My Problem With the Bible

Why wealthy, white American males have to work harder at reading the Bible right.

I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.

Imagine a history of colonial America written by Cherokee Indians and African slaves. That would be a different way of telling the story! And that’s what the Bible does. It’s the story of Egypt told by the slaves. The story of Babylon told by the exiles. The story of Rome told by the occupied. What about those brief moments when Israel appeared to be on top? In those cases the prophets told Israel’s story from the perspective of the peasant poor as a critique of the royal elite. Like when Amos denounced the wives of the Israelite aristocracy as “the fat cows of Bashan.”

Every story is told from a vantage point; it has a bias. The bias of the Bible is from the vantage point of the underclass. But what happens if we lose sight of the prophetically subversive vantage point of the Bible? What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. This is the whole history of European colonialism. This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture. This is making the Bible dance a jig for our own amusement.

As Jesus preached the arrival of the kingdom of God, he would frequently emphasize the revolutionary character of God’s reign by saying things like, “The last will be first and the first last.” How does Jesus’ first-last aphorism strike you? I don’t know about you, but it makes this modern day Roman a bit nervous.

Imagine this: A powerful charismatic figure arrives on the world scene and amasses a great following by announcing the arrival of a new arrangement of the world where those at the bottom are to be promoted and those on top are to have their lifestyle “restructured.” How do people receive this? I can imagine the Bangladeshis saying, “When do we start?!” and the Americans saying, “Hold on now, let’s not get carried away!”

Now think about Jesus announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom with the proclamation of his counterintuitive Beatitudes. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” how was that received? Well, it depends on who is hearing it. The poor Galilean peasant would hear it as good news (gospel), while the Roman in his villa would hear it with deep suspicion. (I know it’s an anachronism, but I can imagine Claudius saying something like, “Sounds like socialism to me!”)

And that’s the challenge I face in reading the Bible. I’m not the Galilean peasant. Who am I kidding! I’m the Roman in his villa and I need to be honest about it. I, too, can hear the gospel of the kingdom as good news (because it is!), but first I need to admit its radical nature and not try to tame it to endorse my inherited entitlement.

I am a (relatively) wealthy white American male. Which is fine, but it means I have to work hard at reading the Bible right. I have to see myself basically as aligned with Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Caesar. In that case, what does the Bible ask of me? Voluntary poverty? Not necessarily. But certainly the Bible calls me to deep humility — a humility demonstrated in hospitality and generosity. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a relatively well-off white American male, but I better be humble, hospitable, and generous!

If I read the Bible with the appropriate perspective and humility, I don’t use the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a proof-text to condemn others to hell. I use it as a reminder that I’m a rich man and Lazarus lies at my door. I don’t use the conquest narratives of Joshua to justify Manifest Destiny. Instead, I see myself as a Rahab who needs to welcome newcomers. I don’t fancy myself as Elijah calling down fire from heaven. I’m more like Nebuchadnezzar who needs to humble himself lest he go insane.

I have a problem with the Bible, but all is not lost. I just need to read it standing on my head. I need to change my perspective. If I can accept that the Bible is trying to lift up those who are unlike me, then perhaps I can read the Bible right.

Brian Zahnd
Written by

  • C David Baker

    I very much appreciate what you say. My only concern is that modern liberation movements seek the power of government to coerce what might be considered ‘Kingdom’ values. This is not Jesus talking, at all, but valid grievances too often hijacked by political movements.

  • http://priestking.wordpress.com/ Mrarbee

    This certainly is a view less taken …The paradox view
    The mountaintop is the lesson of humility
    The valley is for promotion
    A very good article with inherent wisdom .

  • Jessiemae Farris

    Brian – I read your essay here and went right to Amazon to pick up one of your books. I admit that the title of your essay scared me a bit – I’m a Catholic, and yes – called to forgive. I pray daily, always starting with the “Our Father”. Each time I come to “forgive us…..as we forgive..”, I sometimes choke. But, working on this had led me to be able to forgive my parents for some very grave bad things done. And, I’m amazingly feeling better about all of that in the past, just through the act of forgiveness. The power to forgive is every Christian’s duty. I especially liked your reference to the school shooting in the Amish community. I have written in to both CNN and MSNBC, asking why they never include THAT particular school shooting, when they discuss the others. Is that because it makes us uncomfortable – knowing that those grieving Amish parents were able to reach deeply into their faith and find themselves able to forgive? Sad to say, I think that is true. Right now, in our country, everyone seems to want to be the victim. They need to be “special”. And I fear for my grandchildrens’ futures.
    Thank you for this lovely essay – I’m reading the Book of Daniel right now, so your references to King Nebuchadnezzar are very timely for me. I’m looking forward to receiving your book.

  • John Milbank

    Almost there. But how convenient that the way of reading you have suggested aligns so closely with the postcolonial Left. What surprises me is that you have not mentioned God, nor any transformative effect upon you (qua wealthy WASP) that the gospel might have. Where is the virtue in mere oppression in a disenchanted universe where God is silent? What means the gospel if not the salvation of Roman centurion as well as Hebrew slave?

    • Edwin Alban

      My problem with Christians: People like John Milbank, who say things like, “Almost there,” in response to another person’s idea as if they have already arrived at some spiritual apex to which everyone else is still aspiring. At what point does the transformative power of the gospel help you to stop being a condescending, know-it-all, jackass? How do you know what is “almost” anything? What if he’s nowhere near there? What if he’s all the way there? On what authority do you make the claim to know how close he is to “there”? Write your own Jesus blog. You can fill it with as many asinine assertions as you can make up.

      • Nica

        POW!

      • John Milbank

        Something you could only think if you hold religion to be private and subjective. If it is not private, and not subjective, then there is the possibility that theological (or in this case, theo-political) claims can be tested by established and public standards (viz. the creeds, historic orthodoxy, scripture and reason…).
        Of course what you leave unaddressed is what I mean by “almost there” – that the author has not pursued his train of thought to its conclusion. He has not let the text challenge his disenchanted postcolonialism even while allowing it to challenge his comfortable life. Radical orthodoxy is what Christ calls us to – a thoroughgoing review of theory as well as praxis in the light of the gospel.

        • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

          I liked this article and your comment, John, really rounded it out. Thank you for being thoughtful!

      • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

        I can’t imagine you are a Christian, but if you are, I hope your Christianity isn’t limited to intellectual critiques on power dynamics. I hope it has something real to say about kindness and love for your enemy. Jesus, it seems, didn’t tell those oppressed Galileans to call their Roman oppressors “jackasses” but to overcome evil with good, walk the extra mile, turn the other cheek. And what John is saying here is such an important part of that call. Jesus’ expectation was that they would find the power to love their oppressors from their connection to God. John’s critique, as I read it, isn’t about so much of the Bible being written from the perspective of the oppressed, but that the hope of those oppressed people wasn’t mere solidarity. Their hope was that the God of the universe would be with them and give them the power to love in spite of that. “Almost there” is a little sharp as a reply, but it’s also valid if you can get past that minor offense. I think John’s comment really rounded out this great article and takes it “there.” Though, I definitely could be wrong.

        • Edwin Alban

          Well, consider my mind changed, J_May! John Milbank, as he stated in his response to my original statement, knows the objective truth of all spiritual reality, so what I believe should be subject to his critique, because he has read through the established and public standards. Now that you have agreed with him, I have come to realize that I should never have had the audacity to tell an obnoxious loud-mouth to opine elsewhere.

          I can’t imagine caring about what you are capable of imagining with regard to my belief system, but if I could, I still wouldn’t. Fortunately for me, your lack of imagination does not affect me in the least. My previous response to John was pointing out that no one has to care about what he thinks, when it comes to things that no one can know, or prove and did not state anything about personally agreeing, or disagreeing with his theories. He missed the point, but that is also something about which I do not care.

          Interestingly enough, your inability to imagine that I am a Christian, did not stop you from writing a whole paragraph about how my Christianity (as unbelievable to you and hypothetical as it must be) should function.

          If you were going to try and convince me that you and John objectively know something real about kindness and love as a result of your beliefs, beginning the attempt with a statement like, “you are obviously not a Christian, because I can tell that you aren’t good enough, but if you ever want to try to be, let me tell you all about what you need to do” was probably not the best starting point. I don’t know why it still surprises me when a second jackass shows up to bray in agreement with the first, but I once was told that great minds think alike. I wonder what that means for minds of lesser greatness.

          • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

            You’re probably right about how I started my statement, Edwin. I apologize about that. Like John’s “almost there,” it was too direct for someone I don’t know and probably not appropriate for an internet comment where people wouldn’t know my heart and I wouldn’t have an idea of how a person might hear it.

            My only real disagreement with your statement is I don’t think he (or I) was claiming to have obtained to the apex of objective spiritual truth. I don’t think that was the “there” he was talking about. Especially since he replied to you saying, “…what I mean by ‘almost there’ – that the author has not pursued his train of thought to its conclusion. He has not let the text challenge his disenchanted postcolonialism even while allowing it to challenge his comfortable life.”

            I didn’t mean to attempt to invalidate your feelings based on your experiences with Christians. It just seemed to me that in at least this case, you were likely misreading the situation/person.

    • Joel Renkema

      Hah! I think John Milbank just made the article’s point! A white male threatened by a biblical hermeneutic that turns power upside down. Anyone else find this ironic?

      • John Milbank

        I think all of us should feel threatened by a biblical hermeneutic that engages the issue of power without reference to God. When such violence is done to the biblical text, and to Christian theology, violence against others cannot be afar off.

      • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

        It’s interesting that you know he’s white.

        • Joel Renkema

          His profile picture gives it away.

          • Joel Renkema

            Though I now see he took it down

          • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

            Oh, that makes sense. I just saw it without the picture.

  • Rob

    Nice.

  • tedstur

    While I get your point, let’s also make sure to read the swaths of Scripture that talk of the ascendant Israel. The corrupting power, sins of lust, extravagance in lifestyle, carelessness toward servants and a host of other “1st world problems” are awaiting your identification.

  • Joel Renkema

    Great article. It reminds me much of Bob Ekblad’s book, “Reading the Bible with the Damned” or Joel Vandyk and Chris Rocke’s book “Geography of Grace.” The moment of my greatest understanding of Scripture happened when I read the parable of the prodigal son with prisoners or when I read a Psalm with prostitutes and then asked THEM to tell me what it meant. Their perspective opened scripture up to me. Grace from below is, after all, what Scripture is all about.

  • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

    Very well written and challenging! As a white male growing up with a pretty challenging life, I don’t usually like seeing oppressed/oppression being limited to associated classes/races. But I do appreciate the opportunity to stop and consider all the ways that I may be walking in privilege and what the Gospel and Biblical text would say to me as a result. I actually have spent much of my 20’s vacillating between making a lot of money and living below the poverty line while doing Kingdom work, as a result. I totally relate to that tension of having opportunity and “the deceitfulness of wealth,” for example.