During the academic year 1965/1966 I studied at Andrews University in Berrien Springs (MI, USA), with the aim of obtaining a master’s degree in theology. I succeeded and after a little more than a year I got my MA degree with the mention cum laude. I always look back on that period in a very positive way. It was hard work, and financially very tough. That we survived depended to a large extent on my wife, who had found a job in the book bindery of the university.
The study during that year was very important for my theological development. One could say that I left for America as a fundamentalist and came back as a liberal-thinking theologian. The person I will always be grateful to in this context is Dr. Sakae Kubo, who is now in his 90s, and with whom I still have occasional mail contact. Through his lectures Introduction to the New Testament I was for the first time confronted with all kinds of critical questions about the origin of the Bible. During a conversation I had with him in his office he advised me to read James Barr’s book Fundamentalism. This is still recommended reading for anyone who has questions about the inspiration of the Bible. How did the Bible originate? Is everything in it historically accurate? Do you have to take everything literally? Or is there another way of reading the Scriptures? And so on. Reading this book was a turning point in my thinking. It’s still in my library and every now and then I browse through it and remember my conversations with Dr. Kubo.
During this past week I read a book that I will from now onwards consider as a sequel to James Barr’s book. It will have a place on the shelf next to Barr’s book. During a Zoom meeting of an American Sabbath school someone referred to this book. What I heard caught my attention, and I decided to order it through Amazon. The book is called The Human Faces of God, and was written by a certain Thom Stark (of whom I had never heard before).
I have to say that the content of this book is rather heavy-going, not so much because the author uses difficult language or presents complicated arguments, but because he deals with problems that most Bible readers prefer to avoid. And it’s not just about contradictions in the biblical stories, such as (to give just one example) whether it was David or a certain Elhanan who killed Goliath. No, it is mainly about much more worrisome matters, e.g. about texts that seem to indicate that also in Israel children were sacrificed (with God’s approval!), and that monotheism was only slowly replacing polytheism. For me the most confrontational part was the chapter on the conquest of the promised land, which the author describes as outright genocide.
Many other topics are also discussed, but in the end the crucial question is: Can a book like the Bible, which has so many problems, if you look at it critically, still have value for us as Christians today? Can it still be authoritative? Yes, says Thom Stark. The Bible doesn’t have to be perfect to have great value for us. He compares it with the authority we have as parents over our children. That authority doesn’t presuppose that we never make mistakes. For the author of this book, the Bible remains an extremely important resource for our life of faith. He is convinced that we can still hear God’s voice in the Bible, even though there are many things in it that will continue to bother us.
On one of the last pages of the book I was struck by a short paragraph that I underlined. It will give me food for though for some time to come.
God is not confined to the pages of a book. God has the power to speak to us, and always chooses to speak to us, only to the extent that we are willing to listen. Listening to God means being willing to listen to the wholly Other—to the alien, to the stranger, to the enemy, to the heretic, to the fundamentalist. If God can speak to Balaam through an ass, God can speak to a Baptist [and to an Adventist; RB] through an atheist. The key is knowing how to listen for God’s voice, and that takes practice, and that takes community (p. 237).