With all the recent hullabaloo regarding the Stark-Copan-Flannagan debate concerning whether Thom Stark is too stark I thought it an opportune time to begin my review of Thom’s book Human Faces. Rather than aim to provide a proper review of the book (whatever that is) I am going to offer a series of scattered, meditative reflections as I sit under the nearest banyan tree.
My first comment is directed not at the book itself but rather at the publisher. I’m glad Wipf & Stock is around doing what they do, publishing cutting edge books that Zondervan, IVP and Crossway (especially Crossway) would never publish and making them available at a reasonable price (which is more than can be said for university publishers) and with good packaging. I was offered a contract with W&S once but I turned it down because it obliged me to pay for copy editing and type-setting. While that may be a down side (depending on one’s contract), beyond that this is an outstanding little Christian publisher that is publishing important books in a world awash with schlock.
When one turns to the book itself one is taken by the large number of blurbs. From Dale Allison and James McGrath to Tony Campolo and John W. Loftus a wide range of people are reviewing this book in positive, occasionally glowing, terms. (Alas, I couldn’t find a blurb from Al Mohler. No doubt that one will be reserved for Thom’s second edition.)
Next, we have a concise and warmly written forward from John J. Collins which commends Thom for honestly identifying aspects of polytheism, human sacrifice, genocide and mistaken eschatology throughout much of the Bible, shorn of the rationalizations and evasions that constrain the typical apologetically driven treatments of scripture. Collins writes: “This is a courageous book, that challenges us to take the modern criticism of the Bible to its logical conclusion.” (xiv)
And what is the logical conclusion? As we will see, that is the point at which the book seems the weakest. Thom is good at slaughtering sacred cows. Indeed, he devotes successive chapters to sending one after another to the slaughterhouse. But the point, (contrary to what John W. Loftus might think) “is not to undermine the faith, but to pursue a mature faith, to faithfully integrate my religious convictions with my commitment to honesty, and thus to offer a holistically faithful account of scripture and its role within the church.” (xviii) And so in the final chapter, titled “What scripture reveals when it gets God wrong”, Thom finally steps back from the carnage, hands the reader a bottle of ketchup, and wishes us Bon Appetit. Not that I mean to complain, but it seems like more is required in terms of food preparation before we can sit down to a proper meal. I shall return to this point at the end of my review.
One more observation before I turn, in subsequent review installments, to look at the text itself. At the end of the acknowledgements Thom writes the following in reference to his wife and daughter: “After having written a book about the nature of the knowledge of God, I can safely say that the only thing I know for certain is that I love my ladies.” (xx) One could take that statement in a couple different ways. The first way is as a mere figure of speech along the lines of Aaron Neville crooning (or croaking) “I don’t know much, but I know I love you.” Does Thom’s quip only reveal affection for his family? The second possibility is that this statement reveals some deeper epistemological currents at play. And it is those deeper questions that one faces throughout the book:
What can we know of God? Is the Bible a revelation of God, or just of man**? Have we been looking up to God all this time or have we merely been peering down gazing at our countenance at the bottom of Schweitzer’s well? Or (as Thom might have it) could it possibly be both?