Yesterday I published a review of Mark Roncace’s book Raw Revelation. Roncace promptly replied via email and by his permission I’m printing that reply here followed by some comments of my own.
Let’s start by hearing from Mark Roncace:
“Couple of thoughts: In general, I think your critiques are essentially on target. You write, “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.” That is exactly what I wanted to do–push the bounds, go beyond the Seiberts and Sparks and Brugguemanns, who in my mind do wonderful work, but ultimately are not robust enough to let the reader wrestle with it raw. They have to have “an answer” or “solution.” You, I suspect, would say that authors like these are much better because they are more “constructive.” And that is a fair point. But I wanted to write a book which provoked, and poked and prodded people to examine things for themselves (a point I tried to stress repeatedly throughout the book). That is what I see as my contribution–a book with little or no (easy) answers, as I think that is the best (though not the only) way to get a general audience to engage the Bible: just lay it out there raw. So the other reading strategies that you mention (irony, allegory, etc.) are certainly important and should be part of the conversation, but, again, readers (Christians) need, in my opinion, to start with the plain meaning and really wrestle with that first before they quickly shove it in the “theological deep frier” (a wonderful phrase which I wish I had used!), which is what I see far too many Christian leaders and authors doing, including the aforementioned ones. Much has been written about “doubts” and “questions” in the religious life. But the books that deal with the tough Bible questions don’t seem willing to leave it truly open-ended, truly raw. People (and publishers) don’t like that, but I thought it was a voice that would be helpful to add to the conversation.
Mark Roncace’s response highlights his own intention to act as a sort of provocateur, as one who aims to rattle cages and shake foundations. There’s nothing wrong with that. I cannot begin to count how many times I’ve seen Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”) printed on mugs and professed in church as some general, decontextualized blessing. Yet for some reason I can’t remember ever seeing Ezekiel 16:36-42 printed on any Christian kitsch:
36 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you poured out your lust and exposed your naked body in your promiscuity with your lovers, and because of all your detestable idols, and because you gave them your children’s blood, 37 therefore I am going to gather all your lovers, with whom you found pleasure, those you loved as well as those you hated. I will gather them against you from all around and will strip you in front of them, and they will see you stark naked. 38 I will sentence you to the punishment of women who commit adultery and who shed blood; I will bring on you the blood vengeance of my wrath and jealous anger. 39 Then I will deliver you into the hands of your lovers, and they will tear down your mounds and destroy your lofty shrines. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you stark naked. 40 They will bring a mob against you, who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords. 41 They will burn down your houses and inflict punishment on you in the sight of many women. I will put a stop to your prostitution, and you will no longer pay your lovers. 42 Then my wrath against you will subside and my jealous anger will turn away from you; I will be calm and no longer angry.
Is the problem that this text is too long to fit on a coffee mug? Hardly. Whether you’re in a highly liturgical setting or a charismatic congregation that moves to the wind of the Spirit, the chances are that you will never encounter a text like this in corporate worship. Nor will it likely appear in adult Sunday school or Tuesday night Bible study or Friday night youth group.
This conspiracy of silence leaves Christians wholly unprepared to engage such texts. So Mark Roncace is to be commended for forcing the church to confront these “raw texts”. Nor is he obliged to have a nice way to resolve the issues raised by these texts. (Pointing out that x doesn’t work doesn’t require you to have some alternative y solution waiting in the wings.)
My most pressing concerns are not that Roncace fails to offer a resolution. Rather, I am concerned with the resolution he does offer, namely to accept that God just is occasionally evil, a genocidal maniac, a terrifying despot, an abusive consort and a horrifying father.
As bad as that is, there is a silver lining to this theological dark cloud, and I tried to communicate that at the close of my review when I stressed that the greatest value of Raw Revelation is not as a stand-alone work but rather as a catalyst in a wider discussion:
“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.”
Imagine that you want to have an open discussion about ethics. Since ethics is a big topic you want to get several opinions together. So you invite a natural law theorist, a Kantian deontologist, a utilitarian, and a cultural relativist. You may come away from that conversation thinking “I’d never recommend the cultural relativist get the final word on any ethical issue.” But just the same you may rate his contribution to the wider discussion highly, for his own unique perspective, and his ability to communicate it with an uncompromising force and clarity, presses the other interlocutors in the discussion to clarify their views. As iron sharpens iron.
My attitude toward Roncace’s book is similar. I may find the constructive proposals of the Seiberts and Sparks and Brueggemanns to be far more pastorally and personally satisfactory (not to mention orthodox), but the conversation is nonetheless greatly enriched with Roncace’s provocative perspective. If one is going to consult one book on this topic it would not be Raw Revelation. But it is very valuable as a part of that larger conversation.