Hannah (an alias) is an undiscerning fan of R-rated literature. Granted, the exclusive focus of this compulsive vice is her daily dive into the Bible. For those who’ve actually read the Bible, this is of little comfort, given that she weighs in at just eight years old. It’s certainly alarming to her parents, who catch her sneaking away to read the Old Testament tales of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll unsupervised. They seriously considered hiding this contraband from her, but she is incorrigible. For her ninth birthday, she asked her parents if they would finally reveal what the word “prostitute” means since she’s a BIG fan of Rahab, the hero-grandma of Jesus. I’d call Hannah a “problematic prodigy.”
Hannah also finds it difficult to comprehend how Jesus could slaughter all those babies in Egypt. She was speaking with him this morning and he didn’t seem so mean. Yet she reads biblical reports of God’s extreme violence, and they do NOT square with the One she knows and loves. Hannah is too smart for that “Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” bullshit. But then, how do we explain the discrepancy between her revelation of Christ and those dubious narrations of God she voraciously imbibes? Inquiring kids need to know!
I remember being an eight-year-old with a loaded Bible, too. And as pastor from 1988-2008, I was repeatedly interrogated by CTUTs (critical thinkers under 10)—kids whose parents were pleading for a lifeline. I blew it repeatedly but also learned from the experience.
What follows is my reply to Hannah via her dad—help I received from ancient saints and wise friends, including our Bible homie, Pete Enns. If I’ve badly misheard them, shucks.
1) “GOD IS LIKE JESUS“
Brian Zahnd likes to say, “God is like Jesus. God is exactly like Jesus. God has always been exactly like Jesus. We didn’t always know that, but we do now.” What is God like? Look at Jesus. Jesus IS the face and the image of God. BZ says that “Jesus is the Word of God” means Jesus is what God has to say about himself. Claims that Jesus is “fully God” ring hollow if we imagine Jesus is just the nice guy in the Trinity who rescues us from his volatile and violent dad.
No. I live by those red letters where Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father… I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me” (John 14:9-10).
I lean on John’s claim: “No one has seen God at any time [ever? But…?] but God the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him” (1:18). Or as the epistle to the Hebrews says, “He is the radiance of God’s glory and exact representation of his nature” (1:3).
What exactly does Jesus show us of God’s nature? That God is love and life and light. So, I asked Hannah to memorize John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly.” How does God-in-Christ self-describe? “I am Love. When you see death-dealing and destruction, that’s not me. I am the deliverer, not the destroyer—the life-giver, not death-dealer.”
The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Oops. But you get it, right? Hannah does. Today, this is her primary premise and unwavering conviction before she even opens the scrolls.
2)“GOD LET HIS CHILDREN TELL THE STORY”
Hanna: If God is exactly like Jesus and Jesus is all about Love, why does this story say…?
Pete: Because God let his children tell the story.
Inerrantists get stuck on “If the Bible says it, God is saying it.” But if we start with the Word of God (AKA Jesus), then we can ask, why does the narrator say _____ when Jesus told and showed us otherwise?
For all his rightful resistance to idolatrous certitude, Pete Enns’ zinger answers Hannah’s question. It helped her past what Dr. Pete Enns calls the “inerrantist trap.”
She expounded his point back to me: Sometimes they got confused.
How do you know when they’re confused? When they don’t sound like Jesus.
Then how do we know what’s true? We look for Jesus.
Hannah is no Marcionite. She is not at all tempted to ditch her OT. BUT she always looks for Jesus in the stories. How?
3)“READ FROM THE END”
This principle comes via Fr. John Behr. And Pete’s works. And especially Jesus. A Christian reading of the Bible starts with Jesus Christ and his gospel. In A More Christlike Word, I call this “reading Scripture the Emmaus Way.” I’m referring to Jesus’ resurrection day encounter with two disciples. Jesus says,
“‘Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to come into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, he explained to them the things written about himself in all the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:26-27).
Jesus showed us how the Scriptures prefigure him, his passion, and resurrection. When Jesus read Moses, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jonah, et al., he saw himself. Not as a malevolent deity prior to anger management. He sees shadows cast by the Cross—narrative trailers intimating his life, his suffering and death, and his victory over death. He sees redemption. Everywhere. And until we see him everywhere, Behr warns that we’ve not yet read the Bible as Scripture.
Hannah took these points to heart (SMH). She dove back into the text, beginning with the siege of Jerusalem and the atrocities ascribed to God. Geez, girl, let it go! But by now, Hannah was utterly unphased. I leave you with her process of discovery in what we dub a toxic text:
Babylon was destroying Jerusalem. That doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it?
Why does it say God was destroying them? Because God let his children tell the story. And sometimes his children get confused. So where is Jesus?
Remember when Jesus cried over Jerusalem? That was because they would be destroyed again. And Jesus was crying because he loved them.
So where is Jesus’ in the Babylon story? Jesus was in the tears of the prophet. Because he loved them. He has always loved them. Because God is love.