Preston Sprinkle is a guy I respect. As we’ve interacted over the past couple of years, he’s always been graceful (even where we’ve disagreed). Hence, I think he’s chosen a topic he models: grace. Not only so, but he’s a thoughtful scholar and embraces the nonviolence of Jesus (see my review of Fight: a christian case for nonviolence). We actually agree on quite a bit! So… here’s your chance to learn about his latest book: Preston Sprinkle, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014).
KW: So I have to ask up front: Why another book on grace? How is your book different from all the others out there?
PS: That’s a great question! Yes, there are many books on grace, but mine is different for a variety of reasons. For one, I focus primarily on the Old Testament to show that grace is not just a New Testament thing. Grace is not just a characteristic of God that pops up here and there; it’s the very backbone of the Old Testament story.
Another unique feature of the book is its candid tone. Even though I’m a theologian, I wrote this book for real people. You know, 22 year olds who are jaded by Christianity, 45 year single moms trying to hold it together, 16 year olds wondering “why do we go to church again?,” and seasoned believers who are tired of trying to maintain God’s love by checking off religious boxes.
KW: Speaking of language, I notice that you use some edgy phrases. Some of your chapter titles are “Whore,” “Tattoo,” and “Thug.” And in the book you call Judah a porn star, Gomer a whore, and regarding Ruth, you say: “she’s not exactly a perfect model for girls to follow. I would never tell my daughter to soak herself in oil and snuggle up with her half-drunk relative in a barn (Ruth 3:3–5).” What’s with the tone?
PS: Well, Gomer was a whore. Ruth did soak herself in oil when Boaz had a few too many glasses of wine. And Judah? I mean, the guy had sex with his daughter in law because he thought she was a prostitute!
My language is very intentional. As I read and teach the Bible, I’m continually struck by how uncut its language is. Ezekiel 16, for instance (which I talk about extensively in chapter 6: “Whore”), is so sexually explicit that there’s not a single English Bible that dares to translate it literally. Even the Masorites (Jewish scribes, ca. AD 1000), when they gave us the Hebrew text that we now use for the Old Testament, erased the original Hebrew verb in Zech Deut 28:30, Zech 14:2, and other passages, because the original word shagel—the one God breathed out—was considered too obscene. (For those racing to these passages in your English Bibles, you won’t find anything; it’s been edited to read more pleasantly.)
The fact is, God gave us his word in all its grit and grime, because His grace invaded us and conquered us while we were living in such grime. You can’t spackle over the edges of the Bible with religiosity and nice language and then expect to be gripped by its grace. We need to stop trying to neuter the Bible and chain it up inside our gated communities. We need to cut the leash and let it run wild and free.
KW: I notice that you highlight the flaws of the Old Testament “heroes” more than their strengths. Tell us why you did this and how it fits into your theme of grace?
PS: I think many of us have been trained to read the Old Testament morally instead of theologically. That is, we comb its pages for moral examples to follow. We need to be like Abraham, live like Jacob, and be a leader like Moses, Joshua, or David. We should fight like Samson, flee like Joseph, and stand up for God like Esther.
But most of the characters of the Old Testament are not good examples to follow. Abraham was a liar, Jacob was a cheater, Moses was a tongue-tied murderer, Esther broke more commandments than she kept and never even mentioned God, and Samson was a self-centered, vengeful porn star enslaved to lust and bloodshed. Even David, who’s among the most moral, lusted, coveted, stole, fornicated, lied, and then killed one of his most loyal comrades so that he can marry his wife—all in a single episode! I’ve never actually met anyone as sinful as David. Murder his close friend so he can marry his wife whom he’s already had sex with? Wow. If we follow our Old Testament “heroes” as Scripture presents them, we could end up in prison.
The Old Testament is not a moral handbook on how to be a good person. It’s all about grace: God delighting in undelightful people and using them to change the world.
By highlighting the flaws of people, then, I’m highlighting the goodness and power of God who uses such people.
KW: About your title, why did you choose Charis?
PS: Charis (with a hard “ch” like karis)is the Greek word for grace. It was widely used in the Greco-Roman society; it simply meant “gift.” When people gave gifts to others, they called this charis. But the ancients didn’t give gifts indiscriminately. They gave gifts to those worthy to receive it, those who could give something back. They would never give gifts to those who were unworthy of such gifts.
But Jesus did. Jesus and His followers gutted the word charis and infused it with fresh meaning, with life-giving power. Jesus did more than give charis to the unworthy dregs of society. He made it His mission to seek them out.
Our word grace has been overused and abused. It has lost its luster, its richness, its … charis. Perhaps through overuse, grace has become another nice term dumped into our worn-out bag of Christian lingo. We say grace before meals, include grace in gospel presentations, and slap the word grace on the names of churches. But if we never hug a harlot, befriend a beggar, or forgive our enemy seventy-times seven, then we confess grace with our lips but mock it with our lives. First Church of Grace or Grace Fellowship or Grace Community—or whatever—should be an otherworldly safe haven where enemies are loved, porn stars are forgiven, and worn out religious marathoners are refreshed by Jesus’s declaration: “It is finished!”