Stark's "Human Faces of God"

Thom Stark is kicking my ass.

Here’s how bad it is: I thought I was a hard-nosed atheist always ready to find some unsavory bit of the Bible to bring up. I thought I looked at the Bible with an unromantic eye.

Then along comes Thom Stark with his book The Human Faces of God. He’s a Christian in the Stone-Campbell tradition. That connects him to the grandson of Barton Stone, my hero Charles Chilton Moore, so I like him already.

Human Faces of God is his argument against inerrancy, but he also brings out all of the ugly parts of the Bible and faces them head on.

Stark makes me look like Josh McDowell. Or better, like John Shelby Spong, a Liberal Christian desperately trying to wring some inspiring lesson from the text and think the best of its authors. I thought I had left that behind, but Stark is forcing me to realize that I’m still thinking in that mode.

You may remember my interpretation of the Book of Job, which I see as a lesson in the “otherness” of God, a being beyond our understanding of good and evil.

Stark’s having none of that:

Ultimately, the book of Job never acquits Yahweh of the charges brought against him by Job. In fact, the narrative does not shrink back from impugning Yahweh, vindicating Job’s accusations that Yahweh does what he will simply because he can. [...] Job is never told why he had to suffer, and today’s pious readers tend to see an air of mystery and profundity in that fact. But they miss what would be obvious to the ancient audience. Although Job does not know why he suffers, the audience is privy. Job is suffering because the gods in the heavens have made a wager. (p.8)

Been a while since someone called me “pious.”

I think I’ve said something about how impressive it was that the creators of the Jewish canon were able to tolerate the diversity of views in the texts they selected.

Stark has another theory:

… bringing the broad corpus of literature under the domain of the establishment helped to ensure that it could not be used to inspire dissenting ideas. The genius of appropriating dissenting texts in service of establishment orthodoxy lies in that fact. Thus editors were put to work revising the texts, reframing the perspectives to give them a pro-establishment spin. (p.13)

This is scholarship without apologetics. If we discovered a cache of Babylonian writings spanning a thousand years, this is the way they’d be treated: without malice, but also without charity.

I haven’t even gotten a copy of the book yet. I’ve just been reading the (surprisingly generous) preview on Google Books. It’s made an incredible splash amongst the bible blogs. Not necessarily because his arguments are new, but because he’s put together a very forceful and very convincing presentation in a book that’s accessible to a wide audience.

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  • mikespeir

    Making it through the last chapter is torture, though. There, he tries to make us understand that it’s still a good and reasonable thing to be a Christian.

    • Thom

      No, not exactly. I never argue that it’s either good or reasonable to be a Christian. My intended audience was Christian, so being a Christian was just the assumption. I didn’t write a book to tell people what they should or shouldn’t call themselves; I wrote the book to talk about how we should and shouldn’t read these texts. I wasn’t trying to convert anybody from anything to anything else (not Christian to agnostic, not agnostic to Christian). And the strategy I proposed for reading the Christian Bible is one that applies to anybody and any text. Don’t just dismiss it because it’s bad. Confront it, and in so doing, confront our own pretensions to righteousness.

      • mikespeir

        I read the book. (In fact, I recommend it.) I’m not suggesting you’re trying to convert anyone. However, you do attempt to palliate the Christian after the gale-force winds of the previous chapters. You are in effect telling him, “Despite all that, there’s no good reason to think this house of cards should come down.” I’m staggered that anyone would want to subscribe to the Christian faith after the way you jack-hammered its foundations.

        • Thom

          Thanks for the comments, Mike. I don’t take offense or anything, but I do think you’re misconstruing what I’m doing in that last chapter. I’m not saying there’s no reason the house of cards shouldn’t come down. Let it come down! Rather, I’m offering Christians a way forward (our a way “out” if you prefer) that doesn’t force them to reject or despise their starting point.

          As is clear to anyone who reads the book, the kind of Christian faith I articulate is not at all “the Christian faith” as traditionally understood. I don’t believe in having doctrines; I don’t believe in giving assent to metaphysical propositions. Rather, I want to critically appropriate the vocabulary and grammar of all traditions (beginning with my own), in order to better understand the world and ourselves. Part of the way we do that is by condemning aspects of our traditions, but in doing so, recognizing that those condemnable perspectives linger, in various ways, within our modern “progressive” selves.

          As I’ve said around and about the place, all God-talk is poetic, not scientific; evocative, not descriptive. So in that last chapter I’m using some vocabulary from my tradition to articulate a coming out of an architectonic religion of dogmatic propositions into a way of acting upon the world through dialogue and conversation with the endless Others, that we’ll find are really little different from ourselves.

          So when you read me as trying to salvage the Christian faith and assure Christians that the house of cards doesn’t have to come down, I think you’ve missed what I’m really doing and saying in that chapter. But I do understand what you’re saying. You just have to understand that my vocabulary was chosen because of my primary intended audience and because I’m more interested in helping people move forward from within their traditions than telling them they have to start over. I don’t think anybody has to start over: such a waste! But if somebody reads my book and determines that they want or need to start over, that’s perfectly fine by me.

          • Thom

            *or a way out

          • mikespeir

            I’ll let that lie. It might be interesting, though, if you were to write–perhaps in another book–exactly what you are advocating.

            • Thom

              See comment below. :-)

          • Michael

            I’m using some vocabulary from my tradition to articulate a coming out of an architectonic religion of dogmatic propositions into a way of acting upon the world through dialogue and conversation with the endless Others, that we’ll find are really little different from ourselves.

            I don’t really see why the Christian tradition is necessary or even helpful to achieve this goal. Is the idea to frame this philosophy in terms familiar to your Christian audience? Or are you claiming there is inherent (or even special) value in the Christian scriptures that should be preserved?

            I have not read your book (yet), so naturally I’m not really sure where you’re coming from, but that particular sentence interests me.

            • Thom

              “Is the idea to frame this philosophy in terms familiar to your Christian audience?”

              Yes. That’s it. And my view is that, although there are real differences between traditions (secular and religious), there are often different ways of saying similar things. So I would employ the vocabulary of one tradition when talking to that tradition, and the vocabulary of another when talking to another. It’s pedagogical.

      • Thom

        But for the record, I do have plans for a future book (a ways off yet, as I have other book contracts to fulfill first) in which I’ll articulate all of this and more at great length. I’m planning to title it, Agnostic Christianity: A Faith Beyond Belief.

        • mikespeir

          LOL! I had just written my previous comment and then yours here came up. Good. I’ll be looking for that book.

          • Thom

            Yeah, that’s pretty funny. Well, I’ll try to get to it sooner rather than later!

            Thanks for the sharp engagement!

        • MKR

          I like that title. Christianity is not, in James’s terms, a “live option” for me, but an “agnostic faith,” if such a thing is possible, would be something that I could respect. A few years ago, a book was published by James Carse called The Religious Case Against Belief. I bought a copy and tried to read it, but it was like trying to count the holes in an acoustic-tile ceiling. I don’t see how anyone could pay sustained attention to prose so vague, turgid, and stultifying. I hope Mr. Stark (whose writings I have not yet read) will make a better job of it.

          • Thom

            Thanks, I’ll check out that book by Carse and make sure I don’t repeat his mistakes!

  • Alex

    Funny thing is that I can’t work out from this what the book actually tries to argue. :) Is it pointing out that even Jews, who should know a thing or two about the old testament, doesn’t even take it as the irreverent word of God, and that apologetics must take a different path than rejecting common sense and science like those wacky young-earth creationists do?

    • MKR

      even Jews . . . doesn’t even take it as the irreverent word of God

      I’ll take grammar and word usage for 500, Alex.

      • Alex

        Ouch. Well, Mr. Grammar And Word Usage Nazi, I shall be more careful in the future, and I’m glad there’s people like you in the world who’s willing to take the time to nitpick about these matters over any other generalized context, semantic or otherwise, within. Also, just a friendly reminder in your quest of perfect English everywhere; not everyone understands the US specific joke you made, especially most of us who don’t even speak English as our first language, so a disclaimer or explanation of the context might help in making you sound less like a douche. So, yeah, what I’m really trying to say is that, yes, don’t go to sleep because Someone’s Wrong On The Internet, especially here deep down in the comment bowls of a blog post that I’m sure has a slightly different topic than this meta discussion!


        • Alex

          I guess a clumsy attempt at humor got in the way of the delicious barbecue on offer. I wasn’t thinking you were an apologist at all, I’m actually quite positively surprised at what unapologetic writing I can gather from this meta review, and the honesty on display is quite refreshing. I suppose I’ve seen too much creationists nonsense of late and commented in that context, and an honest and rational treatment of the god of the bible without the hand-waving and apologetics is exactly what I would love to see more of. I’ve ordered the book, and I’m looking forward to it, so thanks.

    • Thom

      I’m not an apologist. Someone recently told me that the spirit of Anti-Apologist dwells within me. I can jive with that.

      • Alex

        Uh, see my answer to the post above. I confused one reply button with another. Oops.

        • Thom

          Ah, sorry Alex! My bad. I thought you were genuinely asking if I was offering a different apologetic.

          Hey, thanks for ordering the book. Be sure to let me know what you think!

          All the best,

  • Thom

    Vorjack, I love and appreciate your engagement, and I’m very glad to hear you’re finding the book useful. :)

    • Elemenope

      What would you say to the argument that the framing story of Job is a later extrapolation of the text (designed to make people more comfortable by providing a reason for the mess and a happy ending), and that the more thematically consistent middle section properly has a messier, more existentially-charged moral than “YHWH is a fickle jerk”?

      • Thom

        Well, the text is composite, certainly, but, unlike Ecclesiastes, it isn’t as simple as just an intro and conclusion. There are numerous interpolations into the dialogues, and that addition of the speeches of Elihu contradict the logic of the poem throughout. Generally, scholars don’t argue that the intro (where God makes a wager with Satan) was a later addition to the original composition of the book. Of course, scholars believe that the original composition was a complete narrative that was “inspired by” (in a sense) earlier and disparate poetry, which the author incorporated into a coherent narrative of his construction. So in that sense, yes, the narrative framing would be an addition to some of the ideas expressed in the poetry, but it was most likely a part of the original composition of the first draft of the Book of Job, before the later interpolations came in.

  • Alexis

    Our preacher dwelled on the idea that by abiding god’s testing, Job garnered greater rewards in the end. I could never get past the outcome for his original wives and children who all died horribly, and then we never heard of them again. I identified with those wives and children, not with Job.

    • AVlCENNA

      There is a Hindu equivalent of Job called Karna. The ultimate joke is that he is the only human to teach god a lesson.

      I have heard the “greater rewards” but I asked is suffering linked to the reward? The more you suffer the greater the reward or is Job a special case?

    • Alexis

      Read Xtopher Hitchen’s on Mama Teresa. Many xtians, believe in the value of suffering, and in helping others to suffer, as well. And if they were admitted to a heaven free of suffering, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves! To them, suffering is life. As C3PO says “Our kind was made to suffer”.

      • Len

        And if they were admitted to a heaven free of suffering, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves!

        That kind of sounds like heaven will be awful. I’m glad it doesn’t exist and that I’m not going there.

  • atimetorend

    …he’s put together a very forceful and very convincing presentation in a book that’s accessible to a wide audience.

    I agree with this being a main strength of the book. And the underlying evangelical acceptance of biblical inerrancy taints so many conversations about the bible. Even once someone has rejected it, discussions still seem to be framed around it. So addressing inerrancy head-on is important. Other authors within evangelicalism (I assume Stark probably is not writing from within that group) will discuss the scholarly consensus about the bible, but dance around inerrancy, or “inspiration” of the texts, unwilling to fully discard it.

    I would also add that Stark’s analysis is remarkably honest for a Christian digging through this material. I have not encountered many (or perhaps any) Christian authors who are as willing to go where the evidence leads when studying the bible.

    • Thom

      “Even once someone has rejected it, discussions still seem to be framed around it.”

      That’s a very important point!

  • claidheamh mor

    When I was a christian and read Job, I had the idea God never acquitted himself. I always wondered at the conclusions believers came to about Job and God, Job suffering so good, God good, blah blah; they weren’t borne out by whatever was actually in the text.

  • kholdom0790

    Coincidentally, I have a lecture by Prof. John McDowell coming up in my World Religions class. Should I be scared? lol.

  • lauram

    Thom, buying your book for my Nook. Was on the fence, but your reasoned and civil comments here decided it. Thanks!

    • Thom

      Thanks, lauram. Let me know what you think of it!

      But I don’t think it’s available for Nook, unfortunately. It does have a Kindle edition. :(

      • vorjack

        But I don’t think it’s available for Nook

        It’s not. I’ve been pestering B&N every so often, but I haven’t gotten a response.

        • Thom


          An alternative is to buy it from my publisher’s website and use the coupon code STARK. That’ll give you a 40% discount. (I’m not including a link because of your policy.) :)

  • Mike

    I picked up the sample text of this book, after reading about it here on UF, and I have to say it has definitely resonated with me (being and ex-Christian) and my quest for truth. I’m interested to see how he manages to keep his faith after taking the Bible to the woodshed.