A couple years ago I reviewed Christian Bible scholar Eric Seibert’s book The Violence of Scripture here. Next, I published a print interview with Eric. A year later, I interviewed Eric again in my podcast. Eric is a profound, admirably honest, compassionate and provocative Christian scholar. The word “provocateur” can mean simply one who provokes, in which case it can reduce to a mere troll. Eric is not a provocateur in that lowly sense. But he does provoke for the sake of challenging Christians to think and he was definitely being provocative two years ago when he published three guest posts on Peter Enns’ blog. These three posts provided an introduction to the themes explored in his book The Violence of Scripture and a challenge to Christians to think more carefully about the violence in the Bible. In the first installment he wrote the following:
To put it bluntly: not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us. I realize this may sound blasphemous to some people and flies in the face of everything they have been taught to believe about the Bible. When the Church grandly proclaims the Bible to be the Word of God, it gives the impression that the words of Scripture are above critique and beyond reproach. We are taught to read, revere, and embrace the Bible. We are not taught to challenge its values, ethics, or portrayals of God.
The fallout from these three articles was enormous. Fundamentalist Christian theologian Owen Strachan spoke out vocally against Eric. The dispute was taken up by Christianity Today in an article with the eye-catching title: “Is the Bible Immoral? Messiah College Professor Says Yes, Sometimes.” The article was headed with the most provocative phrase from the above-cited excerpt: “Not everything in the ‘good book’ is either good, or good for us.” Needless to say, the story spread like wildfire based on its conformity to the familiar and always deliciously incendiary meme: “Liberal theology professor challenges the Bible’s authority”.
All this points to a deep irony. Evangelicals like to fancy themselves people of the Book. Yet, for all that, as Bill Maher has wryly observed, they tend to treat the Bible like a software agreement: scroll to the bottom and click “I agree”. But if they actually read the Bible carefully and honestly faced the nature of the problem that Eric was addressing, then whether they agreed with him or not, they’d at least appreciate where he was coming from and what he was attempting to do.
But the lesson isn’t only that (evangelical) Christians often have a superficial, talismanic approach to the Bible. The lesson is also — and more profoundly — that this community is often beset by a critical weakness in a paranoid, trigger-happy, McCarthyite fear of wrong opinion (aka heresy), and questioning and doubt (aka lack of faith). These fears fail to recognize that perceived orthodoxy isn’t always right and a living faith is often expressed through questioning and doubt. Due to this failure, as soon as the provocateur raises an unsettling question or shares a destabilizing opinion, the heresy hunters fire back: shoot now, ask questions later.
So why am I talking about this now? On a whim I googled “Eric Seibert” today to see what he’s up to (it’s quicker than sending an email!), and the first hit in the search was the above-mentioned Christianity Today article. There it was: Eric’s detailed, thoughtful analysis, and indeed his entire career, is framed by a google search with that single, inflammatory phrase: “Not everything in the ‘good book’ is either good, or good for us.”
Admittedly, this is in part a story of the internet itself where a singular event can live on forever. But it also provides a caution to the would-be evangelical provocateur: before you begin to rock the boat, you better count the cost.