Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Human Faces of God

Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God is a sustained critique of the concept of Biblical inerrancy, particularly as outlined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Stark is a young Bible scholar whose origins lie in the Stone-Campbell movement, a 19th century church reform movement which led, among other things, to the creation of the Churches of Christ.  Those who have had anything to do with members of this branch of the church will know them as conservative Evangelicals with a strong congregational ethos and (at least theoretically) a focus on ecumenism.  Stark was brought up on the idea of inerrancy, so in a sense this book is his "coming out".

He cites many of the problems with inerrancy that will be familiar to readers of this blog.  He finds it impossible to read the Bible without seeing its mutiple points of view, its variants on the same story, its factual discrepancies.  The early chapters of this book focus on these questions, and the internal contradictions within the Chicago Statements themselves.  His conclusions are similar to mine, although his research is a lot more thorough.  Inerrancy forces you to read the bible superficially, to be blind to the arguments and tensions within scripture and ultimately to moral and theological immaturity.

The Human Faces of God is mostly about this moral dimension.  Its most powerful chapters, in the middle section of the book, outline by way of illustration five key themes in the Old and New Testaments.

First of all, he outlines how the earliest accounts in the Old Testament see Yahweh as a member of a pantheon, a son of the supreme god El who battles his way to a position of dominance.  He points to a number of strands of evidence which show that the early Israelites had a fundamentally polytheistic world view.  They did not worship Yahweh because he was the only God, but because he was their god.  Hence the Song of Moses in its earliest version says "Praise, O heavens, his people, kneel before him all you gods" (Deuteronomy 32), and the Song of Miriam can ask "Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?" (Exodus 15).  When in Genesis 6 the Sons of God have sexual relations with the daughters of men, the most natural reading is that these are junior deities.

More explosive, though, are Starks' second and third issues.  Many of the Biblical writers accept the logic of human sacrifice and frequently seem to endorse its practice, and they advocate and defend genocide.  In his reading, human sacrifice is always seen as an exceptional, extreme measure.  Israelites are encouraged to substitute an animal for their firstborn children, as Abraham was eventually allowed to do for Isaac.  However, when the Moabite king Mesha sacrifices his son and heir in the face of impending defeat at the hands of the Israelites and Edomites it works - a great wrath breaks out over the Israelite armies and they are driven back (2 Kings 3).  The sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter is portrayed as a tragedy, but once Jephthah has made his vow, he is obliged to go through with it (Judges 11).  And Israel was founded on the sacrifice of the firstborn of Egypt.

The link between this and genocide is actually closer than it seems.  When whole cities were destroyed, with their women, children and livestock, they were seen as "devoted to God".  Hence genocide can be seen as a form of human sacrifice on a grand scale.  In a lengthy exposition, Stark first shows that parts of the Bible - in particular, the Deuternomic History which forms the core of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel, defend and indeed urge on the genocide of the non-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine.  He then ruthlessly demolishes both the reasons given in the Biblical accounts for this genocide (the evil of the people themselves, and their potential to corrupt the Israelites) and the contortions of inerrantist biblical scholars who try to reconcile their belief in inerrancy with their clear understanding that genocide is an atrocity of the highest order.

For Stark, texts like these are the biggest problem with inerrancy.  An inerrantist has two choices.  One is to accept that God is the monster portrayed in these stories.  But then what are they to do with the God of grace and love, and loving our neighbour as ourselves?  Otherwise, they are forced to explain away the texts through special pleading or convoluted interpretations - in which case they become inerrantists in name only, maintaining the concept of inerrancy by doing violence to the text itself.

So what would Stark have us do?  He rejects four of the solutions common in the church.  He does not believe that these texts should be excised from scripture, because they are woven into its fabric and need to be acknowledged.  Metaphorical or allegorical interpretations, popular throughout church history, seem to him to be a cop-out, evading the issue by talking about something else instead.  He also rejects the canonical approach - that the important thing is the final form of the Bible as endorsed by the historical church, not its component parts.  His grounding in non-conformism is too deep for him to take this option seriously.  Finally, despite his own strong leanings towards liberation theology he has little sympathy for the notion of "subversive readings", where for instance the tales of genocide are seen to superficially endorse genocide but at a deeper level to undermine it through exposing it to the light of critique.  Once again, Stark is too well schooled in reading the plain meaning of the text to admit such subtleties.

Stark's own view is that we should treat such texts as a kind of alcoholic uncle.  Whether we like it or not, he is part of the family.  We could bar him from family weddings, but he is still part of the family.  He should not be hidden out of sight.  Much better to intervene, acknowledge his problem and place strict conditions on his behaviour.  We need to acknowledge that genocide and human sacrifice are part of our religious heritage, be firm in our critique of this heritage, and use this critique to further our own faith.

I enjoyed this book, and find it both insightful and illuminating.  However, I have two bones to pick with Stark.  The first is the way he both rejects his heritage, and is bound by it.  He is no longer able to believe in inerrancy, yet he is so steeped in the historical-grammatical way of reading the Bible that other approaches don't make sense to him.  Hence, great riches remain untapped.

Secondly, like Greg Jenks and so many other progressive theologians, he is long on critique and short on alternatives.  I long for a treatment of this subject which provides a coherent spirituality.  Perhaps one day Stark will write that book, but I note that his forthcoming publication is about "what the Bible doesn't say about the divinity of Jesus" so it seems he is still some way from moving beyond critique.


Tamsyn E said...

I thought this was an interesting take on the Joshua warfare part of the Bible. I haven't come across his ideas about 'driving out' before- I'm not sure whether he or the sources he quotes are reliable though- it'd be interesting to see if other people think the same thing as him.

Jon said...

That's an interesting article. I only really had time to skim it, but he seems to have got tangled somewhere along the line. He starts out by citing other examples of how God destroys people - Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, etc. To me this just compounds the problem, because in the Flood EVERYTHING was wiped out, not just the people. Then, having "proved" that God does actually wipe people out, he soft-pedals the destruction of the Canaanites by talking about it in terms of "driving out". Yet if you read the accounts, you will see that time after time whole cities were destroyed including every living thing, human or animal, in them.

Stark's point is that it is not possible to justify this morally. People are punished indiscriminately (and this would be the case whether they were killed or displaced), including the children who are the victims of the Canaanite's evil (child sacrifice and incest) not its perpetrators. He regards attempts to justify this as well intentioned but dishonest, and the honest course as to admit that these things are terrible and come to terms with their presence in our heritage, rather than either excise them or expain them away.