After Deconstruction

The last years have seen a grand deconstruction of Scripture reading and interpretation—some would say of Scripture itself. Of course, this has been an ongoing centuries-long project, but two unique elements dominate the past decade: first, the ‘New Atheists’ are actually reading the Bible—carefully and, unlike liberal scholars, they have read it literally with a view to destroying faith. “The Bible says it; I reject it; and that settles it.” And second, their dance partners in this deconstruction have been evangelicals who are finally questioning the modernist lingo of inerrancy and it’s narrow literalist interpretations. They’re ready to either toss Scripture (many have) or to reconstruct their reading on sturdier foundations.

For my part, the deconstruction has run along very specific lines. I have come to believe that Jesus Christ revealed the fullness of God in the Incarnation and thus, he—not the Bible—is the only divine Word and our final authority for theology, faith and Christian practice. His primacy as the revelation of God challenges doctrines like inerrancy when they elevate ‘every word of Scripture’ as the ‘infallible word of God.’ That latter phrase was reserved by the Church fathers for God the Son alone. And so while I do believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, I’m among a burgeoning crowd of quite conservative theologians who reject evangelical bibliolatry in favor of the Christ to whom Scripture faithfully points.

For those who’ve made that trek, the niggling question remains, ‘What now?’ How do we read the Bible, if at all, after the deconstruction? The answer to that will require many authors to contribute umpteen volumes, a task well on its way. What I’ll offer here is just one gesture toward reconstructed Bible-reading. Ironically, my suggestions were elementary standards in the early church, but were often marginalized by Protestant assumptions and the co-opting of Evangelicalism by modernity … and now by the fashionable cynicism of post-moderns. But anyway … you’ll see how a counter-intuitive reconstruction may be helpful.

Reading the Bible as an epic story heading somewhere

People used to read the Bible as if it were one big book, composed by one big author. Then, partly to acknowledge its many genres and our need to be flexible interpreters, we talked a LOT about how many books, authors, genres and years it took to create and compile this little library. Our pastors and teachers often de-emphasized the unity of Scripture. Our commentators and theologians emphasized the discontinuity of the two Testaments (Old vs. New, law vs. grace, even ‘Old Testament God’ vs. Jesus). I get that. Even the prophet Jeremiah, the apostle Paul and Jesus himself did serious religious deconstruction within the pages of Scripture. Their radical rereads were disorienting to the status quo. But there’s another side to this.

Having the many books from many eras gathered into one book can remind us of something important in terms of reconstruction: this is ultimately one story—an epic story. Heading somewhere. Focused. On purpose and on point.

Behind the many characters, perspectives, narrators and compositors—none who saw the grand plan—stands the Author and Architect who not only weaves together an impossible convergence of storylines and genres, he actually enters the story as the surprising climax and reorients every subplot such that they all point to him.

So when granny on her rocking chair thinks that she’s holding A Book, inspired and written by God, there is something brilliantly true happening that I propose can be reconstructive and helpful in dealing with problematic particulars.

In theological parlance, I am referring to the canonical shape and context of the Bible in its final form. On one hand, inerrancy imagined a kind of miraculous perfection of the first authors in some imaginary original ‘autographs’ (completely ignoring the inspiration involved in development, compilation and redaction). On the other, much of modern biblical criticism perpetually re-fragments the Bible through speculative reconstruction of source material. What I am describing in popular terms is something like Brevard Child’s ‘canonical contextual approach.’ This allows for a high view of divine authorship of the story, the real participation of the human authors in the writing, and the importance of the church in authorizing The Book that locates the inspiration and authority of the Bible in its final form (a la Brevard Childs’ ‘canonical contextual approach’). That is, the canon of Scripture as a whole becomes a context of its own, far greater than the sum of its parts because the final product congeals into the story. Moreover, a developing canon or differing canons or even various translations need not stumble us because it’s all about serving the story … the story (or message) really is the word of God about the Word of God.

Let me break it down further:

1. The Bible is an epic story of God’s love. The arc of the story is about how love creates a beloved cosmos for love sake. The plot features calamity and redemption, but it’s even broader than that, beginning with self-giving Love that will ultimately direct this beloved universe into the telos of union with divine love, where God is all and in all (because 1 Cor. 15, not Rev. 22, is our strongest telescope into the future ‘end of the ages’). At the center of it all, divine Love is enfleshed as Jesus Christ, whose story climaxes in crucifixion and resurrection as the punchline and axis mundi that draws the whole saga together.

Origen put it this way: if you don’t see this, then the whole book is Old Testament, and if you do, the whole book is New Testament. And so rather than tossing out the Old Testament because it often doesn’t look very Christlike, he said that we must think of the whole Bible as a Christian book, or not at all. This allows for some helpful moves, some obvious and some surprising and exciting.

2. … with many characters (some wicked, some righteous, many messy). We can make an obvious and palatable start with the characters of the Bible. The staunchest inerrantist would never defend the actual words of Job’s foolish friends, the ravings of Israel’s wicked kings, or the castigations of Judas to Jesus as inerrant revelations of the nature of God. They are only ‘true’ in that they are seen as accurate descriptions of a character’s lines in the broader story. We recognize that their actual words are not direct revelations per se; we don’t treat them as truths to embrace. But neither to we expunge them from the story. Their role and their lines are essential, both to the plot line, but also as moral mirrors before which Scripture asks us to stand. It includes Bildad and Jezebel and Judas precisely so that we will clearly see their rebellion reflected in ourselves, our churches or our nations when the shoe fits and take heed of their negative example (so says Paul in 1 Cor. 10:1-10).

3. … with many perspectives (multiple composers & [unreliable] narrators). So we see that almost no readers stumble over the wicked characters within a story. But many are still baffled because even while they can distinguish the Author (God) from the book’s problematic characters, we fail to delineate between the omniscient Author and the limited or unreliable narrator, even though literature does this all the time.

For example, in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the author constructs an epic tale of a very strange character—Don Quixote—but he also writes the tale through multiple genres, stories within stories, and a famously unreliable narrator. That is, the true author (Cervantes) knows exactly what he is doing, but he tells the story through a narrator who does not. Thus, the author is not truly the narrator; the narrator is actually a character who speaks from a particular perspective.

Or take a movie series like Star Wars, Star Trek or Aliens—movies which have an overall architect, but whose particular episodes may be delegated to writers and directors who don’t see their part in the big scheme of things. Prequels and sequels come out which may surprise not only the viewer, but expose the limited perspective of the previous writers and directors. Only the series architect knows the grand plan.

Using the analogy of an ‘unreliable narrator’ can bring perspective to how a particular Bible writer and/or narrator may be as limited as the characters they are describing, while the Grand Architect alone knows how any given book (episode) fits into the larger scheme.

For example, when Saul is ‘commanded by God’ to commit genocide through the prophet Samuel, we might dismiss Saul’s actions as sinful, but struggle to critique Samuel’s prophetic instructions because ‘the Bible says that God told Samuel.’ But wait, that’s not quite true. Actually, the narrator says that Samuel says … The compositor of 1 Samuel writes as if the narrator is all-knowing (which he isn’t) but because it’s in the Bible, we take the narrator as God himself.

4. But when God himself appears in the flesh, we get the Author’s perspective through his own mouth, and that right within the story! And the only divine Word-made-flesh has a very different perspective from the character (Samuel) or the narrator of 1 Samuel. When the omniscient Author speaks directly about mercy, about enemy love, about forgiveness, we must radically reconstruct our reading of 1 Samuel and reorder our understanding of what’s happening in this new light.

Two corollaries are super-important here: on the one hand, this phenomenon means that both the narrators and the characters of Scripture must always bow to the revelation of God the Word when he came in the flesh—and sometimes their perspective is completely inadequate. Okay, I’ll say it: errant. And Jesus says so.

But on the other hand, it does not mean the story is now unimportant or dispensable. Not at all. I might not approve of Jarjar Binks’ character or George Lucas’ writing or half of the Star Wars episodes, but unlike them, just as I need the culprits in the book of Judges, so too I need the disturbing narration of 1 Samuel. Why?  Because the book is by the Architect who was indeed communicating an important revelation—not about himself, but about me and my church and my nation.

Through the lens of Jesus, I can now read these books as part of the mega-series in which God’s people did and said horrific things in his name—things which God himself corrects when he arrives—in order to show us how we still do this all the time. In other words, through the incredible plot twist of the Incarnation, the divine Author comes to clue us in: we are NOT to read Joshua as our justification for holy war and religious violence. Rather, he shows us how his people have always justified hatred, bigotry and violence against the express wishes of an enemy-loving, sin-forgiving God. Moreover, once Jesus has shown us that such crusades and death-dealing are wrong, we can even be given eyes to see how the book of Joshua already did so too! (but that’s for another time).

 So what?

There are other keys to reconstructive Bible reading, but I’ve found that this One Author, one story perspective can free us from the tyranny of a ‘flat Bible’ mentality. Rather than treating the whole book equally, all the parts of the book arrange themselves around the pinnacle of the story (the Incarnation) and its main and only infallible Character. It is then up to the readers (in community, in the Spirit) to perceive how every part of the story leads to and follows from that center. And how the center critiques the individual chapters, characters and narration.

The simplest principle of such a read comes from John 10:10 – when you see life-giving in the Bible, you are seeing the Good Shepherd at work; when you see death-dealing, according to Jesus (right?), we’re seeing something or someone else at work—the spirit behind the system (i.e. the thief, the murderer, the destroyer). It remains then to be seen how the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep to make all things new … the trajectory set in motion by the Incarnation to which all things are still heading …

Brad Jersak teaches New Testament and Patristics at Westminster Theological Centre (UK) and is senior editor of CWR Magazine (ptm.org). He has recently written A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (CWR Press, 2015).

For further reading on ‘One Story, Two Revelations,’ see http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2014/08/one-story-two-revelations-four-voices-reading-biblical-narrative-christologically-brad-jersak.html

The Rest of the Series can be found here:  http://alwaysloved.net/category/articles/the-scriptures-series/

Brad

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19 Responses to “Under Reconstruction: Crazy Characters, Unreliable Narrators and the Divine Architect Part 8 in The Scriptures Series by Brad Jersak

  1. Patrick Monson on

    Wow. Things I’ve been considering for years…finally some text that backs up what I thought made me “less than Christian”. A brick wall is being moved out of the way to true awakening.

    Reply
    • william coles on

      Very good point,, but one that can easily be answered. The testimony in the original writings are indeed true. What we have today is a mangled mess of 16th century thinking, by Augustine, and other such like church fathers. anyway these church fathers have interpreted scriptures using a estern out look on many passages and indeed many words have been greatly mis translated,. so one must study these particular points out by themselves . for example take aion .. an age , but Augustine translates as eternal or eternity, or the word for everlasting punishment..kolassis which means age induring correction. so you may have to purchase a few new study books , from j crowder or jonathan welton or my favourite don k preston. chech one book from each of these authors at amazon / kindle. and your eyes and mind will be awakened. thankyou. William c e coles

      Reply
  2. ontheoutsidelookingin on

    I’ve struggled with a “two faced” God since I stepped into church attendance and Bible reading. In the OT, God was forever threatening and destroying people…a brief relief with Jesus…but then the church throws in the “if you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be thrown into the firey flames of hell.” Not a God I enjoyed embracing or sharing. For a couple of years now, I’ve not attended any church anywhere. Tired of being told to “look at your sins and reflect” and then “enjoy the grace of God”…being told that I am under the bondage of “generational sins” and must attend “Sozos” in order to get free…and then some personal experiences where I was convinced that God just threw me away to the enemy because I “couldn’t get it right”…my trust and faith in God has struggled. I read all these articles with some relief. At the same time, I ask, “Now what?” How do I find this Jesus who turns our lives into something beautiful and frees us from all the bondages of the church and personal belief systems? There is very little written about him in the Bible, truly, when you look at the entire book from one end to the other. Yes, He is there prophetically. And yes, I see His character and His actions. But I truly want to KNOW Jesus. I’m missing something big here, and don’t know how to peel it down to where I can just rest in it. I’m called a heritic by friends because I just look at things differently. At the same time, my ability to embrace Jesus lacks greatly. I read an article that said if you don’t feel worth of God’s embrace, you will not be able to receive it. Seems to me that God should be able to work through that with you. I have a lot of questions for which I find no answers. I look to a Jesus for whom I have no face, no ability to touch flesh, and an incredible longing for an internal connection. How does one build relationship? Thank you for helping to break down some of the walls I was feeling. Looking forward to the articles on reconstruction in relationship to Jesus.

    Reply
    • Tom Adams on

      Dear friend-I have never commented in this manner before, but was so compelled by the honesty and vulnerability that is expressed in your statements. I hear Jesus speak as I read your words.

      I’ve often viewed Judas’ kiss as a ‘fake intimacy’ with Jesus. I’m so glad you have not settled for a fake intimacy with Jesus, or settled for a relationship with a theroorerical Jesus!

      I do not comment to your questions to answer them, but to say I share them with you. I simply offer this thought: Jesus did not come as an example to us, but an example of us! Keep being yourself-His image and likeness, and your bound to see Jesus soon enough!
      -Tom

      Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      Was reminded of a sentence from Les Miserables: “to love another person is to see the face of God”. Very similar to 1st John which states: if you love your brother, you know God. Very often the connection we seek internally is only found when we discover the beauty of friendship. Maybe its the abstract idea of an invisible entity called god, that blinds us from seeing His glory in the face of the next person we meet. Did not Jesus Himself tell a story of which the conclusion is: how you relate to the least … is how you relate to me. He is closer, more present than what we ever imagined – not only in some idealistic mystical way, but in the messy here and now of real people’s lives.

      Reply
    • paul botner on

      Please feel free to message me on facebook: drpaulbotner. You have similar questions that I was praying to God about for 2 weeks from the bottom of my heart. It was all answered 2 weeks later when He filled me with His love supernaturally and spoke to me for the 1st time in my life. I would love to share my story with you.

      Reply
    • Chuck Wright on

      One of my dearest friends has shared with me the same feelings. He quit church because he felt like he was faking it and he has been frustrated to tears by not finding the tangible love he has heard God supposedly has for him. He listens intently when l express the knowing of God l have experienced yet l do not tell him to persuade him, we talk because he is one of my best friends and we love each other. He is one of the most sensitive, compassionate, and articulate people l know and l see and feel love; God’s love, in and from him as much from him as from anyone l know. I do not think it is caring to tell someone how they should or could experience Jesus but l have come to see Him “in” people everywhere; so simply lovingly real, so much from my friend, and as a result, it never enters my mind to tell him or anyone that anyone needs the One who is already there. Thank you for your caring for us so much as to share your heart. My love back to you.

      Reply
  3. wayne rogers on

    On the outside and Janis, many, if not most of us have felt the same at one time or another. So here goes. Have you ever had one of those WOW moments when you looked up to a vividly lit night sky, watched a colorful sunrise or sunset? Have you ever stood on a beach watching the surf roll in and sensed the depth, breadth, and power of an ocean or perhaps you ‘ve paused to to see the perfectly mirrored image of a fall backdrop in a small lake ( they make really mind bending jig saw puzzles)? Have you ever held a new born child in your arms? Have you ever felt love for another person? Has a song or a painting inexplicably brought you to tears? Have you ever laughed by yourself at something mundane just because it struck your funny bone? The abstracts we experience at those moments, love,peace, awe, kindness,tenderness, joy are not things we ourselves generate from within. These are shared moments of a relationship with the Creator of all things. For far too long we have been told we are unworthy, way too sinful to enter into a relationship with a holy god. Rubbish! The Gospel tells us the exact opposite. We are divine by design, created by Love for love. If you will, we are divine creations experiencing a “human” condition; which doesn’t put things in some kind of hierarchical order. So the next time you experience one of those abstract moments recognize that God has chosen you specifically, at that precise time to share with you His joy, His peace, His wonder, whatever. And the more often you do, you begin to see Him all over the place actively drawing you into His life. Give it a shot.

    Reply
  4. Deborah Henry on

    A place of acceptance and understanding is obtained when we realize that we are all so very much alike. So many whom speak of the bible as the Word of God are actually referring to Jesus as the Word of God. When we put down our swords, and open our eyes, we will see the unity and light in all of this. Deconstructing and restructuring has been done so many times before; it is sheer madness among philosophers. We talk so much of unconditional love and being like Jesus; yet we still have not learned to accept one another. We would rather critique and mock before we surrender to be our brother (or sister’s) keeper.

    Reply
  5. Karl on

    Fully agreed with the bible perspective detailed in the article. I actually think there is another significant point to be made (about the reading of the OT), which brings even more clarity to the narrative…

    The natural behaviour of men that we see in OT bible accounts reflects spiritual truth (when properly understood). This is because man is made in God’s image. Said another way, our natural tendencies are derived from His spiritual DNA. Thus when Israel destroys their physical enemies (under the purported command of God), it is because God does in fact desire for our spiritual enemies to be destroyed! But spiritual enemies are lying spirits (that prevent us from knowing God as He really is), not flesh and blood men (what Israel perceived).

    What we see in the OT narrative is that Israel was walking after a fleshy understanding of the truth. Their thinking was mostly carnal. The NT reads so much different because something explosive happened, which caused a significant maturation in man’s thinking. Jesus came to earth and showed us the truth about the Father.

    Reply
  6. Scott H on

    I grew up in quite a charismatic/fundamentalist/really abusive church, went through YWAM, came back to the coast and was involved in a couple churches here. Along the way, I lost my faith. I’ve finally found some peace in atheism/agnosticism. kinda boils down to 1. there is no real proof there is a god 2. there is no real way to say that anything in the bible is true 3. religion’s a very practical way to exert influence in order to gain power, control and wealth. That all being said, I still have a very hard time letting all of this go, its been commented that I am the most religious atheist people know.

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      Hi Scott … well people have commented that I am the most irreligious believer they know 🙂 Will make for interesting conversation.
      In responce to point one you raised:
      1. I agree. Neither is there any proof that beauty or love exists … yet for me it is more real than anything else in this world.

      Reply
  7. Jonathan Brickman on

    I will suggest, that God has indeed brought us every single word of the Holy Scriptures — and in these Holy Scriptures He has quoted Himself, holy angels, holy men and women, men and women of very mixed presence, men and women who were evil, evil angels, and the evil one. I will suggest that this is how we need to read Scripture; we need to bear most strongly in mind, that apostles are not as good as God.

    Reply

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