The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It) – a book review
Thom Stark takes ordinary people and laity on a journey through the major historical and ethical problems with the Bible, a journey usually reserved for seminarians and scholars. This readable and even sometimes entertaining book not only demonstrates the incoherence of the doctrine of “biblical inerrancy”, but also investigates other ways that people have tried to integrate the inconsistencies, contradictions and ostensible evils contained within the Bible with traditional Christian belief.
A reader, especially one from a very conservative or even fundamentalist branch of Christianity—but also from any form of strident skepticism or atheism—might be tempted to think that such a book aims to destroy Christian belief. The stated goal of Mr. Stark, however, is to argue from within the Christian tradition for that tradition to honestly come to grips with their holy book in a way that bolsters rather than hinders their faith. The book eventually offers a way forward for Christians to engage critically with these ancient texts without discarding, altering, or selectively reading them.
Does his proposal work? From this laymen’s perspective, Stark excels when turning a critical eye on an inerrantist reading, as well as alternatives such as allegorical, canonical and subversive readings. In that sense it truly lives up to its name, showing us how the scriptures often reveal as much or more about the humans who wrote, collected, edited, canonized, and passed on these writings than the God to which they attest. Because his own proposal for a “direct confrontation” with scripture is in its infancy, being made possible only by recent centuries of scholarship, I’m not sure that such a “direct confrontation” can be measurably better than these other attempts, nor that this method of reading scripture isn’t just as susceptible to the presuppositions of the reader. I feel that the book would have benefited greatly from Stark taking his same critical eye (and the same criteria) through an additional chapter or two hinting at what the potential problems are or what new questions are raised by this method of “direct confrontation” with scripture. Why, for example, does the author say that interpretation should be done in community? Why does he consider Aristotelian virtue theory important? What makes him confident that “(w)e have the Holy Spirit” to aid us in our continuing quest? By what criteria does anyone decide when and where the scriptures “get God wrong”, let alone whether or not there even is such a being? Using the same tools that the author has armed us with we can critique his own project: what reason does he have to confidently say that “God speaks to us through these texts, if we are willing to listen critically”? (p. 222) Or that God “calls on us to recognize ourselves in them”? Out of all the human faces of God, which one are we to assume is doing the speaking here?
The Human Faces of God has been one of the best books that I’ve read on the canon precisely because it has illuminated the humanity of the scriptures. Not surprisingly, the book helped me to see my own human faces of God; how my own reading of the scriptures is affected by my own humanity and is therefore (at the very least) fallible or (more likely) susceptible to constant and persistent error. What it doesn’t do is help me to see in what way the Bible is (or is not) divine. I can’t help but nod in agreement when Mr. Stark says that we are “without foundations” or that the Bible is humanly authored…you don’t have to be a critical scholar to see how these ideas line up with various scriptures and traditions within Christianity. But the book’s success doesn’t overcome the major concern that most Christians ostensibly have when looking at the Bible: we’re not really looking there to see ourselves more clearly, but to see God.
When Stark uses the doctrine of the incarnation or Trinitarian ways of understanding Christ in order to show the possibility that “fully human” means that Jesus was, like any human, a product of his time, place and culture, my impression is that this is a way of appealing to his opponents’ own logic rather than any sort of affirmation of his own belief. Which is all right and good, of course. But it’s the same problem over again: why, other than some accident of history, should I look to Jesus or the Bible to see God more clearly? His own explanation of why he remains in the Christian tradition works as description, and his critique of our usual readings of the Bible works as diagnosis, but I’m not as confident about his prescription. There may be a right way and a wrong way to take the medicine, but what if I’m not convinced that this is the right medicine? Or that I even need medicine?
Part of the solution to this riddle—as best as I can see it—is found in Stark’s summation of apocalypticism as a conventional “deus ex machina”. The protagonist (humanity) cannot save themselves so a deity—an omnipotent deity, so “there is nothing at stake” (p.228)—swoops in for an unsatisfying conclusion, rendering the drama of history (and scripture) “a cosmic joke”. A small shift in this scheme changes everything: What if God stops being the “deus ex machina” and instead becomes the protagonist? And what if humanity stops being the protagonist and instead becomes, along with the rest of creation, the something “at stake”? When I think in those terms, Jesus’ apocalypticism, the competing narratives in the scriptures, and the humanity of the Bible—and even God himself—suddenly make more sense.
This shift to having God as protagonist presents other questions that are as interesting as the the humanity of the scriptures or the nature of inspiration. For example, is there any equivalent in other ancient near east tribes of a tribal deity that seeks the good of the alien and the stranger as YHWH does in the Mosaic law? Or a tribal deity that criticizes his own prophet for not seeking the salvation and flourishing of his enemies, as YHWH criticizes Jonah regarding the Ninevites? Why, according to the Christians, did the Israelite God go from requiring human sacrifice to becoming a human sacrifice? I’m so grateful that Thom Stark helped me see the human faces of God, because it only made me more hungry to see God’s face in human history.