Over the years, I have seen many Christians attempt to address problems of divinely sanctioned biblical violence by reframing them as virtues: in short, the bug is a feature. How so? On this re-narration, the problem of biblical violence should remind us that God is big and wild and dangerous. This offers an essential chastening for our potentially idolatrous conceptions of God that are too small, and tame and safe. For example, consider Mark Buchanan’s book Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control. Buchanan writes: “In our aversion to the unholy parts of the Holy Bible–the boring stuff, the violent stuff, the puzzling stuff–we’ve sated ourselves with honey and starved ourselves of the very sustenance that in fact can make us holy.” (206) For Buchanan, we need to embrace the divine violence along with the rest and thereby allow God to critique our attempt to tame him.
I agree with Buchanan in one critical respect: as he stresses in his book, we need to preach the whole counsel of God and recognize that all of Scripture is given for our formation. I agree that the Bible is big, wild, and dangerous insofar as it is a book that challenges our assumptions at many a turn and we need to engage the whole text if we are to be faithful to it. I also agree that this warning also extends to God … to an extent. God is undoubtedly not limited by our theology of God. God transcends our conceptions and in that sense can certainly be described as a wild and dangerous challenge to the theological status quo.
The problem comes when one attempts to apply that analysis in such a way that it obliges us simply to accept particular readings of biblical texts that violate our most fundamental moral convictions. If another religion worshipped a deity that commanded the genocide of entire societies including women and children in a manner comparable to Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20, Joshua 6, and 1 Samuel 15, you’d likely find little persuasive power in the apologist’s defense that their god was especially big, wild, and dangerous. But if we would not accept such a defense when invoked by other religious traditions, why would we accept it in the case of the Bible? Consistency informed by our most basic moral deliverances suggests that we should likewise be duly skeptical when people want to justify particular divine actions attributed to the Judeo-Christian God with the disclaimer that the deity is big, wild, and dangerous.
So while I agree with Buchanan that we need to wrestle with “the violent stuff” in the Bible precisely because it is part of the full counsel that offers “sustenance that in fact can make us holy”, it is quite another matter to extend that same framework to justify a particular literal historical reading of these biblical passages. In John 14:9, Jesus said, “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” And the Jesus of the Gospels does not reveal a God who demands that we run our most basic moral intuitions through a revelatory meat-grinder that praises the slaughter of children as a praiseworthy action.
That said, there is undoubtedly a wildness and danger to the revelation that Jesus provides into the divine nature. But it is one that calls us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and reach out to the lost, alienated, and broken. Shorn of the retributive violence of this world, that may be, ironically enough, the biggest, wildest, and most dangerous revelation of all.