Today I have the privilege of reviewing the new book Disarming Scripture by American theologian, author and blogger Derek Flood. Or rather, to give it its full title, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. The book is due to release on 1 December, and Derek was kind enough to let me have an advance review copy.
If you’ve been reading along on my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the question of how we approach the Bible, what we do about its many apparent contradictions, and in particular how we are to understand the violent portrayals of God that litter the Old Testament, and which seem to contrast so starkly with the non-violent, enemy-loving picture of God painted by Jesus. In an age where young people are leaving the Church in record numbers and biblical fundamentalism is still very prevalent, I think these are some of the most important questions any follower of Jesus can wrestle with. In my experience, all arguments about God end up being arguments about hermeneutics (how we interpret scripture) – which means that if we don’t address the issue of how to rightly approach the Bible, all other theological questions are moot.
I’m delighted to observe that there is an increasing chorus of very serious and credible voices speaking into this debate and trying to move believers beyond the tired old paradigms of biblical inerrancy and a sometimes-merciful, sometimes-violent God. It is squarely into this space that Derek’s new book speaks, and it does so boldly and clearly.
I’ll say right up front that there are three things about this book that I really appreciate. First, it attempts to address the central issue head on. Whether or not you agree with the author’s proposed approach to resolving the seeming contradictions in the Bible, you will not be able to accuse him of pussyfooting around the issue. Second, this book accomplishes the difficult balancing act of being at once a serious and well thought-out work drawing on scripture, tradition and scholarly sources and a non-academic work that will be completely accessible to the average believer. And third, the author puts forward some new and helpful ideas – at least, they were new to me, and I found them helpful.
Disarming Scripture is split into two parts, titled “Violence and the Old Testament” and “Violence and the New Testament”. In case anyone should begin reading it with any doubt as to what it’s about, the author makes the central question he is seeking to address startlingly clear in the opening pages:
Does the Bible describe a God of love or a God of genocide? How are we to reconcile that the apparent answer to this question is that it describes both? As people of faith we need to face the sobering fact that some parts of our Bible command us to love our enemies, while other parts command mercilessly slaughtering them.
[…] Genocide, infanticide, cannibalism, and rape are all attributed to God in the Old Testament. For those of us who see the Bible as God’s word, this presents a profound problem: How can we say that the Bible is inspired when it seems to approve of, and even command things that we would in any other context clearly regard as being profoundly immoral?
Derek goes on to relate the legacy of violence perpetrated in the name of God down the ages, contrasting this with Jesus’ clear mandate to his followers to eschew all forms of violence and, in fact, to move in the opposite direction by loving their enemies and blessing their persecutors. He very quickly draws a sharp distinction between how the fundamentalists of Jesus’ day read their scriptures and how Jesus himself read them: the approach adopted by the first he calls unquestioning obedience, while he dubs Jesus’ own approach the way of faithful questioning.
Realising that Jesus himself felt not only free to question the scriptures but in some sense obliged to do so should be a major help to many believers who have been trained to feel guilt at the merest suggestion of taking the Bible anything less than literally. I’m reminded of a comment made by my American theologian friend Michael Hardin: “Everybody cherry picks the Bible. The question is this: are you picking the same cherries Jesus picked?”
Part 1 then proceeds to examine the Apostle Paul’s conversion, demonstrating that it was primarily a conversion from zealous religious violence, before going on to explore how ethical questions have so often been made subservient to biblical literalism. The first part concludes by looking at the violence that exists in our own hearts, and how this is often projected onto God rather than allowing God’s non-violent, compassionate nature to overcome our violence.
Part 2 introduces what, for me, was the most beneficial and helpful concept in the book, an approach the author refers to as trajectory reading. In summary, he contends that rather than presenting a complete, finished and static compendium of moral and ethical standards, what the New Testament does is establish a clear trajectory that moves away from coercion and violence and in a more peaceable and compassionate direction. The intention, according to the author, is not that we apply the letter of the New Testament as though set in stone; rather, our task is to identify the trajectory set by the New Testament and continue to project its teaching out through history and into our present context.
As an example of such trajectory reading in practice, Derek considers slavery as an illustration of something that appears to be condoned by scripture, but which the world long since understood was neither morally acceptable nor divinely sanctioned. To help make matters more relevant, he then goes on to apply the same approach to the current culturally sensitive issues of parental discipline of children and society’s response to same-sex relationships. Whether or not you agree with the conclusions he reaches, the approach he employs in arriving at those conclusions is solid and compelling.
One of the questions many Christians, myself included, wrestle with is how to act peaceably and non-violently in the world in a way that does not simply acquiesce and roll over to the violent forces that shape culture and history. Well, take heart: after a chapter dealing with the question of military violence, the author moves into a chapter that at least begins to address that very question, titled “A practical guide to enemy-love”. While I felt this chapter could perhaps have gone a little deeper, it nonetheless provides some very useful starting points for anyone wondering how they can put Jesus’ instructions on enemy-love into practice in a creative and constructive way.
The book concludes with chapters on judgement and biblical authority.
Overall, I rate this book very highly as a well thought through and compelling guide to approaching the Bible in a way that is both respectful and healthy. Any Christian who has wrestled with how to reconcile the violent portrayals of God with the life and teaching of Jesus should read it without hesitation. If you’re worried that it might be over your head, don’t be. While I can’t promise that you might not scratch your head a few times and find yourself having to re-read some sections, I can guarantee that on the whole, it’s extremely accessible and easy to engage with.
In my opinion, this is an important book that deserves a wide audience. Rare are the books that manage to tackle profoundly complex theological issues with clarity and simplicity. This is one such book. Don’t hesitate to put it on your Christmas list, and/or to buy it for someone else.
Disarming Scripture releases on 1 December, and is available for pre-order from Amazon (go here for Amazon US and here for Amazon UK; these links are to the paperback editions, but the book is, of course, also available on Kindle).