Series 16: For the Love of Faith Groundbreakers | Episode 07
Pete Enns Adds Color to Our Black & White View of the Bible
The Bible means many things to many people, and its passages have been interpreted seven ways to Sunday; in turn those interpretations have spawned countless church denominations that all vary in their beliefs. For some, the Bible is the ultimate answer book for anything that life may present. But for others, there are questions that the Bible doesn’t seem to address, or if it does, it’s difficult to always understand the context of those thoughts and how they apply to our present day world. Pete Enns is a Bible scholar, a popular blogger and podcast host of The Bible for Normal People, and he’s here to tell us that the Bible is a “guide to a journey of wisdom in this life, as opposed to being an answer book for every question we might happen to have to ask of it.” His excellent new book called “How the Bible Actually Works” will give us comfort in that there is no “wrong way” to read the Bible and that the questions that stem from that reading aren’t obstacles, but catalysts to lead us into a deeper understanding of God. While the Bible is often “weaponized” and its text used to foster guilt and shame, Pete eschews the notion that we approach the Bible as a “rule book,” and wants us to recognize it as a beautiful, liberating book of wisdom that has guided the church forward generation after generation.
Better Help is giving you 10% off your first month with discount code FORTHELOVE. Go to betterhelp.com/forthelove to claim your offer.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, guys. Jen Hatmaker here, your very, very happy hostess of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show today.
So we are coming to the end of our series, For the Love of Faith Groundbreakers, and I just have to tell you how refreshed and challenged I feel after this series. I have loved hearing from every single one of our guests, and they’ve all been incredibly unique and have experienced life in different corners of the earth and in different sections of society. We’ve heard about their challenges, and joys, and triumphs, and I’m grateful for their testimony, really. And I’m so grateful for how many good teachers we have had in this series.
Today, I’m absolutely delighted to share that our guest is none other than Pete Enns.
Some of you already know Pete for sure and the way that he asks all the hard questions and inserts all the best sarcasm, so that’s my favorite combination. He makes my brain stretch so much, and I’m so grateful that he uses his powers for good.
Pete’s a thinker, you guys. He’s a college professor. He’s a writer. He is a co-host of the wonderfully named podcast The Bible for Normal People. I was a guest on his podcast last year, and Pete and his cohost, Jared, and I talked about what happens when your experiences press on the way you’ve always understood the Bible, and how you sort of get through that, and is there a way to manage the way that we interpret scripture? We’re gonna talk about so much of this today, you guys. This is a really fascinating conversation.
Speaking of, Pete has just put out a brand new book that, I mean, it’s just so instructive and challenging in the best possible way. If you have ever wondered about, I don’t know, the angry God of the Old Testament, or the hardcore rules, or so many ideas in scripture that contradict an idea somewhere else, and all the confusing things inside the Bible, which it’s okay to say that, that’s real, number one, you’re not alone. Number two, I highly suggest you check out Pete’s new book, called How the Bible Actually Works. Every single page is loaded with wisdom, and instruction, delightful right alongside pop culture references like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and fabulous, sarcastic footnotes all along the way. They deserve a Pulitzer by themselves.
So, if you’re interested in what you hear today when Pete and I just unpack this all for an hour, definitely check out Pete’s other books too, especially The Bible Tells Me So, and then one of my favorites of his, The Sin of Certainty. Just a fabulous, fabulous gem.
What I love about Pete is not only does he validate our questions about the Bible, but he pushes us deeper into the stories that we know, maybe we thought we knew, and he challenges us to think really critically about what we’re reading and how we’re reading it. So he’ll take things that you’ve read a zillion times and turn the meaning on its head. And your mind just explodes, and you just think, Oh my gosh. I never thought of it that way. I never understood that context. He’s such a good Bible teacher. So you’re gonna enjoy this hour today. I hope that we’ll all be better thinkers and believers for it.
Jen: With that, I’m very pleased to share my conversation with my friend, the brilliant Pete Enns.
Okay. I am really, really, really happy that you are on the show today, Pete. Thank you so much for coming on.
Pete: Oh. Thanks, Jen. It’s fun to be here. I’m glad you asked.
Jen: What I want everybody to know about you is that you’re like the super smarty type, and, you know, just big brain, big fancy professor, you know, you’re that guy. But also you are bitingly funny, and that is important to me. That is my value system. So, I feel like, Okay, I can trust this guy. Because the first time you and I ever corresponded, and it was about your podcast, me coming on your podcast, you were so snarky that—
Pete: I was not. Was I?
Jen: It felt like looking in a mirror in the best possible way. That was just in our correspondence. I’m like, Oh. I thought Pete was a professor. It’s your gift.
Pete: I sort of masquerade as that every once in a while.
Jen: Yes. It is a gift.
Pete: Hey, you just gotta be real with people, you know? It’s who I am, and not everybody likes every part of either of us. You know? And that’s fine.
Jen: Same! I was just gonna say, same. I’ve long ago made my piece with that. You obviously have too.
Pete: But it’s no disrespect, you know? It’s just fun.
Jen: Of course not.
So, Pete, I’ve told my listeners a little bit about you and what you do, but let me say this right out of the gate. Congratulations on your latest book, How The Bible Actually Works, because it is really, really marvelous. I don’t know anybody that does this with the skilled hand that you do.
Pete: Thank you.
Jen: That takes this really complicated conversation and parses it out in ways that are so accessible and so reasonable. You just do a wonderful job of discussing the Bible rather than this inerrant rule book, so to speak, you sort of invite your reader to think about the Bible in, for me, new and very exciting ways. And I appreciate it, because I suspect a lot of my listeners are a lot like me, which is that there have been I can’t even count how many times I’ve read the Bible and walked away feeling confused about something or conflicted, or the Bible itself seemed conflicted.
So when I get to kind of read your work and your scholarship around Scripture, and how to interpret it, and how to understand it, I feel relieved, and I feel confirmation that I’m not crazy and I’m not alone. I’m really grateful for that. I’m so grateful. Thank you for doing that.
We’ve got a billion things to talk about, and I could speak to you for 10,000 hours, but I would love to focus our conversation today around your book, because it’s just packed. I mean, it’s just literally every paragraph is packed.
Let’s just start with this light, little, easy question. What would you say is the Bible’s true purpose? Just easy. Let’s go low-hanging fruit.
Pete: Sure. What is God like? Why don’t we just start with that one, while we’re at it?
Jen: That’s good. That’s good.
Pete: Yeah. At least the way I put it in the book, and to be honest, I think that there are multiple ways of answering that question. There isn’t just one way.
The point that I’m zeroing in on in the book is that the purpose of the Bible is to guide us on a journey of wisdom in this life, as opposed to being sort of the answer book for every question we might happen to ask of it.
I think the way the Bible is designed, the way it’s sort of packaged, it pushes us towards having to take the risk to live a life of faith with the Bible right there with us, but not being like a helicopter parent that has to hover over us to make sure everything turns out okay.
That to me, that’s an exciting Bible to me. That’s something worth reading.
Jen: I agree with you. That makes reasonable sense to my brain. I’m not sure when, at what point God’s people decided it was a very rigid set of rules. Historically, how would you talk about that? Did the people of God always look at scripture as a rule book, or did we make a mental shift somewhere, once the Bible was sort of assembled? Then even more specifically, when did the word inerrant begin to describe the Bible, and can you talk about all that a little bit?
Pete: Yeah. Well, I mean, this shift that you talk about, a lot of people have thought about that. My opinion is you can sort of see a shift beginning around the time of the Protestant Reformation.
You see, the thing is, here’s the fascinating thing. If you go back and look at how people were teaching others to read the Bible in like the medieval period, like 1000 AD or something, there are four ways of reading the Bible. One is sort of the literal way. If that’s all you got, I guess you can stay with that, but then there are christological, Christ-centered sorts of ways. There are ways about how do I live this life, and what hope do we have for the future? There are rather imaginative ways of reading the Bible. If you push that back in time, it’s like it’s sort of always been that way.
When I see Paul or gospel writers talking about their scripture, what we call the Old Testament, they get very creative. When I think of things that happened in the Bible itself, these are very creative readings of texts, not like haphazard, but still they’re not stuck on literalism or inherency the way we are sort of more in the modern world. That’s the point.
With the Reformation, what you have is a rejection of, well, Catholicism and all that goes along with it, which I think was a bit overstated. Then the Bible becomes sort of like the final authority for everything—not the pope, not the Catholic Magisterium, they called it, but the Bible itself.
That sort of sets it up for I think problems, because the Bible doesn’t work well that way, as sort of this go-to book for everything we have to think about, hence thousands of Protestant denominations since the time of the Protestant Reformation, right? And sub-sub-sub-denominations that hate each other, because they disagree on how to interpret a verse or something, you know? I think that’s sort of where it started.
Inerrancy, mention inerrancy and your opinion on it, but very, very briefly, people like Augustine, who lived around the year 400, St. Augustine, he used words like, “The Bible is without error,” but what he meant is very, very different than what we mean today.
Jen: How so?
Pete: We’re modern people, and we look at the Bible from a modernist point of view, which is very rational, very analytical, this, and that. In our world today, when we argue that the Bible is without error, it’s inerrant, it’s really against the backdrop of science and archeology, and other things that have happened over the past 200, 250 years. It’s a reaction to threats to the Christian faith, so you sort of hunker down. “Well, we heave this inerrant text, and there’s all there is to it.”
Jen: So if we can kind of take that idea and thread it forward into the real life that we’re all living right now in modern day, what’s the advantage here, in practical terms, of having a wisdom book rather than a rule book? Where’s the comfort in that? Where’s the holiness in that? Why does this matter? The way that it actually fleshes out in real life, why is this a really important point to consider?
Pete: Well, I think for some it might not be a comfort, at least at first, because . . . I get this, completely get this. When you have a way of thinking about your faith, and the Bible fits into that as this go-to guide that settles all our big questions for us, and if that seems to be fading away, and you have to look at the Bible differently, you do lose a sense of comfort. But I want to suggest it might be a false comfort that is not really relying and trusting on God, but more our own ability to think we understand what God is doing all the time. Right?
But I get it. This is how many people are raised in the faith. But I think at the end of the day it’s not helpful, because something can happen in life that just rocks your boat, you know? And you have to rethink a lot of stuff. I mean, you’ve done that. I’ve done that. Bazillions of people have had to do that. Just something happens.
Jen: Right. It’s just a salient point that a lot of the tension in our generation is centered around this conversation. There’s this sense it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, and it’s this slippery slope argument. “You know, you give here, you give everywhere.”
But the truth is every single generation has done this same dance. Every single one has wrestled around ideas, and faith, and wisdom, and meaning, and interpretation. It’s not new. It’s not new that we are wrestling. It just feels very dire for some reason, because it’s our turn to do it.
Pete: Yeah. I imagine most generations have felt that way, but maybe not all of them. You know? I think that’s more, again, sort of our moment in time, where most of us have been raised in the faith that it is rational, it’s defensible, it’s the only logical option, all these kinds of things. And you know what? “Just ready the Bible.” Then you read it.
Then you’re like, “I’m in chapter six of the Bible, and everybody’s dying, and I don’t get it.” Right? It’s like what do you do with this stuff, right?
The Bible actually deconstructs that very attitude I think, which is so wonderful. I think people for most of the history of both Christianity and Judaism absolutely got that. I really think we’re more a blip on the screen. We’re not normal. What frustrates me, Jen, so much is when I hear people say, “What we believe is what the church had always believed.” Oh, really? You think so? There’s no way. You know?
Jen: Right. That actually comforts me so much, just to sort of . . . It’s not even a very complicated deep dive to look over the course of church history and just observe how many things have zigged, and zagged, and shifted, and changed. I learned from you and from Rachel Held Evans how interestingly—
Pete: Never heard of her.
Pete: Oh, yeah. Rachel. Oh, yeah. Hi, Rachel.
Jen: I’ve heard from both of you, and this is such interesting sort of academics when it comes to scripture, which is how the Jewish people have always wrestled with the scriptures, and the way that they interpret it, and the way that they discuss it. So this sense that we are doing things the way they have always been done is just not true. It’s just simply not true, even down to the mechanics of the way we wrestle with scripture. It isn’t an open ended. It’s certainty, of course, you know a little bit about certainty too. You’ve written about that as well.
Jen: Pressing in a little bit, in this book specifically, you sort of unspool two verses in the Book of Proverbs that show us kind of in a nutshell how we’re supposed to read the Bible with our brains turned on. Can you talk more about that?
Pete: Sure. Yeah. I mean, you gotta start someplace.
Early on in the book, I look at a couple of Proverbs that are right next to each other. This is in Proverbs chapter 26, verses four and five. Verse four says, “Do not answer fools according to their folly or you will be a fool yourself.” Okay. Great proverb.
Next Proverb, the exact opposite. “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.”
The question is, “Okay, Bible, what do you want me to do? Which one is true?” You know?
And Proverbs does this a lot, not so much next to each other, but just throughout the book. You have what we would rightly call “contradictory Proverbs.” And they are contradictions, if you’re expecting this book to tell you what to do. Right? Because this raises all sorts of questions like, “Okay, is this person a fool or not? Then is this the right time to answer this person or not?” Sometimes you have to tell somebody off. Sometimes you have to walk away. Right?
Pete: How do you know what to do? Well, the Bible’s not gonna tell you that, pal. You gotta figure that one out. That’s the path of wisdom, and that’s trial and error. That’s learning from your mistakes. That’s learning from the wisdom of people around you, who have been through this sort of thing. This is just sitting back and taking a deep breath. Right?
I think that is the life of faith more than flipping to the Bible, like finding in the index “fools.” Okay. Go to this page. Here’s what you do.
It doesn’t tell you what to do. You’ve gotta own this and, frankly, figure it out.
Jen: So, to this point you’re making, I’m thinking about people listening who are starting to feel tight in their chest, so what would you say? Why is the Bible’s ambiguity‚—and that is true. There’s plenty of parts of the Bible that are ambiguous, or it’s vagueness, or to your point, it’s contradictions. Why do you suggest that this is good news for us, not bad news?
Pete: Simply this: because it forces us into an immediate connection with the Creator. In other words, I don’t think the Bible is our mediator. I think God’s spirit is present with us. I think what the Bible is is a partner in that journey.
Jen: I like that.
Pete: To me that is good news. Right? It’s God is not distant. God is right here. Sometimes the Bible can become an idol. Anything can be. Church can become an idol. How you think about God can be an idol. Right? I think the immediacy of just relaxing and knowing, believing that, “God is here, present with us, and I’m on a path of discovery. I’m on a path of journeying towards greater communion, and knowledge, and intimacy with the Creator.”
That’s not something that will come from the book. Yeah. But it’s the Bible. I know, but look at how the Bible is set up. You have people inside the Bible having arguments about what God is like. You have different takes on so many different things.
Okay. It’s like this. “All right, people.” This is God talking. “You want a holy book to guide you? Fine. Here it is, but just to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea, I’m gonna have it be really weird, and I’m gonna have things in there that just you can’t reconcile with each other, just so you don’t get the wrong idea that this book is the same thing as me.” That’s the problem I think with many articulations of the faith today. It’s equating the two almost, and that’s just not the case.
Jen: Jesus said that exact same thing. I mean, lest there be any doubt, [Jesus] also said, “You’re going to the scriptures for life, but I’m the guy. Come to me. I’m actually the source of life.”
One of my favorite things that you wrote, it’s just so to me very profound, is that, “Laws are not set in stone. They’re meant to adapt with the times.” And even more, one click forward, they were adapted in the Bible too. You know, you don’t have to be a Bible reader to understand why it’s so important that we have law that are able to flex with the times. I mean, we see that in our own constitution. There is a reason we have amendments, as time marches on, as the arc of justice reaches forward.
Can you talk a little bit more about why it is vital to have adaptive principles and where we see, for example, Old Testament writers or New Testament writers adapting old rules for a new generation?
Pete: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think it’s important, because that is what leads you on the path of seeking wisdom. Right? Because if you’re seeing let’s say things being adapted in the Bible itself, because times have changed. And I know that sounds like really—my pastor said I should never pay attention to the times, and I get that, because you don’t want to sort of make everything relativistic, but still, there’s wisdom there. There are times when you need to change and other times when maybe you don’t. That’s a wisdom call. The Bible doesn’t lay that out for us.
What the Bible does lay out is that there is a journey. There are these decisions that have to be made, because times change and circumstances change.
To me that’s, again, part of the beauty and also maybe a little bit scary part of the Bible, that it simply doesn’t let you get comfortable thinking, “I have this figured out, because I have these 15 verses in my pocket.” There are 50 more that aren’t gonna help you, pal. There are a lot of others that have to be thought through, and I think that’s actually a beautiful thing about the Bible itself. It keeps us from making an idol out of it.
Jen: I’m listening to you say that, and I feel like a heavy rock in my chest, because I agree with you. I think that was the way that the Bible was written and structured. It left so much breathing room for the human race to grow and to adapt, and yet we rarely see this approach to scripture. Instead, so often what was meant to be this beautiful, liberating book of wisdom to guide the church forward generation after generation has become such a wrecking ball, such a source of pain for so many people.
Pete: Yeah. A weapon.
Jen: You know, that sort of tension within the body of Christ is just ubiquitous, but I appreciate your approach to scripture in terms of trajectory. That’s incredibly helpful. That’s incredibly useful to me, as somebody who loves Jesus and simply really wants to live a life of faithfulness and obedience. That’s just sort of—
Pete: And it’s a biblical principle, Jen. I mean, I don’t like using the word “principles,” but you see that modeled within the pages of the Bible itself. Now the question is do we have the right to say, “That process has ended”? What is more faithful to scripture? Is it thinking in terms of trajectories or thinking in terms of a rule book?
I think it’s trajectories, because that’s what the Bible keeps doing. “Yeah. Well, they were inspired.” All the more reason we should be trying to follow their lead and not say, “Well, that was good for them, but now we have to treat the Bible in ways that they didn’t even treat it.” That doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Jen: That’s right. Again, just to sort of engage brain, most people would agree that, at this point in time, we absolutely stand by lots of trajectories. Anybody, from even on opposites sides of perhaps the LGBTQ. But collectively we can stand and say, “You know, that slavery trajectory was probably correct, that we probably should not own human beings. And the trajectory for women in empowerment and honoring of women, and interracial marriages.” It goes on, and on, and on.
So to say that sort of the arc of justice is appropriate in some cases but absolutely inconceivable in others, it feels disingenuous. It feels like digging our heels in in a space where the church dug their heels in a few generations ago, and they were wrong.
Let’s talk about Jesus for a minute.
Jen: Let’s go Jesus. What do you make of having—
Pete: I thought we were just doing that.
Jen: Well, you know what? We were. We were talking about Jesus. It’s all in one bucket, isn’t it?
Pete: Yeah. Right.
Jen: What do you make of having four versions of the Jesus story in the Bible? Do scholars like you say that there’s one depiction of Jesus that is maybe more accurate than others? I mean, Luke was a doctor. Maybe he was just more specific, I don’t know. Or is there just something different that we can learn about who Jesus is based on each gospel?
Pete: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It’s God’s little joke to modern people that there are four versions that don’t really fit on some points. I mean, they’re not talking about different people. Clearly they’re talking about the same person, but the way they tell the stories, and what they leave out, what they add, and even when they’re the same, they’re different.
Jen: Yeah. It’s peculiar.
Pete: I just tell my students, “Compare the birth stories in Matthew and Luke.” In church we keep meshing them together, but they’re actually very separate stories that tell very different stories about who Jesus is.
I think it is what it is. There are four. Right? There was a time early on in the history of the church where people said, “You know, let’s just make one big one out of this.” And they tried to bring the four together into one big thing, and that lasted for a little while. But people finally said, “This doesn’t make any sense, because you have Jesus going in different places at the same time, and all these resurrection accounts, who shows up when and what order, and it doesn’t make any sense.”
So in the wisdom of the church, that word “wisdom” again, they said, “Listen. We have four, so we don’t have the gospel. We have the gospel according to Matthew, according to Mark.” Right? The four-ness of it I think has to be respected.
To ask the question, “Which one gets it more right?” I mean, I’m actually interested in that question, but I think it’s completely and utterly unanswerable.
See, the fascinating thing about the gospels, as I see it, is that most every biblical scholar will say, “Okay. Listen. The oldest one seems to be Mark.” There are a number of reasons for that.
Matthew and Luke have a tremendous amount of overlap with Mark. Okay. So, that’s fine. They seem to be using Mark as at least a partial base for what they’re trying to say. It’s sort of like the main source, and now they’re writing their own versions of it, but just think about that. They’re using Mark’s gospel as sort of a foundation for their own, and then they’re changing it explicitly.
Jen: Yeah. Good point.
Pete: They don’t have a problem doing that. Right? Luke’s trying to do research and stuff like that, but it’s not like Luke’s is more of a modern version of history that we know. It’s an interpretation of Jesus for their communities of faith. They’re saying different things I think for that reason, which again models why reading the Bible well means bringing it into your own context, not just leaving it in the back. They’re not saying, “Which one of us could be more accurate? I hope I get an A on this paper.” You know? It’s not like that. They’re pastors is writing for people, really, and they’re telling the story differently.
Jen: Let’s pivot this direction. You write that diversity is the key to uncovering the Bible’s true purpose for us. Of course, you’re ringing my bell right here. I think right now in our modern world, certainly in our generation, we’re starting to understand just how true that is and how we sincerely all benefit when we place equal importance on everyone’s story, particularly people who have been marginalized or whose identities hit at the intersections of our culture.
Can you talk about what that means for us? Why does it matter that the Bible was written by so many different people, in different times, in different cultural situations and traditions? How should that inform the way that we read the Bible and understand it?
Pete: Yeah. I think it informs us in a very, very important way, even I’d say central and pivotal way.
When we see biblical writers answering the question, “What is God like?” differently . . . . Maybe I can give an example in a second. But when we see them answering that question differently, because they’re in a different era, different things have happened to them and to their people that they’ve had to ask certain questions, that is something that, again, we should embrace for ourselves, because we have to . . . We can’t live in the past, even the biblical past. We’re not supposed to go back and recreate that world. People try to do that. It doesn’t work. We live right here and right now. Our question is just like the question the biblical writers asked, “What is God like right here and right now? How does this challenge how I thought about God before?”
The story of Jonah is a great example of that, because God tells Jonah to basically preach to the Ninevites, capital of the Assyrians, and the Assyrians were bad people. You don’t mess with the Assyrians. But Jonah doesn’t want to do it, because he’s afraid that it’s gonna work, because he doesn’t want these people converted or whatever.
So that’s basically what the book is about. Does God care about people more than just the tribe, more than just the people? and even does God even have let’s say a heart for about the worst people you could ask the Israelites to get along with, the Assyrians? Right? But, you see, that’s Jonah.
The Book of Nahum, which is just two books over, how does God feel about the Ninevites there? Well, he uses words like “vengeance” and “destruction.” There’s three chapters of God basically grounding them into the dirt, and Jonah looks at it differently.
It’s hard to sort of miss how in one book God is sort of doing what God does a lot of in at least the Old Testament, which is “Your enemies are my enemies. Now, I’m on your side, as long as you obey, but I’m not the God of these people. I’m your God, and we’re gonna show them.”
But Jonah was probably written anonymously, we don’t know who. But after the experience of the exile in Babylon, where they were thrust out of their land and learning to with people very different from them. You know? It’s like you move to Babylon—which, by the way was a pretty nice place to live—and you realize that these people, they’re just people. I mean, who has not had that experience? I mean, I’ve had it many times. “I can’t hate you anymore. I really would like to, because I was told I need to, but I can’t, because you’re just people.”
When I went to graduate school, I had that same experience. People from all over the world who had no idea what I believed, and that made me question what I believed about God, because I said, “I can’t see . . . I like these people. I have compassion on them. I can’t imagine God having less compassion on them.” Right? So what is God like?
That made me think of maybe God is not my tribal property, and maybe that’s the Book of Jonah as well. “These are nice neighbors we have. Honey, they want us to come over for dinner. They wanna do a play date with our kids. They even have beer. I don’t even know what beer is, but I can’t wait to try it.” You know?
So maybe God is bigger, and we’re seeing that kind of movement within the Old Testament. It’s not like the New Testament corrects the Old Testament God nonsense, but it’s within the Bible itself, the Old Testament, you see time after time after time of these wonderful movements toward a God that breaks out of the traditional ways of thinking, even if those traditional ways of thinking are, listen, in the Bible itself. Right? That’s the point. It’s not like bad things. It’s things that people believed. That’s . . . oh, gosh, don’t get me started here, Jen. This is—
Jen: I wanna get you started, like keep going. It’s so interesting.
Pete: Well, the Book of Job. The Job is a beautiful book, because Job, as we know, is suffering horribly. Right? Why is he suffering horribly? Well, his friends tell him why. “Job, what did you do to deserve that?” Right? He says, “Well, nothing,” but his friends have a point, because they’re operating on this view that some people call a “transactional God.” “If you obey me, you’ll be blessed. If you disobey me, you’ll be cursed.” Right? Where do they get that idea from? Well, that’s basically the Book of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and a bunch of the prophets, all over the place. It’s not in the corner someplace.
“So you must have done something to deserve it. Now, Job, in chapter, one you were, like, the best. You had everything, and you were the best Yahweh worshiper ever, so you obeyed, and you were blessed. Now, you’re clearly cursed. Ipso facto, you did something to deserve it.”
Abraham’s like, “I get it. I understand the whole transactional thing. I get the system. I worked it for years. That’s not what’s happening.” Right?
At the end of the book where Job is standing there with his friends, and then God appears to them, and he says to one of Job’s friends, “My wrath is kindled against you, for you have not spoken rightly of me, as my friend Job has.” To me that’s one of the most important verses in the entire Old Testament, because Job is challenging this transactional system, and God backs him up.
Come on. Think about this. You know? Well, what do you think about Deuteronomy? Well, I’m telling you what I think about Deuteronomy at that point. See, not that Deuteronomy’s a waste of time, but Deuteronomy, there’s a portrayal of God there that makes sense at a certain point in time of Israel’s history, but it doesn’t stay there, because God can’t be bound by the way we articulate what God is like. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s scary. Yeah. I’d like a Bible that tells me all the answers. We don’t have it. Do you choose to trust God or not trust God? Now, read the Bible in light of that.
Jen: So, to that point, if we read the Bible as an adaptive text, a text that is meant to give us wisdom, not rules, then pragmatically how are we supposed to come together in churches or as a collective group of Christians and figure out how God is working in our time? I mean, is it even possible? Is God just, is He just relative to all of us, to everyone? Is that true? Is that not true? How are we supposed to function as a group?
Pete: Yeah. I think that’s a pressing question. I appreciate it.
I think it’s only possible if the group already is of the same mind that this dialogue that we need to have is part of what it means to live a life of faith, rather than thinking, “We can only live the life of faith together if we agree on all these issues.”
Jen: That’s a great point, which is how the Jewish people approach scripture.
Pete: Well, yes.
Speaking of Jews, let’s talk about Paul for a brief second. What I tell my students is that the further back you go in Christianity, you don’t find more unanimity. “People screwed things up, but boy, I wish I lived in the first century, because everything would be clearer.” No. It’s not.
The earliest records we have in the New Testament, the earliest Christian documents we have are probably like Galatians, and James, and 1 Thessalonians. But especially in Galatians and James, Paul does not get along with Peter and James. He doesn’t. I mean, that’s the earliest record we have is an argument about what is foundational, really, to what it means to be the people of God: what do you do with Gentiles? Again, this is just my twisted brain I . . . Oh. Thank you. I’m so glad to see that.
Jen: Yeah. It’s a release.
Pete: You know? Because it isn’t like we have to get back to some pristine original. We even have four gospels. You know? Where is the pristine original? It’s almost like God is just splashing onto the scene, and it goes all over the place, and we just jump in. You know? It’s more experiential, and I will even say subjective than this analytical objectivity that we like to hold onto in the West. That’s part of the problem, I think.
Jen: Oh. I feel like I could expand, like I can exhale a little bit.
I was raised with the Bible, obviously, as a rule book, and inerrancy was one of our pillars, and apologetics was how I understood God. I find that this approach you’re describing, it actually draws me to Jesus more. It does not push me away. It actually draws me more into faithfulness, as opposed to further away, which is the argument that at the end of this road you’re describing, “Well, what’s left? You know? We have nothing but a bunch of free thinkers doing whatever they want, and it’s all relative.” You know? Yet that’s not how I see it.
Pete: No. If people were trying to seek God genuinely, it’s really not free thinking. It’s respecting the mystery that we’re just people and that we will not wrap our arms around all this. That’s why I have on my computer desktop I have pictures of the universe. Not that I needed reminding of it, because it sort of freaks me out, but the universe is a big place. The God of the incomprehensibly large, and small, and old, like, I feel like I have nothing to add to that discussion really, in terms of God’s ontology, what God is in his essence, and all that kind of stuff. I just have to think about myself, and what I do, and how I act, and how I respect the person next to me. And if there’s someone next to me who’s different than I am, and I have to respect their humanity. I think that’s the place to start for a lot of these things.
The God of apologetics is not . . . That will give way sooner or later, I think.
Jen: Do you?
Pete: That will become very dissatisfying for people just individually, because at some point you just have to . . . there’s gotta be more to this than just defending things. Right? To me that’s part of the problem with that a well.
Jen: I agree. This discussion, it bears to mind how many times in scripture God, in his pressing us forward into wisdom, cautions us against pride, because I experienced the opposite of what you just described. When you have this picture of the universe, and it’s such a crystal clear reminder, like, we’re like a little . . . just a guy and a girl, you know, just a guy and a girl, one minute in the scope of time, one millisecond in the scope of time. We can only know what we know. We’ve only experienced what we experienced.
When I come really, really, really down tight into where we live, what I experience from a great deal of Christian leaders is the opposite. It is very clamped down, very, very certain, you know, very dogmatic and punitive. I sort of see this culture that is so . . . I can’t find another word, but so prideful in their understanding of God and their certainty that it is exactly the way that they perceive it. It’s like how are we ever, ever gonna find any middle ground? I’m not sure. Maybe we don’t.
Pete: With all of your experiences though, Jen, with these kinds of things, have you come to any sort of sense or understanding of why this clamping down even happens? Because it seems like it’s universal. It’s not just today, but it’s throughout time. You know, why do people feel like, when it comes to God, they have to do that?
Jen: That’s a great question. In my experience, I see a couple of answers to that.
By the way, thank you for asking me questions on my own podcast. You don’t know podcast rules.
Pete: I’m just trying to take over here, Jen.
Jen: Nobody sent you the rules.
I think on one hand, it’s comforting, just because life is so unpredictable. It takes so many turns that we didn’t expect. It includes so much suffering and so much circumstantial uncertainty that having some ironclad rules is kind of a comfort. It feels like an anchor in a stormy life. I think that’s part of it, that at least we can say, “This has always been this way, and it is exactly right, and we understand it perfectly correctly.” So, I think there is a comfort in it, for sure.
And then I think, and maybe this is just because I’m a glass half full type, and I come by that honestly. That is my family of origin. But my suspicion is that most people—and there’s no such thing as all or none—but I think most people who take that very, very, a little bit more of a rigid approach to scripture, I think they just wanna be faithful. I really do. I believe that comes from a place of wanting to be obedient and wanting to stand rightly before God, and wanting to say, “I managed your Word correctly, and I did what you said.”
I believe in the best of intentions there for the majority of people, which is where it gets so wonky. Right? We’re not talking about good and bad people. That’s not fair.
So rather, I think we’re talking about a lot of people who are well-intentioned and want to live this life obediently, and faithfully, and well. What happens is in those two approaches, so many people get trapped in the crossfire, and they are the casualty. Right? They’re the collateral damage of dogma and of certainty.
I think we’re not the first generation to have this conundrum, of course, but it is real. It is real, and we do have to sort out how to manage human hearts in the midst of different approaches to scripture. For that I don’t really know what the answer is.
Pete: Right. I think that’s an important thing to remember.
I mean, I agree with that. “Some of my best friends are fundamentalists.” You know, that sounds really condescending, but it’s true, because they’re just good people. There are people who think like I do about some issues who I might not trust as much personally. So this is not about good or bad people.
Jen: That’s a great point.
Pete: What some people have said . . . and this is something I’ve thought about, and I’ve once said it semi-publicly, and I got a lot of push back for it, so I’m gonna say this gently, wondering if there’s a better way of putting it.
It’s not about good or bad people, but it might be about maturity levels in faith, where we’ve all been children spiritually. I have. I think I still am, sometimes. We’ve been children spiritually, where the concrete is very important, and we need to have the structure. But when you become an adolescent, you start breaking away from that. You go to college. You figure out the world’s a big place and all this kind of stuff.
The more you mature, ideally, I think, the more we should accept the ambiguities of life, the transcendence of life, the mystery of God, and find a way to be comfortable in that, but that takes . . . If things hadn’t happened to me, I don’t know where I would be on that. You know, things have happened to you that have pushed you to think about things in different ways too. It’s almost like you have to be in tune to your existence, in tune to life to see where are the signals where we think maybe God might be pushing us in a bigger and different direction.
But that’s very hard if you’re raised with a concrete view of black and white and all that sort of stuff. Yeah. They’re not bad people. The worst thing to do is to tell them they’re bad people, because they don’t think like you do. They’re where they are. Someday, they may want to have a conversation with you, or with me, or somebody else, because something has happened, and they’re ready for something else at that point. You know? It’s there. It’s always been there.
Jen: So, if you could just talk about that for one more second, I would love to hear your thoughts to this end. People who are believers, and they are deeply community or in a family with folks who feel very differently, either maybe all the way to one side—they don’t believe the Bible a shred, that is just a book of nonsense. Or maybe on the opposite spectrum—it is inerrant, it is infallible, and they can’t reconcile a different way to approach scripture as a book of wisdom. That’s just life. To your point, we are both deeply in community and surrounded by people who think about the Bible in different ways and who approach it in different ways.
How just relationally would you suggest that people of good faith, who love and believe in God and simply have different ways that they adopt scripture into their life, how would you suggest that we peacefully, and lovingly, and respectfully coexist with folks who think really, really differently about us, than us?
It’s not an easy question.
Pete: I’m an American male who’s not in touch with his feelings. I’m not sure I can answer that question, but I’m gonna try.
I think to demonstrate that you value the community more than being right.
Jen: That’s good.
Pete: Basically, just don’t argue. Sometimes people try to bait you into arguments. I think that is a symptom of spiritual immaturity—not bad people, but spiritual immaturity. They may be insecure about their own belief, so they wanna argue about it. But then find a tactful way to say, “You know, listen. I respect what you’re saying. I understand it. That’s not where I am right now, but we’re in community together. I love you anyway. I don’t want us to dwell on those things. I’m happy to talk about them.”
But don’t make it be like the notch on the belt you have to get to be right to your atheist friends or to your fundamentalist friends. Just be who you are.
You may have to earn the right for people to want to talk with you about stuff. That can take years. It’s not up to you to set them straight. I think God is present. I’m not the conduit, but I could be something. Right now sometimes what I just have to be . . . Well, this is wisdom. I just maybe have to not talk so much and model something where five years from now when something terrible happens, and their view of God falls apart, they’ll remember, and they’ll have somebody to come talk to. It’s a long haul, not a short haul.
Jen: That’s good. Laying down the requirement to be right is 80% of anything I can think of, all of these very, very challenging things that we circle the drain on.
Pete: Like sports.
Jen: For example, sports. Yeah. Just releasing that need to be right is so personally liberating, and it really frees up our relationships to thrive amidst tension or differences, and I think that is wisdom. Hopefully, if we are treasuring scripture the way it was meant to be treasured, if we are adapting its practices the way they were meant to be adapted into our hearts, hopefully we become more and more that person, the one who is not hammering people over the head, baiting people into a fight, berating them for their viewpoints.
I hope that I am becoming more and more like that, as I follow Jesus. That’s my hope is that I’m becoming a little bit more gentle, instead of more dogmatic. Sometimes I win at that, and sometimes I lose. I find that when I am able to respect and even treasure the mystery of scripture and sort of its very strange meanderings and then take away what there is to take away, I feel myself, well, to his words, becoming a little bit more like Jesus, instead of less, instead of less. So, I guess that’s the most we can hope for our little, tiny speck of dust on this earth in this one millisecond. That’s the best we can do.
Let me ask you these last three quick questions. I’m asking everybody these questions in the faith series.
Here’s the first one, just top of your head: if you could have dinner, sit across the table from any faith hero that you love, who would you pick?
Pete: Yeah. I mean, to me that’s sort of an easy one, I think.
Jen: Is it?
Pete: It would be C.S. Lewis. I know that’s sort of a boring answer to give, but I don’t care, because . . . I think what Lewis did for me was out of college I read The Chronicles of Narnia, and I was like, “Oh. This is what it . . . ” Just windows were open to me. He’s been a help.
Do I agree with everything? Of course not. I don’t agree with myself half the time, but that’s not the point. The point is that I would love to sort of just hang out with this guy for an hour and just talk about stuff. Hopefully the reality won’t squash the myth, you know, when you meet your heroes, I guess.
Jen: I think you’ll probably have to get in line for that one is my guess.
Jen: Get in line in Heaven. He was really something.
Interestingly, he said a lot of things. He’s often held up as, you know, the poster boy for modern evangelicalism, but he wouldn’t have actually been super loved, had he lived right now.
Pete: No. He wouldn’t. No.
Jen: He said a bunch of stuff that kind of—
Pete: He’s not an evangelical in any sense of the word that we think. I would just say he’s Orthodox. You know, he’s a really good Jesus-following Anglican.
Jen: Ah. That’s a great way to put it.
How about this? Do you have, and this could be any number of things, either a verse, or a phrase, or an idea, or a quote, or a bit of a mantra that would sort of encapsulate your faith?
Pete: Yeah. This was harder for me, because a bunch of things came to mind. Can I give you a couple?
Pete: Or should I just—
Jen: No. Give us a couple.
Pete: Well, one is I’ve learned a lot from Richard Rohr about a lot of stuff. The thing that I heard him say—I think I heard him say this. I didn’t read it, but it was years ago, when I was just starting my own sort of “deconstructing, reconstructing” mode. He says, “If we do not transfer our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
Jen: Oh. I’ve said that in a sermon.
Pete: Really? Yeah.
Jen: That exact quote.
Pete: That’s like generational stuff here.
Jen: Yeah. That’s between the eyes.
Pete: I realize, I have great kids. They’re all adults, but how I feel responsible, because I didn’t really . . . I wasn’t even aware of stuff. That’s a big thing for me.
Another is this guy, Karl Rahner. He’s maybe not known to everyone listening, but he is a post-World War II German, Catholic theologian who gets it. He understood the impact of the 20th century and how we have to think differently about what God is like.
He has a quote. It appears in different kinds of ways, but his is: “The Christian of the future will be basically a mystic or be nothing at all.” That’s a mouthful.
What I think he means by that, at least this is the way I take what he means, is that the more we learn about the universe literally and stuff like that, the more we have to embrace the mystery of it all, and be a functioning Christian, and not reduce God to simplistic ways of thinking. You know? To me that’s really important to me, because it’s because of my academic training and all that stuff I did that I feel like I can see why this comes to an end pretty quickly, because we simply can’t wrap our heads around everything. If God is real, mystery should be like the first word out of our mouth, as far as I’m concerned.
Jen: Great. I actually love that. To your earlier point, just the more mature you become in your faith, the more we know generation to generation—I’m taking it from like a 20,000 foot view—the more we know, the more we learn about science, the more we learn about creation, you’re right: it simply has to affect our perception of God, as opposed to when you only knew your tiny, little environment and you needed to understand God with really rigid words.
I love that. Richard Rohr is another guest in this series, just a real hero to a lot of us.
Jen: Here’s our last one. I ask every guest every series this question. It’s Barbara Brown Taylor, of course, one of our queens. This can be whatever you want it to be. Some of our guests answer this in a really poignant, and sort of tender, and real . . . Some of our guests answer this in absurdities. So, we accept all here at the For the Love Podcast.
Of course, her question is what is saving your life right now?
Pete: I don’t wanna be that guy, but it’s my granddaughter. It’s our first grandchild. I hate people like that. I’ve become that person.
Jen: Oh. No. I will be that person.
Pete: But the thing is that, you know, she is the cutest thing, objectively, ever. Obviously. No. Her name is Lila. She’s about 17 months old now. Just seeing her develop, and seeing her as the child of one of my daughters, right? And just seeing the personalities and all that, it’s like I could just watch this kid for hours—and sometimes I do, frankly. It’s just there’s something about that that’s just affirming, and beautiful, and something that brings joy, I guess. You know? It does, because we all need that. I don’t get that all the time.
Jen: Thank you for coming on today. Thank you for your . . . all the billions of hours of work you have put into scholarship, and study, and academics, and just careful examination. There’s probably just no end to how much time you have logged on your work. It matters.
So, as just a normal girl who has found great hope, and instruction, and direction in your work, in your writings, I’m thankful. Thank you for being the kind of teacher that takes your work so incredibly seriously, from an academic standpoint, and then just makes it so incredibly accessible, from a human standpoint. For me it has mattered. I’m thankful for who you are. I’m thankful for how you lead. I thank you for being on the podcast today. You’re the best.
Pete: Thank you, Jen. That’s very kind of you. I had a great time. This is wonderful, a lot of fun.
Jen: Well, you owed me. I was on your podcast, and now you’ve been on mine. So we’re back to Ground Zero. So, you get the next ask, and I have to say yes, and then you have to reciprocate. I think that’s scriptural, like that’s how Jesus set up the community.
Jen: Okay. Thanks, Pete.
Pete: All right, Jen. Thank you.
Jen: So what did I tell you? He’s great. I love the conversations that Pete starts. To his earlier point in our conversation, I think what marks a really healthy and vibrant faith community is one that is willing to have this conversation together, to put this discussion in this middle and say, “Let’s hold this together. Let’s hold this space. Let’s push and pull a little bit.”
That’s just my dream for the church is to be that sort of people who, rather than draw these rigid lines in the sand and then say, “You’re in. You’re out. We’re over here. You’re over there. We’re right. You’re wrong,” what a dream to imagine a faith culture that is above that, that is about the say, “We are all beloved, and so inside of this little, tiny scope in history let’s hold this loosely together, and let’s flesh it out, and let’s push, and pull, and ask hard questions.” It’s a wonderful depiction of what it could be like. I love the questions that he raises, the ideas that he has.
Again, if you go over to jenhatmaker.com, under the Podcast tab well have everything listed over there that we talked about, you guys. Not only will Amanda build out the whole transcript, but we’ll link to everything, all of Pete’s socials, his books, his podcast. We’ll put up a link to my episode with him on his podcast last year. So, anything you wanna find about Pete Enns will be at jenhatmaker.com. Be sure to use that as a resource. If it’s an interesting conversation, share it. Put it in the middle of your small group, in your Bible study, inside your marriage, or with your friends, and say, “Gosh what do we think about this? Let’s listen and discuss.”
Guys, I hope you have enjoyed this series as much as I have. It has stretched me, and pushed me, and pulled me, and inspired me. It put some gas in the tank for me, I’ll be honest with you, just to keep going, that this is why I believe. Honestly, this is why I believe. There’s just so much goodness inside a life of faith, and I’m so grateful to be a part of this community with so many smart leaders, and thinkers, and teachers, and interesting instructors. What a lucky time to be alive, you guys. I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.
We look forward to kicking off a new series next week. So come back, because we are switching gears. You are going to love it. That I can promise you.
Okay, guys. See you next week.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!