“The Human Faces of God” by Thom Stark, Should be Required Reading in Every Evangelical Seminary, Bar None

This is my conclusion from reading this book by Thom Stark. It’s an absolute must read that I’ve included in my Debunking Christianity Challenge. I'll share a few criticisms of it but they pale by comparison with the over-all thrust of his powerful book. He comes from the same centrist Christian Church that I did, which is also noteworthy. Let me give you a brief overview of it.

Just so you know, one of the motivations for writing his book is that it can help believers “to discover that there are better ways to be a Christian than to be a fundamentalist, ways to be a Christian that do not preclude critical engagement with the numerous problematic aspects of the Christian scripture and religion” (pp. xvi-xvii). I’ll come back to this later, in my criticisms.

In chapter one Stark begins by informing us that the authors in the Bible argue with each other. There are xenophobic nationals like Ezra and universalists like Amos and the book of Jonah. They argue over whether people get what they deserve. The traditional wisdom was that people prospered when the obeyed God, seen best in Proverbs but in many other places. But the books of Job and Ecclesiastes argue that the righteous are not always rewarded and the wicked are not always punished. The finality of death is also disputed between Ecclesiastes and the book of Daniel. This problem best explains why the later editors of the final canon tried to manufacture conformity, Stark concludes. They did it in large part in order to consolidate political and religious power.

In chapter two Stark dispels the myth that there are any Biblical innerantists. Sure they exist but they don’t realize that such a belief cannot be disconfirmed. They employ a “hermeneutics of convenience.” They try to resolve biblical inconsistencies with the historical-grammatical sense. But that is emphatically not the hermeneutics the Biblical authors used. He shows this in how Daniel reinterpreted Jeremiah’s prophecy of the restoration of Israel, the virgin birth prophecies, Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament, and even the patristic fathers of the church. Stark shows that: “Historical-grammatical exegesis is employed only to the extent that it suits fundamentalists. When it works in their favor, it is touted proudly; when it works against them, it is quietly swept under the rug.” (p. 39) And he proceeds to show this with the command that women are to be silent in the churches (I Tim. 2:12-14), and the ‘sons of god’ who cohabited with "the daughters of men" in the Flood story (Genesis 6).

In chapter three Stark argues that "innerancy stunts your growth" as a moral critical thinking person. He argues that there is “no easy road to moral maturity” (p. 69). Here he looks at the Biblical claims for inerrancy in passages like Matthew 5:17-18; Luke 16:13, 24:44; John 10:34-36 and even Luke 2:52 where it says Jesus grew in wisdom, which if true, he asks: “At what point, exactly, did Jesus cease to be human and become omniscient?” (p. 55). In each passage we do not find innerrancy implied. For all we know some of these sayings did not come from Jesus. And it seems Jesus was just “conceding to standard assumptions” of his day (p. 53). Then Stark argues that if God could send a “lying spirit” (I Kings 22:19-23) then what is to prevent him from doing the same with other revelations?

The next five chapters are devoted to debunking the claim that the Bible is infallible.

Chapter four argues that the God of the Bible started out as a tribal god, one of many included in the divine council who increased in stature over time to what Christians now think of as the supreme and only deity.

Chapter five argues that Yahweh was pleased with human sacrifice and that he commanded it.

Chapter six argues that Yahweh commanded genocide which is morally reprehensible for a good God to do.

Chapter seven shows us the problem in thinking David killed Goliath. The story is inserted into the narrative and it says elsewhere that Elhanan killed Goliath (I Sam. 17:19). This story was nothing more than "government propaganda," Stark argues.

Chapter eight argues that Jesus was wrong about the end of the world. It did not take place as he predicted. In this chapter Stark says of my chapter on this topic in "The Christian Delusion" that "the claims made [by] Loftus cannot be ignored by Christians.’” I liked that.

At the beginning of chapter nine Stark admits he was not just arguing against inerrancy. He writes: “…we have seen that the Bible suffers not only from scientific and historical problems, but also—and much more significantly—from moral, ethical, theological, and ideological problems” (p. 208). Indeed. He also admits the chapters in his book “have only been a sampling.” He suggests that Christians should, in his words, “establish habits and traditions of confrontational readings, what I call ‘textual interventions’” (p. 216). Such texts are to be condemned if they are to valued as scripture. Only then will they “be able to serve a useful function within the life of the community," which is a theme he picks up on in chapter ten.

My problem is why such a god inserted these texts into his revelation if they are to be condemned? This just does not make sense to me at all. What’s more probable? That God did this, and along with it allowed believers for centuries to think they were pleasing him for these kinds of acts, or that the Bible is a man-made product written by ancient barbaric superstitious agency detectors? You know my choice.

Stark concludes by admitting: “There is no sure ground upon which to build our institutions. And that is a good thing.” (p. 237). But there are resources, he argues, like the voices in the Bible, the past, elders, peers, our children, those who suffer, methods of inquiry, philosophy, and the Spirit of God, even the voices of atheists. At this point, he argues, “Faith can only begin once we are willing to stop trying to defend whatever it is we think we know.” (p. 241).

But if we have these resources what do we need faith for at all? What is faith at that point? He’s admitting he gets his beliefs from the same resources I do, except that I deny the Bible has any authority over me along with the Holy Spirit. ;-) He and I are in the same boat.

Stark claims he is a Christian because he was born into that faith by Christian parents. And although he knows his parent’s flaws he is still their son and embraces them. “I am a Christian,” he writes, “because I chose to be a Christian. I am a Christian because I am a white male living in the West…Because I am a Christian, this book we call the ‘Holy Bible’ is uniquely my own. Whether I want it or not, I am stuck with it. Even if I were never to pick it up again, I could never put it down. It has shaped me in irrevocable ways.” (p. 242).

He is right. The Bible has indeed shaped him and our culture. It has shaped me too. Should I be called a Christian merely because I’m an American who was born into this culture? What need then is the label Christian? According to his definition everyone born into a Christian culture is de facto a Christian, so long as they say that they are one. This plays loose with words, although I have ceased telling people what or who is a Christian. If people like Stark claim to be a Christian who am I to say he isn’t one? It’s just that this stretches our use of language beyond the breaking point. That means I can be a Christian too if I just say that I am. But I deny that I am. So why should I allow such a definition of what it means to be a Christian at all?

Should I be grateful for being born in a Christian culture? Why? I don’t get it. In many ways I’m grateful for being born where and when I was born. But I don’t know any different. There are many different eras and countries and families where I could be grateful had I been born then and there too. So what does it really mean to say he is grateful when he doesn’t consider the alternatives? If I had my choice I’d rather be born a hundred or a thousand years from now when religion may not be much of a factor in world politics.

Given the non-historical nature of much of the Bible, the barbaric God it reveals, the massive amount of suffering in the world, the advancement of science, and the history of an abusive church, it’s time people like Stark renounce not only the bad in the Bible but also the bad in his Christian culture. It's the reasonable thing to do. What then would be left of the Bible? What then would be the meaning of calling this a Christian culture? Let’s see what kind of culture non-belief can create. I’m betting it’ll be a more democratic, decent, caring, and sane one than Christianity has ever given us.

Final note. My criticisms of Stark’s Christianity notwithstanding, I consider him and I in the same camp despite how we label ourselves, and I welcome his contribution to changing the religious landscape very much. If everyone could be a Christian in Stark’s sense of the word, I would take that in the blink of an eye over what I see among the religious in today’s world. It’s a refreshing alternative. In fact, given his "resources" I'll bet that in a hundred years his type of Christianity will probably blend with atheism anyway, and I hope that day happens. It may happen before long with him in his life too.