The students in my college classroom generally arrive with the assumption that, if they ever finally decided to open the book, their Bible contains stories about religious superheroes whose level of certitude, model of righteousness, and moral living is a model to which they could never aspire. So why bother reading about them, much less attempting to live their kinds of lives? That’s why I keep tossing them what I call “Bible Stories Too Dangerous for Sunday Morning.”
Robert Farrar Capon, the late Episcopal priest who knew how to cook up a gourmet meal and a nice bit of theology, once complained of the pitiful state of Christian education and how it does our kids a disservice. In The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It, he said the problem is that we’ve nice-ified Scripture. In Sunday school lessons, it’s “sentimental piety, or it’s a lot of doctrinal answers to questions the kids have never raised. In any case, it’s so heavily edited (the rough parts of the Old Testament left out, Jesus turned into Mr. Nice, his parables watered down to lessons in loveliness) that authentic Christianity just never gets through to them.”
The students in my college classroom generally arrive with the assumption that, if they ever finally decided to open the book, their Bible contains stories about religious superheroes whose level of certitude, model of righteousness, and moral living is a model to which they could never aspire. So why bother reading about them, much less attempting to live their kinds of lives? That’s why I keep tossing them what I call “Bible Stories Too Dangerous for Sunday Morning.” Those are the stories that the lectioneers deemed unfit for pious consumption. While they may provide a thrill for junior high boys, they certainly don’t fill the brief of instructing people on living up the “biblical truths” and the moral mandate of Christian living.
But these are just the stories my students desperately need. They are stories that do three things. First, they put the lie to the assertion that being a Christian is about a climbing graph of continual progress (whether in spirituality or ethics or religious practices) that might, I repeat, might lead to being good enough to earn a heavenly reward. Dangerous Bible stories show that nothing of the sort is true: Noah leaving the ark and winding up naked and passed out after a night of celebrating on dry land. Jacob’s son Reuben hooking up with his father’s mistress. An infertility crisis solved when Sarah gives the nod to Abraham to force the enslaved Hagar to be her surrogate. Laban making a deal with Jacob to go all conjugal for a week with the daughter foisted on him, with the promise of future bigamy with the daughter he wanted to marry. And, of course, back-stabbing (literally) Cain who murders his brother in an envious rage.
That’s just in Genesis. There are 65 other Bible books. No one makes any progress. As long as they live and breathe, they’re royal (as in children of the divine king) screw-ups. At best, they remain mired halfway between being sinners and saints. The only thing that biblical characters do to help their cause is to die. The places where God is most at work is when they realize that, rather than building a mansion of success and self-esteem, they’ve only dug their own graves. That’s when they find themselves compelled to cry out with David that their lives have become an utter soap opera caricature. They can’t make a millimeter of progress on their own: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10).
Second, seeing the people in these dangerous stories opens things up for my students to see the folly of trying to maintain their carefully curated presentations of their “true” selves, both online and in real life. In Thesis 18 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther follows his argument about the illusion of free will and the possibility of progress by saying it’s exactly when you let go of your façade of niceness and your ongoing self-continuity project that the space for grace to occur opens up. We can’t merit Christ’s mercy without first despairing of any ability on our own to concoct the future we’ve always been told we can have: “If you can dream it, you can have it. You just have to work hard enough.”