Under Reconstruction: Crazy Characters, Unreliable Narrators and the Divine Architect – Brad Jersak
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 story-lines 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).
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 …