Friday, October 24, 2014

What Does the Bible Tell Us: Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So

Pete Enns’ believes that the view of the Bible many evangelicals hold is both wrong and damaging.  And his The Bible Tells Me So is his evangelistic tract to share the good news that there is another and better way to read the Bible.  We just can’t go on treating the Bible as “Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual” (3). They don’t fit the Bible we have in front of us.  According to Enns our Bible reading is motivated mostly by fear and anxiety to defend the Bible we imagine and control the faith of Bible readers (4).  He thinks this “a warning signal that deep down we do not really trust God at all (9).”

So Enns wants to convert us, bring us to faith!  By facing up to the truth about the Bible, that it contains many things wrong or reprehensible, He discovered a freedom to engage God in a no-holds-barred quest to discover the Bible’s truth.  He learned God loved him not because of but even in spite of his mental efforts, reservations, objections, questions and all, to understand God’s word.  This is the good news he wants to share with others.

Enns weaves his appeal around three foci: the Canaanites, historical errors, and contradictions between biblical writers (25). None of this is new, of course, nor does Enns offer new responses to them.  Rather, he’s trying to get those who paper over these biblical realities in an effort to defend the truth and authority of the Bible to face and feel their force.  And for Enns, that means a frank acknowledgment that there are things in the Bible we wish weren’t there and can’t accept – but they are there!

Enns takes no prisoners and paints just about the worst picture he can of the biblical material.  His wit and cleverness heightens the rhetorical power of his exposition. He robs readers of their innocence or duplicity if they have never wrestled with the material.

The examples Enns uses are well-known and I won’t detail them here.  But here are Enn’s own conclusions.

1.    “The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.

2.    “The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was.

3.    “The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago.

4.    “Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so.

5.    “A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.” (231-232) 

The second conclusion about history relates especially to those who find it non-negotiable that the “facts” of the Bible match those that historical research gives us.  Here Enns is spot on!  Trevor Hart (Faith Thinking) uses three images for the Bible I find very helpful.  He asks is the Bible is more like a window, a mirror, or a piece of stained glass art.  A window is transparent to what lies behind.  The Bible as a window is one that is transparent to the “facts” that lie behind its claims.  This is to read the Bible historically, a major preoccupation of much evangelicalism.

To use the Bible as a mirror is to read it for the meaning it has for the reader whose image is reflected in front of the text.  Here it is the present life and circumstance of the reader that determines the meaning one finds in scripture.  Using the Bible as a devotional resource, an inspirational anthology or book of uplift and thoughts for the day to enhance one’s daily is also a major preoccupation of evangelicals.

The Bible as a piece of stained glass art is akin to Enns’ assertion, “Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. ‘Who are we now?’ was.”  Stained glass art puts different colored pieces of varying translucence to tell a story that captures the meaning and significance of said story.  Get the history right is less important that communicating its meaning of that history.  Here the focus is looking at the story narrated in the piece of art.  The varying translucence may allow glimpse of what lies behind.  And its reflective quality may allow the reader to see themselves in the story.  And that’s just the point!  To see ourselves in the story, participating in it, adopting it as our own story, and allowing that story to shape our identity and vocation, that’s what reading the Bible as a piece of stained glass art is about.  And I believe it is akin to what Enns is suggesting and the most viable model for the Bible.

Enns’ third conclusion strikes at those who expect a systematic ordering of all the Bible’s teaching and parts into one self-consistent whole, like a melody.  If that was important to our faithfulness as God’s people, wouldn’t God have given us his book in that form?  No, stories are more important.  They’re more like a symphony that can incorporate and integrate disparate and even discordant pieces into the whole.  It tells a story in varying moods and modes.

Enns further claims that in this sprawling narrative of different genres we are able to watch the spiritual journey of ancient Israel as it unfolds.  This is surely true.  He comments: 

“What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves. Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with him more deeply.” (77).

This is fine, as far as it goes.  But biblical inspiration is grounded in God’s act of revelation (2 Timothy 3:16), in his “commandeering” (John Webster) of just these words to communicate his redemptive intent.  Making “sacred experiences” the ground of the Bible’s being “God’s Word” seems weak to me.  Who determines whether an experience is “sacred”; and what happens when Christians find such experiences outside the Bible’s witness and allow those experiences to inform their identity and direction?  Enns doesn’t do this, but it seems to me a potential weak spot in his presentation.

Conclusions 4 and 5 are fine statements of the impact of Jesus in both his earthly life and his post-resurrection existence on the traditions of Israel.  Bravo!

It is Enns’ first conclusion that seems most problematic to me.  God’s and Israel’s treatment of the Canaanites is without doubt a most difficult portion of the Bible for every reader.  It is here that we run up against weaknesses that, in my judgment, render this conclusion untenable.

“It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday. This is what we call a theological problem. And it’s a big one, not only because of the whole Canaanite business, but because violence seems to be God’s preferred method of conflict resolution.” (30)

To resolve this problem Pete appeals to the cultural background (and, therefore, limitations) of the ancient Israelites.

“The Bible—from back to front— is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time. It’s not like the Israelites were debating whether or not to go ahead and describe God as a mighty warrior. They had no choice. That’s just how it was done— that was their cultural language. And if the writers had somehow been able to step outside of their culture and invent a new way of talking, their story would have made no sense to anyone else. The Bible looks the way it does because “God lets his children tell the story,” so to speak.” (62-63)

From this he reaches the conclusion noted above: “So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.” 

It’s the “so” that’s troubling here.  There’s a very different way to construe this proper recognition of the cultural background of the Israelites.  One that draws on the intense passion of God to be with his people, so intense that he intends nothing less than incarnation becoming one of us.  As God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening in the creation story so he will be present with all of humanity and as one of us in the Lamb in the great visions of Revelation.  This incarnational drive of God’s also included “proto-incarnational” instances where God moves closer and closer to the people in preparation for the incarnation of Jesus.  At this point, let’s hear from Steve Chapman, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School from his essay in the book Holy War and the Bible:

“Warfare in the Old Testament, as indeed all killing in the Old Testament needs to be recognized within Christian theology as a strictly circumscribed divine concession to the brutal reality of human sin (Gen.9:3-6). However, someone still might ask, ‘Couldn’t God design a world in which war wasn’t necessary?’' The appropriate theological response is that God in fact did so (Gen.1-2), but human sinfulness spoiled it precisely by generating violence (Gen. 6:11-13). Someone might push further and say 'Even with the advent of human violence, couldn’t God have devised a strictly nonviolent method for dealing with it?" Here again the theological response is that God did just that in Jesus Christ, but in order for Christ to appear in the fullness of time (Gal.4:4) it was necessary for God to elect and preserve the people of Israel. And apparently - this is the hard part-God was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel purely nonviolently although, even so, Israel's history witnesses to and moves toward nonviolence as it moves toward Christ.” (63-64)

God’s willingness to “get his hands dirty” like this, according to Chapman (and, I believe, the Bible), is this incarnational passion to be with his people, the people he promised would the means of spreading his blessings to everyone (Gen.12:1-3), to protect and nurture them into actually being that people.  This incarnational passion entails God’s willingness to do what is necessary to protect the geo-political entity he has chosen to be his people.  It is an index of God’s intent to see his purpose through to fulfilment.    

“The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story’ so to speak.”  But the story they tell in this instance, I suggest, is not marred by unavoidable cultural blinders but marked by God’s unconditional faithfulness to be with and fulfill his promises to them and realize his own creational dream precisely amid the realities of the (fallen) world in which they live. Even when such commitment requires him to act in ways that do not represent the character of the world toward which he is moving but are a step in the direction he has chosen to go.  This seems to me a better reading of the text and the theological substance of the Bible than what Enns offers at this point. 

The Bible Tells Me So achieves its goal, I think.  No reader can come away from it and ignore it realities without a bad conscience.  But not in all respects, however.  The concerns I have voiced are serious missteps in my judgment.  Nevertheless, Enns’ work is profitable to read and wrestle with even if the reader finds reason to demur from it at some key points. 

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