Author Archives: Mark McEntire

About Mark McEntire

Professor of Religion at Belmont University

The So-called “Nashville Statement” and the Bible

The so-called “Nashville Statement” hit the world last week, and I cannot begin to address its substance until I acknowledge the arrogance and injustice of naming it after my city. I have lived and worked in this city for over seventeen years, and this statement does not represent me or the vast majority of people who live and work here with me. The name belies the claim by the statement’s authors that their purpose was to express the Bible’s position on human sexuality. Why not give it a name that reflected that purpose? They wanted attention, and they wanted to claim a kind of grandiosity for their feeble work that attaching a to a popular city might provide. Nashville is responding, and let us hope this act of hubris becomes a cause of the failure of the statement.

Others are more capable than me of addressing the moral and ethical issues involved in the statement. I would prefer to focus on some issues about the use of the Bible that arise from the statement and in responses to it. The Bible first appears in Article 3 of the statement which says, “We affirm that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image…” This article affirms something that is not in the Bible, and it involves a misreading of the book of Genesis. Yes, God makes some humans in God’s image in Genesis 1:26-28, but God makes Adam in Genesis 2:7 and Eve in 2:22. The story in Genesis 2-3 goes to great lengths to claim that these two humans did not initially possess the divine image. They had to take it. God placed the divine image in a specific fruit, and forbade them to eat it. They acquired the divine image when they disobeyed the command and ate the fruit. This is first explained by the snake in 3:5: “God knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will become like God.” The claim is confirmed by God in 3:22: “Look the human beings have become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

How are human beings related to God? It is a complicated question, and the writers of the Bible provided many different answers, two of them right at the beginning. The answers are typically in the form of stories, not propositional statements. In one answer, God makes the unidentified humans in the divine image from the start. Possession of the divine image is essential to being human. In another answer, humans have to seize the divine image for themselves, contrary to God’s intent, and God has to make adjustments. It is the latter of these stories that has characters named Adam and Eve. You can believe God created humans in God’s image if you like. That claim is in the Bible, but realize you are being selective, choosing one of the Bible’s answers and rejecting others. It is also possible that the best answer to the question lies in an unresolved contest of stories.

This kind of selective reading, which ignores the composite nature of the Bible and misses the complexity of the important questions it is debating, is part of what leads to an ill-informed piece of interpretation like the “Nashville Statement.” The writers wanted to talk about the humans having the divine image, but they wanted the humans they were talking about to be paired up, in a marriage between a man and a woman. So, they conflated Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. This is symptomatic of the mishmash of biblical stuff in the statement. Biblical interpretation looks like this when someone has a predetermined position then goes looking for bits and pieces of the Bible they can weave together to support that position. Reading the Bible as a contested conversation surrounding difficult questions allows the Bible to identify its own matters of importance. Marriage and sexuality turn out not to be among the Bible’s obsessions, though the related issues of genealogical identity and inheritance are. The characters in the stories that address these subjects demonstrate a wide variety of family structures and relationships, for which the text provides no easy moral judgments. The bible is turns out not to be a good source out of which to build a series of “We affirm” and “We deny” propositions like the so called Nashville statement presents.


Before and After Harvey

Analogies are dangerous things. Comparing two situations has little chance of telling more truth than it hides. Still, I want to take that risk here, because the issues involved are matters of life and death. It will be as important in the process to say what the analogy cannot do as to say what it can. I have been teaching for a long time that the prophetic literature in the Bible is a response to disasters, but I have only recognized the meaning of that claim a little bit at a time. There is little comparison between the ancient and modern disasters, but there are important connections between the conversations we have about them.

Thanks to the work of a large number of biblical scholars over that last couple of decades we have realized that large literary collections like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve stand astride the calamitous events in Israel’s past, particularly those of the eighth through sixth centuries. They have one foot in a pre-disaster world and one foot in a post-disaster world. Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim may have said it best in their ground-breaking work You Are My People:

“Prophecy as oral communication is raw, iconoclastic, immediate, and exacting. It seeks
to bring about fundamental changes in social arrangements, often before the collapse      of long-standing and cherished structures – political, religious, economic, and symbolic.
Prophecy as written communication attends to survivors. It takes shape during and           after the frightful events; all the while it engages in artful reinterpretation and                   reenactment.”

The prophetic characters the books are named for made dire predictions in their oral proclamation, and some of them came to pass, but what good are such speeches after the disaster? Those who collected the materials and wrote the books we know came after the disaster, and we might think they would have been better off starting fresh, discarding old speeches that in a new context seem to do little but blame the victims of disaster for their suffering. These proclamations of judgment still existed, though, in the collective memory of the people, so the writers of the books did something more daring and creative than dispose of them. They wove them into works of literature that addressed the pain of the survivors, constructing visionary worlds of redemption and recovery. The brutal warnings of the prophet named Jeremiah in what is now Jeremiah 27 sit near the pivotal core of the book that includes messages of encouragement like the letter to captives in Jeremiah 29. Reading either text alone is an irresponsible act.

For a number of years now environmental activists in and around Houston have been effectively screaming about the increased flood danger to the city created by climate change, uncontrolled development, and poor planning. Fortunately, most people are now past the need to understand catastrophic events in terms of divine judgment, but there is still prediction and fulfillment with which we must reckon. With Hurricane Harvey and its devastation less than two weeks old, what can we do with these pre-disaster predictions? We might be tempted to dispose of them or forget about them. Rescuing the drowning, sheltering the homeless, and feeding the hungry are much more important tasks today and tomorrow. The predictions are in videos all over the internet, though. People are pointing at them, and they will not go away. In the days ahead as we talk about this disaster, both in terms of what we can do for the suffering survivors and how we can understand the causes, our task may be something the like work of those who composed those ancient scrolls. Can we have a dialogue that constructs a world in which the trauma of the victims and the choices that magnified the disaster both receive adequate attention?

Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and the Many Voices of Jeremiah

The conflict between Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West that erupted into media consciousness this past week or so had been brewing for some time. It is not my place to adjudicate the dispute, but I have some observations about what is happening and why I think it is important, particularly in relation to West’s own claim, taken up by others, including Dyson, that West is a prophet within the line of the biblical Jeremiah.

Much recent study of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible has focused upon the processes that produced the literature now within the biblical canon. This literature is our best connection to the persons who acted as prophets in ancient Israel because it presents them as narrative characters and frames the oracular material as speech by these characters, but there is a great distance between a prophet as a historical figure within a particular social context and a complex piece of literature produced by and for a scribal class and their audiences. Jeremiah is a useful case because no other prophetic figure appears more prominently as a narrative character in the book named for him. Still it is important to distinguish between the person named Jeremiah and the book that shares his name. The person named Jeremiah appears to have been active in and around Jerusalem in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B. C. E. The dominant theme of his prophetic proclamation was the impending invasion of Judah by the neo-Babylonian empire. Jeremiah claimed this invasion was God’s punishment for acts of idolatry and injustice in Judah. His criticisms of the religious leadership in Jerusalem were particularly harsh. To understand Jeremiah from a contemporary American context, imagine a prophet early in our own century telling Americans that the work of terrorists is deserved divine punishment for our sins and we should let them destroy us in order to come out redeemed on the other side. No doubt, such a prophet would have shared Jeremiah’s experience: “For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (20:8b).

The book we call Jeremiah was likely produced in Judah during the Persian period of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., a century or two after the death of Jeremiah. This means that the destruction which Jeremiah warned Judah about had happened and the audiences of the book were the descendants of those who had survived and were struggling to rebuild and redefine Judah in the context of the Persian Empire. Some of these survivors descended from those who remained in the land after the invasion and others from those who were exiled to Babylon and later returned. The difficult question for the book of Jeremiah was how to preserve the tradition of the prophet. What could his pronouncements of doom and destruction do for those who had survived it and continued to suffer from its effects? These are the kinds of questions being raised by some of the most adapt readers of Jeremiah, such as Carolyn Sharp, Louis Stulman, and Kathleen O’Connor. The book of Jeremiah documents a process of renegotiation. The cataclysmic event to which its namesake had pointed was complete, and his words needed to be reshaped into a message for survivors.

The black prophetic tradition finds itself in an analogous position right now. The election of the first African-American president in 2008 was a seismic event for this tradition, something which it had been pointing to and yearning for through many years of struggle. During the last couple of decades leading up to the event, no voice had been more profound or influential than Cornel West’s, and the Jeremiah comparisons are apt. West’s explosion onto the scene of American political thought are reflected in his first two books, Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979) and Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), but his public activism, speeches, and other performances are what places him in the line of a prophet like Jeremiah. He also worked with and advised political campaigns of candidates like Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader, and Al Sharpton. So, it would seem that the election of Barack Obama was a crucial event that West’s prophetic engagement was moving toward. The question that event posed next was what the prophetic message of West would become in the aftermath of such fulfillment. It did not take long for this question to receive an answer, as West’s criticism of President Obama became harsh, a surprising reality documented by Dyson, among others. For those who admire West and Dyson, and others within the black prophetic tradition that West has criticized, the events of recent days have been painful. There is no way to be sure that this kind of personal tension and conflict surrounded the transformation of Jeremiah from a radical prophetic figure to a scroll providing a new way forward to survivors after their world was shaken, but it is not difficult to imagine. The more condensed time-frame in this case means that many who generated the tradition are still alive and involved in it renegotiation. One thing those who admire the figures most central to this modern conflict can do for them is to give as much careful attention to the questions the conflict is identifying as to the conflict itself.

Why a “Sequel?”

The argument in my 2013 work, Portraits of a Mature God: Choices in Old Testament Theology, that received the most push-back was that even for Christian interpreters a theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament should be complete before moving on to the New Testament. Because my approach followed the narrative development of the divine character, the reading of a Christian Bible moves in one direction.

What I found dissatisfying about this claim was that so much more still sits between the Hebrew Bible/Protestant Old Testament and the New Testament. This observation presented the need for my forthcoming work, An Apocryphal God: Beyond Divine Maturity. The title plays with the Greek word for “hidden” because the beginning point for a further development of the divine character lies in the collection of literature found in the larger Christian canons that sometimes receives the label “Aprocrypha,” and because the divine character developed in the Hebrew Bible that moves into later traditions is almost always hidden in some way.

My new book also examines texts commonly assigned to the “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” and some found only among the Dead Sea Scrolls to see how the divine character continues to develop. The linear nature of this development remains a matter of uncertainty because some of the literature contained with the Hebrew canon was still developing and the boundaries of the canon itself were not fully determined at the time these books we perceive to be later were being written. Some of the books, like Jubilees, go back and retell ancient stories, presenting a divine character in those times who acts more like the one at the end of the plot in the Hebrew Bible. Additional books in the “wisdom literature” category, like Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, seek to connect the wisdom tradition with other elements of Israelite religion like the law and worship in the temple, reshaping the divine character of their present in the process. Still others, like 1 Enoch and the War Scroll, develop a detailed layer of supernatural characters and activity, both good and evil, between earth and the divine realm, pushing God’s direct work in the human world into a distant future.

I summarize these developments in Jewish literature leading up to the Christian era as revising God’s past, expanding God’s present, and charting God’s future. There are multiple directions to this movement, and the division of Judaism into sectarian movements, including Christianity eventually, is a reflection of this diversity. The challenge is finding a way to present the many directions that is organized enough for readers to follow without over-simplifying the complex reality in and around these fascinating texts. We will find out how well I have accomplished that in August.

Meanwhile research on the literature that lies on or outside the boundaries of the Bible continues its explosive growth of the last two decades and our ability to do the kind of synthetic work I have attempted will continue to increase.

Deciding What to Do with Prophetic Voices.

Sunday School was iced out this morning, so I thought I would write some of what was on my mind. There were also some significant developments on one of my book current book projects this week. A Chorus of Prophetic Voices appeared on both Amazon and the Westminster John Knox website, with a publication date of August 2, 2015, and I spent much of the snowy week in Nashville working through the copy-edited pages. The foundation of my book on the prophetic literature is that modern readers must pay careful attention to both the historical circumstances that generated the prophets, their words, and their actions, and the finished forms of the literary works that present those characters to us.

The class had asked me to lead them in a four-week study on the book of Amos, and I concluded the second lesson last week with a question for them to think about that went something like this: How can we read and make use of the prophetic literature in the modern world in a way that does not resort to finger-pointing about what may happen in the future or blaming the victims of what has happened in the past? The first part of the question emerges from the observation that while those in the class can easily point to actions of other people that violate the sense of justice in the text, there are plenty who would point to us as the violators whom God is about to judge. Using the prophetic literature to identify present day immorality and its perpetrators may be a legitimate use of the text, but is it all we can do? A close companion to this kind of reading is using the text to identify the causes of tragedy and suffering after they occur. Those reading this way might differ widely on the degree to which they believe direct divine retribution was at play, but there is choosing of sides and the blaming runs in both directions.

Today’s text was to be Amos 5, which includes: “Seek the LORD and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel with no one to quench it.” We catch only a glimpse of the person named Amos. Perhaps he is a shepherd, according to 1:1. His enemy, Amaziah, uses royal power to attack him in 7:10. This minimal character might caution readers against using accusations of injustice to gain power, and to be sure the target of such accusations are always aimed at those with greater power. Eventually, the judgments of Amos required a greater context. Internally, new material was later added onto the end of the book in 9:11-15 that changed the tone of divine intent for his audience. Externally, Amos was placed among other prophets like Hosea, Jonah, and Zechariah whose messages became a terrible personal burden for them to carry and aligning them with those who suffer judgment.

A Bumpy start to the Book of Joshua

I am returning to blogging after a long absence, now that two nearly simultaneous book projects are complete, at least in the sense that I have handed them to the editors and have a brief pause before work on revisions and proofs. A new course I am teaching  called “The Story of Ancient Israel in the Land” will probably keep much of my attention on Joshua-Kings and Chronicles for the next few months.

For a long time, my surface-level reading of Joshua 1-5 has focused on the literary effort to make the character named Joshua look like Moses. He mediates between YHWH and the Israelites, sends out spies, facilitates a miraculous crossing of water, builds a stone monument, and experiences a theophanic vision in which he is told to remove his shoes. It is difficult to miss the point, yet this reading misses the many incongruities of the text. An excellent paper at the Society of Biblical Literature back in November by Melissa Jackson and Mark Biddle called “Rahab’s Visitors: Spies, Spokesmen, or Stooges” illustrated many of the absurdities of the story. The “spies” speak to Rahab in 2:20 as if the Israelite invasion of the land is a secret plan, yet statements like those in 2:8-10 and 5:1 indicate that everybody knows about it, and that the intimidation and fear created by this knowing aids the success of the invasion. The books on either side of Joshua repeatedly condemn the Israelites to death and destruction for any kind of accommodation to the inhabitants of Canaan, so by the end of the “spy” story Rahab seems to have played the two Israelites and their Canaanite “pursuers”.

The account of the first Passover in the land in Joshua 5:10-12 is obviously an important tradition that also serves to connect Joshua to Moses, who led the initial Passover event and the first anniversary celebration at Mount Sinai, but its link to the cessation of the manna and eating “the produce of the land” creates a striking level of narrative incoherence. How could these refugees who just entered Canaan already be growing and harvesting crops? Looking carefully at this little text by itself reveals the absence of Joshua within it. Only his presence in the verses immediate preceding and following create the sense that he might be presiding over the occasion.

This is a place where both attention to the literary purposes of the “author” and careful consideration of the traditions with which the author had to work provide the path toward better understanding of the text.

Using the Bible to Talk about the Death Penalty

The past two weeks have generated a heightened discussion of the death penalty in America, largely as the result of the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29.  Plenty of others have written about that event and about the death penalty in general.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who devastates me with everything he writes, established the moral framework for the discussion here :

Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “Why Christians Should Support the Death Penalty” here:

Shane Claiborne responded to Mohler, observing among other things that in a 1200 word essay, Mohler never mentioned Jesus:

Rachel Held Evans responded with a more direct attack on the “myth of redemptive violence” here:

Anthony Santoro, using the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev two weeks before the Lockett execution, proved one need not appeal to any one specific religious tradition to make a thoroughly convincing moral case against the death penalty.

I am happy to see Claiborne and Evans entering the discussion because it means large numbers of young adults will be thinking and talking about the death penalty in America, and I can hope they will do better with it than my generation has.  I want to take up one specific question here, prompted by their essays, regarding the use of the Bible in the discussion.  Can we use the Bible to talk the death penalty without creating a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy?

Christians who use the Bible to support use of the death penalty tend to quote passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, in part because it is so easy.  Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:12-17 could hardly be more clear, and they do not merely make the death penalty an option, but a legal and moral obligation.  This is where the Old Testament argument of death penalty supporters like Mohler falls apart.  If we are to follow such texts then the death penalty should not be “rightly and rarely applied.”  It should be common and frequent.

Christians who oppose the death penalty will tend to go to the teachings of Jesus like the “Antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount, again, because it is so easy. Matthew 5:35-48 could not be more clear.  There is a reason why in the oft-cited, recent Barna poll only 5% of American Christians believe Jesus would support the death penalty.  They have read that text and they know Jesus himself became the object of the death penalty.

It is only a little more difficult to find texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to use in opposition to the death penalty.  In Genesis 4, God chose a punishment other than death for Cain, the first murderer.  The three greatest heroes in Israelite tradition were subject to the death penalty, but dodged it.  One could easily argue that Jacob’s deception of his father fell into the category of dishonoring for which the law prescribed death, and if Esau had succeeded in carrying out the death sentence he proclaimed in Genesis 27:41 there would have been no Israel.  If Pharaoh had succeeded in his attempt to use the death penalty on Moses in Exodus 2:15, then the Israelites might have had no deliverer.  When David was found guilty of murder, no human authority considered executing him, though God chose to execute his infant son instead in 2 Samuel 12:15.  There is a profound ambivalence about sin, guilt, and punishment at the core of the Torah in Exodus 34:6-7:

The LORD, the LORD,a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in        steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,    forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting  the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and  fourth generation.

Who could read such a divine statement and be sure about anything? There is no other single text to which subsequent writers of the Hebrew Scriptures return more diligently to wrestle with its implications.  The prophets pull it apart, quoting portions of it as they struggle to understand the fate of Israel and Judah.  When Ezekiel dives into the depths of this debate, he emerges with a word from God in 18:32: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.”

Jesus did not begin the struggle to interpret and reinterpret the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures on sin, guilt, and punishment.  He stands in midstream, along with many of his contemporaries, the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah, who engaged in the same debate and said similar things.    We avoid the Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy by honoring Jesus enough to put him in his context.