Book Report: How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian. By John Dominic Crosson

How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through RevelationHow to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation by John Dominic Crossan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Justice v Judgement

Justice v Judgement

I am a Christian; however, I have struggled most of my adult life with the dichotomy of God as described in the Bible. On the one hand we have the loving creator God who gave us everything and whose son preached love and nonviolence. On the other hand we have the avenging God of the flood, periodic wrath against his people, and ultimately the sword wielding Jesus of death in Revelation. “Put bluntly, the nonviolent Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seemed annulled and dismissed by the later Jesus in the book of Revelation.” [p 9] John Dominic Crossan has done a masterful job showing how and why that dichotomy repeatedly exists in the Bible.

Crossan’s compelling argument is that God provides us radical love and distribution of resources but civilization continually subverts His will into our quest for more, more, more. “[W]e see that as in the Old Testament so in the New, as with Torah so with Paul, a rhythm of assertion-and-subversion is emphatically present. A vision of the radicality of God is put forth, and then later, we see that vision domesticated and integrated into the normalcy of civilization so that the established order of life is maintained. Furthermore, both elements are cited from, in one case, the mouth of God and, in the other, the pen of Paul.”[p 27]

God’s will for us is a world of justice. “There are, however, two forms of justice – the justice of distribution and the justice of retribution; a distinction of supreme importance for both the Bible and this book. In fact, I will go a step farther and argue that distributive justice is the primary meaning of the word ‘justice’ and that retributive justice is secondary and derivative. In the bible, it is primarily about a fair distribution of God’s world for all of God’s people. For example, when the Bible cries out for justice, can one really think it is demanding retribution? Give justice to the weak and orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Ps 82:3-4)” [p 17]

One ramification of this radical idea can be found when re-reading the story of Adam and Eve. The words “‘sin’, ‘disobedience’, and ‘punishment’, let alone ‘fall’ never occur anywhere in Genesis 2-3.” [p 44] When bad things happen to us (short of natural causes such as earthquakes or hurricanes) it is “not external punishment but an internal consequence”[p 116] of our break from God. “[I]f there is no such thing as divine punishments, but rather only human consequences, then there is no such thing as divine forgiveness, but rather only the possibility of human change; and there is no such thing as divine mercy, but rather only the time within which change is still possible before it is too late.” [p 126]. Too late, not because of God’s wrath but because mankind has become so good at killing and destruction.

An important tool Crossan uses is “matrix” – that is, the context of time and culture of the stories. He compares the story of the Garden of Eden with that of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest written stories from Mesopotamia. Later he compares the story of Cain and Abel with the Sumerian story of “‘Dumuzid and Endkimdu: the Dispute Between the Shepherd-God and the Farmer-God'”[p 60]. (Recall that Abel was a shepherd and Cain a farmer.) In the New Testament he compares the words used to describe Jesus with those that describe Caesar. While some Christians may dismiss this look at context Crossan argues “[t]he alternative to matrix meaning is Rorschach reading or inkblot interpretation, which is when an ancient text means whatever your modern mind decides it means.” [p 236]

We see in the New Testament the stark difference between the Roman world view and the Christian one. Both wanted peace, but the method of establishing that peace could not be more different. “Roman imperial theology was structured around this quite clear and explicit sequence: religion, war, victory, peace, or, in the briefest summary as mantra and motto: Peace Through Victory.” [p 190] This is the normalcy of civilization we have seen play out over and over again through thousands of years. God’s program, on the other hand is “peace through [distributive] justice.” [p 202]

Similarly, in the New Testament, Crossan points out, the description of Jesus as “Divine, Son of God, or God Incarnate” matches the words to describe the Roman Emperor Augustus. Context is everything. “Only after you discern what it meant to transfer those titles from emperor to peasant and Palatine Hill to Nazareth Ridge then, can you assert either belief or disbelief now.” [p 237] That context also shows how radical the claim of Jesus’ divinity was.

By walking back through the Gospels Crossan shows how Jesus’ vision of peaceful, non-violent resistance, as shown in Mark, one of the earlier Gospels, is subverted through rhetorical violence in the later Gospels of Luke and Matthew and their common source “Q”. “[Matthew] puts all of that invective in the mouth of the historical Jesus after having earlier recorded him – the new Moses giving a new law from a new Mount Sinai – as solemnly forbidding agner, insult, and name-calling {5:21-22) and demanding, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (5:44). I ask as before for John’s Gospel: Did Jesus change his mind, or did Matthew change his Jesus?” [p 178]

Crossan demonstrates this heartbeat of assertion of God’s plan and the subversion of civilization very clearly in Paul’s letters. I think it is settled scholarship that Paul did not write all the letters ascribed to him. “Seven were certainly written by Paul… A further three were probably not written by him… And a final three were certainly not written by him: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.” [p 24] Paul’s views on slavery and the equality of women were subverted by later authors writing in his name. In his original letters it is clear Paul understands that women have every right to be leaders in the movement; in fact, a woman was one of his traveling companions. Likewise, when a friend’s slave runs to Paul after being mistreated by his owner, Paul converts the slave to Christianity and tells the owner one Christian cannot own another. In later letters in Paul’s name are given over to a set of instructions to both slaves and owners outlining each’s responsibilities. Finally, in Paul’s name, a letter is written to slave owners only with no direct address to slaves. “Colossians subverted and denied the Pauline letter to Philemon on slavery. That was an early warning of how Pauline radicality on certain basic values would be de-radicalized back into Roman normalcy.” [p 216]

“Those six letters not written by him [Paul] are not just post-Pauline and pseudo-Pauline letters but are actually anti Pauline letters. They represent the subversion of which the seven authentic letters were the assertion. Jesus, as we saw, was suberted over two stages – by rhetorical violence in the Gospels and by physical violence in Revelation. This happened similarly with Paul: he was de-radicalized and re-Romanized in two stages.” [p 220]

Now I know that fundamentalists will disagree with this approach loudly and forcefully. And atheists will use the book as an argument for ignoring the Bible altogether. But for me it puts the heart of God’s message to us front and center and shows how civilization continually subverts His will for a world of peace through justice. This book has given me a framework to understand what has troubled me for years.

I’ve quoted Crossan extensively, but bear with me and let him have the last word:

“If, therefore, you agree with this book that there are no divine punishments but only human consequences… then the challenge to our species is clear. Governed not by chemical instinct but by moral conscience, can we control escalatory violence before it destroys us? Can we abandon violence as civilization’s drug of choice? Can we opt deliberately for peace gained through justice and abandon, as a fatally bankrupt option, that mantric chant of peace gained through victory?” [p 244]

“Furthermore, if you find the term ‘God’ or ‘civilization’ distracting, I suggest you look at that … as simply the clash between a radical and a normal vision for the future of human life on earth. The radicality of nonviolent resistance versus the normalcy of violent oppression, and the radicality of peace through distributive justice versus the normalcy of peace through victorious force seem to apply equally to the first century then, our twenty-first century now, and all the centuries in between.” [p 244]

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