Who Should Read this Book – Readers, specifically persons who are Christians, who may struggle with understanding the Bible but love Jesus and desire to read the Bible in a Jesus-shaped way.
What’s the Big Takeaway – The central revelation of the Bible is that Jesus is the clearest revelation of who God is and thus all of scripture must be interpreted in light of Jesus.
A quote: “The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen years old, he grew a beard” (29)
If you’ve read the Bible, or spent any time around honest people who have, you know the questions that frequently come up:
“How could a loving God command the genocide of whole nations of people, such as in Deuteronomy 7?”
“How could a loving God allow people to own slaves? Exodus 21:20-21 says it is okay to beat your slave as long as the slave does not die. Is that really okay with God?”
“Would a loving God really command not just murder, but then command the Israelites to kidnap the surviving women to become their wives, essentially condoning rape, as Numbers 31 says?”
“How could a loving God create a cosmos where some people, probably most people if only the real and true Christians are saved, end up suffering in torture forever and ever?”
I’ve asked these questions. Further, I’ve worked in full-time campus ministry for over fifteen years and have heard students ask these questions year after year. Many students are coming from a Christian background, being away from home for the first time and experiencing freedom, are wondering if they want to continue in the faith of their parents. Some are being asked questions from friends or reading the Bible on their own for the first time.
My answers to these questions have certainly changed over the years. When I began, having grown up in the American evangelical branch of Christianity, I felt compelled to take the entirety of the Bible “literally.” The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, was our final authority in all things. Interpreting it in this way, one answer was to fall back on “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” and affirm that we may not understand why God does things, but who are we to judge God? Another answer was to say that God had no other option but to allow (command) such things in order to get to the climax of the story, the coming of Jesus.
As I shared such answers, lingering in the background were my own doubts about what I was saying. Does genocide, violence and murder all of a sudden become a good thing when God does it? We are, supposedly, to become more like God, but it seems God is so different from us that we somehow to becoming like God is to learn to be more callous towards those who are judged/punished/massacred. I remember hearing Christians like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say that hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on the sin of New Orleans. I shuddered at such statements. Yet, theologically and biblically, they were more consistent than I was. God had done it before so why wouldn’t God do it again? They just had the guts to say it.
I recall I tended to focus on the argument that God had no other option but to command these things in order to get to Jesus. But this was to reduce God to employing a sort of means-to-an-end ethic. Is God really weak enough to have to work this way?
Over the years I kept reading – scripture as well as historical theology and the early church fathers. I kept praying and journaling and talking to people. I also shed some tears. The more I came to understand Jesus as the clearest revelation of who God is, the more I felt I needed to relearn how to read scripture.
As I said, I read a lot of books. Well, I wish I had had Bradley Jersak’s A More Christlike Word fifteen years ago! This book is absolutely fantastic and a must-read for any Christian trying to figure out how to read the Bible. There are lots of other helpful books out there, but I think this is the one I will recommend to people going forward. Jersak covers a lot of ground, filling the 285 pages with a ton of content. Though he is a scholar and theologian, he writes in an engaging style that any Christian could easily grasp. He answers the sort of questions people are asking and provides plenty of additional resources for further study.
Jersak echoes many of us in writing, “I did not find these BIble passages troubling because I didn’t love and trust the Bible – it was because I DID. Deeply. Still do” (45). We could see these troubling passages and walk away from faith altogether. Some did that and still do that. I empathize with this. Sadly, some well-meaning Christians scoff at those deconstructing their faith and asking questions, telling them that they are just rebels against God who want to sin or don’t take the Bible seriously enough. When I talk to students, friends or others asking these questions it is usually those who take their faith most seriously who are doing the asking, questioning and deconstructing.
Jersak’s core thesis is presented right away:
“When we stand firm on Scripture’s central revelation – that Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, is what God finally says about himself – biblicism (the notion that the Bible is our final authority) presents a thousand objections in the form of contrary biblical proof texts” (21).
“Jesus is the Word of God and the Christian Scriptures faithfully testify to him. To speak of the Word of God is to proclaim Jesus Christ as the author, finisher, and final authority of Christian faith” (27).
Jersak’s previous book, A More Christlike God, argued for understanding God in this Christ-like way. For many evangelicals (and I focus on evangelicals because that’s my own background), Jesus is the means for which we get saved. The point of Jesus is his work on the cross and in the resurrection. But once salvation is taken care of and we begin to discuss what God is like, the revelation of God in Jesus is reduced to just one image of God among many. In other words, sometimes God is loving and forgiving. But at other times, and eventually at the end of time, God is vengeful and vindictive.
The point is not that Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again; the point is this is not just something to believe to get saved but instead this reveals who God always has been and ought to change everything about how we think of God!
Some Christians may accuse those of us who interpret the Bible in the way Jersak does of “picking and choosing.” Jersak brings this up at some point. When we look to the revelation of God in Jesus to say that we know God does not command genocide and murder, we’re often told we’re picking which parts of the Bible to follow. I think this is ironic, because by submitting all of scripture to Jesus we are now unable to “pick and choose” which image of God to follow. Instead, we must always understand God as revealed in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus. We are disarmed; no more vengeance or retaliation. I would argue it is those who relativize Jesus as one of many pictures of God who are able to pick and choose. When you want to choose forgiveness and love, you have a God who does this. But if you want to see vengeance done on your enemies, well you can find that too (and history shows plenty of Christians have utilized this conception of God to justify violence; heck, we had President Biden quoting scripture on wrath to justify drone attacks that ended up killing innocent children).
What does it look like to interpret the entire Bible in light of Jesus. Jersak writes:
“Read the Bible. When anything in the rest of the Bible disagrees with Jesus, listen to Jesus. When Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets) appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, what does Abba say? ‘This is my Son. Listen to him.’ The Law and Prophets point to Jesus. Never use them to correct him. He’s the Word of God. And they are now submissive witnesses to the Word of God, when read by the Spirit” (41).
The obvious question then is, how come the Bible includes all this offensive, violent and un-Christlike portrayals of God? Jersak cites Pete Enns who said, “because God let his children tell the story” (57). God allowed the Israelites to think, believe, say and write things about God that were not true of who God is. Jersak describes this as voices in conversation about God that ultimately leads to the revelation of the one infallible Word, Jesus. And it is not even that the scripture prior to Jesus spoke in one voice. We have the prophets, such as Jeremiah (in Jeremiah 7), speaking for God, saying it was not God who asked for sacrifice. Except, when you go back to the Law, the command for sacrifice is from God!
Its not that God changed, as if God wanted sacrifice for a while until God wanted justice and pure hearts. Instead, God has always been the same but the knowledge of God has opened up. Jersak calls this progressive illumination:
“We also see the Holy Spirit at work within that process. . . progressively removing veils for the people of God even as their story moved forward. We see divine illumination transforming their image of God all along, preparing them to see what God had revealed all along, preparing them to see what God had revealed to Abraham from the beginning: that God’s heart was to bless the whole world through his Seed (Jesus Christ)” (84).
Through the story we learn then that God is not a national deity, favoring one nation over another, but that God desires to bless the world. God is not a violent death dealer, but instead God’s plan is redemption and peace for all. Further, we see these images of God in all of scripture as well. Its all mixed in together. When we go back and read it in light of Jesus we see the glimmers of who God is amidst the false pictures of God.
Importantly, Jersak demonstrates that this way of reading scripture is not some modern idea that came along because we all became soft-hearted in the last few years. This reading is rooted in the ancient way of reading scripture, which saw the literal level as just the surface, the place to begin, before we dig into the deeper levels that reveal moral truths and how it all points to Jesus:
“A literalist reading of Scripture depicts God as a moral monster, capable of constructing, committing, and commanding evils that violate any healthy human conscience. But it hasn’t always been this way. There was a richer, deeper, literal sense in the early church” (121).
This is one of the things I most appreciate about Jersak and the other modern scholars he is in line with: they root their theology and interpretation in the early church. Not just the early church, but really much of the church for the first 1,500 years and interpreters outside the west up to the present day. The way we evangelicals learned to read the Bible in the last century in America, with our emphasis on flattening out the Bible so all scriptures are the same and to be taken literally is really the new, modern idea. This way of reading, shared by fundamentalists and atheists alike, leads to all sorts of problems:
“Many disillusioned Christians, embittered ex-Evangelicals, and haughty New Atheists denigrate the Bible in the easiest possible way: they continue to read it as fundamentalist literalists – then use their misinterpretation of the sacred Scriptures against it as ammunition. Well, at least they’re reading it. But are they? If we want to move past that shallow discourse, we must remember that, for Christ and in Christ, the entire Bible is a Christian book. Therefore, our task is to always pursue and determine a Christ-centered reading of it” (138).
When we say God is love we are not compromising with culture. Instead, we are recovering views of God rooted both in scripture and our tradition.
All this said, one question that does come up is whether this is a sort of Christian appropriation of the Jewish text. Jersak’s answer to this is to recognize that our access to the Jewish scriptures is Jesus, our rabbi who was, of course, Jewish. We learn to read the scripture from Jesus which is to read it in the Emmaus way. I think this is one spot where I’d have liked a deeper dive, as the question of anti-semitism does linger in Christian history. At the very least though, following the Jesus way leads to nonviolence and repudiation of anything close to anti-Semitic.
To follow Jesus into the scriptures is to recognize that when violence is attributed to God, this reveals our human tendency to imagine God (or the gods) is like us. We are the violent ones, thinking God wants sacrifice (and I didn’t even mention the ways this shows us a nonviolent atonement, telling us it is not God who killed Jesus but humans who did! There is so much more to say!). When we read of trials, even prolonged ones, we are seeing Christ’s ultimate suffering on trial as prefigured. When we see injustice in the scriptures, we are seeing prefigured humanity’s unjust betrayal of Jesus. And when we see victory, even victory that is “dubious in its xenophobic violence” (160) we are getting a glimpse of the coming beautiful victory of Christ over death.
I have so much more to say! I haven’t even gotten into part two where Jersak talks about how noticing rhetoric and diatribe in scripture as well as anthropomorphic images of God and much more.
Overall, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I think any and every Christian could benefit from this book. Jersak will show you how to read scripture better, how to read it consistently with the revelation of God in Jesus right there at the center. To some this will come across as dishonoring the Bible and Jersak certainly puts the Bible in a sort of secondary position. But it is secondary to Jesus. Your choice is really whether you think Jesus is the inerrant and perfect word of God or do you think the Bible is? How will you answer those questions? Does your God kill and torture people? Is your God okay with, or even one who commands, slavery and rape?
Or is God revealed in Jesus and does every image and story of God bow to Jesus?
I’ll take Jesus. My prayer is more of us will. It just might save our faith.