Month: January 2010

Disturbing Divine Behaviour : a review part 2

Seibert’s solution to disturbing divine behaviour is a christocentric hermeneutic. He acknowledges that the New Testament itself has some trouble images of divine behaviour. But he insists that we can trust the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament and use him, as the fullest revelation of God, as a guide to interpreting disturbing divine behaviour. He defines the God revealed by Jesus:

• Jesus reveals a God who is kind to the wicked – such as when he calls on us to love our enemies. This aspect of God’s character is only sometimes revealed in the OT.

• Jesus reveals a God who is nonviolent – again the command to love our enemies; throughout the gospels, Jesus never endorses or promotes the idea of God as a divine warrior. He lived nonviolently himself and rejected violence as a way to achieve justice. Ultimately, Jesus’ nonviolence is revealed in his death on the cross.

• Jesus reveals a God who does not judge people by causing historical (or natural) disasters or serious physical infirmities – recall Luke 13:1-5, where people ask Jesus what sin the Galileans committed that God let them be killed by Pilate

• Jesus reveals a God of love

Seibert goes on to show his dual hermeneutic in practice – critiquing disturbing texts with a christocentric hermeneutic, but also affirming them by seeking to find what ‘salvageable’ from such passages.

His final chapter offers some practical suggestions for ‘talking about troubling texts’:

• Stop trying to justify God’s behaviour in the Old Testament – a suggestion that is immensely liberating for me, if indeed I can follow him to here.

• Acknowledge how these texts have fostered oppression and violence

• Help people use problematic images responsibly and constructively

• Keep disturbing divine behaviour in perspective – that is, remember how much of the Old Testament is not troubling.

Seibert has an appendix dealing with Jesus’ eschatological sayings and whether they can be said to reveal a nonviolent God. Strangely, his treatment of hell doesn’t even consider universalism as an option – that is, the idea that ultimately God will reconcile all people to himself. It is at least as supportable of many of the things

I need some time to discern whether I can follow Seibert to where he goes. But his book gripped me. For once I found myself unable to put down a theology book,when usually they are something of a chore to read.

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Disturbing Divine Behaviour : a review, part 1

Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God / Eric Seibert (Fortress Press, 2009)

In this book, Eric Seibert tackles head-on a question which has long been in my mind: what are we to do with the troubling Old Testament images of God? The ones where, for example, he orders the Israelites to commit genocide and kill men, women and children?

Many evangelicals would disown Seibert and his answers, but he comes from an evangelical perspective, with evangelical questions. But instead of the standard evangelical approach of justifying why God did these things in the Old Testament, Seibert claims God did not do them.

Seibert doesn’t actually present anything startlingly new to me. Studying theology at Murdoch University, I was made well aware of mainstream (“liberal”) Old Testament scholarship, with archaeology and textual criticism leading scholars to the conclusion that there was no widespread genocide of the Caananites or a flood which decimated the world. What is so compelling for me reading the book is that Seibert uses this evidence to answer questions I have coming from an evangelical background. Most “liberal” scholars don’t bother to address the concerns of evangelicals.

Seibert starts out by outlining the problematic portrayals of God that he is talking about. He confines his scope to the Old Testament historical books and divides the problematic portrayals into a number of categories – ‘God as deadly lawgiver’ – laws where the penalty for disobedience is death; ‘God as instant executioner’ – passages where God instantly strikes people dead for evil; ‘God as mass murderer’; ‘God as Divine Warrior’; ‘God as genocidal general’; ‘God as dangerous abuser’; ‘God as unfair afflictor’ – such as in the case of Job or Pharaoh’s divinely hardened heart; and ‘God as divine deceiver’ – the example being 1 Kings 22. It’s a disturbing catalogue of divine behaviour.

In an important chapter, he examines ancient approaches to disturbing divine behaviour. It is easy to think that it is only more sensitive modern readers like us who are disturbed by parts of the Old Testament, but the reality is that Jewish readers were disturbed by some parts before the Old Testament was even finished. Thus, Seibert gives us the example of the writer of Chronicles who in 1 Chronicles 21:1 changes 2 Samuel 24:1 to say that Satan was responsible for prompting David to take a sinful census, rather than God. For me, it begs the question that if the writer of Chronicles felt he had permission to question – and “correct” – disturbing divine behaviour like this, perhaps we, with the full revelation of Jesus Christ, have similar permission?

Seibert goes on to discuss an early Christian interpreter of disturbing divine behaviour – Marcion. Marcion was so disturbed by the Old Testament that he rejected its authority altogether and produced an abbreviated New Testament, with Old Testament references cut out. It’s a good idea for Seibert to tackle Marcion directly, as he knows he is going to be accused of being a Marcionite. He insists many times that he’s not a Marcionite, that the Old Testament still holds authority for him, but that we must discern each text. Interestingly, Marcion pursued a very literal reading of the Old Testament, more like we would make today, and this is what made it so disturbing for him. Seibert traces other ancient interpreters who managed to be less disturbed by making allegorical or typological readings. Marcion anticipated our contemporary dilemmas better than these others; branding him as a heretic might have been necessary, but the problems he had with the Old Testament came out of valid questions.

The next chapter is “Defending God’s Behaviour in the Old Testament”, surveying approaches evangelicals take to explain disturbing divine behaviour, all assuming that God did and said exactly as the Old Testament records.

  • ‘Divine immunity’ approaches basically claim that by definition anything God does is good and right and thus morally defensible. It usually appeals to how little as humans we understand of God’s ways. Seibert sees this approach as inadequate because it restricts honest inquiry about the character of God. It actually dishonours God by claiming he acted in ways that are inconsistent with our basic beliefs about what is right – we have to redefine evil behaviour as ‘good’. But ‘is genocide ever good?’ (p.74)
  • Another approach is ‘the just cause approach’, supplying a rationale for God’s behaviour – human sin was so bad they needed to be slaughtered. But what about babies? And surely the responses to some particular offenses are out of proportion – like Uzziah in 2 Samuel 6:1-11 who steadied the ark and was struck dead.
  • ‘The greater good approach’ argues that in these cases God was preventing a greater evil. Of course, what could be more evil than everyone perishing in a flood is difficult to fathom.
  • ‘The “God acted differently in the Old Testament” approach’ argues for a discontinuity between God’s past and present behaviour. But if God instructed the Israelites to commit genocide just because that was all they could understand at their stage in development, our questions about God’s character aren’t answered at all.
  • ‘The permissive will approach’ claims that God’s instructions to violence were a compromise because of Israel’s disobedience. The disturbing divine behaviour is contrary to God’s perfect will, but necessary because of the situation. This approach doesn’t actually rescue the text (it’s still inaccurately reports what God wants) or God’s behaviour (He still does these disturbing things).

Coming as he does from an Anabaptist tradition, it seems strange to me that he doesn’t spend longer addressing the approach of the most important Anabaptist thinker – John Howard Yoder. Yoder offers a way of reading the Bible that is different to any of the approaches Seibert discusses. Yoder approaches biblical texts from the ground up, finding their inspiration or theological truth in the way the writer has taken the prevailing cultural standards and worldview and transformed it. Yoder finds a trajectory in each case. In The Original Revolution, he deals explicitly with one of Seibert’s test cases – that of Yahweh ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Yoder doesn’t even permit us to ask the question of whether Yahweh actually asked Abraham to do this. Instead, he points out that human sacrifice was not a moral issue for the ancient reader. It is not the point of the story at all. Instead, the point is that Yahweh calls Abraham to give up the very means through which Yahweh was going to fulfill his promise to make Abraham the father of many nations – a son. The ethicity of sacrificing Isaac is not a permissible question for the ancient Israelite. Yoder doesn’t expect the text to conform to his own ethical expectations of God. Debating its historicity is a sidetrack for him. His viewpoint has the potential to undo a lot of Seibert’s assumptions, and I would like to see some engagement with it. Of course, Yoder’s point is opaque and he doesn’t flesh it out; people aren’t going to respond to his solution in the same way many will resonate with Seibert’s.

[Part two coming tomorrow]

Beat your plowshares into swords

Yesterday the pastor asked if anyone had heard God speaking in worship, and someone said they had a verse from God. It was Joel 3:10. Read it carefully, it doesn’t say what you think it says at first:

‘Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare for war!
Rouse the warriors!
Let all the fighting men draw near and attack
Beat your plowshares into swords
and your pruning hooks into spears
Let the weakling say, “I am strong!”
Come quickly, all you nations from every side
and assemble there.
Bring down your warriors, O’Lord.’

Yes, it’s the precise opposite of the more familiar verses from Isaiah and Micah which speak of beating swords into plowshares.

So what does it mean for a Christian to invoke these verses and say they apply to us now? What are our plowshares and pruning hooks that we use for making a living which we are going to convert to weapons of war? ‘Turn your computers into bombs, your cars into tanks, we’re going to go kill our enemies’ – is that the intention?

And isn’t the Lord telling the nations that he is going to declare war on them, and they should get ready to fight? He doesn’t seem to be addressing the people of God at all.

Tim Winton’s Christian Novel

I finished Tim Winton’s 1986 novel That Eye, The Sky this morning. Last year I noted that Tim Winton’s later novels (The Riders onwards) were not explicit enough in their treatment of faith to be the kind of ‘writing for the kingdom’ that Tom Wright proposes. I cautiously added that I hadn’t read his earlier work; That Eye, The Sky is precisely an attempt to ‘write for the kingdom’.

Told through the eyes of twelve year old Ort, it is the story of a family in a WA town living in the aftermath of an accident which leaves Ort’s father, Sam, unable to talk or communicate. A stranger, Henry, knocks on their door and offers to take care of Sam, bathing him. (Tim Winton has talked of a similar experience in his life, when his father had an accident and a Christian came each day to bathe him.) Henry also explains the gospel to the family and Ort and his mother accept the good news, are baptised in the dam and start eating the Lord’s Supper – sherry and bread – with each meal.

[Spoiler alert] I think any good novelist would have to be something of an outsider to the church, and this comes through in what happens subsequently. For Ort and his mother to become Christians, start going to their local Bible-believing church and live happily ever after, it would have to be one of those inspirational fictions published by Harvest House.

Instead, they visit the local fundamentalist church, an Australian flag on the wall, where all the women wear hats with fruit and the like on them. The preacher shouts at them from Revelation and Ort’s mother yells back that ‘We’re not animals!’ before running out. Later they try a Catholic church, but things don’t turn out perfectly there either.

The final disappointment with Christianity comes when Henry runs off with Ort’s teenage sister.

Alas, if anything, Winton’s novel proves to me how difficult it is to write about Christianity. I felt embarrassed, for some reason, reading the sections about faith. Maybe embarrassed for how good-naturedly Ort takes on faith, without any understanding of the obstacles and disappointments ahead of him.

Or maybe it’s that I felt myself squirming with Winton, knowing the impossible task he was undertaking – making the literary fiction reader feel superior enough to this ‘born again’ religion stuff, but trying to be faithful to evangelical Christianity at the same time – while knowing that evangelical Christianity wouldn’t embrace the book because it was too “weird”, or too highbrow or too rude.

Christians trying to be Michael Moore

Christian documentary film makers shouldn’t try to be Michael Moore unless they have the wit, presence and personality of Michael Moore. Even Michael Moore outstays his welcome. The documentary with the film-maker at the centre can be tedious and wearying.

I watched a mediocre documentary called “Lord Save Us From Your Followers” about the American cultural wars. The film-maker dressed himself up in bumper stickers and went around asking people on the street to pick out which one they liked best. It was pretty lame; the whole doco lacks direction and focus.

Then I noticed that one of the bestselling DVDs at Koorong at the moment is called “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”. Another Michael Mooresque doco with Ben Stein going around trying to prove an atheist conspiracy to silence teachers and academics who believe in intelligent design. It has 10% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and I’m guessing it’s a real turkey. But the evangelical masses will lap it up.

Trust evangelicals to copy/co-opt the latest cultural trend – badly.