Jesus for President, a Review for Atheists -- Part 2: God's Story

Last week, I introduced the co-author of Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne, who is a phenomenon with no equivalent outside of the born-again Christian subculture. He openly and unambiguously opposes capitalism and "empire," and because the source of his politics is the Bible, he has an exploding audience in the American evangelical church -- especially the white, upper-middle class church.

Shane's first book, Irresistible Revolution, is being read at this moment by probably thousands of little Bible study groups around the country. Jesus for President, written with Chris Haw, is already a best seller. Both books are part of a greater mass audience theological trickle-down of 2,000-year-old themes that have been making a come back among Christian intellectuals for sometime.

Jesus for President, is a walk through the Bible using an approach that some call Narrative Theology. From Genesis to Revelation, they apply "God's story" to present-day life under capitalism and the American empire. Today, I want to give you some samples of how they actually do it (page scans below!). My goal is not to convert you, but to show how, if you use your imagination, you might see some sense, beauty and power in this story as they see it.

One of my biggest surprises in getting to know Bible believin' Christians is that they are able to keep their eyes wide open while diving into the ancient texts of the Bible head first. They are asking the hard questions and finding poetic answers though serious scholarly study. Jesus for President is one of the most accessible examples available for non-believers to see how they do it.

In the Bible, God gets angry. He wipes out cities, nations and even the entire human race once. He steps in to save his favorites sometimes, and other times tempts or tortures them just to see what they'll do. And even if you were to write off all the smiting, giants and 900-year-old men as "Old Testament myths" (as a lot of liberal Christians do), the fundamental plot line still seems crazy. As Julia Sweeney says:

Why would a god create people so imperfect then blame them for their own imperfections? Then send his son to be murdered by those imperfect people to make up for how imperfect those people were --- and how imperfect they were inevitably going to be. I mean what a crazy idea!

How in the world do modern Christians who believe in a "kind, unchanging and all-powerful god" think they can answer that?

The answer -- sort of -- is that they don't. "It's a mystery!" they say. Their starting point is a leap of faith that God is up to something in the world that is beyond our comprehension. Even though God could fix humanity with the snap of a finger, he doesn't want that kind of relationship with us. And that's what makes it potentially beautiful: God desires a relationship with humanity -- and desires that it should be interesting. Isn't that wild? I've even heard some preachers say that God created us to be a companion to him. It doesn't mean God never interacts with or intervenes in humanity. On the contrary -- what kind of relationship would that be? The Bible, as read by Claiborne and Haw, is the story of a God who never gives up on humanity, no matter how bad we screw things up down here. Yet it is the story of a God who gives us our independence and expects a lot of us.

That is why, in my experience, many Christians are more "humanist" than people who call themselves "secular humanists." Secular humanists do not believe that humans have special place in the grand scheme of the universe; Christians do.

Here's one place, from the first few pages, where Shane & Chris sum it up:

[Note: the markings (except for a couple check marks in the margins and one scribble further below) are part of the original text. The book is designed like this on every page throughout!]

Many of you will be thinking (and commenting below), "What kind of idiots believe these old stories are actually true!?" There are a couple of things to say about that. I don't know what Shane & Chris personally believe regarding the absolute historical accuracy of the whole Bible. But, for many, deep study of the Bible has caused them to let go of the idea that everything in the Bible accurately represents real history. At the same time, they continue to commit to the Bible as a text that is held communally to be "true" and the sole source of authority.

Is it crazy to do that with a 5,000 year old book of cobbled-together stories and poems? Yes. But, is it any less crazy to believe that the law of supply and demand actually regulates the economy, that anti-depressants actually work, or that human history has been a steady march in the direction of progress? Sure, we can supply all kinds of stories and examples to back up that kind of a worldview. But few will have much grounding in anything that can truly be called fact. More importantly though: those mainstream truths are handed down authoritatively to us by economist priests, doctor priests and academic priests. It is very difficult for a lay person to confidently question a psychiatrists' diagnosis, isn't it?

For Christians like Shane and Chris, on the other hand, truth in the Bible is a communal act, not a set of facts. Every individual in their own community, as in the whole body of the church, is understood to have equal right and inherent ability to wrestle with scripture to produce truth. That doesn't mean everyone can come up with their own truth; that's individualism, not communalism. Scary? Uncomfortable? Yes. But it's communitarian, not authoritarian.

I hope I've brought at least a few skeptical readers to the point where they might consider paying at least an ounce of respect to this Christian biblical idea of communal truth. So let's keep moving: Shane and Chris see the Christian community as bound to this story of the bible; let's see where that story goes after humans' disastrous debut on the stage of history.

You've heard of all those crazy rules in biblical books like Leviticus or Deuteronomy, right? That stuff gets pulled out a lot when someone wants to prove that Christians follow the Bible only selectively. "God hates shrimp!" etc.... But Christians believe that the Mosaic law was intended by God only for humanity at a particular time in our history---and only for a subset of humanity at that.

Ever have a really troubled friend, and every time you tried to help, it just made things worse? In the Bible, that's kind of what God has going with humanity. First, he throws us out of the garden for disobeying him once (maybe an overreaction in hindsight?). After that, God keeps trying to help us get back on track in various ways, but we just fall further and further into a downward spiral of murder and greed. So God decides to hit the reset button (the flood), but that doesn't fix anything either.

What's so interesting to me is how, in the Bible, God's methods with us become more and more subtle. For example, he follows the flood by picking out one particular people -- an enslaved people! -- and chooses them to be an example for the rest of the world, set apart from the world and yet living among the world. He will raise them up out of the pitiful mess that humanity has become, and through them redeem all of humanity.

In that context, all the crazy rules can almost make sense: "the law" was designed by God to counter the particular, historical ways in which they were living that were messed up and broken: as slave and slave owner, as land owner and tenant, as murderer and victim, as king and subject. (Yeah, we're still living in those messed up ways, but just wait: God has a different intervention for our time later in his story.)

Ten thousand tenured economists say its OK if 99% of the means of making a living (means of production) fall into the hands of 1% of the people. God says the means of making a living belongs to all the people. Which story do you want to sign on to?

Actually, anthropologists know that periodic redistribution of the means of making a living is in the DNA of our species. Virtually all pre-empire/pre-state agricultural societies did it. Pre-agriculture societies didn't need to do it because your means of making a living were your legs.

What I'm saying is: There is a lot in the Bible that affirms certain truths (like Jubilee) that have been wiped out in many places over the past several thousand years by feudalism, capitalism and modern empire. Do you really think that people all around the world are tenaciously hanging on to religions that are thousands of years old because they're stupid? They are our only surviving link back to values and standards of fairness that go back to the beginning of time. A Bible-based world view isn't about rolling society back to the year 3000, but it is about re-applying, through community, some of those ancient values to the complexity of the present day.

OK, in this installment, I tried to give a quick introduction to how Chris and Shane are interpreting the Bible's Hebrew scripture for their generation. Again, this is part of a much wider movement: Shane and Chris are popularizing serious theological work that has been trickling down from scholars into mainstream Christianity for decades, and they are in the company of many other popular writers and perhaps millions of other ordinary pastors and students of the Bible who are coming to the same conclusions. This is all part of what some have called the Fourth Great Awakening in American Christianity.

In the next installment, I'll get into how Chris and Shane interpret the Greek scripture of the Bible (a.k.a. the "New Testament").