I’ve been reading UM Pastor and author Martin Thielen’s new book “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most” and I wanted to share some thoughts on it with Dojo readers and invite anyone who’s read it to discuss as well.
First I want to stress that throughout the book, Thielen’s pastoral heart shines through and one realizes that he genuinely does have a sincere desire for people’s lives to be transformed by the power of the Risen Christ. He writes as someone who left the Southern Baptist Convention years ago when the denomination took a turn towards the Conservative/Fundamentalist end of the spectrum as a whole. His book is thus reactionary in many ways.
The first half of the book consists of 10 things Christians don’t need to believe…and is by far the weaker half. The second half consists of 10 things Christians must believe and is much better. Overall, I have little criticism of the 2nd half of Thielen’s book and were it a stand-alone book, rather than bound with the first half, I would even recommend it for seekers and those looking to understand the essence of the Gospel message.
But this is Disciple Dojo…where we focus on training the Body of Christ to wield the Sword of the Spirit. Thus when a popular book devotes a chapter to teaching what Christians should and should not believe about the Bible–and when it is as unfortunate and misguided as Thielen’s chapter on it–then in the spirit of sharpening fellow believers and theological “sparring”, I want to show why exactly Thielen’s take on the subject is lacking and offer what I believe is a much more intellectually, theologically and spiritually edifying approach to the question.
In chapter 8, “Everything in the Bible should be taken literally“, Thielen opens with the following:
“Many centuries ago a bald holy man walked down a road on his way to the city. As he neared the city, he came upon a group of boys. When the boys saw his bald head, they began to tease him, saying, “Go away, Baldhead! Go away, Baldhead!” in anger the holy man called own God’s curse upon the little boys. Immediately, two vicious bears emerged from the woods and mauled them. Unfazed by the screaming, violence, and blood from the bears’ ripping the little boys’ bodies apart, the holy man continued his journey into the city.
Where does that awful story come from? It comes from the story of the prophet Elisha in the Holy Bible (2 Kings 2:23-25). And there are plenty more biblical texts just like it, including the vengeful passage listed above from Psalm 137. In this text the psalmist, full of hatred for the Babylonians, wants to murder Babylonian infants by smashing their little bodies against the rocks.
Somewhere along the way, Christian believers must answer a crucial question about these kinds of troubling texts, which are so prevalent in the Bible. Are such passages meant to be taken literally? Does God really send bears from the woods to rip apart little boys for teasing a prophet? Or was this a campfire story the ancient Israelites told their children and grandchildren to engender respect for the holy prophets of Israel? How you answer that question will have a huge impact on how you understand the Christian faith. Ultimately it will determine if you fall into the literalist, fundamentalist camp of Christianity or the mainline and moderate camp.” (44-45)
Just in this short introduction, we can see that Thielen has woefully misrepresented orthodox views of Inspiration of Scripture and has oversimplified in order to persuade that his is the most faithful and intellectually credible position.
Furthermore, he intentionally embellishes the passage of Scripture and does not at all interact with the Hebrew text (which, in this case, makes a BIG difference!). This approach to the Hebrew Scriptures characterizes the book as a whole, and I can’ t help but wonder how much of Thielen’s course load in seminary was spent in OT Exegesis study. From the way he treats the OT throughout the book, I can’t help but conclude that the answer is “as little as possible.”
One need not adopt the (entirely arbitrary and historically unattested!) view that this story is a fable meant to scare Hebrew children into respecting prophets.
What Thielen seems utterly unaware of (or just ignored when writing about it…which is either disingenuous or simple ignorance) is the simple basic principle of Biblical interpretation that it is GENRE, not moral outrage, determines whether a passage of Scripture should be taken “literally” or not.
In “Bible for the Rest of Us” we discuss this simple, yet often-ignored concept in the first session:
“So do you take everything in the Bible literally?” How many times has the Bible-believing Christian been asked this question! For some people, one’s answer to this question becomes the litmus-test of a true Believer. For others, it determines whether someone is educated or merely superstitious. But many fail to realize that the question itself is flawed. To take a metaphor as literal is to miss its ‘literal’ truth! When John said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God…”, are we to suppose that Jesus had four feet and wool? No. Why? Because John was speaking _Literal_truth in a _Non-Literal_ fashion. When we read a passage in Scripture it is always important to ask ourselves what type of _Genre_ we are reading and whether or not the author is trying to speak literally or otherwise. This is especially important in certain areas of the Bible where there is so much controversy regarding its interpretation.
B4RU workbook, p.13
Thielen ignores this discussion completely and instead offers the following:
“For example, if everything in the Bible is literal, then –
- The earth is flat
- Creation took place six thousand years ago.
- The world was created in six, twenty-four-hour days.
- Women are the property of mean.
- Slavery is approved by God.
- Polygamy is approved by God.
- In order to win a bet with the devil, God let Satan kill all ten of Job’s children.
- God throws raging, jealous, violent fits, killing thousands in the process.
- Eating shellfish is an abomination to God.
- Wearing blended garments (like cotton/polyester) enrages God.
- Menstruating women and handicapped men are not allowed in public worship.
- God’s preferred system of government is monarchy.
- All governments, even highly oppressive ones, are established by God.
- God approves of genocide and commanded people to practice it.
- Women are to be silent in church.
- Women are to wear veils in church.
- People who commit adultery should be stoned to death.
- The penalty for working on the Sabbath is execution.
- Sassy teenagers are to be executed.
The above examples are just a few of the massive problems that come with biblical inerrancy. For example, if the Bible is all divine, how do you explain its inconsistencies? In the book of Matthew, we are told that Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, hanged himself. However, in the book of Acts, we are told that Judas fell down in a field and died from massive internal rupturing of his organs. Both stories can’t be true. So why do we have two conflicting stories in Scripture about the death of Judas? The answer is simple. When the Bible was written—many decades after the original events occurred—two different stories were circulating about Judas’ death. The writer of Matthew picked up one story, and the writer of Acts picked up the other. If space permitted, hundreds of examples of inconsistencies in the Bible could be given…” (46-47)
In addition to again oversimplifying and/or ignoring solid Biblical interpretation of what is not even remotely a “contradiction” in Scripture (i.e. Judas’ death accounts), Thielen’s entire chapter reads as one big exercise in demolishing straw men! None but the most ignorant hyper-fundamentalist would argue that one must take everything in the Bible literally.
[Note on the supposed ‘contradiction’ contained in the accounts of Judas’ death:
Judas hung himself. It is highly likely that this would’ve been from a tree. According to Torah, this was the most shameful way to die and marked the individual as “cursed” by God–which is the intended irony the Gospel writers used to compare the two “cursed” deaths in their accout, that of Jesus, who bore the “curse” of sin for the world, and that of Judas, who bore only his own sin and shame.
Since trees often grow around the edges of fields, and since it was against Torah regulations to A) touch a hanging corpse and B) leave it hanging overnight, any observant Jew who came across Judas’ dead body hanging there would very likely have cut it down. Depending on how long it had been decaying and how swollen the internal organs had become in the heat of the Judean sun, if Judas were to be cut down and fallen to the ground in the field, his body might easily have “burst open” upon hitting the ground.
Thus there is no contradiction in the two accounts of Judas’ death by any means. This isn’t “forced harmonizing” of wildly incompatible statements. It’s simply taking complementary accounts at their word and reconstructing the most likely series of events. Lawyers, Judges and Juries do this every day. Why should we assume that all accounts in the Gospel texts must contain exhaustive detail in order to be clear of the charge of “contradiction”??]
So why does Thielen devote an entire chapter to arguing against this notion? I think it’s because he’s confused the concepts of “Literalist” and “Innerancy” when it comes to interpreting Scripture.
“Literalist” describes how one reads a genre within Scripture. It’s a question of how one reads the text before them.
“Innerancy” describes the underlying theological notion that Scripture, as Inspired revelation from God, does not contain actual “error” on things it is attempting to teach.
Like many mainline pastors and authors, Thielen seems to conflate these two and reacts against the former, but believes that is somehow a refutation of the latter.
Thielen wants to hold the orthodox position that the Bible is BOTH a human AND divine product. This, of course, is absolutely correct and he is to be admired for desiring to uphold both concepts. However, by deeming oversimplified, shallow readings of the text as proof of Scripture’s “human” origin, Thielen undermines the very orthodoxy he is seeking to preserve.
Again, we cover this very issue in session 1 of B4RU:
The Bible was not “dictated” by God with the authors serving as nothing more than ancient courtroom stenographers. This is closer to what Muslims believe about the Qur’an than what Christians believe about the Bible. No, the Bible is both human and Divine and is the product of the Holy Spirit guiding the individual authors in their writing so that what they wrote was exactly what God wanted written.
However, it is important to understand what the Christian doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture does not teach. Inspiration does not mean that the English (or Spanish, or any other translation) Bibles that we have today are inspired in and of themselves. This is a common misunderstanding and needs to be clarified to all believers.
So, if Thielen is wrong and the story of Elisha and the boys DID actually happen and is NOT meant to be a simple fable? What are we to do with it?
Here is where Thielen could’ve benefited from top-notch evangelical Biblical scholarship. Walter C. Kaiser gives a great overview of this weird Old Testament account:
A Cruel Punishment for Childhood Pranks? 
The way many read this text, a mild personal offense by some innocent little children was turned into a federal case by a crotchety old prophet as short on hair as he was on humor. Put in its sharpest form, the complaint goes: How can I believe in a God who would send bears to devour little children for innocently teasing an old man whose appearance probably was unusual even for that day?
At first reading, it appears the prophet chanced on guileless children merrily playing on the outskirts of Bethel. Seeing this strange-looking man, they began to chant in merriment, “Go on up, you baldhead! Go on up, you baldhead!” Instead of viewing the situation for what it was, the old prophet became enraged (as some would tell the story), whirled around and, with eyes flashing anger, shouted a curse in the name of the Lord.
But this is a false reconstruction of the event. The problem begins with the two Hebrew words for “little children,” as many older translations term the youths. If we are to untangle this puzzling incident, the age and accountability level of these children must take first priority. “Little children” is an unfortunate translation. The Hebrew expression n̄e˓ûrîm qẹtannîm is best rendered “young lads” or “young men.” From numerous examples where ages are specified in the Old Testament, we know that these were boys from twelve to thirty years old. One of these words described Isaac at his sacrifice in Genesis 22:12, when he was easily in his early twenties. It described Joseph in Genesis 37:2 when he was seventeen years old. In fact, the same word described army men in 1 Kings 20:14–15.
If someone objects, yes, but the word qẹtannîm (which is translated “little” in some versions) makes the difference in this context, I will answer that it is best translated “young,” not “little.” Furthermore, these words have a good deal of elasticity to them. For example, Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all your children n̄e˓ûrîm]?” But Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest [qāṭān].” But David was old enough to keep sheep and fight a giant soon after (1 Sam 16:11–12).
“Little children,” then, does not mean toddlers or even elementary-school-aged youngsters; these are young men aged between twelve and thirty!
But was Elisha an old man short on patience and a sense of humor? This charge is also distorted, for Elisha can hardly have been more than twenty-five when this incident happened. He lived nearly sixty years after this, since it seems to have taken place shortly after Elijah’s translation into heaven. Some would place Elijah’s translation around 860 b.c. and Elisha’s death around 795 b.c. While Elijah’s ministry had lasted less than a decade, Elisha’s extended at least fifty-five years, through the reigns of Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz and Joash.
Did Elisha lose his temper? What was so wrong in calling him a “baldhead,” even if he might not have been bald, being less than thirty?
The word baldhead was a term of scorn in the Old Testament (Is 3:17, 24). Natural baldness was very rare in the ancient Near East. So scarce was baldness that it carried with it a suspicion of leprosy.
Whether Elisha was prematurely bald or not, it is clear that the epithet was used in utter contempt, as a word of insult marking him as despicable.
But since it is highly improbable that Elisha was prematurely bald, the insult was aimed not so much at the prophet as at the God who had sent him. The point is clear from the other phrase. “Go on up,” they clamored. “Go on up!” These were not topographical references to the uphill grade of the Bethel road. Instead, the youths were alluding to Elijah’s translation to heaven. This they did not believe or acknowledge as God’s work in their midst. To put it in modern terms, they jeered, “Blast off! Blast off! You go too. Get out of here. We are tired of both of you.” These Bethel ruffians used the same Hebrew verb used at the beginning of the second chapter of 2 Kings to describe the taking up of Elijah into heaven. The connection cannot be missed.
Apparently, news of Elijah’s ascension to glory traveled near and far but was greeted with contemptuous disbelief by many, including this youthful mob. The attack was on God, not his prophet.
Elisha uses no profanity in placing a curse on these young men. He merely cited the law of God, which the inhabitants of Bethel knew well. Moses had taught, “If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, … I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children” (Lev 26:21–22).
Elisha did not abuse these young men, nor did he revile them; he was content to leave the work of judging to God. He pronounced a judgment on them and asked God to carry out the action which he had promised when his name, his cause and his word were under attack. No doubt these young men only reflected what they heard at the dinner table each evening as the population went further and further away from God.
The savagery of wild animals was brutal enough, but it was mild compared to the legendary cruelty of the Assyrians who would appear to complete God’s judgment in 722 b.c. The disastrous fall of Samaria would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack and the increasingly severe divine judgments that followed it. But instead of turning back to God, Israel, as would Judah in a later day, “mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (2 Chron 36:16).
Instead of demonstrating unleashed cruelty, the bear attack shows God trying repeatedly to bring his people back to himself through smaller judgments until the people’s sin is too great and judgment must come full force.
“It is the doctrine of inspiration, that God inspired not only the people who spoke but also the words they spoke, that distinguishes the evangelical view of Scripture, and also forces us to wrestle with issues of hermeneutics. Inspiration maintains that God indeed “spoke these words and said…” But it does not maintain that he dictated all these words. To the contrary it recognizes, indeed argues, that these words are also the words of people in history…None of the words was spoken in a vacuum. Rather they were all addressed to, and conditioned by, the specific historical context in which they were spoken.
To see Scripture as both human and divine creates its own set of tensions…God did not choose to give us a series of timeless, non-culture-bound theological propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. Rather he chose to speak his eternal word this way, in historically particular circumstances, and in every kind of literary genre. God himself, by the very way he gave us this word, locked in the ambiguity…”
“The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be.”
So despite the well-intentioned pastoral desire Thielen had in writing, the first half of this book–particularly this chapter in the nature of Scripture–is so laden with oversimplification, caricature and false dilemmas that as a Bible teacher I can’t in good conscience recommend this book, particularly for small group study (one of it’s intended purposes).
Instead, those wishing to understand what it is that Christians should actually believe, particularly when it comes to how to interpret Scripture, would be much better served by Ben Witherington’s (a fellow United Methodist and top-notch Biblical scholar!) “The Living Word of God“, Scot McKnight’s “The Blue Parakeet“, N.T. Wright’s “The Last Word” or Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation”
Interested Dojo readers can also watch the first session’s lectures from “Bible For the Rest of Us” online for a small fee (or better yet, purchase the DVD set and go through it in your small group or Sunday School class instead of or alongside Thielen’s book!) 😉
Blessings from the Dojo!
Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 232.