Episode #9: Interview with Thom Stark

This week it’s our pleasure to bring you an extended interview with Thom Stark, author of The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It). You’ll get to hear Thom’s thoughts on the reasons for inerrancy’s popularity, the nature and importance of Jesus, how we should approach a thoroughly human and frequently wrong set of Scriptures, and much more.

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  • Ty Mccarty

    What is humanistic morality without salvation? What is your hope for yourself, or anyone else, past this life? Is it really wise to base your faith off of your subjective hope? Shouldn’t, instead, your personal subjective hope be a result of faith obtained from objective truth? Are you not creating for yourself a smorgasbord faith based just on what you hope to be truth? Do you believe in absolute truth? If yes, is that absolutely true? If not, is that absolutely true?
    Jesus was not on earth to teach morality as his primary goal, though his life is our greatest example of morality. Jesus was on earth to show everyone God’s love by offering an avenue to save us from Hell. Jesus left no room for claiming he was not God.
    I don’t mind asking tough questions about the Bible, Jesus, God and morality. I believe most churches don’t either.
    Ty McCarty

    • Hi, Ty. I respond to your comments about “smorgasbord faith” in the last chapter of my book, under the section entitled “Everybody Chooses.” The claim that inerrantist faith is “objective” while that of those who don’t hold to inerrancy is “subjective” is an oft-repeated claim by fundamentalists that doesn’t comport with the reality of the inerrantist hermeneutic, as I argue extensively throughout the book.

      Do I believe in absolute truth? Yes. Do I believe the Bible offers “objective truth”? No, for the reasons I’ve outlined in detail. If you’d read the book, you’d know that access to objective truth is something I would very much like to have, but have to admit that I do not. That’s reality. We can go on denying it, or we can learn to live with it. And that’s how we move forward, I argue.

      You say you’re not afraid to ask the tough questions, but your comments show that’s precisely the case. You’ve offered “answers” and have shown you have no interest in exploring the questions. What you must mean is that you aren’t afraid to do apologetics to defend the answers you already have. I’m aware of what it means to “ask the tough questions” at OCC, Ty. As you know, I was trained there too.

      • Ty Mccarty

        So what about the question of salvation? What hope is there without Jesus Christ?

        • What you’re displaying, Ty, is that you don’t have the capacity to think about the human condition, hope, or morality, outside of the narrow categories of fundamentalist evangelicalism. Not that I concede that my position leaves us “without Jesus Christ,” but even if it did, what would that tell you? Who told you you needed salvation in the first place? Wasn’t it Jesus? So if we were “without Jesus Christ,” what makes you think “salvation” is even the right term to use? For you (because you’ve bought into a superficial Christianity that is fixated on the afterlife, due in part to an unfamiliarity with the world in which the New Testament was written, and in part to the influence of later imperial interventions into Christian theology), salvation is all about getting saved from hell and going to heaven; it’s thoroughly otherworldly and nonpolitical. But who told you about heaven and hell? Wasn’t it your evangelical Jesus? So if we really were “without Jesus Christ,” why are you still worrying about who’s going to save you from hell and whisk you off to heaven?

          Be careful, Ty, not to mistake the undesirability of a conclusion for the untenability of a conclusion. Just because you don’t like a conclusion doesn’t make the conclusion unsound. Desires change, but the truth is the truth is the truth. Perhaps the truth is we do need salvation but there is no one to save us! That’s one possibility, an undesirable one, but potentially true. We can’t let our anxieties get in the way of the investigation.

          That said, I never said we were without Jesus Christ. I just have a different idea of what it means to be with him than you do. I’d like to challenge you to read my book (don’t buy it; just borrow it from a library or a heretical Ozark student), get the fuller picture about my perspective. Try to imagine yourself living within my perspective. I’m not asking you to permanently adopt it; just try it on in an attempt to understand a perspective other than your own. Then come back and let’s talk some more. Or ask me questions for everyone’s benefit at humanfacesofgod.com

          All the best.

          • Ty Mccarty

            No, Tom. I do have the capacity to think about the human condition, hope and morality outside of what you would call the “narrow categories of fundamentalist evangelicalism.” I would call your claim “intellectual rudeness”. The thing is, when I think in such a way the ultimate outcome is the futility of life. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” or maybe “make life as nice as possible for everyone now, for tomorrow we die.” Isn’t death something all people know to be true? So what happens to us after that? Do you have an answer? Or at least a theory? Is it just nothing? What is your world view about death? Answer this please. I would really like to know.

            I’m not “worrying about who’s going to save [me] from hell and whisk [me] off to heaven”. No, I am not worried at all. I know! Yes, I flat out proclaim that I have the answer! Jesus Christ is God! He restored my relationship with God. Nothing else and nobody else can do that. Jesus made the way possible for anyone to go to Heaven. I have this answer not because I’m too dumb to contemplate anything else, even the idea that there is nothing at all after death. No, I have this answer because I have contemplated it as well as many other possibilities! Is this a narrow, fundamentalist evangelical answer? Fine. Then the fundamentalist evangelicals have the answer.

            Do I choose my answer because it is purely just desirable? No. Like a child, every adult has the desire in them to save themselves. Just for fun, my second choice for my faith would be a Star Trek faith. What a cute little intellectual, puffed up, humanistic idea, that mankind can save itself! Evolutionary science is the answer! Blah!

            When you say “I never said we were without Jesus Christ,” I understand that to mean you believe only in the historic Jesus. But, you deny Jesus’ own claim of being God in human form. Is that not right? That is what I understand from what you said in the interview. You view “being with him” in the sense of agreeing with some of his “good teaching”. Just a good teacher, right?

            From my perspective, you put your faith in the intellect of mankind. You would say that the Bible must be wrong in places because it does not fit together within human logic and understanding. I would argue that scripture appears to contradict itself merely because mankind lacks the capacity to think about the human condition, hope and morality outside of what it would call human logic and understanding. I would challenge you to think about scripture and reason it out from a creator God’s perspective. Then compare that with man’s logic and reasoning.

            As for reading your book, I would like to read it. But I have it on good authority that the OCC library will not be acquiring it. 🙂 If you would like to send me a copy I will be glad to return it when I’m done.

          • Ty, you claim you have the capacity to think outside of fundamentalism, and then you display in the next breath that you don’t. Your only two categories are fundamentalist Christianity or futility. That shows you don’t have the capacity. I’m sorry if you think I was being rude in my diagnosis, but you confirmed it, so maybe the truth is rude? Your second paragraph just displays you aren’t willing to entertain a discussion. That is of course your prerogative. But I never called you dumb. I called you captive to binary categories. You still aren’t able to think about the human condition in terms other than humanity’s need to “be saved.” You aren’t getting the point, Ty.

            As for my “worldview about death” (don’t you just mean, my “view of death”?), I don’t have one. I have hopes, and I act on those hopes (that’s called faith), but I don’t “know,” and neither do you, despite your claim to know. If you claim to know, then you don’t have faith. I have hopes that this life isn’t meaningless, and that there’s goodness and justice beyond it, and I act on those hopes. That’s faith. Faith is acting on hope, not intellectual assent to a rigid set of doctrines. If I “knew” what was beyond, then it wouldn’t be faith, now would it?

            As for the Star Trek faith nonsense, you’re diagnosing a straw man.

            I don’t deny Jesus’ claim of being God in human form, because he made no such claim, as I’ve argued extensively elsewhere. You can read that book when it comes out in 2012, or read the hundreds of scholarly monographs and articles already available to the same effect. But if you wait for my book, you can be sure I’ll deal thoroughly with all your proof-texts.

            You continue to display that you’re only interested in the results of my arguments, not the arguments themselves. You won’t accept anything I say about Jesus if my conclusion doesn’t lead to your pre-molded American evangelical conception of him. My understanding of Jesus comes from the texts and from extensive study of the contexts in which those texts were composed. If my conclusion is that “Jesus is just a good teacher” (your words, not mine), you’re not interested in how I get there. If my conclusion is that Jesus didn’t claim to be God, I’m already wrong in your mind, before you even look at my arguments. This is the fundamentalist mindset, Ty. I know it when I see it because I used to have it.

            As for your claim that “I put my faith in the intellect of mankind [sic.],” you have no basis for such hogwash. I’ve never said anything remotely like this, nor would I, since it’s not remotely the case. You’re just attempting to fit me into your pre-conceived categories. But I don’t fit. That doesn’t make you “dumb” (your word, not mine). It just speaks to an incapacity to think beyond your own categories. That doesn’t mean you can’t develop the capacity to do so. But that takes effort, and empathy, two “E” virtues you’re not showing any predilection for here.

            If you would honestly argue that scripture only appears to contradict itself because mankind [sic.] is too dumb to read the text and figure out what it’s saying, then there’s nothing I can say to you. That’s an absurd position, but you’re welcome to it. You “challenge me to think about scripture and reason it out from a creator God’s perspective”? Are you serious? First of all, you forget that I come from a fundamentalist background. I know how you think; I know how you read the Bible. I used to think and read just like you do. It’s not like I’m just incapable of understanding your position because I’ve never thought of it before, Ty. I used to articulate your position much better than you’re doing now, and I rejected it for a number of reasons, many of which are detailed thoroughly in the book. Secondly, are you seriously asking me to “reason it out from a creator God’s perspective”? How do you propose I do that, Ty? Put on my God cap? Step into God’s shoes for a few minutes? Are you thinking like a Bruce Almighty kind of thing here? If the only way we could understand the Bible was to have God’s mind, then what does that tell you about God’s capacity to communicate to human beings? That would make God a pretty horrible communicator. A further problem with your reasoning is that it could be equally applied to any collection of scriptures that claims divine origin. The Book of Mormon only “appears” to contradict itself because non-Mormons aren’t putting on their God caps. etc. You’ve got to be able to do better than this, Ty.

            If the OCC library is not going to acquire my book, that is their loss. Not because my book is great, but because it speaks to the narrowness and adolescence of the mindset there. Anyway, just walk the halls of the dorms and ask around. You’ll find several copies. Or get it on inter-library loan from Dallas Theological Seminary. They have it, the liberals! Or from your choice of several dozen other libraries across the country.

  • I follow your podcast fairly regularly but I am confused about what “this stuff” is. You guys often speak of speaking about “this stuff” or asking “these questions”. I presume you mean a critical approach to the Bible but it’s never spelled out. It would be great if you could explain in a a systematic way why you arrived at this approach. Why are you critical, what can be criticised, what not?

    • Sorry, Marc – I think I know what you mean. I can see how the interview could be construed as three guys who had read the book and wanted to have a Q&A chat to clean things up in our minds; that no doubt played a role in its form. On the other hand, I wanted to be careful about not “spilling the beans” too much — that’s just rude to do to an author! 🙂 In fact, you’re asking the kinds of questions we wanted you to ask, and which are supposed to make you read the book.

      The fact is, the approach advocated by Thom, while fairly simple, is innately ambiguous. It’s this: don’t expect the text to be giving you solid divine truths, but rather engage it and be willing to condemn even its moral direction as necessary.

      Why are you critical, what can be criticised, what not?

      The bulk of his book lays out several instances in which the text of Scripture most needs to be confronted rather than accepted and defended as “the Word of God”. For Thom, it’s all up for being “criticised” in the sense of engaging it critically without an assumption of its divinely guaranteed veracity.

      You can always read my reviews on my blog for more info, 😉 and my review of his last chapter that will be out sometime today or tomorrow will summarize his approach a bit better. But I certainly think you’re one who would benefit from reading the book.

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  • I don’t see the comment I just posted, so I’ll make another attempt (This is my apology if there is eventually a duplicate or similar entry).

    Thanks, guys, for this interview. I listened to all of it. I happen to disagree with Fundamentalists on several important issues (for example, I believe everyone is going to heaven, the Second Coming is fait accompli, and churchgoing is an inadequate substitute for seeking the kingdom of God). However, I stand with them on the Bible being the word of God. Thus I have to reject Thom’s thesis. And his arguments, at least as presented in this interview, give me no reason for doing otherwise.

    By his own admission, Thom is not trying to break new ground academically so there’s no point arguing on that ground. Rather he says he wants to give the person in the pew a means of dealing with truth as (Thom’s portion of) the academic community sees it. Thom then takes away the Jesus who has been most extolled to the people in the pew and has given them humanism in its place. I don’t see that as helping people.

    Nonetheless, I do find elements of Thom’s research and thought helpful and I appreciate his sincerity.

    • Thanks, Mike, but I didn’t articulate any of the arguments I made in the book here in this interview. I didn’t make any arguments here. The arguments are in the book. Here I discussed the implications of my conclusions.

    • Mike, I really must say, you are coming to your conclusion much too quickly.
      This interview wasn’t meant to exempt anyone from reading the arguments
      presented and thoroughly argued in the book! You could begin by reading my
      chapter-by-chapter reviews and coming to terms with some of the things I
      presented (again, that’s no replacement for reading the book).

      It is precisely because I love the Bible that I want to be disabused of any
      false notions about it: the presumption of inerrancy was incapable of doing
      that for me. It became a matter of my telling the Bible what it had to mean,
      and that just got very old. What Thom’s book does so well is that it shows
      you how to fully appreciate what the biblical authors were saying on
      their own terms
      rather than what systematic theologians said they have
      to mean in order for it all to be perfect.

      • Steve, regarding the sentiment you express in your second paragraph, I share and support it. I would only add that it is possible to “fully appreciate what the biblical authors were saying on their own terms” without accepting Thom’s conclusions. In other words, it’s not a binary situation where your only two choices for viewing the Bible are fundamentalism or Starkism.

        I know you know this, but your comment might have left some readers with that false dichotomy.

  • joe

    BAM! Thom, you never cease to satisfy my “heretical” hunger. You drive me from further and further from inerrancy every time I blog stalk you. I teach adult Sun school at my pretty conservative church and passed out your essay “Theodicky” last week. Needless to say, my faithful entourage of followers has grown smaller. You win some and you lose some. HA!

    Keep it up, bro. You articulate what I have been feeling in a way that I cannot. I am still trying to come to grips with some of your statements, but, hey, stretching and growth are good, right?

    Thanks for the interview and discussion, Steve

    • Oh no! Theodicky wasn’t exactly written for Sunday school reflection, but it’s good you’re challenging them. 🙂

      Yeah, I never expect anybody to agree with all or even any of my positions, but it’s the process of critical questioning that’s important. It’s the process I want to see people embrace.

  • Shberrier

    I think most all of you except Ty lack an encounter with Jesus.  You speak and write out of your own intellect because that is all that you know.  You criticize and categorize Ty not because he has not graduated in his thinking but because he thinks with the mind of Christ which most of you do not have…especially Thom.  Might I suggest Oswald Chambers to those who you of have elevated yourselves and your thinking.  Maybe…just maybe if you can put aside your own gradioseness and instead Trust Jesus with your life and He will graciously in return come to live inside of you.  Then you too can think with the mind of Christ.  It is a real thing to do this…it is only those who have never experienced it who don’t understand it.  Ty and I and many others who have had this personal encounter/experience with Him think the same…with truth, wisdom, understanding and revelation.

    • Thom Stark

      Besides being presumptuous, your statement is quite inaccurate. I’ve had countless such encounters, but I suppose from your perspective my current position just displays that my encounters were not authentic.

      Win/win for you; lose/lose for me. C’est la vie.

  • Darren

    I plan to read the book.

    No offense, but you guys seriously need some new intro music. It’s awful. If you like it, at least make it the outtro, not the intro. It makes me think the show (and perhaps the entire world) has come to an end before the show even starts.