“Read any commentary and it’ll pretty much explain the symbolism. My question is much, much simpler than that.” — Darren Wilson, Finding God in the Bible, pp. 193-194
The title is intriguing: Finding God in the Bible. It seems meant to work against what is now a several-centuries-old tradition of interpreting biblical texts without reference to God, without insisting that scripture is to have anything more than canonical weight. And Bill Johnson’s foreword to the book would seem to confirm that something like this is the point: “One of the great tragedies in Christianity is to have the Bible interpreted by people who are not in love” (p. 12). It doesn’t take one long to discover, however, that there’s something rather different at work in Darren Wilson’s book. The point isn’t to displace one mode of biblical interpretation with another—at least not exclusively. It’s rather to diagnose what Wilson takes to be a common problem: the average Christian’s (misguided) distaste for many of the Bible’s narratives. To find God in the Bible is thus to see all the Bible’s oddities as coded illustrations of what it means to be in a loving friendship with God.
I’m reading Wilson’s book as a believing Latter-day Saint—as a Mormon. That makes for a few difficulties, perhaps. I find it difficult to accept at least two of Wilson’s principal presuppositions, stated at the outset of the book’s first chapter: (1) “God is an author”; (2) God’s written production is “so good … that God never felt the need to write a sequel” (p. 15). There should be no surprise about my faltering before the second of these claims: I accept (and celebrate!) the Book of Mormon as scripture, along with the Bible. (To be clear, the Book of Mormon doesn’t present itself as a sequel to the Bible; the relation between the two texts is actually quite complex….) Why, though, should I worry about the first claim? Well, because my commitments—both religious and scholarly—lead me to the conviction that God’s word and will come to us refracted through the prism of human attempts to announce the word of God. Only in the Word did God’s word come undiluted, but even then we learn most of what we know about the Word only through the diluting words of the evangelists.
Those are difficulties, maybe, but they’re not insuperable barriers—as I hope my Mormonism isn’t itself an insuperable barrier to those responding to my contribution to this roundtable! Indeed, I think I hear in Wilson’s book something like my just-mentioned worry about the dilution of God’s word in the Bible. The point of the biblical text, on Wilson’s reading, is to illustrate the way that God’s purposes and plans are worked out in the messiness of human history. Wilson says, for instance, the following toward the end of the book: “I can hardly comprehend the kind of warrior and barbaric mentality these [biblical] cultures embraced; nor can I understand their various customs, tribal feuds, idol worship, or political and religious issues. I can only understand the stories as stories, and as such, I can only understand aspects of God’s character as filtered through those stories” (p. 199). While I’m uncomfortable with the idea that God produced the Bible in any kind of immediate or unfiltered way, I hear my own convictions echoed in the idea that scripture records the doings of God among peoples and so illustrates God’s way of seeking us miserable human beings out.
In a word, I think Wilson is right—more than right—that there’s something to be overcome in the average Christian’s lack of comfort with the biblical text. And I think he’s right that what has to be learned is something about the way God deals with His children in love. But I’m left with a worry, a rather major worry, in my view. There’s something, I think, that’s missing from love as Wilson conceives of it. Throughout Finding God in the Bible, God’s love is always the love of a person. As I read scripture, I find there a divine love focused on peoples.
At times I wonder how anyone can miss it. The story of Abraham, for instance, is unmistakably a story about the founding of a people, and more specifically about the founding of a people that isn’t a people—about the founding of a people that has the task of transforming the way that the peoples of the earth relate to one another. The crisis on Moriah is entirely focused on the creation of that people, about the paradoxical gesture that lies at the heart of the creation of a paradoxical people. The story of Moses seeing God in Exodus 33 comes in the middle of a further crisis in the establishment of that people, and the larger story of Moses is unmistakably the story of sorting out the destiny of that same people. The story of Joseph is the microcosmic story of how that people rather consistently divided themselves anciently into two rival peoples rather than focusing on the task their collective covenant gave them to fulfill. The stories of Gideon and Saul, balanced in opposition, tell the respective stories of how the people with the task of reconciling all peoples at times saw and at times didn’t see their historical purpose. The story of David is the story of how that people was confirmed with a further covenant so that they could finally perform the work they’d been given to do. The stories of the prophets rather generally are the stories of how that same people had to be called again and again to their real task. And the story of Jesus is the story of how God intervened to turn the heart of that people definitively to the possibility of fulfilling the work they’d been given to do since Abraham.
I’ve just run through all the stories (minus one) that Wilson covers in the course of his book. In each case, Wilson finds a story of a singular relationship, between God and a person, His friend. In each case, for whatever it’s worth, I find a story of the way God intervenes again and again to constitute a people that can then intervene among the peoples of the earth to make for the possibility of peace. Wilson’s tendency is thus toward what Harold Bloom has called “the American religion,” a certain insistence on a private relationship between the individual and God. (Bloom argued that Mormonism is the key example of that “religion.” I disagree, but to take up that issue would be neither here nor there.) It seems to me that Wilson is asking the right questions, but the answers he provides are, again and again, refracted far too much through the prism of his American upbringing.
That’s a criticism, but I’d like it to be a minor one. Wilson’s writing is engaging and interesting. His stories are fascinating. His willingness to admit the strangeness of his charismatic experiences even as he refuses to deny their reality is exemplary. And, as I say, he’s asking exactly the right questions. All Christians ought to be so bold. And, I think, all Christians ought to be even bolder—bold enough to see that God’s purposes are far, far greater than the establishment of a one-on-one relationship with any one of us.
God has looked for a people, and not just for persons, in the past. What if He’s still looking for a people?