(repost) The Human Faces of God

Seldom have I anticipated a book more than Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) . I can tell you, that the book does not disappoint.

Stark takes on the biblical inerrantists and simply demolishes them. Inerrantists, (fundamentalists) insist that “the Bible is inspired by God, without error in everything it affirms historically, scientifically and theologically.” Stark begins with their own founding document: The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, formulated in 1978. In it is found its hermeneutic tool: the historical-grammatical method. Stark shows how this method is used, except when it is not used. In other words, inerrantists profess it, and use it, until it doesn’t accomplish their result: an inerrant text. Stark calls their actual practice one of the “hermeneutics of convenience.”

A series of methodologies are alternated, all directed to reach the result that the bible does not err. This at times involves plain meaning, literalism, scripture defining scripture, fuller meaning, and in the end a resort to throwing up one’s hands and declaring that “God has not as yet seen fit to reveal the meaning to us.”

Stark moves through the troubling passages that allude to a belief in a pantheon of gods. Anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures knows that there are odd pieces here and there that seem to suggest that there were other gods than Yahweh. The Psalms are replete with such sayings such as God being mightier than the other gods. Exodus and Genesis make such references as well, as well as mention of the “council of the gods.”

Indeed, Stark’s claim that polytheism was the order of the day in ancient Israel, is nothing new. Yet he explains it to the lay reader perhaps better than anywhere else I have seen. The same can be said of his hard-hitting analysis of the God of genocide, found in and throughout Deuteronomy, and the God who at least condones and accepts human sacrifice. These difficult and troubling texts are explained, carefully, and patiently with excellent reference to archaeology, other relevant texts of the time, and good literary critical exegesis.

Perhaps the area that will cause the most concern is his claim that Jesus, while many things, was most certainly an apocalyptic prophet. Stark points out that his prophecies regarding the end times were accurate, until the last one, the imminent return of himself, ushering in the full kingdom of God. In this Stark claims that Jesus was simply wrong.

This is hard to swallow, but Mr. Stark makes a very convincing argument, one well worth the time to read carefully and seriously. I suspect that if you get to that point in the book, you are trusting of Stark’s careful analysis and will listen with an open ear and heart.

What is accomplished here, in this book, is more than just showing the errors and contradictions of the bible. There have surely been dozens that have done that already. Rather, Stark, explains how the “book” we call the bible, came into existence. Understanding it as a collection of documents written over more than 1000 years, and containing within disparate, and contradictory voices, helps us to see it for what it is: a people’s walk with God.

It is most singularly a human document, written over a long period and containing oral traditions that span even greater times. There are voices within it that argue for opposite things. In some cases, even some of the Hebrew writers attempted to reconcile difficult passages that were at odds. (The stories of David and Goliath are instructional here, and Stark lays out a wonderful explanation for the two different explanations for Goliath’s death, and why another writer, the Chronicler, tried to cover up the contradiction.)

Stark convinces, I think, that having to face up to the difficult and ugly passages in the bible is worthwhile and has much to teach us on their own. Rather than shrug, as inerrantists often do, or try to twist and warp them into some apparent sense, it is much better to accept them as human failings in living and in understanding of their God.

Better to allow God to speak through the hateful and unacceptable passages to us today and allow them to inform us as to our own shortcomings and roads to growth.

Stark is a believing Christian, one who has struggled with scripture and found that facing the unpleasant realities allows one to grow into a mature faith. In fact, he claims, and I tend to agree, that fundamentalism is an adolescent and immature view, clinging to a world that one would prefer, but which simple does not exist.

We would all like certainty. But certainty doesn’t exist. The Bible cannot give us that, no matter how much we might wish it. We can pretend otherwise, but that leaves us mired in a fantasy world and helps us not at all in addressing the troubles of our world.

The last chapter is delightful, giving Mr. Stark’s own reflections on what these hard passages can offer us today.

Speaking of the problematic stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Jephthah and his daughter, and King Mesha and his son, Thom Stark reflects:

Today we denounce such practices as inhuman and reject as irrational the belief that the spilling of innocent blood literally affected the outcome of harvests and military battles. Yet we continue to offer our own children on the altar of homeland security, sending them off to die in ambiguous wars, based on the irrational belief that by being violent we can protect ourselves from violence. We refer to our children’s deaths as “sacrifices” which are necessary for the preservation of democracy and free trade. The market is our temple and it must be protected at all costs. Thus, like King Mesha, we make “sacrifices” in order to ensure the victory of capitalism over socialism, the victory of consumerism over terrorism.

If you would learn to understand the bible, and actually get the most out of it, then do read this book. It is about the best I’ve seen at showing us the dangers of inerrancy, and how we can grow in our faith through a truthful, honest and courageous examination of our sacred books.

* I am indebted to WIPF & Stock Publishers for sending this book free of charge for review. The only agreement is an implicit promise on my part to read, review and publish the results.

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jan
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 11:47:39

    I always value your reviews and recommendations. Thanks, Sherry.

    Reply

  2. Like a Child
    Jan 23, 2011 @ 13:26:00

    Thanks for this review. I would like to read Stark’s book one day. Steve at undeception.com is running a series reviewing Stark’s book that you might also check out. One of the reasons I have held back ordering it is that I wasn’t sure it was actually going to help me, as I think Inspiration and Incarnation by Pete Enns did a pretty good job of dismantling inerrancy for me. But the one downside of I&I is that there was no discussion about how to “hold onto faith” after learning all this. Was there a personal testimony in this book?

    But the main reason I haven’t read this book is that I’m just overwhelmed right now with time constraints, trying to homeschool and make a decision about schools, church, job, what state to live in….(and not to mention, facing my doubts every day). Honestly, I just want to go read Jane Austen and get away from all this. So this little review is a gem, because it might be all the time I have, and I am reassured to learn that both you and Steve (at undeception) were able to read it and not loose faith. Thus far, each book I have read on the Bible has slowly chipped away at my faith, starting with Tim Keller’s Reason for God, then C.S. Lewis Miracles, then the three books i’ve reviewed on blog. I’m not sure why I keep struggling. It almost feels like being in a race, and everyone around you passing you, but just not being able to catch up.

    Reply

    • Sherry
      Jan 24, 2011 @ 12:55:08

      Yes Stark might not be the book for you right now, though he does an interesting job of how we might use the difficult texts in ways that strengthen and advance our own faith.

      I think I’ve added undeception to my list of blogs.

      Believe me, once you have gotten out of inerrancy and actually seen how the bible was put together, it makes so much more sense. It’s really, as I believe, a people’s history of their walk with God. As such it has some faulty history, and some immature thinking about God, but there is a progression to a higher more adult faith when you see the sequence of time. Unfortunately it’s put together in a totally strange way, vis a vis the dating of the actual writings,. and of course some of the writings contain material from diverse times with plenty of editorial editing to present the theology that was being promoted.

      I can appreciate the need to step away. That’s probably a good thing. Frankly, it gives God a time to work on our subconcious, and often when we returned, refreshed, we see things with new eyes.

      I’d suggest Marcus Borg who is a gental theologian and perhaps people like Thomas Merton? Read a bit more spirituality, and get a sense of something greater than a being described in scripture. That helps me when I get too immersed in intellectualizing God.

      And there is no race. Everyone one of us operates differently. Some are racing, and then stop and stay put for months if not years. Other plod slowly but surely along. Some backtrack, and then zigzag forward. It’s all good. It’s all the way God and we are communicating. Relax into it. God has forever, and so do you.

      Blessings, and I hope we can continue to communicate. i Have much to learn from those of you struggling so painfully. You leave me in awe frankly.

      Sherry

      Reply

    • Mike Gantt
      Nov 16, 2011 @ 12:49:13

      Like a Child,

      I cannot share the positive comments about “The Human Faces of God.” If someone can read it and feel that their faith has been strengthened I can only conclude that such a person’s faith must be in something other than Jesus or the Bible because Thom’s argument are that both are wrong on important issues.

      There is a way to believe that Jesus was right in all that He taught and that the Bible is the word of God without getting caught up in the kind of arguments that go back and forth between those for and against inerrancy.

      I have written a 12-part review of this book which begins at http://wp.me/p1eZz8-vI

      I hope that you, Sherry, and others will consider Jesus from a fresh perspective. If you are still too busy to read, just call on His name in silence. He will hear you…and He always notice what you do for Him.

      Reply

      • Sherry
        Nov 16, 2011 @ 16:24:57

        Thanks for your comments. I am not a literalist and would be considered a liberal progressive Catholic. I’m sorry that you feel that one must adopt your opinions in order to have the proper faith. You might conclude that you should worry about the log in your own eye perhaps, but I really don’t seek to judge your faith. Blessings to you. Adopting an attitude that one’s own interpretation is by definition the only and correct one, can lead to a failure to grow in faith. Have you considered that?

      • Mike Gantt
        Nov 16, 2011 @ 16:41:02

        Sherry,

        Thanks for your response. I, too, am not a literalist. You needn’t feel sorry that I feel that one must adopt my opinions in order to have the proper faith because I don’t feel that way. Thom put forth a point of view with his book, you put forth a point of view with your review, and I put forth a point of view with my review. I think the three of us are no different in this regard. As to where the truth actually lies among us, that’s for God and others to decide. But at least we have each had our say about the truth as we see it.

        Thom accused Jesus of error and the Bible of being characterized by error. I felt that these were insults to the name of our Lord Jesus and His word. Therefore, I wrote. If you do not feel that Thom spoke wrongly of Jesus and His word, then I can see why you did not care for my response. Nonetheless, I hope you will come to realize that I did not speak up in defense of my opinion or my interpretation, but rather for Jesus and His word. If I have done so wrongly, may He have mercy on me for He knows my motive better than anyone.

        Again, thanks for the hospitality of your blog.

      • Sherry
        Nov 17, 2011 @ 14:30:09

        I’m hard pressed to understand how you are not a literalist yet believe the Bible to be the literal word of God. I see it as a collection of writings by mostly unknown persons who attempted to put down their understanding of the God they were in relation with. Jesus certainly did convey the idea to his followers at least, (to the degree that we can place accuracy on the writings of the evangelists), that his return would be before the deaths of most of them. Paul certainly believed this too. Both were utterly wrong. The bible itself is filled with factual errors, and the redactions and recopying have produced untold other errors. This does nothing to take away from the ideas conveyed.

        That of course is the point–the ideas. We know that the earth was not a flat disc surrounded by water on all sides and protected from the above waters by a metal bowl as portrayed in the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, but certainly the IDEA that God is the beginning of all things and the ultimate creator of all this is, gets through as the point.

        So I am still constrained to not understand what you mean when you say you aren’t a literalist? Perhaps you could enlighten me.

        Ultimately, when we insist that a collection of writings which a group of men argued about as to which ones would be in the canon (and plenty never accepted that decision and still don’t today) is declared to be “the word of God” we are in over our heads. Which translation? What about clear archeological, geological, and other hard evidence that proves that the stories can’t be true. Jericho never suffered the destruction claimed in the bible, or any where near in time to the claim. This is also true of a number of other such places and incidents alleged in the bible. To declare in the face of real evidence that somehow it is simple “wrong” is disingenuous. Stark has given the best refutation of fundamentalist thinking I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something, because I ‘ve read extensively in the area, both as to factual matters and to the psychological makeup of those driven to this form of extremism.

        If I’ve missed something in your claims, please do set them forth. The bible and what it says and means is an evolving thing as far as I am concerned. Someone like a David Barton for instance, reads a whole lot of what he wants the texts to mean into his “interpretation”. I prefer to rely on those who are experts in the field to guide me, along with professionally trained theologians to help me with the pastoral implications.

        Today we are faced with a right-wing evangelical Christianists who claim that Jesus would not condone government health care, and social security, Medicare and Medicaid. They make all sorts of claims about what “God wants” but it smells an awful lot like justifying one’s own selfish desires.

        I agree that better understanding is essential, so again, I urge you to correct my misunderstanding of your position.

  3. Trackback: Dialogue with Sherry (re: Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God”) | Current Events in Light of the Kingdom of God
  4. Mike Gantt
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 12:32:35

    Sherry, I appreciate your thoughtful response. I thought it deserved a thorough reply from me and so I have provided it at http://wp.me/p1eZz8-Bp

    Reply

  5. Trackback: Dialogue with Sherry (re: Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God”) | Current Events in Light of the Kingdom of God

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