Seldom have I anticipated a book more than Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) . I can tell you, that the book does not disappoint.
Stark takes on the biblical inerrantists and simply demolishes them. Inerrantists, (fundamentalists) insist that “the Bible is inspired by God, without error in everything it affirms historically, scientifically and theologically.” Stark begins with their own founding document: The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, formulated in 1978. In it is found its hermeneutic tool: the historical-grammatical method. Stark shows how this method is used, except when it is not used. In other words, inerrantists profess it, and use it, until it doesn’t accomplish their result: an inerrant text. Stark calls their actual practice one of the “hermeneutics of convenience.”
A series of methodologies are alternated, all directed to reach the result that the bible does not err. This at times involves plain meaning, literalism, scripture defining scripture, fuller meaning, and in the end a resort to throwing up one’s hands and declaring that “God has not as yet seen fit to reveal the meaning to us.”
Stark moves through the troubling passages that allude to a belief in a pantheon of gods. Anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures knows that there are odd pieces here and there that seem to suggest that there were other gods than Yahweh. The Psalms are replete with such sayings such as God being mightier than the other gods. Exodus and Genesis make such references as well, as well as mention of the “council of the gods.”
Indeed, Stark’s claim that polytheism was the order of the day in ancient Israel, is nothing new. Yet he explains it to the lay reader perhaps better than anywhere else I have seen. The same can be said of his hard-hitting analysis of the God of genocide, found in and throughout Deuteronomy, and the God who at least condones and accepts human sacrifice. These difficult and troubling texts are explained, carefully, and patiently with excellent reference to archaeology, other relevant texts of the time, and good literary critical exegesis.
Perhaps the area that will cause the most concern is his claim that Jesus, while many things, was most certainly an apocalyptic prophet. Stark points out that his prophecies regarding the end times were accurate, until the last one, the imminent return of himself, ushering in the full kingdom of God. In this Stark claims that Jesus was simply wrong.
This is hard to swallow, but Mr. Stark makes a very convincing argument, one well worth the time to read carefully and seriously. I suspect that if you get to that point in the book, you are trusting of Stark’s careful analysis and will listen with an open ear and heart.
What is accomplished here, in this book, is more than just showing the errors and contradictions of the bible. There have surely been dozens that have done that already. Rather, Stark, explains how the “book” we call the bible, came into existence. Understanding it as a collection of documents written over more than 1000 years, and containing within disparate, and contradictory voices, helps us to see it for what it is: a people’s walk with God.
It is most singularly a human document, written over a long period and containing oral traditions that span even greater times. There are voices within it that argue for opposite things. In some cases, even some of the Hebrew writers attempted to reconcile difficult passages that were at odds. (The stories of David and Goliath are instructional here, and Stark lays out a wonderful explanation for the two different explanations for Goliath’s death, and why another writer, the Chronicler, tried to cover up the contradiction.)
Stark convinces, I think, that having to face up to the difficult and ugly passages in the bible is worthwhile and has much to teach us on their own. Rather than shrug, as inerrantists often do, or try to twist and warp them into some apparent sense, it is much better to accept them as human failings in living and in understanding of their God.
Better to allow God to speak through the hateful and unacceptable passages to us today and allow them to inform us as to our own shortcomings and roads to growth.
Stark is a believing Christian, one who has struggled with scripture and found that facing the unpleasant realities allows one to grow into a mature faith. In fact, he claims, and I tend to agree, that fundamentalism is an adolescent and immature view, clinging to a world that one would prefer, but which simple does not exist.
We would all like certainty. But certainty doesn’t exist. The Bible cannot give us that, no matter how much we might wish it. We can pretend otherwise, but that leaves us mired in a fantasy world and helps us not at all in addressing the troubles of our world.
The last chapter is delightful, giving Mr. Stark’s own reflections on what these hard passages can offer us today.
Speaking of the problematic stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Jephthah and his daughter, and King Mesha and his son, Thom Stark reflects:
Today we denounce such practices as inhuman and reject as irrational the belief that the spilling of innocent blood literally affected the outcome of harvests and military battles. Yet we continue to offer our own children on the altar of homeland security, sending them off to die in ambiguous wars, based on the irrational belief that by being violent we can protect ourselves from violence. We refer to our children’s deaths as “sacrifices” which are necessary for the preservation of democracy and free trade. The market is our temple and it must be protected at all costs. Thus, like King Mesha, we make “sacrifices” in order to ensure the victory of capitalism over socialism, the victory of consumerism over terrorism.
If you would learn to understand the bible, and actually get the most out of it, then do read this book. It is about the best I’ve seen at showing us the dangers of inerrancy, and how we can grow in our faith through a truthful, honest and courageous examination of our sacred books.
* I am indebted to WIPF & Stock Publishers for sending this book free of charge for review. The only agreement is an implicit promise on my part to read, review and publish the results.