A friend of mine made the following statement to me last week: “The difference between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics believe in “Jesus and…”; Protestants believe in “Jesus only”. He’s wrong, of course. Nobody believes in Jesus only. We all add something. And if I were to be cynical, I would argue that Protestants don’t worship Jesus; they worship the Bible. I know this might sound hyperbolic and paradoxical, but I believe that Bible-worship is the single biggest obstacle to Protestants coming to know Jesus. More than that, I believe it is the heresy with the most devastating consequences in terms of the violent impact of religion on society. I will even be so bold as to venture that Christian faith has very little of value to offer the world so long as the Bible in its entirety is regarded as God’s incontrovertible revelation of Henself to humanity.
The reason for this is that the God revealed in it – if every revelation of God contained therein is authentic – is a monster. If every command attributed to God in the Biblical writings genuinely proceeded directly from the mouth of the Divine, and if every action the writers claim was sanctioned by God genuinely received the divine stamp of approval, then God is abusive and capricious. The same God who orders the complete destruction of every nation that opposes Israel – women, children and men (sometimes even livestock), who rains fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, who allows foreign armies to rape and murder His “children” as punishment for disobedience, is the very God who claims – without any apparent hint of irony – to love us while we are sinners. If the Bible is completely reliable in the picture it paints of God then we are in big trouble. Because that means that the Being that holds the reins of the universe is a deranged psychopath. As magnanimous as this God can be, He (and I have deliberately used the masculine pronoun instead of what I regard as the more accurate gender neutral Hen) can be equally petty and vindictive. In short, it is a God made in our own image.
And that is hardly surprising, really. The Biblical texts find their origins in deeply patriarchal warrior cultures. And in trying to make sense of an invisible God, it is natural for writers to project something of themselves, of their worldviews, onto their interpretations of the God revealed through the history they are living through. When multiple writers across different times, from different cultural , socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds, with differing levels of education and varying experiences of imperial power, all attempt to write about their perceptions of an invisible God, it is inevitable that there will be contradictions. The contradictions, as I see it, are not the problem.
The problem is that we deny that there are any contradictions at all. Is it really so difficult to see that the same God whom Moses claims commands the sacrificial laws is the same God whom Jeremiah denies ever issued such commandments? That the same God who brutalises both His enemies and His children throughout the Old Testament is the same one who insists that self-sacrificing love is the only legitimate model for interrelating in the New?
We elect to blind ourselves to these contradictions by trying to argue that God is not only absolutely loving but also absolutely just, and so the extreme violence is actually loving because it is employed in the name of justice. After all, who wouldn’t want a just society? And if that fails to convince, we can always fall back on the old “God’s ways are higher than our ways” and “God can do whatever God wants”. I have been told that if I only allowed the Holy Spirit to guide me in my reading of the Scriptures, I would see that bloodshed and love are reconcilable. To the carnal mind, I am told, these things do not make sense, but to the spiritual mind they are clear. But I am very sorry: razing entire cities to the ground because they offend God’s moral sensibilities is neither just nor loving, it is tyranny, whether you have a carnal mind or a spiritual one. And don’t get me started on the frankly ludicrous contention that condemning people to eternal suffering by fire because they refuse to bow the knee, or because they don’t manage to come to a point of adopting a narrowly defined theological paradigm in the very short space of time allotted them, can in any way be construed as acceptable. And there is nothing even remotely just (let alone absolutely just) in allowing somebody innocent (Jesus) to suffer in the place of the guilty. Justice is not transferable. Nor ought it to be confused with retribution. If Jesus being tortured and killed slowly is God’s idea of justice, then God has a very twisted sense of right and wrong. Face it: the God we preach, based on select Biblical passages, contradicts the God revealed in Jesus. You would have to have a seriously perverted theology and non-existent reading comprehension skills to be able to conceive of a scenario where the Jesus of the gospels commanded the wholesale slaughter of children. God is not a murderer of children. That’s something people do.
We refuse to acknowledge that we not only write ourselves into texts, we read ourselves into them too. That is one of the key reasons why I am sceptical of any faith that centres itself on a text. Readers are always active in making meaning of texts – the messages texts convey are never constructed only by the writers. When a 21st Century Western white, middle-class man reads any part of the Bible I will guarantee that the message he “hears” (I would argue ‘constructs’) is not the message that a Jewish person from millennia past would have “heard” (more accurately, ‘constructed’). The connotations of terminology have changed, for example. “The Kingdom of God” would not have meant an otherworldy utopia to any Jew, and ideas like “salvation” and “repentance” are English translations that in an individualistic Protestant culture lose the orientation around ideas of communal identity and political liberation that they would have had for 1st Century Jews. To trust in a text is to trust in one’s own interpretation of the text. Faith in a text is thus faith in oneself.
That is not to say that the Biblical texts have no value. It is not a choice between either accepting them as infallible or discarding them altogether. That kind of dualistic thinking is also a regrettable characteristic of modern thinking. Rather, we engage with the text on its own terms. We wrestle with its ideas, we attempt to understand the influences on the thinking of the writer, we inquire into which parts can be trusted and which cannot. Not least, we reflect on how we ourselves influence the message we hear. In other words, we discern. Reading carries a great deal of responsibility. The Bible is an invaluable and indispensable tool for the Christian. It is not the Bible I have a problem with, it is our approach to it.
Reducing our reading to “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is not only supremely arrogant, it is also utterly irresponsible. It is tantamount to saying: “I will not question the extent to which my own prejudices and context influence my understanding; I am my own arbiter of absolute truth and nobody can tell me otherwise”. That is not the kind of thinking that leads naturally to a peaceful and loving society, the kind of community that Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God”. Bible-worship, though, discourages any form of engagement with this. So when some of the God-projections in the Scriptures have no issue with employing excessive violence against those who oppose them, then it is no wonder that we have no issue doing likewise. Because the Scriptures reflect a multiplicity of (sometimes very human) voices, it is easy to find a verse that will justify whatever action we desire to take, especially if we take those voices, which are actually our own, as God’s. We can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. What’s more, we do. And that has resulted in all manner of atrocities in the name of God. Text-based faith legitimates systemic violence and perpetuates inequality. It is always, I would argue, ultimately extremist, exclusive and violent.
A common objection is this: if the Bible is not the anchor of faith, then we are at the mercies of any ideologies that take our fancy. Indeed, that was the very reason Luther introduced Sola Scriptura in the first place. At face value, that seems sensible. How else do we know we are right? But once you put it like that, you can see the problem: faith has become a competition. Who is right and who is wrong? And being right takes on an extra sense of urgency when you take into account, according to the Bible, the kind of horrific treatment God metes out to those who are wrong. Text-based faith roots faith in fear, and fear always diminishes one’s capacity to love and be loved: the very opposite of what Jesus taught. But that is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the need to anchor faith in something absolute is not met by rooting faith in a text, simply because the reader of any text is the primary agent in the meaning-making process. If you trust only the Bible as a dispenser of spiritual revelation you are already at the mercy of any ideology that is prevalent at the time: the meaning derived from a text is never derived only from the text, but is necessarily a derivation of the reader’s own thinking and the thinking of those who interpret the text for the reader.
So where can we anchor faith? If we say “In Jesus”, surely we are falling into the same trap, as the only Jesus we can know is the one we derive from the gospel texts, interpreted through the lens of our own contexts? That is true. And that is certainly why we must apply academic rigour to our readings of Jesus too. Subjectivity is inescapable, and that is why we must remain conscious of it. Objectivity is a myth, and a dangerous one. Certainty limits understanding, because when we are certain, we stop acknowledging our own subjectivity and we see our own opinions as objective truth. But we still need an anchor. The dilemma is this: while we want to avoid the pitfalls of certainty, we acknowledge that faith founded upon subjective experience and personal opinion will – especially if practised by entire communities – amplify the impact of human vices on society. When we become our own arbiters of truth, our own insecurities and prejudices play themselves out in our relationships with others, but we see our actions and beliefs as legitimate, even perhaps as a divinely mandated expressions of faith and we never question them. Put another way, text-based faith is subjectivity masquerading as objectivity, that teaches that we ought to treat others as we want to treat them.
What Jesus offers is this: a picture of God that goes beyond text; a living, breathing theological paradigm, richer and deeper than any text. To quote Brian Zahnd, “Jesus is what God has to say”. In the Bible, the term “Word of God” is not used self-referentially, but is used in reference to Jesus. When the term “The Word of God” is used by the early church fathers, it is used in reference to Jesus. The Bible is not “the Word of God”, Jesus is. The appropriation of the term to refer to the Bible is Lutheran in origin. It has merely become naturalised through five centuries of use. But if Jesus is the Word of God, what does that mean? For a start, it means that Jesus himself is the message, not merely his words. If you reduce the gospel to an atonement theory, you will miss much of its beauty and value, which lies in how Jesus lived, as much as in how he died.
I think Jesus understood something very important about our approach to faith: we are by nature mimetic creatures. The value we ascribe to things is often the value we perceive others to ascribe to those same things. Thus the way we give expression to our faith is often simply mimicry of those we regard as faithful, as holding spiritual authority. We regard as valuable expressions of faith those expressions of faith seen as valuable by others, and by the religious culture as a whole. But religious culture, like any form of culture, is neither static nor objective, and so faith expressions, too, shift form over time. If faith expressions are mimetic, and culture changes, then text-based faith expressions will shift according to the interpretations of the text predominant in the culture at any given time. Jesus gives us something else to mimic instead. Very frequently, especially when it comes to his key teachings, Jesus encourages his disciples to mimic him, instead of the religious leaders of the time, and sometimes even instead of the Scriptures:
- “When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.” (John 15: 10 – 12)
- So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. (John 5: 19)” [It is very hard to justify Penal Substitution as a legitimate interpretation of the atonement when Jesus makes claims like this. Essentially, it simply cannot be inferred, if you believe Jesus is One with God, as he claims, that God is punitive and violent by nature.]
- Notice how much of Matthew 5 follows the pattern of Jesus saying: “you have heard it said…(Jesus quotes from Deuteronomic law) …but I say …(Jesus reinterprets law)”. This is much more than Jesus simply differentiating between the letter and spirit of the law. What Jesus does here is set himself up as an authority above the law (imagine, for example, your pastor saying: You know the bit in the Bible where it says…? Well, instead I say…). And implicit in this is that we ought to mimic Jesus as opposed to blind adherence to Scriptural precepts.
- “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) For me, this is possibly the verse that illustrates most clearly what Jesus teaches about God’s character. This statement is the conclusion to his teaching on enemy love, where Jesus argues that the key characteristic of godly character is the capacity to love one’s enemies. Anyone can love those who love them. But children of God, Jesus insists, ought to love everyone. God’s blessings, he states, are not only reserved for the just and the faithful, so therefore we ought to be perfect just as God is. Perfection is not defined as strict adherence to the law, prefection is acting in love towards one’s enemies. Holiness is not moral purity, it is unconditional love. It is a teaching Jesus models at the cross when he forgives his murderers.
- In Luke 10, when Jesus repackages the teaching on enemy love in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells his audience, if they want to live a godly life, to “go and do likewise”.
Mimesis is key to understanding religious expression. Jesus, I think, knew that, and instead of leaving us to follow the examples of the religious leaders who relied solely on their sacred texts, and who were therefore unwitting slaves to their own prejudices and preconceptions, he asked us to mimic him instead, to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus never defines faith as a belief system. Go back and look at what he has to say about the subject. For Jesus, faith is always defined as something you do; a way of being, not a way of thinking. Life is not found through texts. Sacred texts breed hatred in us, as ultimately we cultivate contempt for those who do not see the ‘truths’ in them that we do. Sacred texts generate mimetic rivalry – a concept I will develop at a later stage – and, ultimately, foster violence and death. But if, instead, we choose to mimic a living word, one that refuses to submit to our flawed interpretations and one that insists – against all of our natural desires – that we actively love our enemies, then we have hope of finding life.
Somewhere near the Temple in Jerusalem, a crowd of religious leaders was harassing Jesus for healing a blind man on the Sabbath. They were so bound up in the prescripts of their texts that they could not see God working right before their eyes. Text-based religion always breeds contempt, always fosters elitism and eventually stirs up violence. Violence is the heartbeat of religion. But Jesus rebuked them, directing them to a better, life-affirming word. I often wonder, were Jesus to walk into a 21st Century Evangelical church, if he would not say much the same thing as he did then (John 5:39-40):
“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.”