, in which the prophet condemns Judah for figuratively shacking up with a foreign god/wife. Next is the non-biblical cautionary tale of the Elephantine settlement, a community of Jews in Egypt roughly contemporary to Ezra which was eventually assimilated into the greater population. The sense is that Ezra is right about Judah, that intermarriage is both a sin and a threat to national security, and that the shame and repentance of the people was the only fitting response.

The only crack in the veneer is a comment on chapter 10 verse 15 which acknowledges that Ezra was opposed by four other priests, possibly because they found his measure “too harsh.” However, the commentary also wonders if these men might merely be acting out of self-interest.

ESVESV Study Bible

Like the NIV, the ESV commentary speaks of “intermarriage” as a serious problem and the chief sin of the men of Judah. There is no ambiguity or restraint in this analysis: the foreign women are “wicked” and “idolatrous” by nature, and Ezra’s deportation program was nothing less than faithful obedience to God’s command to “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:7). There is no view to a political battle or any wider historical perspective. There is even an attempt to neuter the meaning of 10:15 (about the opponents of Ezra’s plan).

I would characterize the ESV commentary as intensely unapologetic in its insistence that Ezra represents a god’s-eye-view of an authentic and exemplary revival. Ezra himself is seen as a bold and godly leader, a Phinehas whose zeal for the Lord led him to perform drastic deeds of “righteousness.” There is no room for sympathy for the banished women, who were inherently evil, or for their children, who paid the price for their parents’ sin in accordance with God’s “justice.”

APBThe American Patriot’s Bible

Whereas the NIV represents a covert evangelical apologetic and the ESV an intensely Reformed theological buy-in, the “American Patriot’s Bible” (APB) is an unabashed flag-waving midrash on the entire Bible, reimagining it as a textbook about American greatness. Under that banner, the little book of Ezra is actually a big deal: a tale of restoration, reconstruction, and bold leadership. Hey, just like America!

The APB does not provide verse-by-verse commentary like the NIV and ESV, rather it interjects short inspirational blurbs throughout the text. Between 9 and 10, the chapters detailing the deportation, there is a short profile of the 19th century evangelist Peter Cartwright, who baptized and converted thousands of people in the deep south. The implication is that Ezra has performed a similar function, convicting the men of Judah of their sins and providing the way “back to God.”

Elsewhere in Ezra, comparisons are made with U.S. presidents from Washington to Reagan, and (I kid you not) figures like Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. To give the APB an ounce of credit, they are specifically referring to Ezra leading people out of the slavery of exile. But given the parade of refugees this book leaves in its wake, those might not be the wisest comparisons to draw.

ETBThe Extreme Teen Bible

The Extreme Teen Bible (ETB) is a hip and totally-in-your-face study Bible for young evangelical Christians. I really wanted to make fun of this thing and exploit it for laughs, but I must confess that it completely surprised me. Not only does it go out of its way to explain to kids that the Bible comes from another time and culture, it is the only Bible on this list that anticipates and directly addresses objections to Ezra’s pagan purge. I may not be on board with their answers, but I applaud them for even making the attempt.

In a blurb labeled “Intermarriage,” the ETB says the following: “Intermarriage wasn’t a moral problem. People are people no matter where they are from. But intermarriage was a spiritual problem. All the surrounding cultures worshiped idols. Marrying someone doesn’t mean you will take on all their beliefs and practices, but it does mean that you will be influenced by them.” And a comment later in chapter 10 stresses that the intermarriage crisis was not about “race” but about “worship.”

Wow. While I think this is ultimately a poor response to the objection (racial discrimination is immoral but religious discrimination is not?), I am nonetheless heartened to see an affirmation of basic human dignity in this conservative Bible aimed at young people. Despite its goofy cover and outrageous fonts, the ETB manages to be more thoughtful and open-hearted than any of the other Bibles on this list. Too bad that it ultimately falls back on unsatisfying answers.

What did you think of this feature? Would you like to see more posts like this? Let me know.


Break Your Bible: Ezra Makes Judah Great Again

One of the major convictions which fuel most of the material on this blog is my belief that modern Christianity must confront and reconsider how it understands and interacts with the Bible. This is not necessarily the most important nor the ultimate task, but it is a necessary stepping stone to growth and progress. The old flat and systematic way of reading the Bible as an inerrant catalog of religious axioms is the biggest hindrance to spiritual advancement and the rediscovery of Jesus which we need so urgently in my opinion.

In that spirit, I often highlight problematic or misunderstood portions of scripture, not to be contrary or to “attack the Bible,” but to foster the important conversation about what the Bible is and how we can read it honestly and fruitfully. Today I want to look at the small book of Ezra.

Ezra, Revival, and Mass Deportation

In a sense, Ezra should be one of the most triumphant and satisfying texts of the Hebrew Bible. It narrates the return of the exiled citizens to Judah, the rebuilding and rededication of the temple, and the religious reawakening of the people. And yet, many modern readers find this to be a shocking and upsetting episode for reasons we will presently consider.

The titular Ezra only shows up in the book’s final chapters, a priest empowered by the Persian King Artaxerxes to re-establish the traditions and (more importantly) the laws of the Torah. This involves prayer, reinstating sacrificial practices, public reading of the law, and a call for national repentance, which is where things start to get rough. Ezra demands that those Judahite men who have married foreign wives during or since the exile must divorce them and have them all “put away” along with their children.

The gamut of modern reactions to the book of Ezra is perhaps represented by two recent blog posts: one from our pals at Charisma News hailing Ted Cruz as “an Ezra for America,” and one from Fred “Slacktivist” Clark who responds with both horror and humor. The difference is between those who believe that mass divorce and deportation of women and children are right and good when religiously justified, and those who have their doubts.

The standard church reading of Ezra, informed by inerrancy and an apologetic commitment to the moral cohesion of the entire Bible, sees this as a story about revival, repentance, and the difficult choices we often must make when confronted with God’s clear commandments. This is not to say that every bible-believer smiles in approval of the tragic events at the end of Ezra (though some clearly relish it). But most feel obliged to give assent to the “divinely inspired” leadership of Ezra. In fact, most wouldn’t dream of questioning any of it, simply because it happens in the Bible.

Ezra and History

In a flat and self-contained reading of the Bible, especially historical texts like Ezra, the perspective of the author is always assumed to be divinely sanctioned, the morality consistent and prescriptive, and the main characters heroes of the faith. But diverse political and ideological perspectives run wild in the collected texts of scripture, often in tension or even in slap-fights, if we will just open our eyes to see it. When we acknowledge this fact, it is no longer possible to talk about a singular “biblical” perspective, but rather the various voices and agendas which populate the library. Just because the historical context or ideological bent of a book or author is not spelled out for the modern reader doesn’t mean they are not present or have no bearing.

In the case of Ezra, he represents a particular aristocratic wing of Yahwism in the fifth century BCE which placed a strong emphasis on religious and genealogical purity. This powerful group (or party) was opposed to and by other groups, such as the resident Samaritans, who were descendents of the northern Israelites with different ideas about how the nation should be run and who was to be included in the “people of God.” This political battle gave Ezra’s party control of Jerusalem and resulted in the great schism with Samaria, the effects of which are still seen centuries later in the narratives of the New Testament gospels.

While our traditional way of mining Bible stories for absolute truths and coded messages has only ever seen Ezra as a positive example of how a nation might please God by cracking down on certain laws or enforcing certain prohibitions, a more careful and educated approach understands that we are reading a text written by the winners of a particular ancient culture war. This doesn’t make their actions inherently commendable or condemnable, but it means that we are free to use our discernment and moral sensitivity when considering that question for ourselves. If forced mass divorce and deportation in the name of “pure religion” strikes you as unsavory, you might want to follow those instincts. I can even think of a few other voices in the Bible which might agree with you.

Weighing the Cost of Intellectual Honesty

Whenever I push Christians to think critically about the Bible like this, there is always the inevitable “gotcha” question: If you nuance, critique, or openly disagree with even one part of the Bible, how can you trust or believe in any of it, especially what it says about Jesus?

This question presupposes so much about authority and the nature of belief and the Bible, and my response is always the same. I can only judge anything I read in the Bible based on the same simple criteria I apply to everything else: Is it good, and does it turn out to be true? I can’t prove, argue, or defend anything based on those questions, I need to have faith and patience. Good things will bear good fruit, and bad things will bear bad fruit, regardless of obtuse appeals to authority or “purity.”

Subjectivity is unavoidable, in fact our attempts to deny it take us down roads of compromise and delusion. When it comes to the Bible, let’s learn from history, literature, and conscience. Let’s be the best subjective, educated thinkers we can be, let’s passionately celebrate the good things we find and not hesitate to call out specious and harmful things as well. 


Unsystematic Theology

The standard modern/Protestant method of doing theology has been to collect statements about God from the Bible and file them by category, this constituting a “systematic” theology. We then employ this chart of “divine attributes” as the rubric for our study of Jesus. I took systematics courses in seminary that worked this way. God is omniscient as implied by out-of-context verse X, and thus Jesus is also omniscient according to out-of-context verse Y. The goal in all of this is to forensically “prove” Jesus’ divinity, which helps us argue for the veracity and superiority of our faith.

There are many problems with this method, and in fact one of the major turning points in my own spiritual journey saw its unmaking. First, the systematic method ignores the Bible’s diversity of thought and voice, flattening a multiplicity of witnesses and claims about God into a simple catalog or encyclopedia of foregone theological propositions. If you want to know what God is like, turn to any page and start reading. Systematics then takes its specious package of “God facts” and stuffs them into an empty vessel called “Jesus,” likewise obscuring the rich and colorful tapestry of Jesus witnesses in the Bible and the organic contextual environments of the gospels. The result is a stale, conflicted, and obtuse notion of “God,” constructed out of detached biblical elements, and an even more muted and useless Jesus, a bland and generic divine mascot who simply underwrites everything we already think about God. Continue reading


Charisma’s Insane Diagnosis of Progressive Christianity

Charisma News' image of the enemy.

The enemy, according to Charisma News.

Oh, Charisma News. You amuse and enrage in bafflingly equal measure.

Another screed from the evangelical watchdog website has been making the rounds on Christian social media, this time bemoaning the treachery of a “New Christian Left.” Says the author:

It’s painful for me to admit, but we can no longer rest carefree in our evangelical identity – because it is changing.

Gone are the days when a true believer could simply rest on his privilege, er, laurels. Today there is a war for the very heart of “evangelical identity,” and apparently that’s quite a very bad thing. What exactly is happening to threaten Evangelicalism? The author continues: Continue reading