“aha” moments (19): Jared Byas

Jared ByasToday’s post is part of our continuing yet intermittent “aha” moment series, this from Jared Byas.

Byas (BA in Philosophy from Liberty University and an MAR from Westminster Theological Seminary) was in pastoral ministry from 2004 until 2011. He then left to teach Philosophy & Ethics at Grand Canyon University and co-launch MyOhai, a collective of creatives and advisers (that he now runs under the name EMDASH) where he advises individuals and organizations on how to communicate better. In 2012 he co-wrote Genesis for Normal People with me and in 2013 he became the founding operations director for Experience Institute, an innovative graduate school alternative based in Chicago.

Byas and his wife Sarah live in suburban Philadelphia and have four children: Augustine (6), Tov (5), Elletheia (3), & Exodus (1).

**************

Some teenagers dream of being musicians or sports stars. My dream was seminary — and becoming a Christian apologist. So, after receiving a B.A. in philosophy at a self-described conservative Christian university my new wife and I moved states for me to live the dream.

Little did I know the dream would include lying awake for countless nights alternating between intense fear that I might go to hell for changing my views about the Bible and giddy excitement, like I had just opened the Bible again for the first time.

Just like many in this series, my “aha” moments concerning the Bible came from actually studying it in my seminary Bible classes and followed Thomas Kuhn’s description of paradigm shift perfectly: minor shifts that over time forced a new framework for understanding the whole.

But a few of those shifts were more memorable than others.

The first was discovering the work of Walter Brueggemann. His Texts Under Negotiation and Prophetic Imagination reminded me of a quote by the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget that shit and just play.”

When Brueggemann could quote the latest scholarship and garner the respect of the academy while also penning phrases like,

Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one, (Prophetic Imagination, 40)

it was evident that he was engaged in playful mastery.

His writings asked that I stop trying to make the Bible “relevant” (an important phrase in my tradition), whether it be to culture, contemporary church polity, or theology, and instead immerse myself with such abandon that I became relevant to the text.

He showed me that scholarship coupled with deep imagination is the heart of the theological enterprise; that is, he modeled for me the responsibility of pursuing biblical scholarship beyond my own ideological idols and gave me the permission to do it with imagination and passion.

And he let me know it probably wouldn’t be well received by those in power.

My second memorable “aha” moment was my interaction with Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard. After reading his entire corpus and exchanging emails with him for a graduate seminar on Old Testament Theology I felt like I had gone through rehab and boot camp, all in one semester.

Like Brueggemann, Levenson continued to indulge my fascination with “playful mastery.” But Brueggemann, though he had given me the courage to chart a different course, hadn’t really given me any maps. Through his sharp analyses of biblical conflict, tension, and contradiction, Levenson was my map.

Levenson effortlessly quotes biblical and rabbinic texts to animate the conflict within the traditions behind the Hebrew Bible in Sinai & Zion. He creatively interrogates how Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26) may point to a cover-up about child sacrifice in The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.

And he does it all with an evident passion and respect for the text that avoids both religious eisegesis and dismissive antagonism.

I came to seminary with an protectionist Calvinist orientation, and chose my seminary for that reason. But I came to see that Levenson and Brueggemann took the Bible more seriously than I or my tradition did—or anyone I had read before—and it led them to dangerously refreshing and compelling conclusions.

Their tenacious sincerity about the text wasn’t a means to defending already existing dogmas but a means to understanding, and beyond that, imagination. That was new for me. And I was hooked.

In full disclosure, those months were difficult for me. During this time, I was a teaching pastor and was constantly wrestling with how these “aha” moments would affect my congregation, and, to be honest, my paycheck. They were also hard on my wife, who noticed a change in me. One morning she finally said, “I feel like you’ve lost your convictions about Christianity. What’s going on?”

That stung. I had always prided myself on being a person of conviction. But she was right. And she was also wrong.

I said, “If you mean my convictions about how to read the Bible, then yes. But if you mean my love for the Bible itself, then no. I think I’ve just now found it.” That was enough for her. And thankfully we’ve been on a beautiful journey of faith together ever since.

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  • . .

    Up until I became a Christian as a young man, I grew up thinking that the Bible was bullshit.

    This is also bullshit.

    • LorenHaas

      Insightfull

    • newenglandsun

      I’m confused by what you mean. Do you mind sharing more?

    • Judy Buck-Glenn

      It sounds as if he scared you. You are refusing to engage, even to the point of explaining WHY you think it is bullshit. Maybe the paradigm shift worries you. If it happened once, could it happen again, and will you lose your nice tidy answers?

    • Kim Fabricius

      Your comment suggests a failure to understand exactly what constitutes “bullshit”, a semantically rich term which you seem to be deploying rhetorically for something that simply pisses you off. I recommend (a) giving the term a rest for the remainder of Lent, and (b) reading, marking, and inwardly digesting the seminal On Bullshit (2005) by the eminent Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. It may teach you some word-care.

      You might also check out Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory (2012). You may even find pp.4-7 self-descriptive.

      • Richard Goulette

        Thank you Kim. Your response was better than Pete’s(apparent non) moderation! Kind of made my Monday!

        • Kim Fabricius

          The thanks is all mine, Richard. It was a so-fine post. What Jared says about “relevance” (which modernist-liberals also bang on about) and the importance of the imagination in any project, including the theological (and homiletic), really resonated. And Brueggemann (I don’t know Levenson’s work) — he’s been a game-changer for many (or, in my case, -enricher).

    • newenglandsun

      Also, please do not steal my registered and trademarked one-liner.

      https://newenglandsun.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/bullshit/

    • Andrew Dowling

      That comment was as insightful as your screen name.

    • Jared Byas

      I am a bit fuzzy on what “this” is referring to.

  • Michael McKeever

    Thanks, Jared. And thanks for the “aha moments” posts, Peter.
    They are read with many “uh huh” moments.

  • Joey

    This is a great post. Thanks, Jared. I found this quote interesting:
    One morning she finally said, “I feel like you’ve lost your convictions about Christianity. What’s going on?”
    Jared, your response to your wife was excellent and in no way are my following thoughts intended to single her out or to demean her. Her response was (is for many) a typical response of many. Why is it that people are so concerned with “Maintaining their Christianity?” At the end of it all and when were all dead, if there is a judgement, I doubt that God’s first words are going to be “Hey, you weren’t a Christian while on earth. Sorry, you are out.” Wrestling with the text, as you did, and coming to new conclusions, as you and your wife did, are great things and part of the journey. Sometimes the masses worry too much about maintaining orthodoxy or worry too much about “well, if I start believing that…well, it may lead to heresy.” Sure, that may be a possibility, but let’s let God worry about those things. I find it interesting that many that worry about keeping their same views and beliefs about the bible, somehow don’t consider themselves Pharisees. Go figure. At the same time, they somehow believe that if Jesus was literally walking around on earth, in the 21st century, he’d walk into their churches an agree on every single statement of faith they created. I’m betting that he’d be freaked out and would feel more comfortable in a temple or synagogue!
    This is why Parker’s quote (“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget that shit and just play.”) is great. Eventually, we must learn all we can in a certain field, in this case biblical studies, forget a whole bunch of stuff about it, and find our own groove.
    Thanks, again.

    • Jared Byas

      Well put, thanks!

  • Dean

    I like hearing stories like this. I think if the Bible is to be relevant to us in the post-postmodern age it will require more of us to think this way. I’m not exactly sure what the fundamentalists think is going to happen, when there is instantaneous access to unlimited information about anything you can possible want to learn about, how can you expect to Christians not to question what they are taught in Sunday school? I’ve said this before, in no other walk of life do you sit in a room and just ingest what one person tells you and not question on what authority they have to tell you that you have to believe everything they say. The more I think about that the more it gives me the creeps. I wonder what folks like Al Mohler are going to do when people stop worrying about excommunication and actually assess their theological arguments on their merits.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

    Thanks for this, Jared. I especially resonate with the parts about taking the text more seriously. I think my “aha” moment happened when reading Adler syntopically with Kuhn. I was taking a Chaucer course at the time, and all of the sudden I realized that my Chaucer professor had more respect for his text than my religion professors had for theirs. That was quite a revelation.

    • Gary

      I’ve reoriented “high view” of Scripture to be more along these lines.

    • Jared Byas

      Interesting!

    • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      Or maybe it was Shakespeare. It was a while ago.

  • Joel Batts

    Jared, I think you are a bit into an ad hominem when you say “But I came to see that Levenson and Brueggemann took the Bible more seriously than I or my tradition did…”. Is it really the case that your professors at WTS and others in the “tradition” you refer to don’t take the Bible as seriously as Levenson and Brueggemann? You’ve obviously come to different conclusions than that tradition, but it would be helpful to hear more about how you arrived at those conclusions rather than calling into question the seriousness with which those in that tradition study the Bible.

    • Jared Byas

      Perhaps. I was simply describing my experience – as I experienced it at the time – but sure. It depends on what we mean by “serious” I suppose but yes, to be fair, most Christians assume they are taking the bible “seriously.”

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    Jared, Your journey reminds me of the one taken by Robert M. Price, from hellfire fundamentalism to seminary and later, liberal Christianity, as described in his free online work (one of his earliest), Beyond Born Again. Though Price may have taken his questions further than you, he still loves the Bible, or as he calls it “The Human Bible” in his podcasts of the same name, or his Bible Geek podcasts.

    Thom Stark’s journey also resembles your own, and Stark has a chapter on the human sacrifice question in his book, The Human Faces of God.

    Beyond Born Again, and, The Human Faces of God, are both marvelously challenging reading.

    • Jared Byas

      Agreed Edward – I enjoyed Stark’s book a lot.

  • Daniel Fisher

    Please forgive me if this is a bit pedantic, but back in a logic class I had in college, it was suggested that any time we hear the word “may” in any context (e.g., “eating 12 grapefruit a day may prevent pancreatic cancer”), we should mentally insert “or may not” (“eating 12 grapefruit a day ‘may or may not’ prevent pancreatic cancer”) – as this makes clear the uncertainty of the statement which is sometimes obscured by the optimistic sounding “this ‘may’ be the case”.

    So it may [or may not?] just be a personal peeve of mine, but I am a bit dismayed that one of these “aha” moments was triggered by an argument that Deuteronomy and Leviticus “may” (or may not) have been covering up child sacrifice. This seems a significant shift made on the basis of what sounds like a working hypothesis?

    • Todd

      I don’t want to speak for Jared; however, I think in this instance the word “may” serves to highlight the complexity of the argument presented by Levenson that caused an “aha” moment. The “aha” is caused by the realization that something that at one point was thought to be rather “cut and dried” (scripture’s testimony regarding child sacrifice) is no longer so. I
      would suggest reading Levenson’s book to get the full flavor.

      • Jared Byas

        ^What he said. Thanks Todd.

        • Daniel Fisher

          Jared,

          Really would appreciate your further thoughts on exactly how the child sacrifice hypothesis became an “aha”: I wouldn’t reject my evangelical beliefs on the basis that competing hypotheses *existed*…. I would only reject such beliefs if I became convinced that competing hypotheses were in fact *correct*. That is, if I rejected my evangelical belief in the resurrection upon being exposed to a someone proffering a “creative” hypothesis that the resurrection “may” have been the result of a conspiracy by the apostles…. then I think people would be justified in suggesting that my prior belief in the resurrection was on very shaky ground to start with.

          I can appreicate that Bruggemann’s and Levenson’s (and perhaps others’) other works and influence had already moved you significantly, and this item was one additional straw on an increasingly over-burdened camel… but I guess I’m dubious how a “creative” hypothetical “perhaps” kind of argument could in itself be “the” (or even “an”) ‘aha’ moment that, in itself, turned the lights on?

          But I will add the Levenson book to my reading list, in any case. Thanks for taking the time to write here.

  • Chip

    I have read every one of Dr. Enns’ blog posts and have found them very interesting to ponder. My thoughts here are not about any particular “a-ha” post. I have noticed something though as I read and reflect on the stories. The posts leave me feeling I am unenlightened; that since I’ve not had an “a-ha” moment or since I hold certain theological position(s) I am hopelessly trapped in an archaic (at best) or enslaving (at worst) view of the Bible and Christianity. A comment on one of Dr. Enns’ posts raised what I think is the defining question in all of this theological interaction which is, what do you think happens when a person dies? Do you believe in heaven and hell and do you believe some go to heaven and others go to hell? If so, why? If not, why? All the wrestling over OT genocide, the accuracy
    of Biblical texts, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and other such issues get
    swallowed up lock, stock, and barrel by the question of eternity. No matter how you deal with them, eternity still stares at you and its stare is quite unsettling. What do you do with that? A post about Walter Brueggeman’s influence on theological students wrestling with “a-ha” issues said, “Unfortunately, while my theological school was very good at helping its students to see these things for themselves, it didn’t do such a good job of helping us to communicate them to our congregations.” There is an excruciatingly simple reason why “these things” don’t communicate with one’s congregation – the “these things” have no connection with the lonely widow whose son never calls. None. Zero. And when you sit with that widow holding a Bible you feel contains a lot of religious myths that supposedly tell a story about God you realize the baby got thrown out with the bath water.

  • Christopher Hays

    Really lovely writing here, Jared. Thanks for this.

  • Jim

    Thanks, Jared! Your first couple of paragraphs described my experience exactly – the anxious nights and the comment on the paradigm shift being “minor shifts” that ultimately forced a new understanding.
    Thankfully, my wife has followed, but a good friend was met with, “So, you don’t believe in Jesus any more?”

    • Tim

      I’ve had some conversations like that with friends as well, unfortunately.