Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture

Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture December 20, 2014

I had a chance to interview Derek Flood recently about his new book, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. I had seen lots of interviews and blog posts about the book’s challenge for those with conservative views of the Bible, and wanted to find out how he saw its message for progressives and liberals.

Here’s the interview – with my questions in bold, and Derek’s responses beneath. You can purchase the book from Amazon.com – and can still get it in time for Christmas!

What led you to decide to write this book in the first place? Was it primarily your own wrestling with the Biblical texts that had a disturbing character to them? Or was it what people do with the Bible, using it to justify violence? Or some combination of the two, or something else?

It began as a personal struggle of faith. I saw these “texts of terror” and was deeply disturbed by them. If this was part of my Bible how could I say that it was good, let alone the Good Book? However, it developed out of that personal focus into a broader one as I began to see how people in the past, and people now were really being hurt by these texts. In short, I began to see what Jesus was seeing in his time and how people—those he called the least, the poor—were being hurt by how the religious leaders of his time were reading Scripture.

The light-bulb moment that lead to the book was when I discovered that the way I had learned to read the Bible as an Evangelical looked a lot like how the Pharisees were doing it, and that the way Jesus was reading it was completely different. The Pharisees’ reading can be described as unquestioning obedience, and the way Jesus reads can be described as faithful questioning. As I dug deeper I found that Paul was doing the same thing as Jesus, and I found that this way of faithful questioning has deep Jewish roots going back to the Old Testament itself, which is not one single homogenized view, but instead a record of dispute where its canon contains authors presenting opposing arguments. Job argues with Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes contradicts Proverbs, Ruth questions Ezra/Nehemiah. In each case we have people questioning religious violence. Such questioning, I am convinced, is not a sign of a weak faith, but an absolutely essential part of a healthy faith.

Your book is presented in most of the publicity materials as controversial. From my own progressive/liberal Christian perspective, however, it didn’t sound controversial at all, but exciting. And it turned out that some of the points you make – challenging inerrancy and infallibility, plotting a trajectory through Scripture, and using Jesus’ model of Scriptural interpretation as our own – are ones that I’ve often sought to make. And so let me ask you this: what do you see as the main message of your book for readers who are already sympathetic to your approach? Is it likely to be just encouragement in what we already think, or do you think your book has a challenging and potentially controversial message for Christians moderates, liberals, and progressives?

I’m glad you find it exciting. I do too! Controversial is a term marketing people like to use, so I’m not so sure about that. What I would say though is that the book is equally challenging to people from a variety of perspectives including those coming from mainline, progressive, and anabaptist backgrounds. It’s challenging for two reasons:

First, the book takes a really honest look at the troubling texts of Scripture, which is something a lot of progressives tend to avoid. We want to instead focus on the parts that are about caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, and so on—and those parts are indeed in there! But there are also some deeply disturbing and awful things in the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, that we need to face.

Progressives and mainliners often give the impression that this is all just a matter of misinterpretation—if we would only understand the genre, cultural context, or this or that word in the original language, then it would all be fine. Again, that is all important. But the fact is, there are some things in the Old Testament—things like genocide, infanticide, rape, slavery, and even cannibalism—that are really just as bad as you think they are. It’s not just a matter of misinterpretation. We need to face that head on.

Secondly, the book takes these things that many progressives are drawn to—like reading the Bible through a Jesus-lens, reading on a trajectory, and so on—and really works out how to do that practically. So my hope is that a progressive reader would find that the book is saying things that are on the tip of their tongues, but really working out in a deep and practical way how that works out in our lives of faith together.

Take for example the idea of reading Scripture like Jesus. This begs the question “which Jesus?” Is it the Jesus that someone like Shane Claiborne sees, or is it the Jesus of Mark Driscoll? Hyper-conservatives would agree that we should read the Bible with a Jesus-lens, but would arrive at widely different conclusions about what that looks like. So how do we determine what is right?

What I propose in the book is that Jesus did not appeal to authority arguments, but was constantly drawing us away from them and towards evaluating things on their merit. We should “look at the fruits” he says. That is, we should evaluate the effects in people’s lives and determine if it leads to flourishing or to harm. That’s hard work to be sure, but in the end where Jesus is leading us, if we learn to adopt his approach to Scripture, is to being morally emancipated. It’s about learning to be moral adults, about learning to see what Jesus sees, having the mind of Christ, rather than shutting off our minds as we read.

Suppose someone decides to push back and question the notion of a trajectory, suggesting that the Bible is simply diverse, how would you make the case to them that the Bible, taken as a whole, points in a particular direction, even if it doesn’t speak with a single unified voice on the subject of violence?

Well, actually, I would agree that the Old Testament, in particular, is simply diverse. It is a multi-vocal text written by multiple authors expressing multiple, and at times, contradictory views and moral visions. The way to identify the trajectory we should take as Christians is to look at what Jesus embraces and what he rejects from the Old Testament. Jesus embraces a narrative that is focused on compassion, and we can find that narrative running throughout the Old Testament, but it is not in fact the majority narrative. The narrative Jesus identifies with is the minority voice in Scripture, the voice of protest in the name of compassion. That minority voice—the one crying out from the wilderness, from the margins—is the voice of the suffering servant. The majority voice is the voice of power and domination. It’s also important to stress that Jesus would not want us to identify with that minority voice simply because he does, but because we see what he sees, because we get his heart for the least. We follow in his way because we recognize that it is good, because we get why grace is amazing.

So when I talk about trajectory, I’m actually referring to how we read the New Testament. We need to learn to identify where they were headed and take it further, rather than reading the New Testament as the final word. We need to see it as the floor, not the ceiling. A clear example of this is slavery. The New Testament, read in a flat way, says “you can own slaves, just be nice to them.” However, today we regard slavery as utterly wrong. A trajectory reading thus recognizes that the New Testament was taking important steps away from slavery, and continues in that same direction, moving to abolish it.

We can and must apply that same trajectory approach to a host of other issues—gender equality, sexual minorities, race relations, corporal punishment of children, our criminal justice system, how we deal with international conflict, and our country’s addiction to violence. The bottom line here is that the goal of a trajectory reading is to read Scripture in a way that leads us to love, leads us forward, putting us on the cutting edge of moral advance, rather than tethering us to the past. That is what Jesus was doing in his time, and it is our task to continue this in our time. I think that’s exciting, and something our world desperately needs.

_____________

Many thanks to Derek for the opportunity to talk in this way about his book, Disarming Scripture. It is available for Kindle, and so there is no need to pay extra for shipping to have it in time for Christmas!

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  • earlrichards
  • Herro

    How fortunate that Jesus just happened to interpet the Old Testament in a way that’s similar to the way this liberal guy interprets it. And how fortunate that Jesus was against all that OT violence.

    • That would be an authority argument, and arguments based on authority inevitably lead to misapplication and harm. What I am saying is that a careful and honest study of Jesus leads us to conclude that he was constantly trying to get people to learn to question authority, question their assumptions, etc with the goal of getting us to develop morally.

      So in keeping with that, I am proposing that we embrace things because we observe and recognize that they are good (like we can observe that compassion is good) and reject things because we can observe that it is hurtful (like violence is).

      It is when people in contrast accept things on blind authority that we end up having people championing atrocity and demonstrating a hardened heart, a lack of empathy, and lack of moral reflection.

      • Aren’t you applying a very particular interpretation of Jesus as depicted (variably) in the gospels?

        Others would say that authority is precisely the basis upon which Jesus taught:

        Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

        Granted, I like your interpretation better, because I, too, think that arguments based on authority are flawed. But I don’t think this because of the gospels; I think this because history has shown us how easily authority can be abused.

        • It is always possible for someone to argue that their reading of Jesus–or their reading of the Bible for that matter–is the “right” one. So no matter what I claim someone else can always make a counter-claim and find some proof-text to back it up.

          Again, I would argue that what is “right” is the interpretation that leads us to good, and the one that is wrong is the one that leads to hurt.

          For what it’s worth, I honestly do think that this was precisely what Jesus was constantly saying as well. He favored interpretations that lead people to love, and rejected ones that lead to hurt.

          But doing that is not right because Jesus does it, it is right because we can recognize that it is good. I follow Jesus and his way because I recognize that his way is good.

          • Well, I would agree that it is always possible for someone to argue that their reading of Jesus or the Bible is the “right” one – it’s such a diverse collection of texts with numerous agendas, a bit of wisdom, but even more to be rejected.

            I follow good wisdom wherever it is to be found.

      • Herro

        >…[Jesus] was constantly trying to get people to learn to question authority, question their assumptions, etc with the goal of getting us to develop morally.

        Derek, are you talking about Jesus as he probably actually was (i.e. the historical Jesus) or just the Jesus of the gospels?

        • The study of Jesus’ reading of Scripture I present in my book is based on a canonical reading of the Gospels informed by scholarship. In particular, the work of William Loader, James Dunn, and Albert Nolan has been quite influential.