Q & R: Violent God?

From an honest Baptist pastor …

I have enjoyed reading Generous Orthodoxy and I am still working on Everything Must Change. I just can’t read your stuff very fast – too much to think about. I go to coffee, read a chapter and think for days on it.
One issue that keeps coming up in my own struggle with understanding God is the wrathfulness and killing I see in the Old Testament and Revelation. This does not seem to be the same character I see in Jesus, unless the crucifixion is necessary for a blood-thirsty God to be satisfied. I have a great deal of difficulty with this, but it is in the bible. Specifically as Passover is coming up and I read through the account of the plagues and the fleeing of the Hebrews into the desert, I see God as a Being that has to assert its will upon the people in war-like, destructive ways to show that it is really God: Exodus 7-14. This happens in many other places, to the point that winning war is because God is with us and losing is because God is not. In Revelation we have destruction that seems to be led by God – destruction of people, land, sun, moon and stars.
Being in even a moderate Baptist church, I feel like people get tired of me teaching just about the “Jesus-God”, some of them still want the controling/wrathful God. I just have a very difficult time going there. How do we deal with the apparent dichotomy in the biblical witness of this vengeful/wrathful/killing God and the God revealed in Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus? Thanks!

R: This question is so important. And it’s not going away. It’s a major theme of my new book, A New Kind of Christianity, which is built around ten important questions that I believe are transforming the faith. The Narrative Question, the Authority Question, the Bible Question, the Jesus Question, and the Future Question in the book are all related to various facets of your question here. So I hope that when you finish EMC, you’ll find this helpful.
One quick thought here – the language in Revelation about the sun, moon, and stars being destroyed is still taken literally by a lot of Bible readers. But now it’s widely accepted among our best scholars that this was common apocalyptic language in Jesus’ era … it was a way of saying, “There will be a revolutionary shake-up in high places.” Today we might say, “Those were earth-shattering election results” today, or “The Senate is going to choose the nuclear option” – not referring to dropping literal bombs.
Your sentence, “Some of them still want the controlling/wrathful God” is fascinating, and disturbing. It’s worthwhile, I think, for all of us to reflect on what is desirable to people in this image of God – what do they get out of it, what does it do for them, how does it “help” them. This is an issue not just in Christianity, but also in Islam, Judaism, and other religions too.