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.
The only thing that biblical characters do to help their cause is to die.
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.”
What’s more, hearing dangerous stories allows my students to understand that bottoming out, failing a class, losing your national championship wrestling match, waking up hungover in a strange bed on Sunday morning, discovering a cheating boyfriend, or having a history of being subjected to abuse, and any other craptastic, shameful thing in their lives doesn’t exclude them from access to the God of Scripture. All those things do is make you someone with ears to hear the voice of the one who can actually bring abundant life. When all the struts are pulled out from under you, your only strength is in the Lord.
Finally, dangerous Bible stories show my students a God who has no problem whatsoever using the muck and mire of our worst days to make his progress toward his good goal happen. In these stories, God is both indiscriminate and discriminating. God doesn’t care much about who serves to further his handiwork, at least in worldly terms. But God does seek out specific types. He uses those whom Capon elsewhere describes in his books on the parables as the last, the little, the least, and the lost. One of those nobodies was Jael, a woman outside the tribes of Israelites in the time of the judge Deborah.
Dangerous Bible stories show my students a God who has no problem whatsoever using the muck and mire of our worst days to make his progress toward his good goal happen.
Jael was a Kenite, part of a group that had followed God’s chosen people into Canaan. She wasn’t singled out for God’s promises like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, she was the unlikely heroine who saved the Israelites from oppression under King Jabin of Canaan. The troops of Jabin’s top general, Sisera, were surprised and scrambled in confusion when the Israelite armies under the judge Barak streamed down Mount Tabor toward them. Sisera escaped in the melee and took refuge among Jael’s husband, Heber’s, Kenite clan who were neutral in the fight with Jabin.
Jael saw Sisera and invited him into her tent. She gave him a soft place to rest, a blanket to cover himself, and a skin of milk to drink. After regrouping, he was dead tired. When he fell asleep, Jael grabbed a tent stake in one hand and a hammer in the other. She pounded the stake into Sisera’s temple with such force that it went through his skull and into the ground. Now Sisera was no longer tired but merely dead.
God’s desire to fill the promises made to Abraham centuries before came closer to fulfillment not via a chosen Israelite, but a foreigner – and a woman no less. Jael saved the day, not with her piety, religious observance, or battle prowess. She used her wiles to lure Sisera into what he thought was a place of safety, and she brutally murdered him in spite of her people having had no prior trouble with King Jabin. God’s purposes progressed at the point of a tent stake and Jael’s seemingly wild and uncontrollable will.
The whole story of Jael is a virtual throw-away. We never hear of her again except in Deborah’s victory song in Judges 5:24ff. Then Deborah imagines Sisera’s mother at home waiting for her mighty son to return, wondering what’s keeping him from coming back from what should have been a quick victory. Perhaps he and his troops are having their way with the Israelite women they would have captured. Maybe he’s making sure his mother will have a lovely piece of Israelite embroidery to decorate her Canaanite neck. Deborah hopes those unfulfilled expectations will be the fate of every Israelite enemy. Judges ends the whole saga by simply saying that now there were forty years of peace.
What are we to make of this dangerous story? Capon again points us in a helpful direction. He argues that my students’ minds “are an empty gallery, with no biblical pictures on the walls at all. Our job is simply to hang up the pictures in that gallery.” If we let people in on a story like Jael’s then, when my students “happen to wander through the gallery, at least the original, weird masterpieces will be there for them to look at again — and maybe they’ll see things they’ve never noticed before, But if all you give them is the infant Jesus in velvet pants, or a lot of stuff labeled ‘religion,’ they’ll just figure it’s too tame to have anything to do with the wildness and weirdness of life as they actually experience it.”
The God active in Jael’s bloody act is a God who uses the ordinary. What could be more ordinary than a skin of fermented milk, an iron tent stake, and a construction crew’s mallet? What could be more unsung than a woman in a patriarchal age alone with a powerful man saving herself from a sadly imaginable future be performing a violent act with cruel precision and a calm relief that the deed was done? History prefers tales of the great and powerful, so it’s a wonder that Jael is even named. And yet this is God’s gallery where my students look at the details of a picture in which God enters a scene worthy of a slasher pic.
The God active in Jael’s bloody act is a God who uses the ordinary.
Over the course of a semester, I come to know my students well. In classroom comments and heartfelt papers, they begin to trust me and place their honest histories in my hands. I know “the wildness and weirdness of life as they actually experience it.” Jael’s story is equal to theirs, especially in a time of pandemic. These nineteen and twenty-year-olds have put on a brave face the past several weeks, but they’re worried about what God has in store for them. They deserve to get to know a God who can be active in political conflict, in ventilator shortages, in mask-wearing, in economic uncertainty, and in every other place, their lives have worn thin. They need no convincing that their own stories are dangerous. They know their own history has shameful notes. Their righteousness is wanting. And their ears are open. These might be just the stories they need to hear now.