The Book of Revelation and the Problem of Violence: A Response to John Dominic Crossan

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2017

Prominent Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan has written an interesting and helpful book addressing what I believe are some of the most important issues in Christian theology. In this book, How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015), Crossan seeks to provide what is essentially a pacifist approach to the perennial question about how to understand the Bible’s notorious pro-violence teaching in light of Jesus’s message of nonviolent love.

Crossan’s antipathy toward Revelation

I greatly appreciate it any time a theologian argues in favor of nonviolence, so I am grateful for Crossan’s effort. However, I have some concerns as well that were triggered by the book’s first chapter. I became aware from reading an earlier Crossan book, God and Empire, that he is not a fan of the book of Revelation. Right away in How to Read the Bible, Crossan makes his antipathy toward Revelation apparent. Sadly, Crossan profoundly misreads Revelation—at least in my opinion. And his misreading weakens the overall argument of the book.

Crossan begins the book by describing how he was motivated to write it by questions he received from audiences on various speaking engagements. So he set out to respond to those questions and to make the case that the Bible can be read to support nonviolence—especially if we understand the message of the historical Jesus as the core.

One difficult set of questions concerns the book of Revelation. Crossan was continually asked: “What about that Apocalypse from John of Patmos, what about the book of Revelation, and what about the second coming of Jesus Christ? No matter what I said about the nonviolence of the first coming, questioners objected that the second coming was to be supremely violent, was to be a war to end all wars. 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).

Such questions about Revelation are indeed common for me, too, whenever I speak about the Bible and peace. Although Crossan and I share the same desired outcome—an embrace of the nonviolence of Jesus as the norm for all Christians—we see Revelation’s role in contributing to that outcome in drastically different ways. Continue reading “The Book of Revelation and the Problem of Violence: A Response to John Dominic Crossan”

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A Positive Reading of the New Testament

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the fifth in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the fourth in the series, “A Positive Reading of the Old Testament.”

Ted Grimsrud—October 8, 2017 [Luke 7]

There are some standard assumptions that Christians tend to have about the Bible—the Old Testament is old, outdated, primitive, problematic, violent and judgmental. And the New Testament is new, fresh, merciful, useful, peaceable and about forgiveness.

Well, I have spent a lot of time over many years trying—in sermons, classes, discussions, and writings—to show that the Old Testament is actually pretty good, that it’s an asset for faith and a guide for our quest for peace and justice in our hurting world. I know I have not persuaded everyone of this, but I’ll keep trying, though not this morning.

The New Testament’s dark side

The other side of the coin, though, is that the New Testament itself also has a dark side. It’s much shorter and not nearly as detailed in its accounts of political struggles. It covers just a short bit of time, unlike the hundreds of years the Old Testament has to do with. So the dark elements are perhaps a bit more subtle.

But we have things such as Jesus’s sharp, dare I say, even violent, dressing down of the Pharisees: “You blind guides, you white-washed tombs, you children of hell, you brood of vipers!” And his threats about God sending people to hell: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

And then there are the writings of Paul and of the book of Revelation. It is kind of uncanny that three times, just in the past couple of weeks, I have kind of randomly gotten into fairly intense arguments with friends–good, pious Mennonites—about whether Paul is an asset or a liability for Christian faith. I defend Paul, but apparently not very persuasively for my friends. And those of you who sat through what probably seemed like interminable sermons that I preached on Revelation here several years ago know that I go against the stream and present Revelation as a book of peace, not a book of judgment and violence. But the New Testament does present challenges.

One other difficult New Testament text is the story in the book of Acts about the early Christian married couple, Ananias and Sapphira. They are struck dead when they are caught lying and not giving the church the full price of some property they sold. Continue reading “A Positive Reading of the New Testament”

Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—October 4, 2017

Over the past several decades, as North American Christians have sought to discern the way forward amidst differing convictions concerning the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians and of same-sex marriage, one of the arenas of debate has been what to make of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Several different perspectives have been argued for, in a general sense breaking down into three broad options.

Paul and “homosexuality”*: Three options

*[I will use quotes around “homosexuality” throughout this post to signify my uneasiness with using the word because of the pejorative connotations it has in general usage. What I will mean by “homosexuality” is the general phenomenon of people being attracted to others of the same sex. Part of the difficulty with the language is due to the fluidity of human sexual attraction in general that shows that our reality cannot be reduced to two simple categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”]

(Option 1) Paul may not have written a great deal about “homosexuality,” but what he did write is clear and utterly damning. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 Paul makes it clear that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong. And, for those who hold this view, Paul’s views remain normative for today. Hence, Christians are bound to oppose same-sex marriage and to restrict the involvement of LGBTQ Christians in the churches.

(Option 2) Others mostly agree with the interpretation of Paul’s writings given by the people in the first group, but they would strongly disagree about the application of Paul’s perspective for today. They would say that Paul was simply wrong; that he was bound by his cultural limitations to hold to views that we no longer need accept. So, in spite of Paul, we should affirm same-sex marriage and full LGBTQ involvement in the churches.

(Option 3) Yet others argue Paul was not writing about we today call “homosexuality” at all. He simply did not address the phenomenon we know today of people whose affectional orientation is toward people of their same sex. Rather, in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, he had in mind the kinds of behaviors that are also wrong for heterosexual people—not a condemning of a class of people for the inherent wrongness of their same-sex orientation. Continue reading “Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]”

Why the creation story can’t carry the weight the restrictive view puts on it: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 1]

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2017

[The following short essay was my contribution to a recent discussion among several Mennonite scholars concerning the Bible and LGBTQ inclusion in Mennonite churches. Our assignment was to reflect on the significance of the biblical creation story for our discernment. We had to keep the papers quite short, so were unable to address many of the various ambiguities and complexities with these issues. The background for my piece is the argument in opposition to same-sex marriage and in favor of restricting the involvement of LGBTQ people in the churches (e.g., opposition to the ordination of LGBTQ pastors) that centers on the idea of the creation story establishing an irrevocable norm of opposite-sex marriage—without exception (here is a critique of one such argument based on “God’s design for marriage”). I give several reasons why I don’t think is argument works.]

(1) Same-sex marriage is not the agenda of Genesis 1–2

The intent of the story in its own context was not to posit male/female marriage as the only valid marriage. It had other purposes. This is not to say that the gender distinction in the story is irrelevant, but that is not the story’s agenda—so it is making too big a deal of that distinction to use it as the central biblical teaching relevant to same-sex marriage.

It seems also that the male/female element is descriptive not exclusive. It is simply the case that procreation happens through male/female sex. But only a tiny fraction of such sex leads to procreation. Clearly sexual intimacy has other important purposes. Genesis 2 would indicate that one purpose is companionship or friendship—an intimate physical and emotional connection with one other person. And, again, this is not implying that every person is required to do this.

My point would not be to deny that it could be a valid interpretation that the creation story presents male/female marriage as the expected or normal arrangement for humanity and links such marriage with the bearing of children. However, it is not self-consciously trying to make an argument for male/female marriage with children for life is the only allowable arrangement. Continue reading “Why the creation story can’t carry the weight the restrictive view puts on it: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 1]”