In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared answer some of the following listener questions:
- Does praying actually make a difference in our lives?
- What does the Bible tell us about prayer and is that relevant to us today?
- What is the danger of pulling biblical concepts to other areas that they don’t naturally belong?
- Does the Bible describe marriage as a covenant?
- Can normal people understand the Bible without getting a Bible degree?
- Why is reading the Bible in community important?
- Where does the Bible fit in with us relating to God in the present?
- What does Pete suggest for people who don’t have time to get a Bible degree?
- How is Jesus interpreted in other cultures?
- Can anyone claim to know the “real” Jesus?
- Why is it important to be aware of our our own biases when imagining God?
- Where do you draw the line of a bad interpretation of the Bible versus one that is just different than your own?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete and Jared you can share.
- “It’s actually a really fundamental problem to illegitimately transfer meanings from one context to another unless you have a really, really good reason.” @peteenns
- “To have a historically accurate understanding of the Bible is to understand the history and methodology of historians, which is an academic process.” @jbyas
- “This idea of reading in community can be really helpful because not everyone can go to school.” @jbyas
- “I’m interested in history, the academic conversation, but you don’t have to live there to engage the Bible and engage it and struggle with it, but some of us are just really interested in historical questions.” @peteenns
- “Any way we come to Jesus is going to come through a filter, so we have to start discerning what filters are better than others and also just accept the limitations that sometimes we will never not look at Jesus through this particular lens because of our own cultural bias and limitation.” @jbyas
- “We might find some of the Jesus’s from other cultures strange, unnerving, maybe even a little bit offensive and that’s the time to turn around and say – what is it about the Jesus we have that might be offensive to other people?” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Exodus for Normal People
- Website: Ask Pete
- Podcast: Tom Oord
- Podcast: Emilie Townes
- Podcast: James Kugel
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
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. Quick apologies at the beginning of this episode – we were not exempt from Snowpocalypse 2021. We were in Pennsylvania, and as such we didn’t make it into the studio to record this episode and we had some technical difficulties. Please forgive us, have some grace, enjoy anyway.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Before we get started with today’s episode, I just want to mention that the second book in our series in The Bible for Normal People, Exodus for Normal People, is out now. So, Pete – why don’t you give us a word about it?
Pete: Yeah, this book is all about trying to get into the really difficult and challenging stuff of the book of Exodus, looking at it through ancient eyes and also through how scholars have dealt with some of these challenging parts. And it’s a book that I hope you like and I hope you love and it was fun to write it and I’m really excited about it.
Jared: So, go now to https://peteenns.com/books/exodus-for-normal-people-book/, you can learn more, you can order the book from there or you can go online wherever you might order books and find it, Exodus for Normal People. Really excited to have this accessible commentary on the book of Exodus available for you now, https://peteenns.com/books/exodus-for-normal-people-book/.
[Music plays, then fades as speaker begins]
Pete: Well, folks, here we are with another joint episode here. Jared, what do you think of that?
Pete: Another joint episode, me and you. How many has this been? Several thousand?
Jared: Oh, many.
Pete: I don’t know, we’ve done a lot of these.
Jared: Several thousand. Yes, yes. Several thousand.
Pete: Not enough. Not enough, apparently. There’s so many things to talk about like what we’re talking about today is questions from the Ask B4NP thingy on our website. People drop questions there all the time and we periodically try to grab some of these and answer them and really, we order them in the answer of the ones we feel we have definitive answers to. The one where we can just sort of say, this is the absolute answer –
Jared: No. No.
Pete: That’s not what we’re doing? Actually, we’re doing the ones that get the highest votes, right? Answers are fine, whatever.
Jared: This one’s a little unique in that, you know, a lot of times we try to make them thematically connected and we talk about certain big picture themes, but for today, we’re just going to jump into some of these questions that have been asked, you know, as you said have been kind of “thumbsed up” the most and voted up the most –
Jared: And we’re just going to, we’re gonna riff. We’re gonna talk about them a little bit. Of course, we’re not going to come to the definitive answer as Pete suggested we might. False advertising.
Pete: Yeah, I know. It’s my wish.
Jared: But folks, let’s get started with the first one. We’re actually going to read them.
Jared: So, the first one is “why pray?”
Jared: “What does prayer actually do? When I hear others talk about prayer, they often say something like ‘expect great things when you pray,’ but the same people warn against testing God. Do we really believe that little Johnny may get better because we pray? Would he not get better if we didn’t pray? I have a hard time figuring out prayer/theology.”
Jared: So, why pray?
Pete: This is quite a topic, and I’m only half kidding here, because it’s like, you know, I think the way a lot of us were raised to think about prayer, it’s, it’s a petition to God and if you do it right or if God’s in the right mood or if it fits God’s perfect will, a great thing is going to happen. And I don’t know, I think, Jared, most people’s experiences line up with that way of thinking very easily. And in fact, and then it becomes really a source of, well, like the questioner here, right? It becomes a source of – “I’m really confused because this is not working out the way I was told it’s supposed to work out.”
Jared: Well, and it goes back to, again, our understanding of God and where we get that understanding of God and is God in control of things and, you know, in some ways, the idea that if God’s in control prayer would be more effective actually falls flat because if God’s in control, then God’s gonna do whatever God’s gonna do.
Jared: And so, you gotta kinda figure out this interaction between God and humans and how much is God influenced by humans and when we get to the Bible, the challenge is we have these different views of God. And in some places, God seems to be quite influenced by what humans are doing and in other places, not so much.
Pete: Yeah. I mean, in the Bible, I guess a lot of it comes down to how people read the Bible too, which is where we get how we think about God from. But you know, in the Bible, you do have people asking God for things and praying fervently and look at what happens! You know, Paul sprung out of prison. You know, an earthquake and that kind of thing, but most of us don’t really experience that. And I don’t want to suggest that God can’t or never does anything, but just, it’s our common experience that people usually don’t turn around from a fatal illness because they, I mean, prayer doesn’t seem to have an effect on things like that.
That’s at least our experience because there’s no, there’s no necessary correlation. So, you know, if prayer is not the way we were sort of, many of us were taught to think of it as you say the right things and then God will act in response to that if you have enough faith and if there’s no sin in your life, all that kind of stuff. If that’s not what it then what is it and why do it? And, which is sort of really what the question is. I mean, the questioner is as confused as we are about “this isn’t working so why do we do it?” You know, “what’s the point of this?” And I think that is a, that’s a different kind of question and a very, very good question to think about. So, Jared, what’s the answer?
Jared: Yeah, I mean, I don’t, I don’t think there’s an answer. Because again, where are we going to find the answer? If we go back to the Bible to try to find the answer we’re going to end up with, you know, different perspectives. There is a sense in which petitioning God, you know, affects things in the world and that God will do something based on our prayers and so, again, I don’t know if I would want to discourage that, but I think I would discourage this kind of karmic view where the more faith you have the more effective your prayers will be and the less faith you have, or the more sin in your life, the less effective your prayers will be.
Jared: I definitely want to reject that. It doesn’t seem to be the trajectory of where we’re going in the Bible, and it just doesn’t seem like a good kind of theology where it’s all dependent on us.
Pete: And then if you pray for something and that horrible thing does wind up happening, and then you say, well, God has a purpose for that. You know, we’ve had Tom Ward here on the podcast who talks very eloquently about how that’s really not a good theology. Like, God has a purpose for letting horrible things happen, what’s up with that? So, I, you know, I have struggled with prayer most of my life, to be quite honest with everybody out there, for reasons like this and I’m thinking, you know, whatever. And what has helped me, and again, this is not an answer, but what has helped me is moving towards a place where prayer is less about what I say and more about whose presence I’m in, and I’ve learned that from other people. And it’s not so much talking, which, you know, I’m a professor, I like talking. So, it’s not so much about talking, but it’s about quietness and stillness and sensing God without words, you know? So, I think there is a purpose for that, I think there’s a purpose for maybe not doing that, but if someone in your life is in a lot of pain just sort of shouting out and saying, you know, this is, “Lord, this is killing me. Help!” You know? There’s a, I mean, I do that and there’s nothing wrong with it, but that’s not sort of the cheap God as a butler kind of prayer. If I pray the right thing, things are going to happen. And maybe they’re right, circumstances can’t be changed or helped, but maybe how I perceive the world and how I perceive the situation can be changed and matured and grown. So, and I am learning that from other people who are really deep in the notion of prayer, like, more contemplatively oriented Christians who have sort of made that turn from praying is me asking and its sort of me being quiet and seeking contentment with my existence and not trying to change the world or expecting God to drop everything and help me find a parking space at the mall when there’s ISIS, you know, I just, that never made sense to me. Just don’t. I’ll be fine, I’ll get a job. And you know, so I don’t know, it’s a complicated thing, but I think what happens, people of faith just, it’s almost naturally just sort of like talk to God and I think that’s what people do, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that. We shouldn’t make excuses for it or say is it right or wrong –
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: You know, because that’s part of what people in relationships when they do, they talk to each other and talking with God and sometimes the answers are, you know, a serenity or a sense of peacefulness or maybe something else. But to me, that, it takes the pressure off and I can at least live with that way of thinking about praying and not the way that the questioner is describing, which is confusing for me too. Very unsatisfying for me, actually.
Jared: Yeah, I agree. You know, for me, my prayer life has been much more, lately, more similar in your vein but also in terms of character traits and I find myself asking more for things like discernment and wisdom and grace and patience, like, character traits and part of that is, you know, God perhaps granting that –
Jared: But it’s also a time for me to reflect on those things in my life. And to take that time to think about am I cultivating those things in my life and, so yeah. I’ve noticed it’s much less about asking for things, that’s almost nonexistent, and more about how do I, how do I relate with God in a way that leads me to being more of a kind of person I want to be in the world.
Pete: Right. And that requires self-reflection, which I think is part of prayer. I think self-reflection is a very important part. I mean, just, for me for example, if I’m hurting because somebody else is hurting and I want that hurting to stop, “Lord, make it stop.” I’ve learned right after that to add, “and how not to control it.” Right? Because I know myself and I want other people’s pain to stop for my own benefit. So, I have to let go of that. So a lot of this prayer thing is, like, yeah, there’s a thing out there that really, it makes me sad, it makes me angry, it makes me regretful, but I have to then bring that back on myself because if anything changes in prayer, that’s it. It’s not the outside world, it’s ourselves. And, you know, maybe sometimes we pray for things – “this is a horrible thing,” “let me have that job back.” Maybe not getting that job back is the best thing you can possibly have. And so, you know, we ask for things that are maybe not to our benefit because it allows us to keep living, maybe, our false self, something that we’re not authentic about and maybe it’s in going through some of these difficult things that we grow and mature and we learn. And so, you know, it’s actually, it’s a really simplistic and very unhelpful way of thinking about God is, again, that cosmic butler that’s just there to do our bidding if we ask the right way, and I think prayer is dissatisfying when looked at in that superficial way. It’s more complex and interesting and self-involving when we learn, as I am, different ways of approaching the whole idea.
Jared: Mm hmm, right. Okay, so we’ve tackled prayer and given some thoughts.
Pete: We’ve solved it in what, five minutes?
Jared: We’ve solved this problem.
Pete: We’re awesome.
Jared: I mean, it’s out the window never to be thought of again, to be honest.
Jared: But next question – is marriage mentioned as a covenant in the Bible? Is marriage mentioned as a covenant in the Bible? They say, the person says, “I can’t find it anywhere in the Bible.”
Pete: Yeah, neither can I. Well, I bet you some people can though.
Jared: Maybe I can set this up because we were talking about this a little bit before about where this idea comes from, and so I was reading this article from Tim Keller who would represent, I think, probably a pretty standard evangelical way of looking at marriage as a covenant and he says, you know, if we look at it, Paul evokes the idea of covenant when quoting Genesis 2:24 which says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” So, the Genesis text calls what happens cleaving and this is archaic, this is an archaic English term that conveys, it conveys the strength of the Hebrew verb, which modern translations render “united to.” It’s a Hebrew word that literally means to be glued to something, and elsewhere in the Bible the word cleave means to unite to someone through a covenant, a binding promise, or an oath. So, it’s used in this way in other areas of the Bible and so we’re taking it and putting it here in Genesis to say that to cleave is to have this binding oath. So, what would you say to that?
Pete: Well, yeah, I mean, I get the point of trying to sort of weave together different parts of the Bible to try to make a point, but, you know, one issue is whether you really have such a thing as marriage in Genesis. You know, a man, what Genesis 2:24, whatever is a man to leave his mother and father and the two shall become one and they’ll become whole that way. I’m, I don’t know if that means they’re getting married necessarily. It doesn’t say that. I mean, if you want to think it’s implied because that’s a good moral position to take, you’re gonna have some trouble in the Bible because there are a lot of bad moral positions that we find in the Old Testament. So, I’m not sure if that’s not really implied as far as I’m concerned. It’s more, I think it’s more of an explanation for why men and women are attracted to each other and want to physically unite as one. They want to have sex. Of course, this is LGBTQ, that’s not an issue here in Genesis that they’re talking about a binary of male and female, right?
So, I’m not convinced that Genesis is talking about that, but I think cleaving, that’s fine, but the fact that cleaving that word in Hebrew is used in other contexts to talk about covenants doesn’t mean a covenant is being referred to back in Genesis. You can’t take what a word means in one context and transfer that meaning over into another context. And just, and you can think about this – just look up the word “run” in an English dictionary. It takes like, two pages, all the different meanings of run. What run means, like, to run a company does not mean what it means to run a marathon. Run means different things in different contexts, that’s how language works. It’s actually a really fundamental problem to illegitimately transfer meanings from one context to another unless you have a really, really good reason. And I think calling marriage a covenant is, in addition to that, maybe spiritualizing, Christianizing, so to speak, something like marriage by giving it a name that’s really reserved in the Bible for two things – international politics and how God deals with Israel. That’s how covenant is used. I just don’t see a reason to think of marriage as a covenant. It’s very serious. You know, it’s a great idea, but to baptize it in that sense, I think that’s privileging something that, you know, biblically speaking, we don’t really have the right to privilege.
Jared: Well, and to take that the next step, you know, it often is a way to baptize a certain set of values, right, these family values which usually do exclude LGBTQ and others. And so, I think it’s important to recognize too, that those who want to defend the marriage covenant as between one man and one woman like we hear in that context more and more, have to recognize that biblically, marriage is much more complex than that. So, if we’re looking at the biblical ways of looking at marriage, not only do we have a “nuclear family” which wouldn’t actually have looked even like it today, it does, but we also have polygamy, we have like, this idea of the levirate marriage, we have the female slave, you know, the concubine. These are often considered to be part of marriage and condoned or at least not condemned. And so, we have to be careful when we’re talking about things that we want to, sort of our own values and place them back on the Bible, and I think that’s this idea of making sure that marriage is a covenant –
Jared: And it looks a certain way to baptize kind of, 21st century American conservative kind of male/female relationships in a certain way. Yeah, we just have to be careful. I think we do that a lot with our ethics is put those back onto the Bible and then – lo and behold – we find ways to make arguments for it, like make maybe Tim Keller does here.
Pete: Yeah, and calling it a covenant, like you said, when the only marriage option really involves male and female, calling it a covenant right away gives it sort of like a structure that when you say that people who aren’t just male and female get married, you’re breaking a covenant. That’s like Christian code, that’s biblical literalist code for like, God’s going to get you. You don’t break covenants; you don’t do that. That’s the wrong thing to do. And that’s sort of the problem, what you mean by covenant, nobody uses the word covenant today anyway. It’s a purely biblically oriented word. We don’t use that word in everyday, we say contract or agreement or something like that. But if we want to think of it as an agreement between people, then we should just say an agreement between people. But a covenant is already, regardless of what that word might mean in different, like, nonreligious settings, in the Christian world covenant is a powerful word that that is really saying this is a God-ordained thing and if you mess with it, you’re messing with God. As usual, the Bible is far more complicated and unruly and sort of untended to be sort of corralled like that and to be used, even if for some people the purposes are helpful and legitimate to try to say something good. The Bible just doesn’t cooperate with us that easily.
Jared: Okay. So, this actually does tie in quite well to the next question, because you know, we’re talking about, you know, illegitimate transfer of meaning. You can’t take this thing and put it into that context. Well, if we look in the Bible, we have all these examples of all other kinds of marriage. It makes it sound really complicated, and this is a question we actually get quite a bit, which is “how can normal people, everyday people, actually read the Bible and apply it when everything is so seemingly confusing and murky? I love the Bible, but it seems like the only way to be able to read it and really apply it is to be a scholar, an academic, a Ph.D.” How, what would you say to that?
Pete: Well, yeah. I definitely, we do get that a lot, don’t we Jared? And it is a good question.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: And I think, unfortunately, it’s somewhat true that it’s hard to understand parts of the Bible apart from some sort of, at least you read a lot. You don’t have to go to school, but you have to read a lot and think about things and the reason for that is because when we’re living, we’re living at a point in time where we have had, for at least, let’s say, roughly the last 300 years, an explosion of information about the past, about history, about the passage of time, archeological signs, all sorts of things. You know, when we sort of bring the Bible into that whole context and we read the Bible really as modern people very historically, very much like “what happened?” That’s part of the modern world that we’ve been a part of whether we know it or not for 300 years. And unfortunately, when you ask questions of history, yeah, there’s a lot of moving parts you have to get a handle on, and so I totally, I respect the question and I track with it because in that respect, if you’re interested in historical things, which is a complicated study that involves languages and some data that we have and putting complex pieces of a puzzle together, that does take some training. You don’t have to have it, but reading people who do it is probably a helpful thing to do. But there’s a difference between reading the Bible and legitimate ways of reading the Bible that are not fixated solely on historical things.
Jared: Well, and I think, that’s what I would add too is, yes, to be in, and I think that’s an important point to make I just want to reiterate – to have a historically accurate understanding of the Bible is to understand the history and methodology of historians, which is an academic process. It’s why we have education, it’s why we, you know, have schools, it’s so that, yeah, it’s not easy. It’s a difficult thing. But one thing you said, you know, there’s different ways of reading the Bible, I want to keep coming back to – this has been, you know, bounced around in my head since our episode with Emilie Townes last season – this idea of reading in community can be really helpful because not everyone can go to school in other things, but in community we can discern things together too. Some people have more information about a particular thing than we do, and I can bring a particular perspective. And we start to, then, think and talk about our experiences as a community and what it might mean for us in our community is a legitimate question as a community of faith. And so, we can do that in community, but I do think it’s always in parallel with this historical understanding, not just historical in the sense of being experts of the Bible, but also recognizing there’s 2,000 years of interpretation –
Jared: Behind all of these texts too and so, kind of being part of, I would say that great cloud of witnesses can help us from just going off the rails because that’s what can happen if I’m just an individual and I’m not trained and I don’t understand context, and I don’t understand these things – there is something edifying and important about just being able to have me and my Bible, but there’s also something really dangerous about that.
Pete: Right, right. And I think, you know, just to map onto this, things that have come out of, you know, the podcast we did with James Kugel which is in Season 4, how the Bible even got started. The Bible got started not because ancient Jews were thinking so much about history, but they were thinking about how their own historical past can possibly connect to their day and time. And that’s when you start getting things like, very creative interpretations of these texts because the point is to apply it, to bring it home to your time and to your place and to your circumstances. What this question is sort of like, lurking behind this question is an assumption that is a very common one, but which is this – that the proper way, the only proper way to apply the Bible is to be certain and clear about what it means historically. Modern scholarship has come around, it’s made it very difficult, sometimes, to come down hard on things about like, what happened, why did it happen, what was the original meaning? And then we have, well, what do we do with the Bible now? We can’t possibly apply it because we don’t know what it originally meant; we don’t have the history part nailed down.
Well, I think, again, the history of interpretation, like you’re saying, Jared, that extends all the way back to why the Bible was founded to begin with is the fact that we’re not connected to that history and we have to think creatively on our feet about what it means to commune with God. And the real deep thing that makes that work is the recognition that foundationally what’s happening is you’re relating to God, not to the Bible. They’re not the same thing. The Bible is a means of grace, of communion with God, it’s not the thing to get right first in order to commune with God. That’s, in a nutshell, the entire history of Jewish and Christian interpretation in my opinion. History is important. No one ever throws away history, but we don’t have access to it. What we have access to is God and God has access to us and this text is something we get to wrestle with and think through, right? So, that’s something you can do in community –
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: And you don’t need to be up on the latest archeological investigations, for example. Now, some people do love that stuff. I love that stuff, right?
Pete: And I do that for a living, I’m interested in history, the academic conversation, but you don’t have to live there to engage the Bible and engage it and struggle with it, but some of us are just really interested in historical questions.
Jared: Well, and it sounds like what you’re saying too, which I would agree with, is we also have to wrest away from ourselves the idea that the point is to get it right.
Jared: Like, if the point is to get it right in terms of what the original intention of every single author was, then you know, don’t go to church, go to graduate school and learn how to be a historian. But if the goal is to commune with God and commune with others and become more godly people in the sense of, you know, loving and faithful and trustworthy and all these things, and to be a community of faith, then maybe that’s, we’re barking up the wrong tree. And it’s not that those are separate, but they’re not the same endeavor.
Pete: Yeah. And one thing, too, just in sensing maybe the mood of the questioner here, if I can read between the lines, it’s like – do I have get a Ph.D.? Do I have to like, know all this stuff? Well, no. But the thing is, look at it differently – think of it as fun. Think of it as an opportunity to learn. You know? And that doesn’t mean getting a Ph.D. or going to seminary, but it might be having a really good study Bible and reading the notes and looking at the maps and seeing the kinds of like, scholarly insights that are distilled in a good study Bible. It’s an opportunity, it’s fun to learn. Sometimes, you know, people are frustrated like, do I have to know all this stuff? I think behind that is actually a burning desire to want to know some things, but you’re intimidated at the thought of like, I can’t possibly do all this stuff. Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? So, you just take it slow and have fun. Take it as an opportunity. Take it as a tug where you are invited to a deeper understanding of the Bible around questions that might interest you. And that, that’s an opportunity, that’s something that, that’s a wonderful luxury that we have, especially when we look at these things and, you know, do our best to understand it.
Jared: Yeah. I appreciate that. I think that’s a good way of, it’s a good way of thinking about it. Okay, so it actually did spark, this next question kept coming to mind as we were talking about that because it’s somewhat related. The question is “who is Jesus in Indian, Chinese, or other Asian traditions? How is he different from the white Western understanding of Jesus?” And the reason I’ll make the connection is because, again, when we’re, you know, when we’re not curious and we’re not reading study Bibles and we’re not understanding that Jesus was Jewish and understanding the Eastern context that the Bible comes out of, we can tend to put our own filter on the Bible. And we can just assume that, you know, the way I grew up and the filters that I used to read the Bible are the way to understand the Bible, that it is just the way to do it. So, that’s another thing where learning and getting study bibles, and again, like you said, just taking it one step at a time can actually not just add to our understanding but helps us take those blinders off that maybe we’ve been looking at this from one particular lens and there’s a lot of lenses through which we can read it. Like, you know – Indian, Chinese, Asian traditions, Native American traditions – there’s all kinds of traditions. So, how would you talk about this, you know, who is Jesus in these other traditions and how is that different than a white Western understanding of Jesus?
Pete: Well, I mean, like you said, we all have lenses, right?
So, every Jesus is an interpretive Jesus and I like to show my undergraduate students when we talk about Jesus’s birth showing them portraits of Madonna and Child and all these from medieval Italy, you know, where they look like noble people and they’re very white and they’re dressed like they have a lot of money and stuff and I tell them that’s not “wrong,” but it’s not the true picture. But this is what happens, people, Jesus is brought into people’s particular cultures and understood within those cultures. Now, I couldn’t possibly really comment on Indian or Chinese or Asian traditions. Other people can do that very well, but I can say that the white Western understanding of Jesus is also a traditioned understanding of who Jesus is and not the standard by which others are judged. And that’s, that’s really the problem. The white Western Jesus, well, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a white Western Jesus. And you know, if that’s what you need, that’s fine. Just realize that’s not the real thing because none of them are the real thing.
Jared: Well, that’s the scary, I think that’s a scary conclusion and maybe we can talk about that a little bit and it actually ties into the next question, but let’s stick to this for now –
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: I think there’s the challenge of, it’s hard for our minds to wrap around the idea that none of them are it. It’s always an interpreted Jesus because we are in that time and place. And so, any way we come to Jesus is going to come through a filter, so we have to start discerning what filters are better than others and also just accept the limitations that sometimes we will never not look at Jesus through this particular lens because of our own cultural bias and limitation.
Pete: And God can handle that and that’s just simply an expression of our humanity. Humanity, humans are encultured beings. We can never step outside and look at things, let’s say, in a neutral point of view. There’s no neutrality for humanity. We are subjective creatures and we’re products of when and where we were raised and how we were raised. And that’s the kind of thing, see, why does that have to be a negative, right? Like you’re saying, Jared, that is what it means to be human and if there’s a religion out there that can handle humanity being human, I mean, Christianity is at least one of them because of the whole incarnation business, whatever that means, however you interpret it, don’t worry about it. But God’s connection with humanity, actually in both Testaments, is one that where humanity is, it is the context within which God moves and there’s no such thing as humanity in general. There’s always, to use a phrase, particularized humanity. Jesus, you know, the son of God becomes not human, not a man, but a 1st century Hellenized Jew. That’s who Jesus was. And if that’s good for Jesus, we have to understand our own locations and our own, I was going to say limitations, but that’s a little bit too negative. Just, we’re restricted, I guess, so we’re going to see ultimate reality from our perspective, not from a higher perspective that’s untainted by our humanity. That’s actually bordering on heretical to think we can do that, right? So, they’re all, all the Jesus’s are good, and we might find some of the Jesus’s from other cultures strange, unnerving, maybe even a little bit offensive and that’s the time to turn around and say – what is it about the Jesus we have that might be offensive to other people? And learn to just, you know, live with that. That’s the way it is. And you know, just one other thing here, Jared, as I’m talking about this, even the Gospelers have different Jesus’s. Yeah, they overlap, but they, they have very different takes on who Jesus was and what the significance of Jesus was and they have different emphasis and would even say maybe agendas for writing the Gospel stories. So, even the Bible itself with its four portraits of Jesus doesn’t escape the real impact of human culture in talking about, let’s say, ultimate reality.
Jared: Okay. So, that does tie in with the last question, I think, that we’ll have time for today. So, I’m going to ask the question, but I want to tie it in here. It says, “why is Jonathan Edwards,” if you don’t know who that is, wrote Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, “why is Edwards quote ‘angry God theology’ not just another turn of the gemstone? When do you draw the line of bad interpretation versus different but valuable?” So, you know, you’re talking about these different Jesus’s and it sounds like you would be saying “all Jesus’s have some value, and they’re all valuable, and we can’t judge one from another. They’re all about the same.” So, kind of that relativistic rhetoric that my pastor warned me about when I was a kid. You know, how do we discern better versus worse interpretations when we’re socially located in our own particular place? How do we make these judgment calls? Or do we?
Pete: I think we invariably do make the judgment calls and I think the key word used is discerning. How do we discern? Well, we can begin by recognizing that we are discerning, we’re trying to discern. And with Jonathan Edwards, you know, he had that famous book Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and he was, he pictures God as sort of like, you’re hanging on a string, I think something like that, over the fires of hell if I’m remembering exactly how he put it, and you know, he might drop you at any minute. So, you’d better buck up, you know kind of thing. And I know Edwards scholars who say that’s really just rhetorical, he doesn’t really mean that, his theology is much more complex, which I’m sure is true, but Edward’s “angry God theology” is one that many, many people espouse and they actually think that’s really a good thing and maybe that’s a perspective that we have to take seriously and I don’t want to, to be honest with you.
You know, I don’t want to do that because I’m just lazy and trendy but I, to think in terms of my own context, I think in the infinite universe that we live in, whether God is fundamentally angry and out to get you. Right? That, to me, makes just no sense. So, that’s me, yeah, I’m doing this in a very abbreviated fashion, but that’s me trying to discern what I think is a valid or invalid reading of God. And for me, a God who’s out to get you, unless you say the right words to me, is not God and I came to that conclusion for various reasons and I’m discerning that. So, I would say the “angry God theology” is not just another perspective for seeing what God is really like, I actually think it falls into the category of a distortion of what God is like. That’s my opinion. Now, other people may have a different opinion. I have to listen to what they have to say, but I’m discerning and they’re discerning, and we can get together and discern differently.
Jared: Yeah, I mean, I think it comes back to something maybe we’ve talked about before on the podcast, which is we have our own ethical lens and ethical framework through which we read the Bible. So, you’re going to adjudicate that, you’re going to say I think this is a distortion based on the kind of God that I think makes the most sense in the world. You know, that I want to be a loving, compassionate human being. I want God to reflect that –
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: And I’m going to interpret these, interpret God, interpret the Bible through that lens and we all do that. And so, the question really becomes, you know, not do we “follow the Bible,” but are we working actively on our filter? Are we looking at power structures and dynamics? Are we looking at compassion and love? Are we looking at our own hurts and wounds from our past? Are we looking at our own traumas? And are we constantly, you know, figuring out ways to improve upon that filter?
Pete: Yeah. And that is a process of discernment and patience where you’re not going to get an answer. I stayed up all night and here’s what I think – it’s much more wonderful than that and I, what we’re really talking about here, Jared, is discerning what God is like and what we think God is like. That’s really another way of putting the question. And I have been encouraged and comforted by the fact that biblical writers themselves are doing that and don’t always come up with the same idea. They do have different perspectives on God, and I think of, you know, my favorite example – what does God think of the nasty Assyrians? Well, in Jonah God wants to save them, but in the book of Nahum, he destroys them. And these are two different discernments of what God is like and, you know, not to tidy this up too much, but pretty much everybody thinks Jonah is a much later text than Nahum. So, maybe people have been thinking about it for a while saying maybe God’s not out just to get the enemy, maybe God is about something else. Now, does that settle the question of the nature of God? No, but seeing the conversation should encourage us to sort of open up and ask probing questions and be willing to hear different answers. Because again, thinking about ultimate reality and when we’re talking about God, and we don’t capture that very well so we want to stay open to the different perspectives, the different turns of the gemstone as the questioner put it, but it’s also okay to say, you know, for me, that doesn’t make sense. It simply doesn’t sound like God.
That’s not science, that is not a mathematical formula where you’re certain about it, but for me, I simply cannot, my soul cannot bear that way of thinking about God. I know other people can. It’s even in biblical portraits here and here, but it’s also not in other biblical portraits here and there, and I’m part of that conversation too, doing my best to discern and to apply a system to this.
Jared: Yeah, and I think for me, you know, my final thought on that is, for my own experience, it’s enough to hang my hat on because for me the goal isn’t to get God right. I don’t think I’m ever going to get God right. It’s more to have that conversation and to see what kind of life is produced within the struggle, within the doubts, and within the conversation. So, it’s okay for me to say, “yeah, I don’t think that portrait of God, that doesn’t jive with me.”
Jared: And I can just hang my hat, that’s enough to move forward. I don’t need to necessarily, I don’t need to be certain about what God is like. I need to, I always like the world palpate. You know, it’s this word that you’re sort of pushing down on things. There’s something under the surface, but I don’t ever know, it’s sort of like walking through your house with your lights off. Like, I kinda know where the furniture is, I’m going to bump up against these things and that thing, and I kinda know the lay of the land but I’m never going to know it perfectly because I can’t see everything perfectly. And so, getting comfortable with that level of uncertainty and maybe seeing that the goal is something beyond just getting God right. Again, I’m a little biased on this, but I think that’s my framework, that’s how I come at it.
Pete: Right, right. And as the questioner asked, where would you draw the line of bad interpretation? I think it’s very valid to answer here’s where I would draw the line. Here’s why I would draw the line that way. And that’s okay. It’s okay just to leave it there and not feel like, well, you’re missing something that would make God completely right.
Pete: And I just, I don’t really have the energy to get God right at this stage in my life.
I’ve been wrong so often.
Jared: So, that’s how it is. We just, you just keep going until you get worn out.
Pete: Yeah, I’m just tired. It’s just whatever. I’m good. I’m good.
Pete: Whatever. Whateverrrrr…
Jared: Excellent. Well, I think that’s all the time that we have. So, thanks again
Pete: Yeahhhhh, unfortunately.
Jared: Joining us for another episode of The Bible for Normal People where we continue to ask questions about, you know, what is the Bible, what do we do with it, and really, inevitably, more and more is leading to the question what is God like and how do we discern that together as well?
Pete: Right. And keep those questions coming, we love seeing them.
Jared: Absolutely. See you next time.
Pete: See ya.
Megan: All right everyone, that is it for this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show. We also want to give a shout out to our producer’s group, who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. . If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Thanks 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.
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