Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Book Review: Derek Flood's "Disarming Scripture"

Today on my blog I am reviewing a great new book by author and theologian Derek Flood: Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives, and why we need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. 

General Impressions

Flood’s latest offering is addressing a deep problem in the way Christians have (mis)read our Scripture. The problem of violence is not just an anachronistic oddity of interpretation of Scripture. As Flood comments, “genocide narrative is a central theme of the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, and constitutes a major component of the defining story of the Israelites as they came into the promise land.”[1] Sadly t
he Bible has a long history of being used to justify, and legitimate violence throughout history. Texts like the conquest narrative of the book of Joshua have been rallying points for crusades, manifest destiny, and genocide. The problem of the violence of the Bible is a problem for Christian precisely because we claim these Scriptures as our sacred text. Flood in his latest book, gives us the vocabulary and hermeneutic to address these problem passages head on.

What Derek Flood does exceptionally in this book is to challenge both liberal and conservative readings of Scripture. A liberal reading, according to Flood, is “to point to the good parts… deny the problem and simply whitewash over the evidence.”[2] The conservative reading of the violent texts is to “advocate for things we know are profoundly wrong in an attempt to defend the Bible and our faith.” [3] In so far as Flood has done this, you should expect to be challenged by this book. 

I personally grew up in a tradition that has more or less ignored the troubling passages of Scripture. This book has given me a renewed encouragement to re-engage those troubling passaging with a "faithful questioning" that asks tough questions of the text in light of how Jesus read his bible.

A good challenge that Derek Flood brings to those of us from traditions (like Anabaptist) who have a practice of Jesus-lensed interpretation on the violent passages, is to not base our understanding of Scripture purely on authority.  As Flood comments, "As long as we are basing something on authority, we are not understanding it. This is the way of unquestioning obedience which inevitably leads to hurtful interpretations because it has no means to differentiate between what is hurtful and what is loving." Instead, we need to take the next step to imitate the way Jesus reads and engages Scripture. Why is this important? Well, without giving away too much in the book, because ultimately Jesus did not speak out on all the issues that we may find morally problematic today. (e.g. slavery, discipline of children) 

Something I also appreciate about Flood in this book is his thorough engagement with some of the best academic minds and information in the field. Authors and theologians such as N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, James Dunn, Peter Enns, John Yoder, Susan Niditch and many more are being engaged and cited throughout this book. Flood does a great service in summing up arguments, critically engaging scholarship, and providing helpful footnotes all throughout this book. I honestly feel as if Flood is intentionally empowering his readership to engage his book as a launching point to further study. For this reason, I would encourage everyone who is interested in the topic of violence in Scripture to check out Flood's latest book.

Exceptional Particulars 

Chapter Three: Paul’s Conversion From Violence 

I think I share Brian Zahnd’s sentiments in that we both think this was an amazing chapter in the book. Basically put, Flood makes the convincing case that Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road is one away from violent zealotry of religious fanaticism and into an interpretation of his Scriptures in light of the non-violent Messiah. As Flood brilliantly comments, 
“Paul’s conversion to Christ was not one of a “sinner” who finds religion. Paul already had religion, and describes himself in fact as a religious zealot who could boast that his observance of the Torah was faultless… Paul’s conversion was one away from religious fanaticism. In other words, Paul did not see himself as rejecting his former violent interpretation of Israel’s scriptures, but rather as rejecting his former violent interpretation of them. Paul’s great sin - as he came to understand it- had been participation in what he understood as religiously justified acts of violence, motivated by religious zeal.” [4]

Flood then spends a good chunk of chapter three showing how Paul’s citation of Torah in his writings deliberately edits the original context to strip it of violence. One such example Flood provides is Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 32:43 found in Romans 15.
“Rejoice with his people, you Gentiles, and let all the angels be strengthened in him.For he will avenge the blood of his children; he will take revenge against his enemies.He will repay those who hate him and cleanse his people’s land.”-Deuteronomy 32:43

Paul, Flood argues, is not just being a sloppy exegete but, “artfully and deliberately reshaping [scripture] from the original cry for divine violence into a confession of universal culpability, highlighting that all of us need mercy.”[5]

A Trajectory Reading of Scripture

Flood has divided the book into two parts: (1)Violence in the Old Testament & (2)Violence in the New Testament. In the later half of the book, Flood invests considerable time introducing his readership to the concept of a trajectory reading of scripture. This I believe is an important point to consider in relation to how we formulate our ethics in the New Testament. Many Christians understand that Scripture is a progressive narrative from the story of Israel being fulfilled in the story of Jesus. We get that something new has arrived on the scene with the new covenant. What may be a surprise to many Christians is that the New Testament is not a static monolith of arrived ethical perfection. As Flood explains,
“If we read the New Testament as a storehouse of eternal principals, representing a “frozen in time” ethic, where we can simply flip open a page and find what the timeless “biblical” view on any particular issue is- as so many people read the Bible today- then we would need to conclude that the institution of slavery has God’s approval and maintain it today. This is in fact exactly how many American slave-owning Christians did read the Bible in the past. Yet all of us would agree today that slavery is immoral.” [6]

I often feel this unresolved tension and partial fulfillment in the writings of Paul. For instance, Paul in Galatians boldly proclaims, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [7] Yet in other instances we see the tension of Paul commending a slave Philemon to return to his Master, which is further exemplified by Paul’s multiple exhortations that slaves should, “obey your earthly masters in everything”.[8] How do we resolve this tension? Flood encourages us to read the direction and trajectory of the New Testament authors (e.g. Gal 3.28) and try to progress on that journey ourselves. 

From Unquestioning Obedience to Faithful Questioning

The problem we face our readings of Scripture is one of unquestioning obedience. Or in other words, our practices can sometimes be reduced to turning to any page of the Bible and yelling “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This, Flood suggests, is not a faithful representation of how Jesus or Paul would read their Scriptures.

So a few basic points that Flood makes in favour of a faithful questioning:

1. The Hebrew Scriptures are multi-vocal documents of  sometimes opposing views- testimony and counter testimony. 
“In the Hebrew Bible, we do not hear only a single unified voice, rather we encounter multiple competing voices - each claiming to be the correct view, each claiming authority.” [9]

2. When Jesus & Paul read their Scriptures they did not affirm every voice and every assumption in the Hebrew text.

“Jesus, while embracing the prophets’ priority of compassion over ritual, rejects their common tactic of blaming the victim, and instead acts to heal those who are sick, effectively undoing God’s supposed “judgement” on them. Jesus, in fact, does not associate sickness with God’s judgement at all, but with the kingdom of satan, and thus acts to liberate people from its bondage, rather than upholding it as right and calling for repentance as the prophets do.”[10]

3. Faithful questioning requires us to enter into the discussion with humility, knowing that the function of Scripture, as summed up by Jesus, is to love God, and our neighbour as ourselves. 

“Because of the multiple conflicting narratives we simply must choose, we must take sides in the debate, we are forced to embrace some narratives, while rejecting others.” [11] 
“Jesus is calling us as his disciples, to a mature, intelligent, responsible and empowered reading of Scripture that is rooted in life and our shared human experience together. Our hermeneutical key then is that our interpretation needs to be evaluated on its merit - we need to look at the fruits. If we see that it results in love then this is the aim of Scripture.” [12]

Possible Points of Improvement

Is Judgement inherently violent? 

In the nine chapter, “Undoing Judgement”, Flood enters into a discussion on Matthew’s use of violent language. Flood highlights that the Gospel according to Matthew adds phrases that appear to highlight divine retribution. As Flood comments, “We read of the unfaithful being “tortured” (Mt 18:34), “tied hand and foot”(Mt 22:13), “cut into pieces” (Mt 24:51, par Lk 12:46), “thrown into darkness” (Mt 8:12; 22:13;25:30), and “thrown into the blazing furnace” (Mt 13:42 & 50).” [13]

Flood’s proposal is that, “Matthew has added apocalyptic language to the parable of Jesus with the intent of tapping into the hopes of the Jewish people for liberation from bondage.” [14] To this I say amen! I agree wholeheartedly. 

My “possible point of improvement”, alongside Flood's points would be to also suggest a partial preterist reading of some of the violent passages in Matthew. (This will not bring an easy resolution to all of Matthew’s texts) This is to say that if Matthew’s community is primarily Jewish, then we are to read much of Matthew’s judgement passages as warnings of God’s coming judgment upon Israel. As Fredrick Dale Bruner comments on the Olivet discourse, "Jesus saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world as being almost contemporaneous.” This is of course does not immediately resolve any tension without clarification to how God is judging Israel. Is it a matter of God being retributive or violent? Or is it a matter God surrendering us to this ontological realities of sin? I would like to suggest that God’s judgments are a matter of punitive withdrawal, which is God “giving us over” to consequences of our choices. This is not violence in any sense of the term but rather the very fulfillment of our free will choices. God’s judgement is not the position of an active tormentor, but of the Prodigal Father that willingly lets us divide our inheritance and go the other way. (Luke 15) This is the reason, I believe, why Matthew is being so vivid and apocalyptic is partly because this fate of the nation of Israel could have been avoided, and he is likely warning his faith community over danger of the rejection of the good news. [15] This perhaps would explain Matthew’s striking prediction of judgement to be fulfilled within “this generation”. (Mt 23:36; 24:34)

I think Luke helps us grasp God’s heart toward judgement on Israel, and subsequently a picture of God’s attitude to all judgement. Luke tells us that when Jesus was making his final journey to Jerusalem, 
He wept over [Jerusalem] and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”[16] 
 God in Christ arrives at the City that has rejected his way of peace which leads to them ultimately putting him upon the Cross of his execution and weeps over the state of affairs. It is striking picture of the God allowing us to rebel. To go our own way."If they had believed in Jesus as the messianic Prince of Peace instead of a messianic Lord of War, Jerusalem could have actually become the City of Peace. Instead, they chose the path that led to a hellish nightmare of siege, famine, cannibalism, destruction, and death."[17] I would suggest that this is God’s attitude in all  judgements. As N.T. Wright comments on the above passage:
“When you reflect on Jesus’ words and deeds of judgement, don’t forget the tears. And remember, with awe, … that those tears are not just the human reaction to a frustrating situation. They are the tears of the God of love.” [18]

What is violence?

I thought a helpful addition to Disarming Scripture might have been a focused discussion around the nature of violence.   I should note that I do not think for a moment that Flood has limited violence to the physical realm in his book as evidenced by many of the examples he provides. It is merely a "possible point of improvement" that I suggest a concentration on the nature of violence. Often the assumption is to limit the defining parameters of violence to the physical realm. This is certainly fits into the provided  examples of slavery and child discipline in the sixth chapter on "Reading on a Trajectory".  I believe that if we expand our understanding of violence beyond the physical and into other realms- such as cultural or sexual violence- we might be able to bring further understanding on just how necessary a trajectory reading of Scripture is to the responsible reader. 

An example that comes to mind of non-physical violence in the text is Paul's trajectory reading on the role of women. Certainly their can be no doubt that a first century cultural view of a woman was inherently violent and oppressive under a host of categories of violence.  "It was the view of Ancient Greeks that a woman was a 'failed man.' Women essentially existed on the same level with slaves. Wives always lived under the authority, control, and protection of their husbands. Women, especially wives, led lives of seclusion. Men confined their spouses to the household in order to make certain the legitimacy of their children.” [19]To many modern readers, violence is being perpetuated by Paul in his passages dealing with gender roles. Paul has often been labeled as a misogynist. But if we see the direction Paul was heading and the reasons as to why he gave the prohibiting passages, we might reconsider Paul, and hopefully reconsider that way that women are oppressed today. (You can read more about Paul and issue of women here.)

Thanks for reading! 


1. Flood, Derek. Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives, and why we need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did, (San Francisco: Metania Books, 2014) pg. 4
2. 18
3. ibid. 
4. 48. emphasis original 
6. 123.emphasis original 
7. Galatians 3:28
8. Colossians 3:22 also see: Eph 6:6; 
9. 33.
10. 38. 
11. 41. 
12. 139. 
13. 210. 
14. 218
15. My proposal is of course dependant on an early dating of Matthew that is pre 70 a.d. 
16. Luke 19:41-44 NIV emphasis mine.
17. http://brianzahnd.com/2014/06/armageddon-left-behind/ 
18. Wright, Tom. Luke For Everybody,( Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2002) 233.
19. Gritz, Sharon Hodgin. Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus. Lanham,(University Press of America Inc, 1991) 32.