"The canonical literature does not offer a settled, coherent account of reality; rather it provides the materials for ongoing disputatious interpretation." - Walter Brueggemann

Thursday, October 16, 2014

3 Characteristics of Truth-Seeking

The title of this blog might make me sound presumptuous or big-headed. "Oh, so you understand truth and you're going to explain it to me?" The irony is that I believe very much the opposite. I agree with Cornel West that we can never know Truth, but can only focus on the way to it.(1) It is in that vein that I offer the following remarks about truth-seeking.

I share this because I am passionate about truth-seeking and because I wish more people would think about these things. My comments come from a lot of reading and thinking and exposure to philosophers and theologians who have wrestled with life's biggest questions. I don't assume any superior knowledge or intellectual high ground. I could be misguided. If you think I am, please share your thoughts with me. I want to be a humble truth-seeker, and if anything I say comes off as arrogant, please let me know so I can grow in wisdom and understanding.

With that, here are 3 things I've learned about truth-seeking.

1. Truth is Subversive

I keep learning again and again that truth does not care about what I want. It doesn't care what makes me comfortable, or what I've always believed, or what I like. Truth is subversive.

The way to truth will never look like a continual affirmation of what we believe. It must be regularly challenging, scrutinizing to many of our beliefs and presuppositions. Truth-seeking is arduous, convicting, unsettling, and even distressing at times.

Why? Because of our finitude. People don't realize how arrogant they are when they claim certainty. How can you be certain when you're so finite?

So when we're assessing something's truth-value, we need to make a distinction between what is traditional, likeable, comfortable, and what is true. Oftentimes, I will find myself resisting a certain conclusion, not because I think it's false, but because I don't like it.

The answer to "Is this true?" will often not coincide with the answer to "Do I like this?" or "Is this coherent with what I believe?"--but it is a much more important question.

"To live outside the law, you must be honest" - Bob Dylan

2. Truth-Seeking Will Cost You

I'm realizing more and more that for a lot of people, altering a belief in something is not about whether or not the evidence points them in an alternate direction, but it's rather about how much the change costs.

If someone believes A and is presented with evidence for B, what is often more important is how much it costs to adopt B in place of A, so that if the cost is too high, B will be rejected even if the evidence points to it.

What is comfortable is often made more important than what is true. But what is true is often uncomfortable, and if we are honest, we will let truth-seeking change us. It might mean letting go of beliefs, traditions, and assumptions that we grew up with, or that we're passionate about, or that we just really like--but what ultimately matters is not what's comfortable and likable, but what's true.

However, it should be said that cynicism is not equivalent to truth. Just because you make the negative conclusion that makes certain people uncomfortable, doesn't mean you're right. For example, oftentimes in biblical scholarship there's a negative conclusion to make (like, "this event did not actually happen") and a positive conclusion to make ("this event did happen"). It is flawed to assume the positive conclusion because it's more comfortable, but it is equally flawed to assume the negative conclusion because it's challenging to believers.

"There is nothing so stable as change" - Bob Dylan

3. Questions Will Lead the Way

Jesus--maybe the most subversive person to ever live--said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 18:3). Children are led by questions. They're always asking them. They are bewildered by the world, and they want to understand it, so they ask questions.

We lose our child-likeness when we think we have life figured out. It's the arrogance of adulthood to suppose that because we have come as far as we have, we have arrived at truth. Child-like truth-seekers will never stop asking questions, and so will never stop growing in truth.

Questions are so beautiful. They guide us to uncharted territory. They teach us not just about reality, but about how to think. Asking questions is to truth-seeking what lifting weights is to strength-building. The more you do it, the more you understand, and the more equipped you are to understand even more.

If something is true, asking questions will lead you to it. This is why I suspect that those who condemn asking questions are secretly aware that what they believe does not have truth-value. If it had truth-value, the question-asking and the evidence would suggest it.

I wish more people would teach kids to keep asking questions, instead of trying to spoon feed them propaganda and control the boundaries of their minds.

"I was born knowing the truth. Everybody is. Trouble is, they get it knocked out of them before they can walk." - Bob Dylan

What have you learned about truth-seeking? What should be added to this list?

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfD3X3f5C_w

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When the Bible is Wrong about God

There are several places in Scripture where we find worshipers of God ascribing rather shocking things to him.(1) Consider a few examples:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?" (Ps 22:1)

"O LORD, you have seduced me, and I am seduced;
you have raped me, and I am overcome." (Jer 20:7; see my blog on this verse, here)

"You [Yahweh] are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails." (Jer 15:18)
The Psalmist says God abandoned him; Jeremiah says God seduced and raped him, and elsewhere says God is deceptive and fails him.

In many other places in the Hebrew Bible, however, we are told that Yahweh's "steadfast love endures forever." We are told, "the LORD will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance" (Ps. 94:14), and "he will not abandon you" (Deut 4:31). Not only will he never forsake or reject his people, but they cannot escape his presence. He is always near:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Ps 139:7-12)
This is just a brief sampling. So much of the Bible claims that God does not forsake his people. Furthermore, the Bible claims that God cannot lie or fail or do wrong. Jeremiah says Yahweh is "like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails," but we are told elsewhere that Yahweh "does no wrong," "he does not fail" (Zeph 3:5), and "he does not lie" (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29).

We don't even need these verses to know that God does not abandon, lie, fail, or do wrong. We understand that it may often seem like he has done so, but we know that we should recognize his unfailing steadfast love and faithfulness. As 2 Timothy 2:13 says, "If we are faithless, [God] remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself."

can abandon God, lie to him, fail him, do wrong to him, but not the other way around. And yet some of God's followers stood before him and accused him of doing so.

When we encounter such passages, we instantly know what's going on. They feel like God has abandoned them. It seems like he failed them or lied to them. It seems like he did them wrong. That was their experience, and they were being honest about that experience. They weren't going to tone down their inner turmoil.

Those who lament in the Bible show us that doing so is not unfaithful to God, or sinful, but genuine and good. That said, in those examples we can see that their theology wasn't always 100%, especially when they started making claims about God that we know from other parts of Scripture (and they probably knew as well) were flawed.

I suggest this is how we should think about the violent portraits of God in the Bible.

Consider the following passages:

"When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy." (Deut 7:1-2)

"The LORD our God delivered [Sihon] before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people. And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain." (Deut 2:33-34)

"Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded." (Josh 10:28-29)

"This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Sam 15:2-3)
These are just a few examples. There is plenty more divine violence all throughout the Hebrew Bible.

When we think of God speaking in the Bible, we think of it as an audible voice penetrating the world and being heard by whoever God is speaking to. In reality, it was probably much more like it is depicted in Darren Aronofsky's Noah. That is, servants of God interpreting events and/or dreams, feeling and thinking certain things as a response, feeling nudged in one direction or another, but ultimately following a mysterious God whose ways, plans, and thoughts are ambiguous and unclear.

As Walter Brueggemann says, "I do not make a distinction between the two modes of speech [speech about God and that which is spoken by God in the OT], because even where God speaks, the text is Israel's testimony that God has spoken so."(2)

We Christians take for granted the special revelation that we believe was given through Jesus. Jesus is God revealed. Jews do not have that. To the Jews, God is very mysterious and ambiguous. As Rabbi A.J. Heschel said, "God was concealed even when He revealed, [so] that even while his voice became manifest His essence remained hidden."(3)

Thus, the Bible to Jews is not clear and unambiguous full-disclosure of who God is. For Jews, one seeks to know God through what Brueggemann calls "ongoing disputatious interpretation" of events, of experience, of tradition, and of biblical texts.(4) This allows for the possibility that certain interpretations of such things are wrong.

It is my contention that the ancient Israelites were wrong when they ascribed violent commands and actions to God. As Peter Enns claims, "God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites."(5)

Ezekiel 33:11 says God takes "no pleasure in the death of the wicked." Jesus said, "it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that any of these little ones should perish" (Matt 18:14). 2 Peter 2:9 says the Lord does not want anyone to perish.

There are many verses we could go through, but the main point is that other parts of Scripture say God is not violent, that God is not one who would enact genocide, killing men, women, children and animals. A lot of Scripture, especially Jesus, points to God as an agent of peace, condemning violence and challenging people to commit to peacemaking as he does.

Because of this testimony--and especially because it is central to the teaching of Jesus, who reveals what God is like for Christians--I suggest that we read the texts that ascribe violence to God the same way we read the texts that ascribe lies, failure, abandonment, and wrong-doing to God, acknowledging their flawed nature.

We should not feel like we are being unfaithful, heretical, or un-Christian to engage in such disputatious interpretation. Jesus did the same thing:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." (Matt 5:38-39; cf. Deut 19:21; Lev 24:20; Ex 21:24)

"He sent messengers on ahead of him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for him. But they did not receive him, because he was traveling toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw this, they said, 'Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?' But he turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them." (Luke 9:52-56; cf. 2 Kings 1)(6)
We would do well to follow St. Augustine's advice to reinterpret anything in the Bible that cannot honestly be deemed good and true:
Anything in the divine writings that cannot be referred either to good, honest morals, or to the truth of the faith, you must know is said allegorically. . . . Those things . . . which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly allegorical, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity.(7)
While his allegorical interpretation of the violent texts has been found wanting, his point here is that we should engage in disputatious interpretation with the biblical texts, so that if they ascribe horrible things to God, we shouldn't just accept them as right and true but should find another way of looking at them.

It is quite challenging to begin to read the Bible this way, but I think we must. If we don't, we have an unsolvable problem on our hands, the problem of a God who can be as violent, atrocious and obscene as some of the worst sinners in human history. As Heschel said, "there are a few passages in the Bible which lead one to feel that God is not present in them; passages either too commonplace or too harsh to reflect the spirit of God."(8)

God does not forsake us, deceive us, rape us, fail us, or do wrong to us. And God is not violent; he does not command genocide or kill people. God is always with us, always trying to guide us to the truth, always faithful, always good. God is always love and is always seeking peace and trying to lead us to peace (1 Cor 14:33).

Anything in or out of the Bible that suggests otherwise should be recognized as products of the flawed and sinful world in which we live, and in which interpreting God's actions is difficult, often resulting in conclusions that reveal our flawed and sinful nature more than they reveal the nature of God.(9)

"Now may the God of peace . . . equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (Heb 13:21)

(1) I don't like referring to God as 'he', but it's easiest and we don't have a widely used gender-neutral pronoun. 
(2) Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 117.
(3) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 193.
(4) Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2009), 10.
(5) Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 54.
(6) On this passage, see Dale C. Allison, "Rejecting Violent Judgment: Luke 9:52-56 and its Relatives," Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 3 (2002), 459-478.
(7) St. Augustine, quoted in Kenton L. Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 47-48.
(8) Heschel, 266.
(9) For more along these lines, see Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

My Interview with Douglas Meeks: A Christian Approach to Globalization

About a week and a half ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview M. Douglas Meeks, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School and author of God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (see my review of his book, here). I am working on a paper called, "Global Economics and Good News for the Poor: The Holy Spirit's Work in an Age of Globalization," for the 2015 Society of Pentecostal Studies conference. It was for this paper that I was interviewing Dr. Meeks. My purpose was to engage him on the what a Christian understanding of globalization would look like.

First, a little about globalization. Essentially, globalization is the worldwide institution of international trade, so that businesses in different countries are more and more doing business with countries all over the world. It has also meant a growing worldwide embrace of capitalism, as more countries are engaging in competition and collaboration with other capitalist countries.

It has the potential to make everyone better off, and such people as Thomas Friedman proclaimed quite enthusiastically the opportunity for all of the world to benefit from globalization while it was still an up and coming phenomenon.(1) Today, it dominates discussions of political economy. One cannot talk economics or economic reform without taking globalization into account. As someone who is passionate about economic issues, and one who wants to be well-informed and well-trained in political economy, I of course had to start educating myself on the issues of global economics. I am happy to say I learned a lot from my interview with Douglas Meeks.

The Five Dimensions of Globalization

Dr. Meeks listed for me five dimensions of globalization: 1) Economic; 2) Cultural; 3) Political; 4) Spiritual; and 5) Physical. Whether or not this list is comprehensive, it helped guide the discussion.

In the economic dimension, Meeks suggested that reform in the areas of trade agreements, debt relief, and tax codes are not only necessary for globalization to work, but are also imperative for Christian proclamation.

Within trade agreements, work should be done to ensure that agreements benefit all the parties involved. What often happens is that trade agreements benefit privileged, developed countries more than their developing counterparts. A possible solution, he says, would include the development of "third parties that validate that the trading partners are actually making the trade they say they are and that they have the money entailed in the trade. Ways must be found to assure that risk is equitably shared."(2) Furthermore, proper trade reform would critique an emphasis on comparative advantage--or, to use Joseph Stiglitz's categories, focusing more on fair trade rather than free trade.(3)

On debt reform, Meeks suggests that we need to open up serious discussions about debt forgiveness, as many developing countries are overburdened by crushing debt that heavily restricts their prosperity.(4)

Finally, on tax reform, Meeks says policies should be put in place which favor the poor and underprivileged over against the rich, instead of the other way around, which is what our current system is doing. He recommends Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century for good, well-informed suggestions regarding tax codes.(5)

On the cultural plane, Meeks says an embrace of shared humanity and human dignity needs to be cultivated. It is in this arena where the church could do much but is currently found wanting. He says churches need a renewed emphasis on sanctification. Included in this would be an awareness of and concern for neighbors, over against dehumanization and the avoidance of others. It must also entail a critique of our consumerist, individualist social world.

The middle class, he says, must identify with the poor and commit to caring for their needs. This will necessarily include sacrificing our own autonomous money management and our self-interested consumerism.

Regarding politics, Meeks says we need a commitment to "intense democratization," and by that he means "a radical criticism of privilege," so that everyone has representation, and an actual equal playing field is established. We need a commitment to meeting the needs of everyone in the community, instead of coping with a society of self-interest where everyone is only looking out for themselves.

An area in which culture and politics intersect is with the importance of localization. To stop globalization from being a system of oppression, we need an emphasis on local production, local consumption, and local decision-making. It is easy to dehumanize those far away. We can put out of mind those child slaves who are out of sight, the ones making our commodities. If we want to stimulate economic growth and help the underprivileged, we will support local farms and markets, and small businesses. Supporting local efforts over against major national and international franchises that seek to establish market domination all over the country and even the world--even at the cost of the well-being of others--will help assist the little guy who wants to be successful in an age of international enterprise.

It would be easier and often cheaper for me to shop at Walmart, to buy a wallet off of Amazon, to get books from Barnes & Noble, to get coffee at Starbucks, Heineken beer, and a burger at McDonald's. It does more for my local Richmond community to shop at the farmer's market or Ellwood Thompson's,(6) to buy a wallet from my friend Peter,(7) books from Chop Suey,(8) coffee from my friend Jeff's Kokayi Coffee (or go to a local place like Crossroads Coffee),(9) beer from Virginia breweries,(10) and a burger from places like Burger Bach or Cary Town Burger & Fries.(11)

In the spiritual dimension of globalization, Dr. Meeks says the church needs to preach hope. All is not lost. The world is not passed help. We can do something; we can alleviate poverty; we can fight corruption; we can narrow the wealth gap; we can provide for people's needs. Hopelessness and apathy are plaguing the American church, and because of globalization it has worldwide consequences.

Meeks says globalization is not altogether negative, that it opens up the possibility of international neighborliness and hope for a peaceful coexistence among nations--but such a possibility takes work and commitment.

Finally, with the physical dimension, Dr. Meeks suggests that we need to be healing the sick and providing health care for those who need it. Turning the sick and the needy into profit centers is an abomination. Christians should be advocates for the sick and needy, and that means pushing for their needs to be met without being demanded what they cannot afford.

We also need, according to Meeks, a lesson in good stewardship of creation, taking better care of the environment instead of working against it like we currently are.

Overall, a Christian approach to globalization would seek to ensure that all those in need are provided for, that no one is left vulnerable and oppressed, and that people are not dominating and exploiting others. A Christian approach to globalization would favor the poor, the underprivileged, and the sick, and would give voice to the voiceless, the unrepresented. Ultimately, Dr. Meeks shows us that an economic philosophy regarding globalization cannot be Christian if it does not put the needs of the vulnerable at the forefront of concern.

(1) See Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Picador, 1999).
(2) M. Douglas Meeks, "The Peril of Usury in the Christian Tradition," Interpretation, 65 no. 2 (2011), 139.
(3) See Joseph E. Stiglitz, Making Globalization Work (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), 61-101.
(4) For more on debt relief and globalization, see "The Burden of Debt," in Stiglitz, 211-244.
(5) Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). He also recommends Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957) and Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America's Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) for study of globalization.
(6) See http://ellwoodthompsons.com/.
(7) He makes fantastic wallets. See https://www.etsy.com/shop/DavidAndJade?ref=l2-shopheader-name.
(8) See http://www.chopsueybooks.com/. Black Swan Books is another great Richmond bookstore.
(9) Kokayi Coffee: http://www.kokayicoffee.com/. Crossroads Coffee: http://crossroadsrva.com/.
(10) Some great Richmond breweries include Strangeways, Legend, Hardywood, Center of the Universe, Lickinghole Creek, and others. There are sooo many great breweries in Virginia.
(11) Burger Bach (my favorite restaurant): http://burgerbach.com/. Cary Town Burger & Fries: http://www.carytownburgers.com/.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Myth of a "Plain Reading" of Scripture: Calvinism and Modern Naiveté

St. Augustine
A couple weeks ago, four Christians authors came together in Chicago to debate Calvinism. It consisted of two Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones) and two Free-Will Theists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). You can watch the debate here and here. There was one point that was made by Montgomery that I thought needed a focused response. Zahnd responded to it but unfortunately didn't have time to drive the point home. I would like to do so here.

Zahnd at one point said when we're talking about Scripture we need to be reading scholars of Scripture, and he mentioned N.T. Wright and a few others. Montgomery in his response said, "I understand we should read guys like . . . N.T. Wright. 'The Great N.T. Wright.' But I'm like, 'We need to read more Paul. We need a plain reading of Paul." A plain reading of Paul, he suggests, would lead us to the doctrines of Calvinism.

The huge problem with this understanding is that there is no such thing as a plain reading of Paul. This is the arrogance of modern readers: we presume to be a post-ideological society in which we can divorce ourselves from our subjectivity, we can be disinterested readers approaching texts objectively, without any biases or preconceived ideas. Such an understanding is incredibly naive.

In the West Side Story song "I Feel Pretty," Maria sings "I feel pretty and witty and gay." We today don't often use the word 'gay' to mean happy, but we know there was a time when that's what was meant when the word was used. Let's say a 100 years from now the word 'gay' is solely understood to be 'homosexual' and no one knows of any other meaning. When people of that time hear Maria's song, they'd think she was saying she felt homosexual. A "plain reading" of the song would suggest such an understanding. But of course we know this would be mistaken. What they would need to do, we are aware, is study the historical usage of the word 'gay' to understand what it meant to the author of the song.

It is the same with Scripture. And that's just a minuscule example. We are separated from the historical Paul culturally, geographically, linguistically, ideologically, etc. Paul wrote 2000 years ago to specific communities in specific situations with specific needs. You're telling me we don't need to understand any of that context to get at what Paul is saying? We can just naturally extract Paul's meaning from the page?

We all have lenses through which we read Scripture. Truth-seekers will call their lenses into question, study other lenses, recognize the limitations they have in understanding certain things because of their lenses, etc. Truth-seekers don't pretend as if their lenses don't exist and then act like the conclusions they draw from their "plain readings" are true.

A "plain reading" of Paul is impossible for us.

Daniel Montgomery sees Calvinism in Paul because he is separated from the context of the writings, because he was taught such a reading, and ultimately because of Augustine. It was Augustine a few hundred years after Paul who first extracted Calvinist-like doctrines from Paul's letters. And the lens Augustine read through was a Neo-Platonism/Christian synthesis.

If Calvinism is what Paul meant when he wrote, why did it take a few hundred years for someone to read it that way? And why was it only after someone combined Christian theology with Neo-Platonic ideas?

It is easy for modern people to see Calvinism in a plain reading of certain biblical texts because we have been subjected to that reading. It is inception: the thought is given to us, followed by the text. We can only start to understand Paul when we study the historical context--the Sitz im Leben. It's the difference between exegesis and eisegesis.

If you think Calvinism is what was meant by what Paul wrote, you better have good reasons based on a study of Paul's context. I am open to hearing such a case and being proven wrong, but after an extensive exegetical study of the passages in question, I have found Calvinism wanting. In fact, I don't see how someone studying the historical context can still be a Calvinist.

And that's why it's so difficult, but also why it's so important.

See also my discussion of various Calvinist proof texts:
"The Historical Romans 9, or Why Everything You Thought You Knew is Wrong"
"Predestined in Christ: Ephesians 1 and Calvinism"
"Calvinism in Acts of the Apostles"

Sunday, September 7, 2014

11 Books that Changed My Life

1) The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann 

This book changed the way I read the Bible. Brueggemann is responsible for the social reading of the Bible that I have developed over the past couple years. There isn't a page where something profound isn't said. It's hard to come up with something to say that encapsulates this work. It's just so good.

2) The Suffering of God by Terence Fretheim 

I read this during a biblical prophets class and it changed the way I think about God. It put into words what I had been feeling for so long: God shares in my suffering. It was also the first book that subjected me to open theism. Fretheim is a master and has been one of the most influential theologians in my life.

3) The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis 

The imagery in this book is just amazing. Lewis articulates ideas so well through the images he uses. The artistry is masterful and the book is profound. I read a chapter of it when I was in the emergency room after a suicide attempt and found it not only moving but incredibly encouraging. This is a book I will read again and again throughout my life, and I expect to always gain insight after insight through each reading.

4) Love Wins by Rob Bell

This was perhaps the first book that radically altered my theology. At the very least, it affirmed the kinds of questions I had been asking for years and encouraged me to dig more. It is also the book that is responsible for me eventually embracing the theology of universal reconciliation. Even if you don't agree with everything he says (which I don't), it is a challenging book that has a lot to teach.

I should also mention Velvet Elvis here, which should probably also be on this list, as it was the first book that subjected me to the importance of studying the historical context of the Bible. I realized through reading the book how much I love doing that and that I wanted to do it in the future. Bell, through these two books, made me passionate about digging deeper into biblical study.

5) In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen 

While it wasn't the first Nouwen book I read--and such a first probably deserves to be on this list because Nouwen is that amazing--it's the one I return to the most. It's so simple, so short, and yet it's another book that doesn't go a page without saying something profound. You could read it in one sitting, but I would recommend taking days to read it, ponder it, and let it sink in.

6) The Prophets by A.J. Heschel 

Like The Prophetic Imagination and The Suffering of God, this is a book I was exposed to during my prophets class. And like them, it radically changed my theology. It not only articulates so well the idea that God shares in our emotional experience (which may be the most valuable theological concept I have ever embraced) but details how a prophet shares in the emotional experience of God. It not only changed my theology, but also the way I approached God in my personal life. Heschel is my favorite theologian, and this may be my favorite theology book.

7) God the Economist by M. Douglas Meeks 

While I had already caught on to the idea that God has radical economic insights for us before reading this book, Meeks wrote down not only what I had been sensing, but also what I needed to read in a systematic way. If I were to recommend only one book detailing a Christian approach to economics, it would without a doubt be this one.

8) The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd 

While I have strayed slightly from the Christianarchist views that Boyd espouses in this book, it is still well worth being on this list. I was for so long upset with the current state of Christian political thinking, and Boyd said everything I was thinking and more. Every Christian concerned with politics should first read this. Boyd is relentless in his insistence that we base our political thinking off of Jesus, and equally relentless when he details the radical assertions that that entails. Even if you don't agree with everything, Boyd has a message that most Christian Americans today need to hear. (It was also the book that inspired me to become a pacifist.)

9) Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

Along with helping me come to terms with how to think about Scripture and what to do with some of the problems that the Bible poses, Enns reintroduced me to my love for studying the Hebrew Bible. At the time, I had strayed far from Hebrew Bible studies and had become only interested in theology, even planning to one day write a systematic theology (a notion I now think to be ridiculous). I was growing disinfatuated with theological discussions before I read this and when I did I realized once again how much I love studying the Hebrew Bible. This definitely isn't the best thing that could be said about Enns' work, as his thoughts on the Bible offer so much insight, but this is the most significant way that the book affected my life at the time.

10) The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter

I read this in my Psalms class and, at the risk of sounding repetitive and dramatic, it changed the way I read the Bible. It opened me up to the possibility of the literary analysis of the biblical text. Alter offers what was a profound insight to me at the time: the Bible is literature, beautiful literature, and it should be respected as such. I didn't learn growing up that I could analyze a passage in the Bible the same way one analyses a William Blake poem; it was Alter who introduced me to that notion, and I am quite thankful for that.

11) You Are Special by Max Lucado

This was perhaps the first book that profoundly affected my life. It was definitely the first one to make me cry (it sometimes still does). As a kid, I would read this and feel the truth of the statement as if I was hearing from God (and I think I was!): "You Are Special." It's a beautiful story with a message that impacted me as a kid in the greatest possible way. I highly doubt I'd be who I am today without it. In fact, I wouldn't be who I am today without any of these books. So, you should read them. They're amazing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What God Cannot Do

There's an old saying, "If there is no God, everything is permitted."(1) This statement follows the train of thought provided by those like C.S. Lewis who claim that our sense of morality points to the existence of a moral God. Without such a God determining what is moral, we can have no moral compass and so "everything is permitted."

Slavoj Žižek, on the other hand, turns this around. He says, "It is precisely if there is a God that everything is permitted."(2) He says this because the concept of God gives people something beyond themselves to appeal to in order to justify their actions. As "the instruments of God's will," they "practice a perverted version of what Kierkegaard called the religious suspension of the ethical: on a mission from God, one is allowed to kill thousands of innocents."(3) He explains,
The vast majority of people are spontaneously moral: torturing or killing another human being is deeply traumatic for them. So, in order to make them do it, a larger "sacred" Cause is needed, one which makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial . . . : without it, we would have to feel all the burden of what we did, with no Absolute upon whom to off-load our ultimate responsibility.(4)
We all know this happens. The crusades, the inquisitions, executions of heretics, the list goes on. And is it not the rationale for justifying the darker sides of Calvinism? "Yes, it sounds horrible to us that God would create billions of people just to damn them to hell for ever and ever; yes, it sounds horrible to us that God would raise up Hitler and Stalin to torture and kill thousands, or to bring about 9/11--but it's what the Bible says and we just have to trust God. Who are we to question him?"

This rationale is also used when evangelical Christians talk about the violent actions attributed to God in the Bible. When asked if it was moral for the ancient Israelites to enact genocide, Tremper Longman said, "Yes, by definition it was moral. I may struggle with it, but God defines morality--what is right and what is wrong. If it is initiated by God, it is moral. God defines morality."(5)

Along the same lines, Daniel Heimbach says, "because God defines morality for us and not the other way around, it must therefore be that God acting as a bloodthirsty warrior is sometimes morally justified; and it must also be that at those times fighting on God's side on crusade terms, allowing no surrender, showing no mercy and sparing no one, is also entirely justified."(6)

I cannot overstate how dangerous this thinking is. Not only has it been used throughout history to justify atrocities, but it can and will be used again.

If God is our standard for morality, then it must be an actual standard. If killing a child is morally wrong, it shouldn't be morally right just because God does it. Relativising morality in such a way not only makes morality meaningless, but the answer to the question "What is moral?" becomes up for grabs. Suddenly, whether or not killing children is moral becomes a matter of interpretation. Suddenly, everything is permitted. If Christians really want to claim God as a moral standard, it has to be consistent.

Rather than saying "God determines morality so even if he does something evil, it is good because he does it," we should say, God cannot do anything evil, but only does what is good. There is a standard of morality that God cannot violate, precisely because it is in God's nature to be good, and God cannot be something God is not. Goodness is necessarily part of God so that God's actions cannot contradict it. Thus, if an action is evil, it is evil for God as well and God cannot do it.(7)

Is everything permitted if God exists? No, not if the God we serve cannot possibly initiate atrocities.

How do we avoid the moral relativism often associated with theism? Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the moral standard, and even more, Jesus reveals to us who God is, so that if Jesus wouldn't do it, neither would God. Christian theology should start and end with the question, "What kind of God does Jesus reveal?"

Would Jesus command people to kill men, women and children? Would Jesus create millions of people just to damn them to hell forever and ever? Would Jesus cause Hitler and Stalin to do what they did? Would Jesus bring about 9/11?

Many verses could be cited in response to these questions, but I will just leave you with this simple one: "it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that any of these little ones should perish" (Matt 18:14).

(1) According to Žižek, the statement "is usually traced back to The Brothers Karamazov, [but] Dostoyevsky never in fact made it (the first to attribute it to him was Sartre in Being and Nothingness)." Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjević, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 43.
(2) This quote is from the film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012), directed by Sophie Fiennes. He makes a similar statement in God in Pain, 46.
(3) Žižek and Gunjević, 44-45.
(4) Ibid., 45.
(5) Tremper Longman, III, quoted in William L. Lyons, A History of Modern Scholarship on the Biblical Word Herem (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010), 153-154.
(6) Daniel R. Heimbach, "Crusade in the Old Testament and Today," in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem, eds. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 190.
(7) For more along these lines, see Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010), particularly chapter 5.