As Dr Peter Enns has pointed out, in his 2014 book: “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It”, we are as far removed from the world of David and Samuel as the modern world is from the year 5000. Enns is a much respected scholar, who has taught at both Princeton and Harvard (not that this should make us take him any more or less seriously, but still, for many people, that kind of thing matters), and he has a way of packaging volumes of scholarly research so that it is digestible for the likes of us common people. This particular observation is a sobering one, and an astute illustration by Enns. It reminds us that the people who penned the books of the Bible were – like us – wrestling with who God is and what it means to be godly, within very specific times and places. From a theological perspective, nobody sees things from a bird’s eye-view.
And time and place are always changing. This will show my age, but I remember a world without cellular phones and the internet. I grew up in a South Africa where television only operated for a few hours a day, and –if memory serves – on not more than three channels. I came from a privileged middle-class home: we had a computer that had a colour screen – no fewer than four glorious colours. We upgraded that to sixteen and were thrilled. In the short time that has been my life, the world has shifted enormously. Just think about how our perceptions, our senses of self, our understanding of others and the world we live in, has been changed by things like the internet, like cellphones, even like television. And, given the exponential growth in the sophistication of technology, imagine what the world might be like in the year 5000, and how those circumstances might change how people know and relate. Now I am not a believer that people 2000 years ago where any less intelligent than we are – they built the pyramids at Giza and the Great Wall, and Machu Pichu, after all. But they were limited in their potential to understand by the constraints of their limited technology (which for them, as for us today, must have seemed cutting edge and highly advanced). People of Antiquity were trapped in history just as we are, and history was trapped in them, as it is in us, to paraphrase James Baldwin. History shaped the way they wrestled with the question of God, and there is no reason to suppose that it has ceased to do so with us. We can only ever understand things through the distorting lens of our times.
So when I read the Bible nowadays, I am very conscious of the historical and literary forces at play. The problems we have with the Bible, as Enns points out, lie not so much with the Bible itself as with our expectations of it. Simply put, we want the writers to be 21st Century white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But they weren’t. Just like us, they wrestled with the concept of who God is and what on earth God expects of us. But they did it through the only historical lenses they had available to them. As we do. They simply never realised that this is what they were doing. Mostly, nor do we. So I am not one of those critics who believes that the Bible has no value simply because the writers were (necessarily) limited in their understanding and heavily influenced by their socio-cultural contexts, to the point of occasionally getting things horribly and violently wrong. If bias was a legitimate reason to dismiss somebody’s thoughts, we could not trust anything written today either. We simply are blind to our biases because we have been naturalised into the ideological frameworks through which they are formed. I am sure that in 3000 years the scholars then will regard the likes of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein as ahead of their time, but if not completely misguided, at least extremely restricted in their insights.
I think if there is one great benefit to having the internet and cellphones and television, it is that we have become increasingly aware that the world – the universe – is far, far bigger than we could possibly imagine. It is much easier to understand just how limited your own perspective is when you can see further away. My guess is that most of the people who inhabited the Biblical world – from the time of David to the time of the early church – didn’t ever go much outside the radius of a few miles from where they lived. Even the travellers of the time wouldn’t have seen much beyond North Africa or Mediterranean Europe. Nobody would have had much exposure to ideas from outside of their communities – they were largely illiterate people, due simply to the fact that books were not reproduced on any sort of scale. I probably have more books in my house than many ancient cities had in total.
That had to have had an impact: when you never hear others’ stories, engage in debate with them over their ideas, you end up with a very limited experience of the world. Sadly, for many modern people – even though we can access any information we need about any culture or creed in the world from the luxury of our own homes, using our cellular phones, we still do not stray outside of a few miles radius of where we live. We seek only that which reaffirms what we already believe, the comfortable and the familiar. We have all the technology in the world but we are eerily unchanged from the thousands of generations who have preceded us. James Baldwin wryly remarked that our society could be characterised by a “rigid refusal to look at ourselves”. Maybe, with respect to Mr Baldwin, whom I deeply admire, the truth is rather that we can be characterised by a rigid refusal to look at anything beyond ourselves.
Jesus taught us to love one another. That, he maintained, is the only way to break the cycle of violence that controls human relationships. And it is hard to hate somebody whose story you have heard. Jesus was in the business of giving voices to the marginalised – letting us know that there were stories other than our own. Still, it seems that modern Christians are frightened of those stories. We don’t want to love. The sacrifice is just too great. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said that nobody who didn’t hate their father or mother could love him: he didn’t mean that unless we loathed our own families we could not love him. I think he meant that it is impossible to love if we only ever accept the familiar.
So those of you who are on this journey with me, doggedly sticking with me in my writings as I try to make sense of God, I think the place to start is with recognising the value of Enns’s insight. This is how I see it: bad theology is frequently the result of our inability (or unwillingness) to separate our thinking about God from God. This blog is not about God. It is about thinking about God. And if Christian faith is based on Jesus (that seems like a weird thing to say, but I would argue that most of modern Christianity is not; it is based on a whole range of other things, but not actually on the teachings of Jesus), then some engagement with history is imperative. Without it, we cannot understand a) how Jesus would have understood his mission within his historical context; b) how the early church would have understood Jesus within their socio-historical contexts and c) how our own understandings of Jesus have been shaped and are being shaped by our own socio-historical contexts. In other words, unless we have some grasp of history, our thinking about God is merely a projection of our own fantasies, as they are created for us by our postmodern world.
Maybe you are content to settle for that. And that is your right. I do not desire to judge that approach (please forgive me when I do); I can see the attraction in the comfort of the familiar and I recognise that the way that history shapes our thought is too powerful a force for anyone to overcome completely. Maybe you are content to settle for that. But – with respect – I am not. Protestantism and Evangelicalism make no sense to me. I am deeply drawn to Jesus though. His teachings on enemy love make sense: something radical has to be done to break the foundation of violence and systemic injustice on which the whole modern world has been built, and radical self-giving love is worth a shot. You know what? I want to love Jesus. But not in the “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” way that the modern church seems to value: you don’t get to say that you love Jesus and ignore everything he stood for, like non-violent resistance, restorative justice and opposing systemic violence. I am tired of the hollow and narcissistic worship services, the purity-obsessed church culture that serves as a thin veil to cover bigotry and indifference. Christianity – as it is represented in so much of the church today – appals me, to be frank. But Jesus doesn’t. Not Jesus. Jesus saw the ugliness of the imperialistic world and saw that violence would only beget violence. I have been doing a lot (a lot) of reading on decolonisation, and Jesus was way ahead of his time. I will write about that another time. So Jesus’ teachings make sense to me. I don’t choose to follow Jesus because I believe that refusal to do so will condemn me to fiery torture; I do so because I don’t see any other way to restore the world to a way of relating that does not root itself in mimetic rivalry and reciprocal violence. The kind of world I believe Jesus refers to when he talks about God’s Kingdom. Maybe, in all this sordid world, Jesus is the only thing that makes sense to me.
I don’t think the church, as a whole, knows Jesus at all. Not that I do either, to be fair. And certainly I do not hate the church for that (pity them, sometimes, yes, as I pity myself); they are trapped in history after all. But we are not helpless in this. We have access to different stories, different perspectives, a fuller picture than has ever been available to us before. It seems foolish to squander the opportunity. So let’s find out how Jesus understood his own mission. Let’s try to understand Paul without the Calvinistic and Evangelical filters we have placed on his writings (why, I implore, have we never sought advice on understanding these texts from Jewish Rabbis? They were written by Jewish scholars, after all, not by Calvinist ones).Let us try to understand how historical, philosophical and ideological trends have shaped our own understandings and how these might differ from Jesus’ and Paul’s understandings. Then we would be in a better position to honour Jesus. So long as faith remains an intellectually lazy “just-accept-it-because-it-is what-we-have-always-believed” affair, it will always remain inferior and very, very dangerous. Blind faith is no faith at all, it is wishful thinking. Faith demands more of me. It demands more of you too.
*Dear regular readers
Please pardon the lengthy delays between posts recently. Work has been absolutely chaotic. I have had to prepare papers for several conferences, on top of dealing with my depression (I foolishly tried to stop my medication because it was becoming too expensive, but I completely underestimated the effect that would have. I have learned my lesson), and other issues at home. Hopefully after September (my last speaking engagement) things will ease up and we can go back to the regular weekly posts.