The anarchistic appeal of the Bible: A needed story for human wellbeing [Theological memoir #11]

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2021

I would say that I got politicized in the mid-1970s, about the time I finished college. I grew up paying attention to the news. My dad was a high school social studies teacher, so keeping up on current affairs was part of his job—and that spilled over to me, too. However, when I started college in 1972, I was pretty apolitical. My Christian conversion when I was 17 had actually influenced me to pay less attention to politics.

Radical Christianity and politics

Still, these were turbulent times. I remember that terrible spring and summer of 1968 when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy both were assassinated, and so much else was deeply chaotic. I registered for the draft when I was 18 in 1972 and thought it likely that I would have to go to Vietnam. I’m sure I was paying more attention than I remember, and within a few years I was highly engaged. The key factor for me, it turned out, was my exposure to the “radical evangelical Christians” affiliated with several magazines—The Other Side on the East Coast, Post American in the Midwest (then Sojourners when the community moved to DC), and Radix out West. Just as fundamentalist Christianity depoliticized me in the early 1970s, radical evangelical Christianity had the opposite effect a few years later.

I would read each of those magazines as soon as possible when it arrived. After voting for Richard Nixon in 1972, I grudgingly voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976—grudging because I thought he was too conservative, especially too pro-military, but preferable to Gerald Ford. Carter proved my fears well-founded, and by 1980 I was ready to go third party. One of Carter’s acts that got my wife Kathleen and me on the streets was his reinitiating registration for the draft. We joined the protests and met another young couple who introduced us to a political philosophy of which we had been ignorant.

Karl and Linda were young radicals who had recently moved to Eugene, Oregon, where we lived at the time. They moved specifically to join with an emerging community of anarchists. We had numerous lengthy conversations with them about anarchism, Christian pacifism, nonviolent resistance, violent resistance, and other related issues. Karl and, especially, Linda were smart, compassionate, deeply committed to social justice, and thoroughly against war.

We discovered the appeal of anarchism. For Kathleen and me, the path toward anarchism had mostly to do with war. Centralized, territorial nation-states have become a curse. The 20th century was the century of mass war and was showing littles signs of changing. In 1980, a rising tide of opposition to nuclear weapons was heightening awareness of the link between centralized government, large corporations, and the likelihood of the destruction of the earth.

Kathleen and I weren’t ready to go full anarchist, largely because of our commitment to working in the church. When the anti-draft movement petered out, we lost touch with Karl and Linda and our interest in anarchism moved to the back burner. We certainly didn’t get any encouragement to pursue it from the Mennonites we were by then hanging out with.

Continue reading “The anarchistic appeal of the Bible: A needed story for human wellbeing [Theological memoir #11]”

It’s not the Bible’s fault Christians are violent [Peace Theology #4]

Ted Grimsrud—February 9, 2021

It’s fairly common for me to see or hear someone bemoan the influence of the Christian Bible. People blame it for all kinds of wars and rumors of war, tribalism, and other boundary maintenance violence. It seems that most of the people I know, with all sorts of faith convictions, share in this concern. For many of them, the Bible is also a source of light—so it’s both a necessary resource and a problem.

Now, I hate war and all kinds of violence at least as much as my neighbors. I hate how violent Christians are. And I spend a lot of time with the Bible. I think I have a pretty good understanding about all these criticisms of the Bible and the sense of how the Bible seems to contribute to a more violent world. However, I love the Bible without any qualms. I have nothing but good things to say about the Bible. In my view, it’s not the Bible’s fault that Christians are violent. Let me briefly explain.

How do we read?

The Bible’s connection with human violence stems from how we read and apply it. The Bible is not itself violent but is only used by human beings in ways that lead to violence. It is a thoroughly human document—written by human beings, translated by human beings, interpreted by human beings, and applied by human beings. So, if the Bible is linked with human violence that is because of the humans who read it and apply it in violent ways. It’s not the Bible’s fault. All the Bible can do is provide us with the materials that we then use. I believe the materials in the Bible as a whole actually underwrite peace and undermine warism. I have addressed themes of the Bible and peace in detail elsewhere. But here I want to focus on our ways of reading, not the content.

It is certainly not that the Bible does not contain stories of violence or even portray God as doing violence and commanding violence. There are plenty of violent stories and violent teachings—though maybe not as many as sometimes thought. Regardless, those seemingly pro-violence materials only support our violence when we choose to have them do so.

Continue reading “It’s not the Bible’s fault Christians are violent [Peace Theology #4]”

Does Christianity prepare people to be misled by those in power? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #3]

Ted Grimsrud—January 23, 2021

Many Americans have been disturbed since the November election at how gullible so many in our nation seem to be about former President Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. A shocking number of people believe that Biden stole the election—including, it appears, quite a large number of professing Christians. That so many Christians believe such an outrageous thing seemingly simply because Trump has told them to has made me think. Is there a connection between Christian theologies and ways of thinking and being misled by people in power.

As I have thought about this question of a special Christian susceptibility to such gullibility, it occurred to me that this is not an issue only in relation to conservative Christians. Take the mostly unquestioned acceptance over the past 75 years of American warism and the nuclear weapons regime. There have occasionally been moments of opposition to these suicidal societal commitments (I’m thinking especially of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late-1960s and early 1970s and the nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s —both of which petered out in spite of little success), but the generally positive attitude about the politics of death has spanned the theological spectrum from right to left. And what is this positive attitude other than gullibility in relation to people in power?

The big question

Is there something inherent in Christianity that makes Christians especially susceptible to such manipulation? I’m not ready to claim that Christians are more easily misled than other people, but I do suspect that there might be dynamics within Christianity that do enhance the possibilities of this.

Part of my motivation is my own sense of disappointment. Back in the mid-1970s I became very interested in what we called “radical Christianity.” I became a pacifist and affirmed many other countercultural causes such as environmentalism, feminism, racial justice, and anti-capitalism. I believed that it was because of the Bible and Christian convictions that I took such stands. I believed that Christianity made that kind of difference. I still have most of the same convictions—both politically and theologically—but am much less sanguine about the significance of Christianity for making a big difference in the world. My suspicion now is that being a Christian in this country makes a person more likely to be pro-war, white supremacist, sexist, and pro-capitalism. Behind that likelihood, perhaps, is a willingness among Christians to accept uncritically what powerful people say.

This is the thesis I want to consider: Christianity can be epistemologically crippling because its theological system and the practices that follow have often stemmed from beliefs that are not based on evidence, at times not even based on rationality. I wonder if the willingness to ground Christianity on non-evidential, non-rational, even at times magical thinking and mystification, has also led Christians to accept claims from political leaders that are non-evidential, non-rational, and even magical thinking.

Continue reading “Does Christianity prepare people to be misled by those in power? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #3]”

Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)

Ted Grimsrud—December 16, 2019

I well remember the moment, though not the precise day. It was late in my final term of college in the spring of 1976. After quite a bit of thought and emotional struggle, I decided to affirm pacifism. I now find a bit surprising how little I knew about what it was I decided. I don’t remember having a serious discussion about the issue with anyone else, or hearing a sermon or lecture on the topic, or having read anything explicitly about pacifism.

The context for a conversion

Something was in the air, though, in our culture. The Vietnam War had just ended. I just escaped the draft as it was ended the year that I became eligible for it. I had learned to know several vets who told horror stories of their experience in the military. Perhaps more than any time before or since, precisely at the moment I became a pacifist the US military was unpopular. Society saw war as pretty problematic.

Both my parents served in World War II and my oldest sister married an Army officer—so I certainly did not grow up in an anti-military family. But I never wanted to join in. My dad, brother-in-law, and high school guidance counselor all urged me as a high school junior to try to get into a military academy. But I did not for one second have interest in that path. I knew nothing about the conscientious objection option, but I always dreaded the idea of going to war.

I had had a Christian conversion about a month after my 17th birthday. A huge event in my life, it shaped everything I did after it happened. Interestingly, at first, becoming a Christian moved me away from my vague anti-war sensibility. The church I soon joined viewed the military quite favorably. I heard sermon after sermon that presented going to war as a noble endeavor for a patriotic American Christian. For me, though, my seemingly innate reluctance to embrace violence kept me from internalizing that Christian warism. The fundamentalist theology that congregation taught me never did sink very deep into my soul, but it did dull my intellectual curiosity for my first several years of college.

Finally, during my senior year of college I began to expand my horizons. I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul. Surely their pacifist sensibilities effected me even if I did out realize it. I did realize that I truly did want to have an intellectually rigorous faith and that I saw what Bonhoeffer called “discipleship” as the most faithful manifestation of biblically oriented Christianity. I also discovered Sojourners magazine and Francis Schaeffer and his acolytes, especially Os Guinness.

While reading Guinness’s book, The Dust of Death, I took the step of embracing pacifism. Later, I realized that Guinness did not actually advocate full blown pacifism. He drew on Ellul’s book, Violence (which actually does essentially espouse pacifism), to argue against a certain kind of violence—the revolutionary violence of the Left. So it wasn’t that Guinness persuaded me to be a pacifist so much as that his critique of violence served as a catalyst to crystallize various currents that had been coming together in my heart. Continue reading “Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)”

Losing inerrancy (Theological memoir #2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2019

When I was 17 years old, almost exactly 47 years ago, I made a decision to become a Christian. At the time, my motivation was that I wanted to know the truth. As a thoughtful, idealistic adolescent, I thought about truth a lot. I didn’t have many people to discuss this with, hardly any actually. But I was thinking and thinking.

I was ready to make a move, though, and I did get an explanation from one close friend that I found persuasive. So I took the step of asking Jesus to be my savior. I truly meant it, and my life did change—mainly, I’d say now, in terms of consciously thinking of myself as a Christian and getting involved in a local church and trying to follow the guidance I was then given in that church. I also began to pray and to read the Bible.

As I think about it now, I find it helpful to separate two basic ways of entering Christianity with a desire to “know the truth.” There may be others, perhaps many, but these are the two that come to mind now.

The first, is that Christianity offers a truthful explanation for the meaning of life that one accepts as authoritative. The Christian’s task is to grow in acceptance of that explanation, that authoritative teaching of what is true. This approach offers a sense of certainty and security along with the comfort of knowing that one is on God’s side and will spend eternity with God. The Bible works as a repository of facts, definitive commands, direct guidance, the way God speaks to human beings—a detailed blueprint that offers absolutes that are over against other truth claims.

The second way is to think of the truthfulness of Christianity as a prod to the imagination, a kind of lens for looking at life in the most perceptive way possible. In this approach, Christianity offers a story that helps connect with other stories. The Bible is perceived to be a master story that helps uncovers truths told in other stories.

Without realizing it at the time, I was looking for truthfulness in the second sense, I was looking for a way to feed my imagination—and I found myself in a community that presented Christianity as being truthful in the first sense. I’d say now that I experienced enough of the kind of truthfulness that I was looking for to keep my faith alive. However, my first four years or so as a Christian were pretty uninteresting, even stilted. These years included my senior year in high school and my first three years in college. I have a hard time remembering ever being excited about anything intellectual. I feel like I was kind of in a daze during that time, more or less sleepwalking through my classes and reading light stuff just for fun in my spare time. As I think of my experience of the Bible, it illustrates what my overall Christian experience was like. Continue reading “Losing inerrancy (Theological memoir #2)”

Is the Old Testament actually “dying”? [Looking West #6]

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2019

I was in college, back in the early 1970s, when a new translation of the Bible—The New International Version—was first published. The NIV has gone on to be quite popular and is widely used, especially in evangelical settings. The New Testament by itself was first published. I don’t remember how I even knew about this new translation, but I bought a copy as soon as I learned about it.

There were a couple of things about this new Bible that were noteworthy. First of all was how readable it was. After I had my conversion experience when I was 17, I was nurtured in a congregation that insisted using on the King James translation. I found the KJV difficult to read. Perhaps I justified defecting to this new translation by telling myself that I had been unfaithful in my Bible reading and getting an easier to read version would help me better carry out that core obligation.

The second noteworthy element was that this NIV New Testament looked like a regular hardback book. That is, the paper was not super thin like most Bibles. The print wasn’t extra small. The text came in paragraphs, not individual verses. It did not have two columns on a page, but only one. The cover wasn’t leather but was like regular hardback books.

Not long after I got my NIV, I visited my home church. My friend Richard was shocked when he saw it. “It’s just like any other book!” he cried. He wasn’t a judgmental guy, but he did seem pretty disapproving at first. As we talked a bit, he kind of relented and granted that if it helped me read my Bible more, that was a good thing. Continue reading “Is the Old Testament actually “dying”? [Looking West #6]”

The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)

Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018

Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.

Starting with God’s nonviolence

Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?

Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.

And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would. Continue reading “The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)”

The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018

 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.

For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.

Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long series of blog posts that summarize and critique CWG).

What Boyd gets right

The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path. Continue reading “The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)”

An interesting book on divine violence

Ted Grimsrud—August 16, 2018

What follows is a review I have written responding to a recent book on the ways Christian theologians have responded to the issue of divine violence in the Old Testament. This book does little directly to help us know how to resolve the problem. But having an understanding of the history of Christian attempts to resolve it is important.

Christian Hofreiter. Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

One of the most vexing moral issues that has challenged Christians over the years has been the question of what to do with the teachings in the Bible that portray God as one who commands and empowers horrendous acts of violence. Despite continual attempts to find resolution, this issue remains as unresolved today as ever.

In this book, Christian Hofreiter’s revised Oxford University dissertation, we are certainly not given a quick and easy answer to the dilemma of divine violence. However, what we are given is a most helpful sketch of how various Christian theologians have, over the centuries, struggled with the issues.

Hofreiter frames his account as an exercise in “reception history,” the discipline that “consists of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative flavor” (p. 10). He limits his focus, as a rule, to Christiantheologians.

Even so, Hofreiter casts the net pretty widely, choosing more for a sense of comprehensiveness over depth of analysis of any particular thinker. Still, he does spend a bit more time on the two thinkers who provide what seem to be the two main historical options: Origen and Augustine.

The dilemma: Holding together five points

He helpfully summarizes the dilemma in terms of five points. The question is how many of these points are affirmed. (1) God is good. (2) The Bible is true. (3) Genocide is atrocious. (4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide. (5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or comment an atrocity.

Each one of these points, taken in isolation, would seem likely to be true, at least for what Hofreiter calls “a pious Christian.” Things become difficult, though, when they are combined. Can they allbe true? And, if not, which one(s) should be denied? What problems arise when one of the points is denied? Continue reading “An interesting book on divine violence”

A Positive Reading of the Old Testament

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the fourth in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the third in the series, “Positive Theology”]

Ted Grimsrud—July 9, 2017 [Gen 12:1-3; Lev 19:2-18; Hos 11:1-9]

I have this little joke. On the Sundays I preach I make sure to bring my Bible with me. It’s a pretty big book, weights a lot, has a hard cover. My joke is that the reason I bring the Bible with me on these Sundays is so that if anyone challenges what I say in my sermon I can wop them over the head with my Bible—the Bible as weapon….

Seeing the Old Testament as a “problem”

It is interesting that most of the weight in the book comes from the first section, the Old Testament. In my The HarperCollins Study Bible, the New Testament is about 20% of the whole. But I imagine if you could measure what parts Christians actually use, the New Testament would make up about 80% (or more) of our Bible in church.

So, we’ve got this interesting dynamic where Christians profess to affirm the authority of the Bible, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We say we base our faith on the whole Bible. But we only pay attention to a little bit of it. And in fact, for many Christians, the part we don’t pay attention to, the biggest part, is seen as a problem, a hindrance to faith, not even as something kind of neutral or just unnecessary. Now, I am grateful to Valarie and Sophie for their sermons these past two weeks that showed us how to wrest blessings from difficult Old Testament texts. But I imagine that for most of us that kind of interaction with the Old Testament in a sermon was pretty unusual.

When I was early in my pastoral career, I led a Bible study that met weekly for several years. We worked our way through Mark and Romans. When we discussed what to look at next, I said how about something from the Old Testament. One of our members, an older woman whose late husband had been a Presbyterian minister, protested. “I don’t want anything more to do with that bloody book,” she snapped.

I’ve met with resistance on other occasions when speaking favorably about the Old Testament. I well remember after a theology class where I had had a couple of guests, both self-avowed agnostics. We got into an argument that went on for some time. They teamed up on me. They both argued for a literal reading of Old Testament violent portraits of God, treating my attempts to nuance the texts with scorn. They defended a literal reading of the Old Testament not because they believed in it but because they wanted to dismiss it as of value today. Continue reading “A Positive Reading of the Old Testament”