July 16, 2019

A Post-Progressive Take on the Bible

The Sower. Van Gogh

A Post-Progressive Take on the Bible

Richard Beck is moving fast in his “Post-Progressive” series, so I’m going to double up this week on my comments to try and catch up. His fourth post is about progressive Christians and the Bible.

As I described in Part 2, progressive Christians have a fraught relationship with the Bible. During the post-evangelical season of deconstruction the Bible looms large as a faith challenge.

There are two main challenges:

First, there’s a lot of violence in the Old Testament that seems to be sanctioned by God. The herem texts are the key area of concern, the texts where during the conquest of Canaan God commands the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the conquered towns.

A related concern here is how violence is implicated in the atonement, in Jesus’ death on the cross. Why does salvation require a killing?

Second, the ethical witness of the Bible on the issues of slavery, gender and sexuality, if read in a flat, literal way, is problematic for many progressive Christians.

Consequently, progressive Christians spend a lot of time struggling with the Bible, devoting great energy on hermeneutical approaches that allow them to read the Bible non-violently and in a way that supports a liberal, humanistic ethical vision.

As a post-progressive, I agree with all this. I read the Bible non-violently and from a liberationist perspective (as good news for the oppressed and marginalized). That said, as a post-progressive I have concerns with how progressive Christians approach and handle the Bible.

Beck’s concern about what he observes when progressive Christians read the Bible is two-fold.

First, he finds many of them fragile when it comes to the Bible. They are fearful and suspicious when approaching scripture. Their first instinct is to find what’s problematic in the Bible. They miss the joy of scripture. They approach it as skeptics first, mistrustful of what they are going to find, already leaning toward a conclusion that the Bible has been used in so many harmful ways over the course of history that one must first deconstruct it before finding anything of value in it.

Second (and this is actually more fundamental) they already have a progressive moral vision which is their starting point, and they pre-judge the Bible before ever really reading it (if they do much at all).

Put bluntly, progressives don’t read the Bible much because they already know what the Bible is supposed to say. God is always being judged, criticized, and indicted by a progressive moral vision. Progressive Christians believe in morality rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when that happens the Bible is thoroughly tamed and captured by the progressive moral and political imagination. The Word of God is stuffed into a progressive moral box and is not free to startle, surprise, challenge, criticize, indict, unsettle, disturb and interrupt us.

These kinds of problems, of course, are not unique to the progressive Christians whom Richard Beck observes. We all struggle with bringing our own stuff to the Bible and then shaping our reading of it to our own presuppositions and personal, culture-bound perceptions.

As a confessing Christian I must trust the tradition, which has given me the Bible. It tells me that the Bible is the living Word of God, our sacred scriptures, bread for our journey and light for our path. This is my starting point, no matter how critical I may become with regard to how the Church has interpreted the scriptures over the centuries.

As Beck affirms: “From a prophetic aspect, while I still have questions and concerns about the Bible, as a post-progressive I spend less time questioning the Bible and more time letting the Bible question me.”

Comments

  1. This is a great post.

    I believe progressives and conservatives alike need to recapture a sense of the sacredness of scripture, and not just when the Bible overlaps with their preferred political stance.

  2. Christiane says

    Chaplain Mike,
    did Enns ever clarify his beliefs concerning how the ‘herem’ texts should be interpreted? Does he take them ‘literally’ or does he buy into the traditional teachings about ‘the Ban’ tests being an allegory about how evil will be rooted out and destroyed by God?

    https://internetmonk.com/archive/85485

    • His basic principle is that God lets his children tell the story. That means that many of those descriptions are ancient ways of conceiving God and the way he was working in the world.

      • Christiane says

        And then the Son comes along and tells the next chapter of ‘the story’

        • flatrocker says

          The Son lived the story. The children were still the ones to tell it (and write about it).

          Can’t help but wonder, why do we feel the NT children got the telling closer to right than the OT children?

          • Robert F says

            Excellent question. Could it be because we prefer the story the NT children told?

            • Robert F says

              But maybe they got some of it wrong too, similarly to but in different ways from the OT children. Maybe that’s why we’ve been waiting all these long centuries for the parousia/Second Coming of Christ, and no nada — maybe that’s one of the things their story got wrong.

  3. Rick Ro. says

    –> “As a confessing Christian I must trust the tradition, which has given me the Bible. It tells me that the Bible is the living Word of God, our sacred scriptures, bread for our journey and light for our path.”

    That word “sacred” throws me. The Bible, especially the OT, seems almost too messy to be considered sacred. Or maybe it’s my own view of what “sacred” means that I’m wrestling with.

    Take, for instance, 1 Samuel 21 and 22. David goes to priest in Nob. David lies to the priest in order to receive aid. Priest gives David consecrated bread, as sure a no-no as there is. This is observed by one of Saul’s servants, Doeg. David goes on the run again, pretending to be insane. Meanwhile, Saul learns what the priests of Nob did, summons the main priest, then orders they all be put to death, which Doeg does, including executing all the priests and men of Nob, the women, children and infants, and all the animals, too.

    Tell me… how can this be viewed as “sacred”? And also… even though Saul is pretty much insane by now, how do we know God didn’t use Saul to mete out some sort of justice against the priest for giving David consecrated bread? I mean, we’ve seen that sort of nonsense from God before and we’ll see it again, when people commit some sort of infraction against whatever was deemed Holy and Sacred at the time.

    And then… and THEN… in Matthew 12, Jesus points to THIS episode as a defense for it being okay that his disciples “work” on the Sabbath??? David LIED, the Priest BROKE THE LAW, and it resulted in the deaths of a whole village, including children, infants, and animals!!! And yet Jesus points to it as a “good example”…?

    So…. How is this sacred?

    • Sacred means how the church is to view and use the scriptures rather than describing every aspect of their content. There is certainly a lot of material that describes profane rather than sacred stuff in the Bible.

      • Rick Ro. says

        Good point. I guess if I took my “not sacred” issue to an extreme, I could argue that Holy Communion isn’t sacred because it represents the hideous death of our Savior on an execution device. Profane death, sacred remembrance.

      • “As a confessing Christian I must trust the tradition, which has given me the Bible. It tells me that the Bible is the living Word of God, our sacred scriptures, bread for our journey and light for our path. This is my starting point, no matter how critical I may become with regard to how the Church has interpreted the scriptures over the centuries.

        How about Christ as the starting point–the living Word of God, bread for our journey and light for our path…

  4. Well I don’t know if I’m a “progressive” or “post-progressive” anything. I don’t really think in those terms. What I can say is that my study of the Bible, using the tools of critical historical scholarship, cured me of my fundamentalism.

    “They approach it as skeptics first, mistrustful of what they are going to find, already leaning toward a conclusion that the Bible has been used in so many harmful ways over the course of history that one must first deconstruct it before finding anything of value in it.”

    Yep that would be me. I think if you don’t approach it as a skeptic first you will be unable to approach it in any other way without fooling yourself. Who’s being fragile?

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “I think if you don’t approach it as a skeptic first you will be unable to approach it in any other way without fooling yourself.”

      Yep.

      I’ve shared this before: One of the first books I read when I became a Christian was Ecclesiastes (primarily because I heard that some of the lyrics in the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” came from it). Now you might think that an odd book to have a significant POSITIVE impact on a new Christian, but the cynicism, skepticism and angst in it helped temper my skepticism and made me realize the Bible was actually trustworthy document; otherwise, that book would’ve been removed in order to make the overall Bible less messy (or, to use a word Jon uses below, to “sanitize” it).

      I’m okay with messiness in the Bible. The messiness tells me it is trustworthy as God’s word. The messiness helps temper my skepticism. But it does make it difficult to view it as “sacred”…LOL.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The messiness tells you It Is REAL.
        Because Reality is Messy.

        Then why are Christians so hell-bent on sanitizing it into Unreality?

        Like the Wahabi in Mecca, bulldozing any artifacts from their Prophet’s time “to prevent idolatry”, destroying their own tradition’s historic trace and reducing their holy book to just another collection of mythology “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away”.

  5. I think there is a difference between sacred and sanitized. The Old Testament, in part, presents the story of God’s chosen people, warts and all. Now this doesn’t necessarily help with the parts where God is the one commanding the obliteration of a village, but in the case with Saul, it is just showing what he had become. Personally I find the mess to make it more sacred, because it makes it more real. It is not a sanitized children’s Sunday school lesson, but the real violence and anger and jealousy and greed that we find mixed in the world today. As for Jesus using this as an example, I think his point is just that if it was okay for David and his men to eat the consecrated bread, (at least they got away with it), then surely it is okay for the disciples of one greater than David to thresh a little wheat on the Sabbath (although technically what they were breaking was the traditions of the Pharisees, not the Sabbath.)

    • This was meant to be a response to Rick.

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “As for Jesus using this as an example, I think his point is just that if it was okay for David and his men to eat the consecrated bread…then surely it is okay for the disciples of one greater than David to thresh a little wheat on the Sabbath”

      Yeah, I think Jesus’ main point was, “You hold David in high esteem and are willing to wave off his Law-breaking misdeeds (Law established by God), yet come down on us for breaking YOUR version of the Sabbath Law?!”

      Maybe he also used that example knowing the Pharisees knew exactly how that story turned out. If so, I’m not sure what Jesus’ subtle message might’ve been in that, but I could see him using it to leave them with more than just the initial incident to think about.

      But I’ll tell you, I just read that account again this weekend and for some reason it struck me this time at just how bizarre a trainwreck this incident is and how odd it was for Jesus to point to as a defense argument…LOL.

  6. Second (and this is actually more fundamental) they already have a progressive moral vision which is their starting point, and they pre-judge the Bible before ever really reading it (if they do much at all).

    Well, I can at least put this assertion to rest. I was very much of the *opposite* persuasion. I started out thoroughly convinced of the rightness of the conservative evangelical moral vision. But by a long process of studying the Bible and interacting with many commentators – with fits and starts, but coming back to the ideals of a Christ-centered theology and reading of the Bible as a whole – that I have come to the conviction that the progressive reading of Scripture is more correct than the conservative one. NOT perfect, mind you – just better.

  7. David Cornwell says

    This will not speak to all of the concerns that are raised but offers a way to begin to find an approach for liberals and progressives to approach the Hebrew Bible in a positive and not a negative way. The pastor we had for the last 20 years was very adept at this. He came from the same German evangelical tradition as Walter Brueggeman and the Niebuhr brothers. But he liked Brueggeman and learned from him and it was very evident in his preaching. Alongside this, he was always in touch with the congregation. What I mean is that the gospel had to be personal as well as social. People hurt, experiencing pain and death need counsel, consoling, and prayer. Living with the congregation in this way can enliven and bring to life many a text.

    Brueggeman speaks of the importance of pausing with a passage, not rushing to interpretation or literalism, but thinking in terms of imagery, metaphor, and poetry. To him, this is what praying over or with a passage means.

    “you see, what the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition — it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation. And then it’s deathly. We have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame. Otherwise, you’re just going to be left with these dead formulations, which, again, is why the poetry is so important — because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you are left with nothing that has any transformative power. So more metaphors give more access to God. One can work one metaphor awhile, but you can’t treat that as though that’s the last word. You’ve got to move and have another and another. That’s what I think. It’s just amazing; in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, there are just endless metaphors.”

    In another passage he says:

    “in the more liberal theological tradition that I was raised, we only talked about the prophets as moral teachers, and there was no attention to the artistic, aesthetic quality of how they did that. But it is the only way in which you can think outside of the box. Otherwise, even liberal passion for justice just becomes another ideology, and it does not have transformative power. That’s what’s extraordinary about the poetry, that it’s so elusive that it refuses to be reduced to a formula. I think that’s a great temptation among liberals who care about justice — is to reduce it to a formula.”

    If you are interested in knowing more about this conversation, do a Google search with the following “On Being with Krista Tippett Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination.” There you can read or listen to the entire interview.

  8. Richard Hershberger says

    “Second, the ethical witness of the Bible on the issues of slavery, gender and sexuality, if read in a flat, literal way, is problematic for many progressive Christians.”

    This is consistent with my tentative conclusion that “progressive Christian” simply means someone from an Evangelical background who votes for Democrats. He is having trouble getting past the Evangelical way of reading scripture. The good news is that a couple years in a seminary untouched by Evangelicalism would be a wonderful restorative. If that is too great a leap, a seminary from the portion of Northern American Evangelicalism that was later redefined as “mainline” should be nearly as effective. I’m sure the Methodists would oblige happily.

    • David Cornwell says

      I agree with this. I graduated from a conservative college — which I did like a lot at that time. Students were warned about attending seminaries that were more liberal. I did it anyway and went to Washington DC and Wesley Theological Seminary for a year right out of college. To my surprise, everyone wasn’t a flaming liberal! Many conservative students, and even some professors who were wonderful. One of the best OT profs I ever had taught at that school and could make the OT come alive.

      Plus getting out of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky was one of the best experiences in my life. I went to various churches in DC, museums, the Library of Congress — you name it. And I walked miles and miles! I even had some Christian friends who went to bars and drank beer — scandalous.

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