fbpx

Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 139 – You Have Questions, Pete Has Answers

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete answers listener questions submitted via our Ask Pete and Jared page as well as the following questions:

  • What should we do when our ideas about the Bible are changing and we are receiving backlash from our community?
  • How can we apply “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away” to our lives today?
  • What can we conclude about the nature of God from the book of Job?
  • Was the Pentateuch written all at one time?
  • How has Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis developed overtime?
  • When Pete says “most scholars agree,” who are those agreeing scholars?
  • What are the Amarna letters and what are their relevance to the Bible?
  • Is the timeline of the conquest of Canaan we read in the Bible archeologically supported?
  • Are there instances of monotheism in the ancient world?
  • Should we be afraid of changing our beliefs in a life of faith?
  • What makes Christianity distinct from other religions?
  • Can history be separated from story in the Bible?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share. 

  • “Rejecting an academic, scholarly conclusion for dogmatic or ecclesiastical reasons is a… serious form of bias and closed-mindedness.” @peteenns
  • “Seeing the old faith differently is normally a very painful process.” @peteenns
  • “Once this owner’s manual view of the Bible is removed, we can begin to see the Bible as a source of wisdom, not a source of prooftexts.” @peteenns
  • “The Bible models this quest for wisdom by being chock of full diverse real-life scenarios of people of faith who respond by faith to their particular situations in different ways.” @peteenns
  • “I wish we could all… hold our theologies more gently rather than weaponizing the Bible to give the appearance that God is on our side.” @peteenns
  • “Faith does in fact change over time.” @peteenns
  • “I see faith as more of a process, a journey, where certain walls do indeed weaken over time and need to come down when they become obstacles to our growth.” @peteenns
  • “Whether or not we are comfortable with it, history mixed with story is exactly what we see in the Bible.” @peteenns

Mentioned in This Episode

Powered by RedCircle

Read the transcript

[Introduction]

0:00

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music begins]

Pete: Hello normal people, and welcome to this brand new episode of the podcast. Now, you may know that on our website we have an “Ask Pete” page where you can submit your questions—and that seemed like a really good idea at the time. The thing is, there are a lot of questions, and I can’t keep up, and I’m sort of overwhelmed. So, what we do is periodically post some answers to our YouTube channel and for our patrons over at Patreon—where you too can watch those videos for as little as $1/month. And 0ther times, like this time, we try to hit a few at once on the podcast.

So, here’s what I did. I went through the list of like 200 questions and took of few of them that have a common theme—these are questions related directly to things I’ve said on other podcasts or in writing somewhere—like on blogs and some books and that’s the theme that unites these questions. So, I’ll keep my responses, you know, relatively brief, because I want to get through seven questions, if I can. We’ll see how things go.

Okay. So, here’s the first question:

The character, Job says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away.” I understand him to be saying that whatever happens, whether we perceive it as good or bad, happens because God caused it. But the story of Job says Satan caused Job’s suffering; God merely permitted it. People frequently quote Job’s statement in the context of the death of a loved one. What do you believe about this?

This question relates to my last solo podcast on Job. The question picks up on a real tension in Job. And the passage referred to is Job 1:21, which concludes with another famous line: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Now, it really is true that Job here is saying that whatever happens, good or bad, is God’s doing and we need to accept both as God’s will. And yet, readers of Job know that the issue is a bit more complicated. God didn’t really do anything, but allowed satan to do what he saw fit—and actually I’m going to say sa-TAN instead of Satan.

And if you’ll allow me, just a quick side note. Some of you may remember from my podcast that the Hebrew word sa-tan isn’t the name of the king of the underworld. In fact, the Hebrew is not a name at all, but a title meaning something like the accuser or the adversary. And in Job, this adversary is not an angel but a divine being who, and that’s weird, I know. But a divine being, who along with other divine beings has a seat at a, sort of like a heavenly board meeting with Israel’s God as CEO. That’s the scene we have here in Job. And this kind of a meeting is usually referred to as a heavenly council or a divine council. Okay, side note over.

So, as the story goes, God is bragging to sa-tan about how pious Job is. And sa-tan accuses God, right, the accuser. He accuses God of protecting Job and making his life flush so God can get the praise. Sa-tan says, in effect, you know, put a little pressure on him and Job will fold faster than Superman on laundry day.

[Drum sound plays: ba dum tss]

Now, what’s at stake in all this is God’s own reputation: if Job fails the test, God will look bad for bragging about Job. So right there, this bet complicates the whole “all things good and evil come from God so praise him regardless” idea.

Also, as we keep reading in Job, we see that the pious answer Job gives at first in 1:21 eventually gives way to a sustained complaint that he is suffering for some unknown reason, and God needs to let him in on why he’s suffering when he didn’t do anything to deserve it.

So, here is another wrinkle. That verse, Job 1:21—accept both good and evil as God’s will—that verse is itself in tension with how the book proceeds. Job doesn’t maintain his 1:21 outlook. In fact, he already abandons it in chapter 3. And I think respecting that tension between what he says in one place and what he says in another place, that is a very important for grasping the theology of the book of Job.

Now, I admit that Job 1:21 is a very tempting passage to cite when we face suffering, either our own or someone else’s. It seems like a neat and clear, one-size-fits-all answer to any bad thing that happens. “This is God’s mysterious will; God gives, God takes away. Deal with it.” And this use of Job 1:21 is certainly part of the Christian tradition.

5:00

It’s a way of submitting to the mystery of God. And truly, I get that, and I want to respect that mystery. But, if I may be so bold, I think that this way of looking at 1:21 is a misunderstanding of this passage and how it works in the overall picture of Job.

This is not a standalone verse that says something absolute about what God is like. It’s the confession of a biblical character, Job, in chapter 1, who is being tested for only the first time in his flush life. And his statement of faith is born out of an untested piety. In other words, he gives the “right” answer, like we sometimes do in church. The deeper and more authentic, more honest struggles of the suffering Job, well, that’s going to occupy the rest of the book. And, if my understanding of the end of the book is right (and that’s another podcast plug, by the way), but if my understanding of the end of the book is right, Job never gives in. He maintains his innocence and holds his ground to the end, and in the last chapter God vindicates Job.

Well anyway, it’s a great question, and to answer it well really forces us to dig into the big picture of Job, which is not a quick fix. It’s always harder to see the big picture than it is to find a verse and use it.

Gee, I wish there were a podcast on this, preferably under an hour that was released not too long ago.

All right, enough plugging. Onto the next question:

I’m curious why Pete thinks it is appropriate to use a biological concept (evolution) for literary analysis of the Pentateuch. Where else in literary studies has “evolution” played such a role? Interestingly, the scholars who’ve followed Wellhausen’s theory regarding the Pentateuch have splintered in many directions. This fact seems to indicate the theory is based on mere speculation rooted in personal bias.

This question concerns my next to last podcast, which was on the literary analysis of the Pentateuch. And all kidding aside, it might not be a bad idea to listen to that episode if this question and if my answer interests you.

So, to sum up the issue from that podcast, the question scholars have been asking for about 300 years is why the Pentateuch looks so uneven and contradictory in places. And in the 18th century, German scholars came up with an idea that eventually came to be called the Documentary Hypothesis, which many people have heard of even if you haven’t, you know, gone to seminary or something. And anyway, this was popularized by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen in the 19th century—which is the person mentioned in the question.

Now, Wellhausen’s basic point, once we clear away some of the clutter, and which is still the overwhelmingly dominant view today, is that the Pentateuch was not written at one time by one person (e.g., Moses in the mid-second millennium BCE). Rather, the Pentateuch grew over time. Written traditions began to emerge once the monarchy was established, so like 10th century BCE. More texts were written by Israelites, and then collected, edited together, and added to, over several centuries until sometime after the 5th century roughly. And that process eventually came to an end with the Pentateuch more or less as we know it today.

Now, here’s the point. I refer to this process, this development, as an evolution, and the questioner is wondering why I would use a biological concept to describe a literary phenomenon. But—this is not a big deal, really. You know, to say that the Pentateuch “evolved” is simply an analogy, and I think a good one. The process of editing over time really is something like a series of adaptations to changing times and situations. As time passed these traditions grew to fit changing circumstances. And again, forgive me, but the podcast might help flesh that out because it’s sort of an intricate issue. It gets a little bit tricky and I spent a little bit more time there working through the issue with a little more patience.

The fact that evolution is a biological concept – which, side issue, isn’t actually quite true, it’s also a cosmological and geological concept, but I know what the questioner is after – but the fact that evolution is from another field, let’s say, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used when describing the Bible. In fact, that’s how analogies work—you use a concept from a different thing to describe something else: you know, the movement of the planets is like a finely tuned watch.

9:58

I wonder, though, if the questioner isn’t really bothered by my simply using an analogy. Had I said something like the “flowering” of the Pentateuch, I don’t know if the question would have been submitted at all. I sense the issue here is that the questioner does not like evolution specifically to be tied to the Bible. And I understand that—I vehemently disagree—but I understand. But perhaps it would have been better had she said, “I think evolution is untrue and I don’t like tying it to the Bible.” See, I could accept that, but claiming that evolution can’t be used as an analogy because it is from the field of biology, well, it seems to miss what analogies do, which again is to describe something less familiar by something more familiar.

Not to dig too deep into this, but in addition to the discomfort with evolution, the questioner also makes the rather common mistake of thinking that scholarly movement beyond Wellhausen is an indictment on his theory. As the questioner puts it, the theory has “splintered in many directions” . . . and is therefore “mere speculation rooted in personal bias.” But the theory hasn’t gone into self-destruct mode. The original 19th century theory has—forgive me—evolved, mutated, into various sub-theories. And this is not evidence that the whole theory is “mere speculation rooted in personal bias.” It just means scholarship is happening.

Scholarship on the Pentateuch has definitely changed since Wellhausen’s day, just as science has changed since Darwin’s day in the 19th century. The parallel is really interesting to me: see, both Wellhausen and Darwin, at roughly the same time, proposed a theory of “origins”—the origin for the Pentateuch and the origin of humanity. And in both cases, scholarship has moved on while also acknowledging the debt to the 19th century. You see, no scholar today is a devoted follower of Wellhausen—just as no evolutionary biologist today is a devoted follower of Darwin. Scholarship changes over time, but that doesn’t mean the theories have “splintered” or are “mired in personal bias.” It’s just how scholarship works.

All right, next question:

Pete frequently says something like: “most scholars agree”. Who are these “agreeing” scholars? I don’t find them in the seminary professors that I have talked to about Pete’s view of the ancient, ambiguous, diverse Bible.

All right, well, I want to be honest here. See, I hesitated a bit whether to include this question, for fear that it might be misunderstood as dismissive. But this question has come up in some form with respect to podcasts and my writing, so I think there is value in addressing it. Now it would help me to have an example or two of where I am claiming broad academic agreement on an issue where there isn’t any that we don’t have, so let me try to answer generally, and I hope that’s going to be helpful.  

Remember, this is The Bible for Normal People, where we are trying to bring the best of biblical scholarship to non-specialists—sometimes nuances and subtleties do get lost in that exchange. But when I say things like “most scholars agree” or something like that, you know, I mean it. I’m not pulling things out of thin air. The topics we address on this podcast and that I write about in my books, they don’t raise an eyebrow, really, among biblical scholars. In fact, they’re more or less right down the middle, and that is true even if there are scholarly disagreements about some things.

Now, this is where I am hesitating, and I hope this will be accepted in the best possible light. It’s possible—and I suspect this is the case—that the questioner may not be familiar with how widely or generally held the views I express are—which is absolutely fine. I’m a little more curious that his seminary professors seem unfamiliar as well. This suggests to me that this question is arising out of a . . . conservative space, where the kinds of conversations we are trying to have here may not be the kinds of conversations valued elsewhere. That too is fine, but those values do not constitute not a legitimate criticism of what scholars do elsewhere. I hope that makes some sense.

When I say things like “most” or “a good many” or a “strong consensus of scholars agree on x, y, or z,” I am actually signally for people in the know that, yes, virtually every issue in biblical studies has a flurry of debate surrounding it.

14:54

In other words, I can’t see myself ever saying “every single biblical scholar alive today,” or something like that, because sooner or later someone will push and prod a majority view—which is what scholarship is supposed to do. But, in this context of connecting people with biblical scholarship, if there is a view that is so widespread as to not be seriously debated, I have no hesitation saying something like “with extremely rare exception, this is the majority view.” One example of this is from the previous question: the Pentateuch is a 1st millennium product of a long process, and not a 2nd millennium creation by one author writing at one time.

Now this is important, but also another place where I am hesitating. If the scholars who doubt that consensus are primarily those with deeply conservative dogmatic ecclesiastical commitments—like some form of literalism or inerrancy, for example—and I am being honest, I don’t feel the need to include them in my sample size. In fact, if I did and said, “some scholars think the Pentateuch is a 1st millennium product,” I would actually be misleading people into thinking that the debate over this particular issue is widespread.

Views that oppose a strong academic consensus and are fueled by an apologetic stance to defend a particular doctrine are not part of the scholarly conversation, as far as I’m concerned. And I am aware that some will accuse me of bias or closed-mindedness, and that’s fine too. I would simply respond that rejecting an academic, scholarly conclusion for dogmatic or ecclesiastical reasons is a much more serious form of bias and closed-mindedness.

OK, Pete. Any happy questions in there? Okay, well, not really happy, but some of these are really interesting, and here’s another one of them.

Is there any evidence that the events recorded in Exodus line up chronologically with the Amarna period in Egypt? Among other things, I am thinking about the monotheism of Akhenaten.

OK, so first of all, what is the Amarna period? Actually, what is Amarna? Well, it’s a town in Egypt, and in 1887 some clay tablets were discovered there. And these tablets date to the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who reigned in the middle of the 14th century BCE.  Keep that date in your head, 14th century, 1300’s.

These clay tablets were actually letters written by Canaanites, the residents of the land of Canaan up there, and they were written by Canaanites to Akhenaten in the Akkadian language—which is the language of international diplomacy at the time. These letters were a very big deal because they give us a glimpse of life in Canaan, I’ll say it again, in the 14th century—in this case, it’s a record of Canaanites rebelling against Egyptian rule of that region. Let me say that again: Egyptian rule of Canaan in the 14th century.

Okay. Who cares? Well, the questioner does, but I want you to care too. See, the 14th century is the time (a little math coming here folks) but that’s the time when the Israelites would have been settled in Canaan according to the literal timeline given in the Bible. What is that timeline? Well, Solomon’s temple was built, according to the book of Kings, “in the 480th year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.”

Solomon’s temple dates to the middle of the 10th century BCE, and 480 years back from that brings is to the 15th century, specifically the date most often landed on for a number of reasons is 1446 BCE as the date for the exodus. So, middle of the 15th century, the date of the exodus. All right, let’s get on with this. See, the problem is that this date of 1446 runs into some serious chronological problems, because it would place Israel’s existence in Canaan in the 15th century, or at least in the early 14th century. That means, this is one of the punchlines folks, that means that Israelites would, presumably, have been a fixture in Canaan by the time of the Amarna letters about 100 years later.

The problem is that the Canaan that the Amarna letters depict don’t include Israelites. Now, there is a later Egyptian monument from around 1207 BCE—very late 13th century—that does mention “Israel” by name, which is very cool. But no Israelites in Canaan in the 14th century.

19:57

According to the Amarna letters, Canaan is inhabited by Canaanites living in city-states like Shechem, Gezer, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem, each with their own king. And also, just think about this, the book of Judges, which would be taking place during this Amarna period according to that literal timeline, but the book of Judges doesn’t mention Egyptian presence in the land. Their problem in Judges is largely the Philistines, not the Egyptians.

Add to that, the archaeological support for the destruction of some of the towns and cities mentioned in the conquest stories of the Old Testament, like the book of Joshua, well, that archeological evidence is coming from the 12th century and later; which is also the time when we see strong evidence, archeological evidence, for an influx of settlements in the hill country of Israel, which is also the picture that the Bible presents.

Now just apart from the Amarna letters entirely, the little evidence we have for the conquest and the exodus, that evidence strongly suggests that the 15th century is just way too early for the exodus and way too early for the beginning of the conquest of the land of Canaan. The Amarna letters seem to indicate that there is no Israelite presence in Canaan in the 14th century. The biblical timeline doesn’t work, and a later period has to be sought for the exodus and the conquest of Canaan, which is what some of the evidence I’ve just mentioned talks about, like, the influx of hill country settlements and some destruction of some towns. That’s a big issue, it’s a lot to chew on, and you can see what it’s not easy to discuss the history of the exodus and conquest during fellowship hour after the service.

Now as for the pharaoh Akhenaten (gotta get to him), he is often referred to as the first monotheist for declaring that the god Aten (which is where he gets his name from), Akhenaten. But he declared that this god Aten, the Sun Disk, was the only god. Now, what drove this pharaoh to make such a unique claim is debated, but it probably isn’t some deep spiritual insight that there is in fact only one god even though everyone else believed in many gods. There were probably economic and political factors involved, and other things as well. And, you know, don’t forget, the idea of only one God? That died with him, that didn’t catch on.

Akhenaten’s monotheism is definitively an interesting topic worth exploring. My caution is in using this one-off, debated example in Egyptian religion, to support the idea that monotheism was an accepted option in the day generally, and therefore—here is the punchline—and therefore there is no reason to think that the Israelites weren’t monotheists from the beginning of their existence.

Now that’s a mouthful, so let me flesh that out a bit. Akhenaten’s monotheism has been jumped on by conservatives. For various reasons there is a strong scholarly consensus that Israelite religion was not monotheistic early on, but monolatrous. Monolatry means that the Israelites believed in the existence of many gods, even though they worshipped only one, their God, Yahweh. The Bible itself, not to get into all this, but the Bible itself has many passages that only work if we assume monolatry, one being Psalm 95. Just read the first few verses, where Yahweh is referred to as the great king above all gods. Yeah, it ranks them. Exodus 12:12 where during the 10th plague we read that God’s judgment is coming “on all the gods of Egypt”.

Now at some point, which is hard to pin down but probably after the exile (with some pre-exilic rumblings, to be sure), but sometime after the exile, at some point the Israelites became more clearly monotheistic, and they certainly were monotheists long before we get to the time of Jesus. But you see, this is the point here: Akhenaten’s unusual sort of religious move can’t be used to push that monotheism back to the period of the exodus—which is what conservatives hope Akhenaten can do for them.Now, if you’re interested in more, you can search for monolatry on my website, and I think I’ve done, if I remember right, a Patreon video or two on this as well. I can’t remember. Don’t hold me to it, but check it out.

OK. Next question.

24:51

For those of us already anxious about deconstructing, how can we be encouraged to continue our journey away from our roots in light of 2 Timothy 4:3?

Here is what this passage says, and I want to include verse 4 as well. “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Now, this passage seems like a warning not ever to change one’s views, and not to listen to anyone who tells you something different than what you believe. And worse, it’s often used to shut down the journey of faith that many people find themselves on—people who listen to this podcast for example, who aren’t looking for ways to be radical or unfaithful or rebellious, but who have had experiences that have led them to question what they have been taught. Seeing the old faith differently is normally a very painful process and clearly this questioner is going through a process like that and is, in my opinion, repeating a “warning from Scripture” that he has as heard from others—like friends or pastors, perhaps.

One problem here is the use of this passage this way treats the Bible as an owner’s manual for faith, where every passage is meant somehow to give us the answer here and now—and where we tend to see ourselves in the right and others in the wrong. And exposing the problems with this way of approaching the Bible is a big theme in two of my books, The Bible Tells Me So and How the Bible Actually Works. And once this owner’s manual view of the Bible is removed, we can begin to see the Bible as a source of wisdom, not a source of prooftexts. The Bible, I feel, is much better understood as modeling the quest for wisdom in this life and not handing us Tweet length answers.

And the Bible models this quest for wisdom by being chock of full diverse real-life scenarios of people of faith who respond by faith to their particular situations in different ways. So, the question I would have about 2 Timothy 4 is “well, what is the situation of the letter?” Of course, that’s not easy to discern, and I admit it is much easier, again, to take this as a one-size-fits all command from God. But . . . I don’t think it is wise to take phrases from this passage and simply infuse themwith meaning as we see fit. You know, what does it mean for this author to “abandon sound doctrine and have itching ears”? Anything we don’t like can fill that void today, from watching a PG movie to worshiping Satan. And how these phrases are filled with meaning will probably be determined by those who are in power—those who gets to make the call. The leaders of the church, the school, or the denomination.

Absolutely anyone can appeal to 2 Timothy 4, fill the words with meaning, and come out looking squeaky clean and others really evil. You know, Paul himself was a victim of such thinking—he was considered a false teacher, tickling itching ears, moving unsuspecting people away from sound doctrine and from truth to follow myths . . .  like when he said that circumcision and dietary restrictions are not required for gentiles to be full-fledged members of the family of Abraham.

See, a passage like this is just waiting to be weaponized. But the problem isn’t the passage, but what is expected from it—a clear word from God to us in our moment, rather than a passage that requires tremendous wisdom and maturity to understand how or IF this present situation calls for this passage. You know, to make the absurd point, I wouldn’t say that changing from a traditional to contemporary worship style is abandoning sound doctrine, even if I would strongly prefer one over the other. When you are having questions about biblical inerrancy, or the historicity of parts of the Bible, or contradictions in the Gospels, is that evidence of you are simply surrounding yourself by false teachers to satisfy your own desires, and 2 Timothy 4 is God’s way of condemning you? Or are you really struggling with something and have good reason for it?

Like I said, too often we read passages like this and see ourselves immediately on the right side of the question and others who think differently on the other side. Rarely do we turn this inward to see whether the power structures we support and simply assume to be right might actually be at odds with sound doctrine or tickling itching ears with false teaching.

30:00

I want to suggest that the questioner is already in this process of critiquing the “system” from within. He is not a rebel, but observing from the inside where the pieces are no longer fitting together for him. A while back, in one of our monthly book groups for our patrons over at Patreon, we read John Caputo’s little book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, and one of the powerful points he makes is that the kind of deconstruction that our questioner is experiencing is not an attack on the faith from the outside. Rather, it rises up internally, caused by the inherent instability of any theological or ecclesiastical system, especially one that claims to be sitting on top of the mountain looking down at everyone else. Now, I wish we could all take that to heart and hold our theologies more gently rather than weaponizing the Bible to give the appearance that God is on our side.

Now, and briefly, another issue I have with using this passage as a prooftext to keep people in line is that it denies the inevitable reality that faith does in fact change over time. You know, I truly believe that the, let’s call it the intellectual scaffolding we all create in our minds to hold our faith, I think that’s all fine, and it’s normal, and it’s needed. But it is not permanent, that’s the hard part. To switch metaphors, true faith is often presented as a wall that must be kept high and stable, and if it begins to crumble it’s our job to patch it right away lest our faith weaken—and passages like 2 Timothy 4 are enlisted to support that point. But I see faith as more of a process, a journey, where certain walls do indeed weaken over time and need to come down when they become obstacles to our growth. We all have walls, but we need to be willing, I think, to take them down. I think that’s the life of faith, and I believe that life of faith can only continue toward maturity as we risk taking that journey and not conspiring to keep that from happening. One of the points I make in the Sin of Certainty is that the Bible models this very journey into mystery rather than building walls of protection.

OK, let’s move to the next question.

So, to my understanding it seems that you understand Scripture as historically rooted, mythologically told in order to convey theology. So, if Scripture is nothing more mythical story with some historicity, how is Christianity distinct?

I think about this question a lot, enough to know that I am not able to give a 3-point, unassailable answer to it. This question really gets at the heart of the modern dilemma for the Christian faith. Knowing what we know about other ancient religions, what makes Christianity distinct? Good question, central question.

Now, here’s my take on it. In a way, all religions are distinct—so the fact that Christianity shares characteristics with other ancient religions doesn’t make it less distinct. It just means that the distinction of the Christian faith isn’t found in necessarily how well it keeps its distance from those other religions.

Still, I do think that there is something distinct about the Christian faith—distinct in the sense that I don’t see it elsewhere (though I am definitely willing to be corrected here). It has to do, at least as far as I can see, it has to do with the cross, and namely two things. First: Jesus’s crucifixion is presented in the New Testament as something God initiates on behalf of humanity. And this is an odd idea in a world where sacrifice is something humans have been doing since forever to appease gods, humans initiated. As others have noted, it seems like God is turning the whole idea of sacrifice on its head and putting an end to it. We hear verses like, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” and yawn because it’s so familiar, but that idea of God giving a son on behalf of the world as an idea that strikes me as a distinct twist.

Now, let me add that I am among those who does not think that God offered his son as a sacrifice in order to have his own wrath satisfied—that is a common view, even with some biblical support, but I think it breaks down for a variety of reasons we can’t get into here, but I’m hardly the only person to think this way. And by the way, I say this well aware of passages like Romans 3:21-26, so no emails please. I think the issue at stake is too subtle than can be handled by quoting a passage or two.

35:02

The cross, I believe, is God putting an end to the notion that human’s sacrificing animals or other humans is a bridge to divinity. At any rate, I think the cross is distinct in that it is presented as a sacrifice from God on behalf of humans. And the second distinct thing about the cross: The God we meet in the in the NT is not one who keeps his distance from the humiliation of Roman crucifixion. See, this is the paradox of the NT, that God’s power is seen though the humiliation of this particular Roman style of crucifixion, which is a very humiliating one. And that idea sometimes just stops me dead in my tracks. And I have to say, when I ask myself what is distinct about Christianity and why bother with it, this is where my mind goes. You know, It’s been said that if you wanted to start a new religion in the Greco-Roman world, your story would not center on the crucifixion of its founder, nor would it tolerate the Creator’s willing participation in that humiliation. See, Gods aren’t shamed, but the Christian faith is grounded by this very counterintuitive and paradoxical claim.

Now, to be clear, these distinctives don’t amount to proof that Christianity is true. I’m just offering some observations on what makes it distinct, in my opinion. Believing these things are true is a matter of faith—and I don’t say that cheaply. Many of us are used to thinking there are all sorts of reasons for Christianity being distinct, and there may very well be more that just don’t strike me at the moment. But the question of what makes Christianity distinct will never go away, especially given our increasing understanding of the ancient world and of other religions. We could spend hours on this, but at least that’s a start.

Now, one more point I’d like to address about all this. The questioner is concerned about the Bible being “nothing more than mythical story with some historicity.” I think she is using the word myth and story somewhat interchangeably, which is fine for the point I want to make, though they are not the same thing technically speaking. No need to go into all that, though I do understand the concern about losing history in the Bible, and just let me say one or two things about that.

Whether or not we are comfortable with it, history mixed with story is exactly what we see in the Bible. Actually, there is no telling of history anywhere that isn’t at the same time woven together with “unhistorical” elements—call that story. There is no such thing as history writing that is kept “pure” –devoid of non-historical elements introduced by the writer, either intentionally or unintentionally. The past has to be told, and as soon as it is, we have introduced the influence of the storyteller. The interesting thing to see here, as far as I’m concerned, is not whether this happens in the Bible, but what are the implications of this happening in what we call Scripture.

Okay, one last question, and here it is.

As I lean AWAY from an inerrant view of the Bible, I’m getting backlash from my evangelical friends! (That’s almost everyone). It scares the s*** out of me to be honest! Is there hope in keeping my loving community!? I’m in a scared stage right now.

I really resonate with this question. I get it a lot and I lived it too.

The thing is, it’s very hard to keep engaged in an evangelical community if one’s views are shifting from those of the community. Remember that evangelicalism is a separatist movement that is defined by its members holding to certainly essentially non-negotiable ideas. No longer believing in biblical inerrancy is one of several conversation stoppers.

In my opinion, and in my experience, it’s hard to maintain intimacy with a group when that group’s core ideals are felt to be challenged. A social, personal distance is created because of theological differences, that’s why the distance is created, and it is hard to maintain those associations despite the differences when those beliefs are central to evangelical identity.

39:47

For the record I think this is not simply an evangelical or fundamentalist problem, but I think that the tipping point is easier to get to the more conservative the church is—there are just more issues to collide over. Also, I don’t think that this “social distancing” (if I can use that phrase) is necessarily intentional on the part of the group. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s just the unconscious power of groupthink and the unspoken rules of the community that we aren’t always conscious about.

When your beliefs challenge the evangelical theology of your church or organization, I think you have two choices: to not talk about these things, because you value the group; or leave the group to find another community. A bad move, which I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve made this move, don’t tell anybody. But a bad move is to try to change the church, or change the organization, whatever, to change it to your way of thinking. That’s very stressful, and even unfair to expect others to get on board with a journey that might have taken you months or years to get to. And it never works. At best it simply divides people along political lines. Even if you win you lose.

Now, there is an intermediate approach: find discretely those in your group who are on a similar journey and then meet informally to discuss all those things you feel you can’t discuss openly. That maybe a way of keeping the best of both worlds, but, in my opinion, it will only delay the second option: you will grow used to the freedom and relief of such a group and begin asking yourselves why you are living a double life, and gee, wouldn’t it be nice to just be in a church where we don’t have to meet on the side.

How to handle this situation will be different for everyone. I know individuals and couples who have made the decision to value the group over their expanding theological boundaries, and it works. This is often the case when children are involved, if they have like a strong network of friends or a decent youth group. Though—and maybe you’re already anticipating what I’m about to say, the polar opposite scenario is true too—for some it is exactly what their children are hearing in church that scares the parents and motivates them to find another church home that doesn’t base its teachings on ideas that the parents will have to balance or contradict at home.

But you know, regardless, leaving a community is hard. And I’ve done that and felt a lot of relief when I did. But over the years, I could see the unintended, unanticipated consequences of the loss of a community—you know, children growing up and our not being a part of their milestones; not having people in your life who have known you consistently for 10, 20, 30 years and who will be there to help in times of trouble. I take loss of community very seriously, but for me, the freedom to be curious, to explore, to follow my instincts, to listen to my experiences and to that inner voice, well those things, they all trump the benefits of the community. You know, but I have had mourning periods. I still do. It’s just that the mourning for me would have been greater had I stayed in a place that would have crushed my soul and my mind—which by the way isn’t a judgment. That situation would have crushed ME. That’s all I’m saying. For others, the same situation may be like a safe haven.

And I guess that’s the main point of this: each situation is different, and knowing what to do is a very personal act—it takes some courage to accept the responsibility to be very deliberate and then follow that decision where it leads. Part of the emotional struggle, which we never talk about but that’s so important, part of the emotional struggle can be soothed a bit by trying to remember to tell yourself, to remind yourself that, you know, God may be out ahead of you inviting you on this very, even difficult journey, rather than believing that your church is the only place where God can be found.

It was sobering to me to try to explain my former church situation to non-evangelical Christian friends of mine, and they simply couldn’t relate. This is such an internal kind of thing. And the issues that pre-occupy evangelicalism are not even on the radar of those other Christians. And I guess, you know, in retrospect, even though that might have been a little bit unsettling for me at one point, it encouraged me, it has encouraged me over the years to know that evangelicalism is not the norm, as simple as that, and that there are other vibrant communities of Christian faith out there.

[Music begins]

44:39

Pete: Okay folks, before we go, two quick things. Jared’s book Love Maters More is out. Listen, it’s thoughtful, challenging, timely, and generally just amazing. Cancel all plans. Grab a copy and spread the word. Also, coming up we are offering a new course, “Everyday Life in Ancient Israel,” and it will be taught by archaeologist and college professor Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliot. This course is awesome. I’ve seen the content. We could be more excited. The course runs for 4 consecutive Tuesdays beginning October 6th. For more information including registration head on over to https://peteenns.com/course/. See ya folks.

[Outro]

Narrator: Thanks, as always, to our team: executive producer, Megan Cammack; audio engineer, Dave Gerhart; creative director, Tessa Stultz; marketing wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and community champion, Stephanie Speight; and web developer Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[Outtakes]

[Beep]

Pete: Now, one other angle that might help clear things up, when I say things like, oh gosh. Like, I’m not even, it’s not even noon and I’m falling asleep. All right.

[Beep]

Pete: The problem is that…the… okay, sorry. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll try it again.

[Beep]

Pete: The course runs for four consecutive Tuesdays beginning October 6th, and runs for four consecutive weeks. That’s redundant.

[Beep]

Pete: The course runs for four consecutive Tuesdays, beginning October 6th, oh gosh, I can’t speak. Okay. Two more sentences Pete, you can do this.

[Beep]

Pete: You’re a good man, Dave. Always make me sound good.

[End of recorded material]

Get smarter about the Bible and stuff.

Get insider updates + articles + podcast + more.

More Episodes...
Ask Pete: Questions from The Bible for Normal People Community

Ask Pete: Answering Questions from The Bible For Normal People Community

July 9, 2018

In this episode, Jared & Pete answer questions submitted from The Bible For Normal People community.

  1. How do we handle a Bible that lies to us?
  2. What’s a good Study Bible?
  3. Does God allow everything, from death to sickness, droughts, elections, etc? Are all things a present from God?
  4. What is the significance of baptism?

Pete also answered a bonus question from Ask Pete for our Patreon supporters: How to deal with anger, fear, and guilt after coming out of a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. Click here to watch the video or sign up!

Resources mentioned in this episode: