The Most Anti-Religious of Scriptures

The Christian Bible is surely the most anti-religious of all the world’s scriptures. This often goes unnoticed because, unlike the critiques made by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, the biblical hermeneutics of suspicion is religiously motivated. It is not for that reason any less devastating. In the Old Testament the prophets tell the people that God cannot stand their worship. In the New Testament, Paul wages war against the religion of being good, to which James responds with a sharp critique of those who would abuse the gospel of grace. But the most thoroughly anti-religious texts in the Bible are the Gospel narratives in which the piety of the Pharisees, of the Jerusalem power elite, which was dominated by the Sadducees, and of Jesus’ own disciples is relentlessly exposed as self-righteous and self-centered.

Our concern in this context is not the biblical polemic against the idolatry and immorality of pagan religions. Each of the instances mentioned above involves, rather, a biblical critique of what takes itself to be the biblical religion. The prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself direct their own critique of religion primarily to the covenant people of God. It is for this reason that I accuse the modern atheists of plagiarism, since they tend to repeat in their battle with biblical religion the criticisms already directed to pious Jews and Christians by the Bible. I do not make this accusation in order to silence the atheists but in order to persuade the church to read them with an eye toward repentance and renewal rather than refutation.

– Merold Westphal, Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, 265 (bold emphasis mine)

His Eye is on the Sparrow

The widely accepted estimate is that there are about 9,000 different species [of birds] in the world . . . Although I have had the privilege of traveling in many countries and habitats, I have seen only about 2,500 species.

Only one person has seen them all, and that of course is God himself, their creator “… So God created…every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:20-21). In consequence, he is able to claim: “I know all the birds of the air, and the creatures of the field are mine” (Psalm 50:11, literally). More than that, since Jesus said that not a single Sparrow falls to the ground without the knowledge of God (Matthew 10:29), he must know not only every species of bird, but every individual member of each species as well. And that would mean many thousands and millions.

– John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers, pp. 8-9, quoted in Rejoice! Advent in All the Scriptures (affiliate link), by Chris Wright with John Stott

Here is Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount.

Lover and Beloved

“Unfortunately, we have usually looked on the love of God for us as the love of a father for a small child. But that is not thoroughly scriptural. The grandest—and the final—imagery the Bible uses for his love is precisely that of lover and beloved, bridegroom and bride. It is the marriage of Christ and the church which is the last act of the long love affair between God and creation.”

– Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox, 39

This observation is thought provoking for numerous reasons. First, the parent/child metaphor for the God/human relationship is employed with greater frequency, as Capon observes, for a reason. Why? We long for love, acceptance, protection, and security in a world that is often cold, calloused, hostile, and unpredictable. We not only longing for home and family, we yearn for a pervasive peace in all of creation we believe only God can establish and preserve. The parent/child image, however, is not the only one found in the Bible.

Capon is right to remind us of the bride/bridegroom as the grandest and final imagery of Scripture. The church as bride conveys not only radiance and joy, but preparation, maturity, and agency. In the backdrop, however, of this consummating image of Scripture is the return of Christ not only as creation’s ultimate home restoration expert, but judge.

There is much to be added here regarding the already/not yet eschatological dimension of the Christian claim to the present and coming kingdom of God. But for now, we stand in the tension. We are both children and the bride that is the people of God. We are both small and in need of warmth, love, provision, and protection, and radiant, the beloved, beckoned forth for union.

“I actually think the Christian faith has got all the resources you need.”

My final question to Keller during our phone interview was his take on the spiritual temperature of the nation. What sorts of yearnings does he see and sense, and how can Christianity, properly understood, speak to those yearnings?

“I think the perplexity I see is that people want to have a foundation for making moral statements, but at the same time, they want to be free, and so they want to talk about the fact that all moral statements are culturally constructed,” he told me. “And so when somebody pushes a little bit on their life, they’d say, ‘All truth and all fact, all facts and all moral statements, are culturally constructed.’”

As Keller pointed out, they’re creating, at least philosophically, a kind of relativism, though of course no one actually lives like a relativist. All except sociopaths believe in certain deep truths about right and wrong, human nature, justice and a good life. “What we need is a non-oppressive moral absolute,” in Keller’s words. “We need moral absolutes that don’t turn the bearers of those moral absolutes into oppressors themselves.”

Keller concluded our conversation with a sentence that summarizes his consequential life: “I actually think the Christian faith has got all the resources you need.”

– Peter Wehner, “The Moral Universe of Timothy Keller