Disarming Scripture: Derek Flood’s Important Book


Disarming Scripture: Derek Flood’s Important Book
Brian Zahnd

Theologian, author, and blogger Derek Flood has a new book out — Disarming Scripture. His book has a provocative subtitle: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need To Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. I’ve read it and gave it this endorsement:

“Jesus is the savior of everything — including the Bible! That’s what I kept thinking while reading this brilliant book. There have been a number of excellent books in recent years on how Christians should read the Bible, but Disarming Scripture is the very best. Derek has done us an immeasurable service in showing us how to read the Bible like Jesus did.”

That’s my two cents worth. More significantly, preeminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has given Disarming Scripture this endorsement:

“A perceptive and honest book about the vexed question of violence in the Bible. Taking with great seriousness the dynamism of the biblical tradition and the interpretive process, the distinctive contribution of Disarming Scripture is an exploration of the way in which the biblical text itself interprets texts of violence. This is a fine contribution to our common work.”

In 2011 The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not A Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith was my book of the year. I’ve recommended it dozens of times. Now with equal enthusiasm I’m urging clergy and lay people alike to read Disarming Scripture. It’s an important book.

Instead of offering a review of Disarming Scripture, I want to share a few thoughts from my favorite chapter — Chapter 3: Paul’s Conversion from Violence.

The Bible is a violent book because the Bible is deeply engaged with the subject of human violence. But if we’re not careful we can naively assume that the presence of violence in the biblical text is an endorsement of violence as a legitimate means of accomplishing God’s will. Justifying violence in the name of the God of the Bible has a long, tragic history.

On the other hand, we too often fail to take notice when the biblical text critiques violence. For example: We debate the historicity of a global flood and the scientific possibility of housing two of every creature on Noah’s Ark, instead of recognizing what the story is actually about: The inevitable catastrophe that results from an unchecked escalation of violence. Read Genesis 6—9 carefully and you will discover that the only sin specifically mentioned in the “days of Noah” was violence.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11)

Unfortunately, the Noah story is generally preached as everything but a biblical critique of human violence. We’re so indebted to our systems of violence as the foundation of civilization that we’ve learned to screen out even biblical critiques of violence.

This tendency to screen out biblical critiques of violence is evident in our reading of Paul’s famous conversion on the Damascus Road. We’ve read it as a kind of tent revival testimony instead of the story of a religious terrorist renouncing violence because of an encounter with the crucified Christ. Derek Flood writes,

“Paul’s conversion to Christ was not one of a ‘sinner’ who finds religion. Paul already had religion, and describes himself in fact as a religious zealot who could boast that his observance of the Torah was ‘faultless.’. So while Luther might say ‘no one can keep the law,’ Paul declares that he had in fact kept it flawlessly. Yet despite this, Paul came to regard himself as ‘the worst of sinners’ and ‘a violent man.’ He confesses painfully, ‘I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’”  (p. 47)

Paul’s own self-described sin was one that was committed in the name of religion. It was not a sin that came from a failure to keep the law, but one committed in the practice of carrying it out and defending it by means of violence. Paul’s conversion was one away from religious fanaticism. In other words, Paul did not see himself as rejecting his Jewish faith or Israel’s scriptures, but rather as rejecting his former violent interpretation of them. Paul’s great sin — as he came to understand it — had been participation in what he understood as religiously justified acts of violence, motivated by religious zeal.” (p. 48)

“Paul’s sin was the sin of religious violence, and this is the reason Paul was so adamantly opposed to forms of religion, as well as interpretations of scripture, that he recognized as promoting this violence in God’s name. … In sum, before his conversion, Paul had read his Bible and concluded that he should commit violence in God’s name. After his encounter with Christ, and his experience of healing and enemy love from Jesus’ disciples (Acts 9:11–18), Paul needed to completely reassess how to understand the scripture he had previously read in this toxic and violent way, leading him to a different way of interpreting those same scriptures.” (p. 50)

Flood then goes on to show how Paul boldly and creatively edited certain Old Testament passages in his epistles to give them radical new interpretations — interpretations that no longer called for or endorsed religious violence in the name of the God of Israel. Paul does this because after his Damascus Road experience he understood Yahweh in the light of a crucified Messiah. Flood says it this way,

“Love is the hermeneutical baseline. Paul therefore has no problem with completely misrepresenting a biblical author’s intent, and indeed deliberately reverses the meaning of certain passages in order to focus on Christ’s way of grace and enemy love. This focus on love and grace was the clear interpretive priority that drove Paul’s bold interpretive moves.” (p. 67)

If you think it scandalous that Derek Flood claims the Apostle Paul misrepresented authorial intent and at times even reversed the meaning of certain biblical passages in his epistles, I urge you to read Disarming Scripture. The book convincingly shows that this is exactly what Paul was doing! Paul daringly reinterpreted Old Testament passages of violence and exclusion because of his deep commitment to the Word of God — Jesus Christ!

The crucified and risen Christ that Paul encountered on the Damascus Road saved him from a violent and vengeful reading of the Bible. Many of us today need to experience a similar conversion. If we want to use the Bible to justify violent retribution on our enemies, we can do that. Those verses are in the Bible. But this is not how Paul read the Bible. (Nor Jesus!) And it’s not how we should read the Bible. To read the Bible in the light of Christ is to discover a Biblical trajectory —  a trajectory away from violence and vengeance, a trajectory toward mercy and inclusion.

I urge you to read Disarming Scripture. If we can learn to read the Bible like Jesus did, it will save both the Bible and us.