Mark Roncace believes Christians have been “cooking the good book” for way too long. What he means is that they read it selectively, they avoid the plain meaning of texts, they seek a safe, compliant, and easily digestible spiritual meal. But that’s not what God gave us. God’s word comes to us raw and that is the way Roncace believes that we need to consume it. Consequently, he proposes that we set aside our theological deep friers and hermeneutical microwaves and encounter the Bible as God intended, that is, as a raw revelation. To that end, Roncace devotes six chapters (or as he says, “courses”) to serving up God’s raw revelation to the reader: The Bible, God, Jesus, Doctrine, Morality and Other Morsels.
A quick summary
The first chapter (or “course”) focuses on the Bible. In this chapter Roncace bounces back and forth between the testaments highlighting various apparent contradictions (or, as he prefers to say, “disparate opinions” (18)) on issues like creation, the nativity, the resurrection, and the identity of Goliath’s killer (was it David or Elhanan?).
The second course turns to consider the Bible’s depiction of God. Roncace doesn’t mince words as he states that God “is portrayed as cruel, vindictive, childish, petulant, misogynistic, egotistical, genocidal, and maniacal.”(43)
Roncace sets the tone for the third course on Jesus on the first page: “The real Jesus does not say he loves you or the little children–actually, he says that to be his disciple, you must hate your own children (Luke 14:26).” (85) In this chapter Roncace highlights Jesus’ penchant for telling disturbing and cryptic stories, he highlights aspects of Jesus’ behavior that reflect impatience and even racism, and he offers a direct challenge to the dogmatic assumption that Jesus was God-incarnate.
The fourth course moves on to doctrine. At this point we learn that the Bible is not a unified or consistent theological treatise, that the biblical depiction of God lacks the “omni” attributes traditionally ascribed to him, that the Trinity isn’t clearly in scripture, that Jesus didn’t think he was God, and so on.
The fifth course deals with morality. Here Roncace argues that the Bible offers no clear condemnation of homosexuality or abortion. Nor does it clearly condemn fornication.
The final course deals with a range of secondary issues including the boundaries of canon and the difficulties with canon.
And there we are. The sacred cows of scripture that once grazed serenely in the fields of popular piety now lie slaughtered in the tall grass. Roncace is not the first Christian scholar to challenge Christians to put away their rose-tinted hermeneutical glasses (see, for example, the recent books by Eric Seibert, Kent Sparks, John Collins, Thom Stark, and Walter Brueggemann), but I can’t think of another self-identified Christian who pursues his topic with such tenacity, such dogged iconoclasm, such unvarnished brusqueness. That quickly becomes the dominating factor as we evaluate the book.
Irreverent to a fault?
Raw Revelation treats its cascade of Bible difficulties in a breezy, accessible, and irreverent manner. I expect the irreverent delivery will be rather polarizing, engaging some while grating on others. Consider an example. Roncace writes:
“This book is not about my trying to convince you what to think about the Bible. It’s about my trying to convince you what to think about: the Bible. The colon in that last sentence is as indispensable as the one in your body — we’d be starting with a big mess if we took it out.” (14-15)
Heh heh. Clever.
While I can appreciate a wry turn of phrase as much as the next guy, occasionally Roncace tries so hard to be clever and irreverent that his writing stumbles into the offensive, if not downright bizarre. Consider this duesy:
“If God cared a lot about who had sex with whom, or when the sex was had, he could have said so clearly in the Bible. Still, I would say that we probably shouldn’t have sex with animals.” (192)
Sorry, I get irreverent banter, but to say “we probably shouldn’t have sex with animals”? That’s offensive and just plain weird. It’s like something David Brent of the BBC’s The Office might have blurted out in one of his many moments of painful social awkwardness. While there is no doubt that Roncace is clever and probably cool too, I wish he had reined in his own penchant for irreverent quips.
It’s easier to tear down than build up
As I said, Roncace writes as a Christian committed to the revelatory status of scripture. For example, he declares, “When you love God and God’s word, it requires that you reveal the truth, even if it hurts.” (7) So far as I can see, his descriptions of the Bible as “God’s word” and “revelation” are genuine. Indeed, these convictions feed his unflagging commitment to slaughtering every sacred cow in sight, for it is important that we get the raw revelation as it was delivered. (It is also worth noting, and commending, the fact that Roncace is donating all royalties earned to international Christian organizations, a fact one discovers on the back cover.)
Roncace’s book is not wholly deconstructive, for each chapter concludes with a section titled “Raw Reflections” which proposes to offer some counsel in light of the carnage visited upon popular piety in the preceding pages. For example, after hammering home the manifold tensions in the internal consistency of the Bible in the first chapter, Roncace then offers this observation:
“The Scripture is better, more meaningful, more true-to-life precisely because of its diversity.” (38)
There is undoubtedly some truth here (there’s a reason we’ve got four gospels rather than one Diatessaron). However, this kind of pithy observation does little to address the tensions between Matthew and Luke on the nativity or Jesus and Paul on salvation. In the end, I suspect that Roncace’s breezy constructive advice will appear to many readers as too little too late, akin to placing a Band-Aid on an amputation.
This is unfortunate because the Christian tradition offers rich and varied ways to address the various issues Roncace raises. Alas, his casting of various traditional reading strategies (e.g. hyperbole, irony, allegory) as disingenuous means of “cooking the book” is so sweeping that it leaves him with precious few hermeneutical resources to regroup.
Is Roncace a naïve biblicist?
Let me start by answering my own question. No, I’m quite sure Roncace isn’t a naïve Biblicist. But in light of his dogged commitment to the alleged “plain” meaning of the text, and his suspicion of anything that deviates from that “plain” meaning, I’ll be darned if he doesn’t often act like one. Consider the way he treats Romans 9:11-13, that troubling passage where God declares that he loved Jacob but hated Esau. This is a text which has spawned a range of interpretations. To begin with, many commentators have pointed out that Romans 9-11 is concerned not with individuals but rather with groups (Jews and Gentiles, Israel as a national identity and Israel as a spiritual identity). And consequently, “Jacob” and “Esau” are functioning here as symbols of groups, not as individuals. What about the aspect of “hatred”, whether it be for individuals or groups? As regards that issue, it is certainly reasonable to interpret such language as hyperbolic in nature — i.e. as exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. Needless to say, much more could be said in unpacking Romans 9:11-13 and addressing the troubling moral implications that seem to follow from it. But alas, Roncace seems to dismiss the pursuit of this kind of nuanced reading out of hand. He writes:
“Preachers, incidentally, are occasionally forced to deal with the Romans passage, for which they turn the burner on high and tell you that it ‘does not really mean that God hated Esau.’ I personally am uncomfortable with telling God that he does not mean what he says (though what he says may be mean). For me, when God says, ‘I hate Esau,’ I tend to interpret that to mean that God hates Esau.” (73)
Note that Roncace suggests any reading which deviates from the “plain reading” (e.g. by appealing to symbol and hyperbole) is “turning the burner on high”. God says what he means, and means what he says, right? I can’t help but note how much Roncace sounds like young earth creationist Ken Ham. When God says he created the earth in six days, Ken Ham tends to interpret that to mean God created the world in six days. Because it’s just that simple, isn’t it?
Elsewhere Roncace dismisses a range of attempts to understand the Old Testament law:
“We’ve heard preachers attempt to circumvent the issue with barbequed statements like these: (a) God gave those laws to Israelites, not Christians. (b) God did not really say those things, only the Israelites did. (c) We should learn from the principles of the laws not the specifics. (d) The new covenant obviates the Old one. (e) Today we must obey only the moral laws, not the ceremonial ones.” (57)
No doubt some proposals are better than others. But what troubles me, once again, is Roncace’s categorical assumption that any attempt to resolve a tension is an illegitimate cooking of the book.
Is Roncace predisposed to the most difficult readings?
If most Christians are predisposed to easy readings of texts, Roncace frequently seems bent on identifying the most problematic possible readings. If Jesus said we must hate our children then presumably he meant we must hate our children. If God said he hates Esau then I guess he hates Esau. No room for alternative possibilities. At its worst, this tendency (if such it be) leads him to ignore the plain reading of the text in pursuit of an even worse reading. Consider, for example, his treatment of the Joshua conquest narrative.
“God commands — and the Israelites carry out — a mass murder of Jericho’s citizens. And it’s not because the people of Jericho were wicked and evil; it’s because they were non-Israelites who were living in the land that God gave to Abraham’s family.” (59, emphasis added)
But that’s not true. The Deuteronomistic history does not identify non-Israelite ethnic identity as the grounds for the mass slaughter. Rather, it identifies the sinfulness of the people living in Canaan (e.g. Genesis 15:16) as well as the spiritual threat they posed to Israel (e.g. Deut. 7:4). A person may challenge the legitimacy of these textual rationales for genocide (see, for example, my critique of Clay Jones in “Did God raise up Bin Laden?”) but one cannot simply ignore them, especially when one has committed oneself to the faithful relaying of raw revelation.
Why accept the Bible as God’s Word in the first place?
There is a fundamental tension that runs through Raw Revelation. On the one hand, Roncace offers a sweeping dismissal of the Christian tradition as a source of insight on the reading of scripture. Time and again, long entrenched Christian theological and ethical readings are marginalized as yet more means that the book has been cooked. It would seem that on Roncace’s view the revelation must be kept raw, safe from the blinding heat of tradition.
So then here’s that tension: the very recognition of the Bible as a revelation (raw or otherwise) is a product of historical processes. To be sure, Roncace is not unaware of this fact. Indeed, he discusses the historical processes of canon formation and recognition at some length in the final course of the book. But (so far as I can see) what he doesn’t address is that fundamental question: if we are to set aside as suspect the tradition’s varied doctrinal and ethical readings of scripture, why accept that tradition’s basic premise that scripture is a revelation in the first place?
At this point I’m left suspecting that when it comes to the epistemic justification for accepting the Bible as revelation, Roncace is left with little more than irrational fideism, i.e. he simply wills to view this set of discordant writings as revelation.
Should you worship a genocidal maniac?
This brings me finally to the most disturbing part of Roncace’s book and it relates to his understanding of the divine nature. Whatever else you say about the Christian tradition, it has always been committed to the moral perfection of God. This has spurred on a rich and nuanced theological tradition that has employed varied reading strategies, philosophical constructions and, at key points, the retreat to paradox or antinomy.
Roncace rejects this tradition and its overriding commitment to the moral perfection of God. For example, in the context of discussing the conquest of Canaan he observes,
“As honest Christians, we cannot say that we don’t understand these troubling texts. No. We do understand them. We just don’t find them palatable. How can we claim to comprehend the Bible when it says, ‘God is love,’ but then when God appears as deceptive, evil, and cruel, we say, ‘No, God is not really those things.’ Or we throw up our hands and say, ‘There are some things we can never grasp.’ Let’s be real. Like Job says, we must take the good with the bad.” (77) (cf. 78)
Note that Roncace concedes not simply that God occasionally appears to be deceptive, evil and cruel but rather that this is what he is. In other words, Roncace doesn’t repudiate paradox, but instead pulls it into the very center of God’s own, conflicted moral nature:
“For me, the paradoxical God of Scripture — kind and cruel, good and genocidal, present and absent — is the true nature of the God of the universe.” (80)
Bring these passages together and we see a deeply disturbing picture emerging. God is love, kind, good and present but he is also evil, cruel, genocidal and absent. What’s going on here? Does Roncace understand God to be some transcendent encompassing of opposites like Vishnu/Shiva? On the contrary, Roncace’s view is firmly rooted in immanence as he understands God to be a finite, evolving persona:
“God is not perfect, and I can live with that. Why must God be perfect? Why can’t we love a God who is in the process of growing and developing? We show genuine love for flawed people all the time.” (83)
Roncace is correct. We can show love for flawed people, so if God is just a flawed person, we could in principle still love him. However, Christians don’t propose simply that we love God but also that we worship him. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“When we say ‘God’ we confess a constant, unchangeable being, always the same, faithful and just, without any evil. It follows that we must necessarily accept his words and have complete faith in him and acknowledge his authority. He is almighty, merciful, and infinitely beneficent. Who could not place all hope in him?”
This is the kind of being that it makes sense both to love supremely and to worship absolutely.
But this is not Roncace’s understanding of God. He doesn’t believe God is constant, faithful, just and good. Instead, he views God as flawed. Indeed, “flawed” would seem to be a gross understatement, for Roncace declares that “God can be a misogynistic, genocidal maniac” (back cover). Let’s put that into some perspective. Imagine your friend describing her new boyfriend as “flawed”. You press her for clarification. “Well,” she admits, “sometimes he’s a misogynistic, genocidal maniac … but other times he’s really sweet!” After that “revelation,” would you advise her to stay with him? Of course not! You’d tell her to run for the hills. Needless to say, it makes no sense to worship a misogynistic, genocidal maniac. As for loving such an individual, you can choose to do so if you wish, just like your friend can choose to love her new boyfriend. But surely such a decision would be foolhardy, self-destructive, and doomed to heartbreak.
Consequently, neither worship nor love seem to be the right response to God as Roncace understands him. If anything, a more appropriate response to this depiction would be Promethean rebellion.
So what’s the final verdict?
Thus far it would appear that this review has been largely negative, though not, I hope, without good reason. But let me balance things out at the close by saying that the theological “idiosyncrasies” of this book are not reasons to avoid purchasing it. Indeed, while I believe Roncace’s presentation to be unbalanced and his theology to be an unmitigated disaster, this book still presents a valuable and challenging interlocutor, all the more so given its inherent flaws. Roncace has cultivated a unique and uncompromising position, and when it is understood as part of a larger conversation, an otherwise deeply flawed book can become a provocative and timely catalyst for the church to reflect more deeply on scripture in all its rawness.
Thank God, Roncace does not offer the final word on scripture, but he does offer a word worth hearing.