First Review of "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road"
I'm honored that the first online review of my upcoming book (that' I'm aware of) would be from a college student at an Evangelical college, Brandan Robertson. You can read it here:
I had the chance to meet Brandan at the Wild Goose Festival a few weeks back in North Carolina. I was so impressed with his ardent spirit - a great example of 1 Timothy 4: 12. I thought I'd offer a few responses to some of his observations ...
Dear Brandan ...
First, thanks for the thoughtful review of my upcoming book. It was great meeting you in person a few weeks back. I couldn't ask for a better person to write the first review of the book. I think you got almost everything in your review exactly right.
But I wanted to respond to a few things you brought up ... not to be defensive or argumentative, but just to offer my response, because you're addressing truly important issues.
1. You wrote:
Now, there are parts of the book that I as an evangelical have to disagree with Brian. For instance, in the 18th Chapter, entitled "How Faithful Doctrinal Reformulation Can Make Orthodoxy More Generous", he calls for a "reformulation" of the creedal doctrines of the historic Christian faith- the trinity, the deity of Christ, and the atonement. I am all for asking questions. I am all for rethinking and reforming. But I am also all for renewing our historic Christian creedal convictions. Now, to be clear, Brian doesn't make any radical departure from orthodoxy in this chapter. In fact, his conclusions about each of those listed doctrines are inspiring and orthodox. But what bothers me is the fact Brian seems to have made his conclusions about what he wants these doctrines to say before he even began reformulating. Basically, he is eisegeteing these doctrines- reading in his intended outcome.
I can see how someone might think this, but I thought I'd share my actual experience of writing this section of the book. As you know, growing numbers of us have become convinced that our ancestors practiced what Evangelicals call "syncretism" in relation to the Roman empire: in our engagement with Rome, we took on board some harmful elements of Greco-Roman thought, and in particular, a condescending and hostile attitude toward "the other" - whom the Romans considered the barbarian, the uncivilized, the inferior, etc. To the degree that this diagnosis is even partially valid, our Western framing of core biblical doctrines could have unconsciously taken on a Roman-imperial cast, which would obligate us to give them a critical examination for hostility.
(Some of our hostility could also have carried over from certain forms of Judaism. Jesus and Paul offer, I think, a needed third alternative - not hostile-Greco-Roman-Imperial on the one hand, and not hostile-religious-ethnic on the other.)
With the possibility in mind of an alien hostility having been imported into/syncretized with our understanding of the gospel, I wanted to go back and look at some of our core doctrines, scrutinizing them for hostility, and trying to imagine them freed from that hostility. That was my project when writing those chapters. I didn't have the sense of "eisegesis" - of bringing foregone conclusions to the biblical texts, of forcing reconciliation upon the texts, or of pretending reconciliation was there when it really wasn't. Rather, I had the sense that I was for the first time seeing the texts freed from an entrenched but unrecognized inherited eisegesis, the eisegesis of Western Greco-Roman privilege, advantage, and superiority.
I didn't feel that I was cramming reconciliation into these texts, but rather that I was seeing reconciliation that had been there all along, but that I had been trained to miss.
Now all of us have our blind spots, and maybe I'm fooling myself. Maybe our doctrines are innately and inherently hostile to the other. But all I can say is that when I went back and looked at the biblical texts afresh, I felt that I was seeing a bigger, better picture that was (recalling the Christmas angels) "good news of great joy for all people."
2. You wrote:
Now the section that is sure to get us Evangelicals up in knots is Chapter 22, "How Reading the Bible Responsibly Can Look Irresponsible (and Vice Versa)". Simply put- Brian suggests that we should simply disregard some of the Biblical texts that reveal a God who seemingly contradicts the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Now as blatantly irresponsible as that sounds, Brian makes a strong case for this, quoting Paul editing violent parts of scripture out. What does he mean? One example he uses is Pauls edited Old Testament quotation of Psalm 18:41-49 in Romans 15:8-10 ...
Actually, Brandan, I argue for the opposite of what you suggest. I don't want us to "simply disregard" the violent texts. I want us to acknowledge them - and to acknowledge the harm they have done in history. Humbled by our past uses of these texts for horrific ends, I want us to turn way from ever again using them to justify ongoing violence in the present or future!
Additionally, I want to acknowledge that Jesus requires us to take him seriously when he says, "It was written ... but I say to you." That "but," in my opinion, means what it says in relation to violent texts just as Evangelicals have understood it to mean in relation to OT legal requirements like circumcision, kosher laws, animal sacrifice, etc. (More on that in a minute.)
In that section, I highlight the brilliant work of a young Evangelical theologian named Derek Flood. He doesn't claim that Paul "skips" the violent texts. He says that Paul "flips" them. Again, what Derek, I, and many others are claiming about the violent texts is very similar to what Evangelicals claim about how the New Testament flips the Old Testament claims about, say, animal sacrifice, circumcision, kosher laws, etc.
Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and so on don't say, "God is setting up a temporary system that will become obsolete in a few centuries." (Genesis 17, for example, specifies that circumcision is "for all generations.") The relevant Levitical texts assume that the priestly system of animal sacrifice will go on forever, that pork-avoidance will go on forever, that strict observance of the Sabbath day will go on forever.
That assumption is challenged first by the prophets. God desires mercy and not sacrifice, they dare to say. (They don't say, "God desires sacrifice, but would also like you to be compassionate." Their claim is far more "black and white" than that.) What God wants is for us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, they say. The fast that matters to God isn't abstaining from food, but abstaining from oppression, they say.
Then, centuries later, Jesus comes along and sides with the prophetic tradition, not the priestly tradition. The way forward is not a bigger, better temple with even more sacrifices ... but rather, the way forward requires leaving the old temple behind (and all that is associated with it) and seeing God revealed in a temple made of reconciled human lives rather than stone. Paul builds on this, going even farther than Jesus ever did - claiming, for example, that circumcision is worthless; the only thing that counts, he says, is faith expressing itself in love (Gal. 5:6). Quite an amazing "black and white" thing to say, when you think about it! No wonder he was put in jail.
That's not to say the priestly tradition had no value. It was appropriate for its time, serving (Paul said) like a teacher. But now the gospel fulfills the old ways and takes us beyond, to a new and better place.
I think we need to do something similar with the violent texts in light of Christ, in light of the gospel.
3. You wrote:
While I certainly agree with the premise that the Gospel calls us to live as agents of grace, light, peace, love, and truth in the world, I find it absurd to say that the Gospel calls us to pick and choose which part of certain verses we think fits with our image of God. It's funny to me that both Brian and I embrace postmodernism and the necessity of Paradox in the Christian faith- except on this issue, Brian reverts to a black/white, in/out mindset. God is either loving and benevolent or wrathful and bloodthirsty. Why can't their be a paradox? Can't God be loving and peaceful, but also exhibit wrath and judgement? I believe he can. But Brian doesn't.
First and most important, I'm glad you agree with the basic premise! But moving on to your concern ...
I'm not saying we should "pick and choose which part of certain verses we think fits with our image of God." I think "our image of God" must be held up to the light of Jesus and what he reveals about God. If anything, "the image of God revealed in Christ" should sift through "our image of God" and a) pick those that are consistent for retention and b) choose those that are inconsistent for revision.
I'm saying we have an obligation as Christians to honor Jesus as a higher and fuller revelation of God's heart and character than we have in OT texts characterized by violence (Ps 137, for example). If Jesus reveals the image of God most fully, I'm saying that changes the way we read the violent texts. We can't make them equal to Jesus. We can't make them more important than Jesus. We must let Jesus be "Lord of the Sabbath," so to speak. (In the book, you'll recall, I talk about how Rene Girard's approach to the violent texts can help us take them seriously without being stuck defending them and the view of God they infer.)
I guess you're right when you say that I don't see how God can be both loving and benevolent on the one hand and bloodthirsty on the other. I see no bloodthirstiness in Jesus, so I would never want to list that as an attribute of God.
But I would never want to equate the terms "wrath and judgment" with "bloodthirsty." In the book, I suggest that wrath is not God being hostile toward us, but rather God being hostile toward what is hostile toward us. And I believe God's judgment is a restorative judgment ... just as God's justice is a restorative justice. It goes farther than merely condemning wrong or punishing wrong: it works to heal the wrong and set it right. So when you say, "Can't God be loving and peaceful, but also exhibit wrath and judgement? I believe he can. But Brian doesn't," you're putting us at odds when I actually agree with you.
To clarify: yes, I do believe that God is loving and peaceful. But I also believe that God's protecting, healing, purifying wrath and creative, restorative justice are always expressions of (not exceptions to) God's character of love and reconciliation. I don't think God has a light side and dark side: I think God is all light, no darkness. So I don't think wrath and judgment, properly understood, are expressions of divine hostility, violence, or a dark bloodthirsty urge to harm or hurt or torture or destroy, etc. As I say a few places in my writings, God is depicted in Scripture as a purifying fire, not a destructive fire. The holy fire of God can't consume what is good: only an evil fire could consume good. God's holy fire only consumes evil - for the purpose of liberating and healing the good. (Wood, hay, and stubble are burned away ... but gold, silver, and precious stones endure, to use Pauline language.)
I hope that makes sense. We may still disagree on this - but I hope you can see that I wasn't saying exactly what you said I was saying.
4. You wrote:
Admittedly, when I was talking to Brian he said that in this book he takes a leap down the path to liberalism that is the farthest he has ever gone. While I don't see that fleshing itself out through most of the book, in this chapter Brian reverts to old liberal methods of reading the Bible that aren't historically Christian or faithful to the text.
I'm sure you're paraphrasing something I actually said here, but I'm quite certain I didn't use the term "liberalism." That's just not the way I talk. I see so many problems with "the old liberalism" (as I understand it - i.e. shrinking Christian faith to fit within the constraints of Enlightenment modernity and/or European colonialism). I certainly don't think I'm using "old liberal methods" in this book, any more than I'm using "old conservative methods." I think the way I'm approaching the text in this book would be better described as post-liberal and post-conservative ... (Of course, we both know that some folks use the "liberal" label for any way of reading the text that differs from their own, and it's only in that crude sense that the term could be used to describe my approach, even though I don't think that's an accurate use of the term.)
I can imagine saying this book goes farther down the road than I've been before - it does. But it would be a big mistake if people assumed that's the old, tired road of old, tired liberalism. (I think both the old liberalism and the old conservatism have equally outlived their usefulness.) I hope and pray this book represents a promising new path - one that welcomes and challenges both conservatives and liberals who might consider exploring it. If old conservatives call it liberal and old liberals call it conservative, I guess that's not real surprising.
At the risk of being repetitious, in my view, the old conservatism and the old liberalism created the strong-hostile and weak-tolerant forms of Christian identity I'm critiquing in the book. Neither created the strong-benevolent identity I think we need. That's why I'm glad for the efforts of all us - Evangelical and mainline, Catholic and Protestant, conservative and liberal, etc., etc. - who will work together from where we are to get to that new kind of Christian identity.
As you know, I was born and raised where you are - in conservative Evangelicalism. I gained so much from my heritage and for many years, I was a true believer and avid defender of my inherited way of seeing, thinking, believing, reading, etc. The farther along I went, the more I felt that being faithful and true to the highest and best Evangelical vision required me to challenge elements of the conservative box in which it had been presented to me, and in particular, the other-hostility that I encountered at every turn. I needed to separate the gift from the container, so to speak ... or I might say, the wine from the wineskin.
At any rate, I believe that you and your peers will be powerful advocates for and examples of the strong-benevolent identity we need in the years to come, and again, I'm grateful for your engagement with the book. Keep up the good work and God bless!