Every once in a while there is an ugly hubbub within the evangelical Christian world. It usually gets put on display on the biblioblogosphere. There was the Bruce Waltke dust-up over Genesis. More recently was the Rob Bell brouhaha prior to the release of his book Love Wins.
Well, there’s another (smaller) one. Rachel Held Evans’ blog post drew my attention to it. (I think she has since removed the post – she quite understandably got a little worked up). Dr. Eric Seiburt, a professor of Old Testament at Messiah College recently posted a three part series at Pete Enns’ blog regarding how Christians should critically engage the violent texts of the Old Testament. I highly recommend mature Christians taking 15 minutes to consider them. They are “When the Good Book is Bad: Challenging the Bible’s Portrayals of God”; “When the Bible Sanctions Violence, Must We?”; and “Learning to Read the Bible Nonviolently.” Seiburt questions an approach to reading the Bible which uncritically affirms passages which endorse the use of violence (by offering either implicit approval or assert being commanded by God). I recommend these articles not necessarily because I agree with Seiburt – I haven’t spent enough time with the thought to have an opinion yet – but because Seiburt’s suggestions are provocative enough to significantly alter the way the church has traditionally engaged the biblical text. And for that reason, Dr. Owen Strachan is calling foul.
Dr. Strachan teaches Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He posted a response to Seiburt’s articles asking “Can a Messiah College OT Professor Really Teach the Bible’s ‘Immoral’?” Through some wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing-style rhetoric he denounces Seiburt as shameful and calls for his firing by Messiah College. Taking it one step further to a more public arena, Melissa Steffan from Christianity Today’s “Gleanings” championed Strachan’s cause.
The point for my drawing attention to this episode is twofold. 1. To suggest that mature Bible readers engage and consider Seiburt’s articles. And 2. To highlight a tendency among institutions, like Christianity, to suppress critical thinking in favor of maintaining the status quo.
Notice each of these three men, Waltke, Bell, and Seiburt, engaged some of the more difficult questions of our faith (historicity of the text, hell, and ethical difficulties with the text) and proposed answers not in keeping with generally accepted conclusions. And for their work they were dealt with harshly. Waltke was fired. Bell, who had gained popularity through his Nooma videos, speaking tours, and books, was ostracized by many in the evangelical world. My friend and mentor Edward Fudge faced similar treatment for questioning traditional views of hell. It’s too soon to know what, if anything will happen to Seiburt.
Suppressionism tends to be a symptom of conservativism. Much of what is currently generally accepted in Christianity was at one time suppressed by Christians. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation were all denounced as heretics – and did their share of denouncing as well. But progress, in any field, only comes about through a continuous process of questioning generally accepted beliefs, exposing their weaknesses, and posing new theories. The cycle repeats itself again and again – always arriving at a best-fit-for-now conclusion. But when questions are suppressed, progress is inhibited. Those who allow questions and new theories move on; those who do not lag behind.
Some of the questions this situation raises are: What is at risk by engaging in suppression? What is at risk by tolerating challenge? How should the church respond to those who would challenge its core assumptions? Should it have limits to what it will tolerate? What are they? Should the church proactively engage and explore such questions? What is gained or lost by denunciation? How should Christians respond to other Christians’ suppressionism?
If you are interested in reading more by Dr. Eric Seiburt, check out his books Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Legacy.