Book Highlights, Quotations, Theology

Book Highlights: Disarming Scripture

December 9, 2015

Periodically I share some highlights from the books I’ve been reading.  Of late, I’ve been delving into the current literature that is attempting to rewrite how we interpret, understand, and apply scripture. Many of the questions and critiques of Christianity raised by the likes of Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Brian McClaren, and others are important ones. They call out real problems, abuses, and weak spots within evangelicalism and Christianity at large.

My initial impulse was to outright reject the teachings of those who are rejecting the past few thousand years of Christian history. How are we to be so proud as to say that we know better than the tens of thousands who have gone before us? However, I felt like God was challenging me to dig in more deeply and actually hear what’s being said. I started with this book, Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood, because it had been referenced by several people I know and (handily enough) was free for Kindle a month or three ago.

At some point I may write an at-length review of the book, but for now it will suffice to say that even after full, open engagement with what Flood and others with similar viewpoints are saying, I strongly disagree and find – across the board – their reasoning and arguments to be woefully insufficient and based more on a desire to make the gospel ( the small g is intentional) more appealing to popular culture or to remove things that make them personally uncomfortable than on sound logic, evidence, and exegesis.

Below are several quotes that, in my opinion, communicate the key points that Flood makes in Disarming Scripture.

If we as progressives are going to reject violence and instead focus on mercy and social justice, then we need to have a developed hermeneutical rationale for our reading which can stand its ground against a conservative reading that seeks to legitimize violence in God’s name. What we need is an approach that can honestly face and confront violence in the Bible, and do so from the perspective of faith, and as the necessary outgrowth of a developed moral conscience.

The priority of Jesus was not on defending a text, it was on defending people—in particular defending the victims of religious violence and abuse.

In faithfully acting to restore people, the Gospel writers tell us, Jesus continually appeared in the eyes of the religious leaders around him to be breaking God’s laws. Jesus was not particularly concerned with this, and instead was infinitely more concerned with caring for the least, even if this meant his reputation became one of a “blasphemer” and “law breaker” in the eyes of the religious authorities.

The Pharisees’ understanding, as it is presented in the Gospels, is characterized by a rigid observance of laws and rituals. Jesus, in contrast, had a way of interpreting the Bible that put a priority on people over rules and rituals. The way of the Pharisees is focused on fear, and thus insists on strict adherence to all of the commands, even when these commands hurt and shut people out. The way of Jesus in contrast is instead focused on what love requires—even when doing so means breaking rules and commands.

Rather than finding a single narrative throughout the Old Testament, we instead repeatedly encounter these conflicting perspectives within the Hebrew canon: One narrative states that suffering and violence are just and deserved, the other protests and argues against that narrative, calling it unjust.

Paul’s conversion was one away from religious fanaticism. In other words, Paul did not see himself as rejecting his Jewish faith or Israel’s scriptures, but rather as rejecting his former violent interpretation of them.

Looking at the record of dispute found throughout the Old Testament, we can begin to trace the outlines of a people’s slow development away from the primitive view of violent tribal war gods so typical of the worldview of the ancient world. Part of this development involved Judaism moving from polytheism to monotheism.

The New Testament must be regarded as a first step along a trajectory in regards to changing oppressive societal structures which at the time as a persecuted minority group they had little power to change. Finding ourselves in a position to effect those changes in society today, our task is to work out how to apply the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to our time and circumstance.

the way that Jesus read Scripture was shaped by his own direct experience of God in his life. Jesus therefore understands his messianic mission to be radically different from what his fellow Jews were expecting. Jesus’ experience of the Spirit shaped his understanding of Scripture, and not the other way around.

Note that the measure of “right” interpretation here is not based primarily on evaluating whether the text has been properly understood (the question of proper exegesis), but on evaluating the results when it is applied in our lives—observing whether it results in bringing about life or death, flourishing or harm. As we have seen, Jesus saw the primary role and telos of Scripture as leading us to love. If we wish to read the Bible with that same aim, the question we need to ask is therefore not so much “Have I read this right?” but more importantly “Does this reading lead to life?”

In the end, what really matters is how we treat each other. For my part, I am perfectly content to trust God to judge rightly so long as we humans stop hurting each other in God’s name or in the name of justice. The bottom line here is that while we can find disagreement among New Testament authors as to God’s violence, the New Testament is unanimous in its radical rejection of human participation in violence.

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