Mark Roncace on Raw Revelation

Posted on 02/21/14 7 Comments

RRauser_Podcast-Post-graphic Mark Roncace

Christians believe the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity. As we read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. There certainly are passages of the Bible that invoke in the reader a sense of inspiring, and perhaps even inspired, literature. One thinks, for example, of God’s magisterial speech in Job, or the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians.

But large portions of the Bible do not readily invoke in the reader a sense of inspiration. Indeed, some appear to be in flat contradiction to this claim. Most glaring are those passages that present God commanding or commending moral atrocities. The fact is, however, that many Christians have never seriously grappled with the moral challenge presented by these texts. While they profess belief in the authority of all scripture, they read it selectively if at all.

Raw RevelationIn this episode of The Tentative Apologist Podcast we sit down with Mark Roncace, the Associate Professor of Religion at Wingate University in North Carolina, to discuss the way that Christians read the Bible. As the author of Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About,  Mark is well equipped to address the topic. In the book, Mark chronicles many of the morally problematic texts that Christians frequently misinterpret, or avoid altogether. And he insists that we must not shield ourselves from these problematic aspects of scripture. Rather than cooking the book by removing all that strikes us as offensive, he advises that we must read the Bible raw.

I find Mark to be an outstanding provocateur, and even if one ends up dissatisfied with some aspects of his analysis or proposed solutions, I think we are nonetheless indebted to him for forcing us to address the important questions. Those who profess the Bible as God’s revelation can no longer afford to read it selectively, or with the rose-tinted glasses of popular piety. You can learn more about Mark by watching this YouTube video. To read my review of Raw Revelation click here.

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  • Luke Breuer

    This podcast is good at identifying problems, but poor at identifying much of any solution. This isn’t as bad as it sounds; a Christian psychologist I know told me that psychologists in general are very good at identifying problems, but fairly terrible at figuring out solutions. I realized this is why I start many books and don’t finish them: book often start out with problem statements!

    Wrestling with God is definitely not the core part of Christianity today that it must be; I was glad to see that Roncace zeroed in on that. One way to view the OT is as a series of [mostly] men who chose to stand in the breach. This concludes in Is 59:14-21, where nobody to stand in the breach could be found (v16), at which point God sends Jesus.

    The weakest part was Roncace’s failure to really grapple with the terribleness in the OT. My old boss, an atheist, holds to what he calls the Principle of Reality:

    Perception has no bearing on reality (Except in politics and psychology). Reality is what reality is and not necessarily what the documentation or any individual says it is. Weirdness (erroneous or odd behaviour) happens when the believed reality of a system does not match actual reality.

    Figure out what reality is, before trying to bend it to a desired perception (This is often referred to as a ‘root cause analysis’)

    If weirdness is seen, something needs to be fixed.

    Perhaps the lesson humans most need to learn these days is human nature, as Ralph Wood captures in his Solzhenitsyn as Latter-Day Prophet, especially the concluding two paragraphs. I like to link to three scientific studies: Stanford prison experiment, The Third Wave, and the Milgram experiment. Or we could look at a recent Forbes opinion piece, Leadership Lessons From Effective Acts Of Conscience: Martin Luther King And Pete Seeger, with this being the key section:

    Let’s first consider the risks. If you take what you consider to be a moral stance you already think you’ve done the right thing. And if you don’t take a stance, since most of us think of ourselves as basically good people, you already think the situation either did not warrant one or that nothing could be done.

    As long as we think of ourselves as fundamentally good instead of fundamentally incompetent, we will hurt people with our ‘goodness’. It takes very, very few subtle, evil people to whip a large number of people into doing terrible things. All three experiments demonstrate that, if one thinks that e.g. Nazism is ‘too complex’.

    I believe that the OT helps produce a much more realistic view of human nature than most people have, today, despite all these scientific experiments. Without understanding human nature, we will be unable to change reality toward kingdom of heaven-style thinking and acting.

  • Fraternite

    Good talk.

    I agree that taking the Bible seriously means recognising the difficult and repulsive parts of scripture as well as the more familiar soothing parts. I also agree that it’s extremely important to let each account and story speak for itself rather than subsuming it into a larger metanarrative.

    The Evangelical tradition would be a lot more robust and credible if voices like this were tolerated more at the local church level instead of only existing in the academic elite.

    • Luke Breuer

      Can you think of some concrete results that would follow from this being “tolerated more at the local church level”? As I state in my comment, I found Roncace weak on this point.

      • Fraternite

        1. The Christian quality par excellence shifts from mentally assenting doctrines X and Y to seriously engaging biblical texts as some sort of scripture.

        2. Reading scripture changes from reading to acquire facts to sincerely and authentically interacting with the text. The reader becomes authorised to question, criticise, and even disagree with the text. More to the point, this interaction isn’t merely authorised, it’s demanded.

        3. Biblical Truth gets recast as biblical truths and the perceived need to harmonise everything disappears. The authors behind the texts and the charactersbin the text become more human as their biases and ideas become more appreciated; the space between the reader and his Bible shrinks.

        4. Easy answers for everything disappear, and individuals are forced to think for themselves about why they do what they do and if their choices are justifiable.

        • Fraternite

          I could go on, but I think the current bibliology at the heart of Evangelicalism is the lynchpin that keeps everything else from falling apart.

          And quite frankly, I think most Evangelicals know this and it is exactly why there is such widespread opposition to mainstreaming folks like Roncace.

          • Luke Breuer

            I’m trying to see how this is true. A friend of mine claims that people:

                 (1) want an authority to tell them what they ought to do so they don’t have to think for themselves

                 (2) want an authority to blame when bad things happen so they don’t have to take responsibility themselves

            This would certainly explain some of what you claim, but it’s a just-so story until it has been tested, and I’m not particularly sure how to test it.

        • Luke Breuer

          I’ve followed Peter Enns for a while, so your 1. – 3. are very familiar to me. I wonder if you could elaborate on what 4. would look like? I don’t expect a comprehensive answer, just a few examples.

          For my own contribution:

          Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as skubalon, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8 RSV)

          Daniel B. Wallace discusses the word skubalon/skuvbalon in A Brief Word Study on: Skuvbalon; it is translated as ‘refuse’ in the RSV, but should really be translated as something like ‘shit’. Why not? Wallace explains: “However, due to English sensibilities, and considering the readership (Christians), a softer term such as “dung” is most appropriate.” Ahh yes, imposing our idea of what the world should be like onto the Bible, instead of vice versa! I guess inerrancy only applies when it doesn’t mess with your idea of how reality ought to be, eh?

          Or consider Rehoboam’s famous insult in 1 Kings 12:6-11, where he says, “My little finger is bigger than my father’s dick.” He does not say ‘thighs’, he does not say ‘loins’, except as a euphemism which ought to be dropped when the meaning is no longer clear. Or how about Judges 3:15-23, where v22 uses the word parsh?don, which is translated as ‘excrement’ or ‘feces’. Yes, the Bible talks about poop, directly. Or take 1 Samuel 20:30, which is never translated as “you son of a bitch”, even though that is precisely what is meant. Not “son of a perverse, rebellious woman”. Or Galatians 5:12, which is obviously talking about cutting off the entire penis instead of just circumcising it. Finally, 1 Kings 18:25-27 clearly includes Elijah mocking the Baal worshipers, suggesting that maybe Baal is taking a dump. It’s not just “relieving himself”; Elijah was mocking the Baal worshipers and would have spoken correspondingly.

          The point of all this is that such corruption of scripture really perverts our understanding of verses such as Ephesians 4:29, 5:4, and Colossians 3:8. The NET Bible has a nice little rundown of the relevant Eph 5:4 words; it is clear that expletives are not in focus here, but words which violate the spirit of Philippians 4:8, 1 Corinthians 10:23, and other verses. I can tear someone down and emotionally abuse them in High English, and I can build them up using naughty words. The idea that Eph 4:29, 5:4, and Col 3:8 are focusing on naughty words is a rejection of the lesson Samuel learned when choosing Israel’s first king:

          But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7)

          Thinking that the Bible is merely speaking against naughty words is expressly a focusing on appearance instead of the heart. The very thing that Jesus and Paul rail at, many Christians believe is very, very important. This is just retarded: if I’m going to tell someone who was raped that what was done was wrong, I’m going to let the colorful words fly. I do try to be careful when I use them, so that they have a proper shock value when I do. Like Paul did in Philippians 3:8.

          To those who think that cussing is a big deal, I use Morpheus’ words: “You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo. This is the world, as it exists today.”