As any good little Christian kid, I wanted to be like David when I grew up. Perhaps it was the countless VBS lessons on this charismatic young character and his great defeat of Goliath. In retrospect, however, I think the underlying factor of all this was a strong desire to think in binary terms. Of course there had to be good people and bad people in our world, and these categories were well defined. People like David in the bible were thoroughly good and heroic, while others like Saul were bad. Likewise, I sought to live so as to become one of the good guys.
Jesus once critiqued this binary way of thinking. A rich young ruler once asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response to his question, Jesus raised another question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But time and time again, just like the young ruler, we cement ourselves in categorical ways of thinking about the world, especially with good and bad people. And this does indeed turn toxic a lot of the time.
Even though the folks of the so-called Emergent church may not glorify someone like David, this kind of Christianity still cultivates binary ways of thinking. Perhaps someone embodies the social justice mindset of a prophet like Amos. S/he is understood as a truly good person. There’s a lot of power, respect, and opportunity to be gained from being a socially-conscious leader.
It’s pretty well-documented that Tony Jones abused his ex-wife, Julie McMahon, and lied to the authorities multiple times. The circumstances surrounding their divorce (re: “Two Kinds of Marriage“) are quite fishy once considering that church leaders advised Julie that it was OK for Jones to take another wife–a “sacramental” one. Even on a more ideological level, Jones tends to neglect pathological realities regarding church abuse. Also, the rise of “brogressive” Christianity, much of which Jones embodies, is often left unscrutinized.
There’s a profound human cost to all of these recent problems. Stephanie Drury’s Stuff Christian Culture Likes community is filled with people who are disillusioned and betrayed by the emergent church’s silence on this. Though people like Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber may proudly claim progressivism and speak up against abuse, their silence on this particular case is absolutely heartbreaking. And perhaps most importantly, Julie and others like her in similar situations of abuse continue to be silenced by the powers-that-be. Only this time, these powers are not found in Calvinist or fundamentalist churches. The power is in the hands of socially-conscious bloggers, hashtag activists with big followings, and best-selling authors.
I think that right now, Emergent Christianity is in a state of continual contradiction as it becomes more institutionalized. To share a brief bit of my own story, Emergent people like Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, and yes, Tony Jones, were incredibly influential in my faith formation, especially throughout college. I wanted to be just like these guys. I felt like they critiqued the bland faith of Christian culture and put some meat on the bones of Christianity. (And their theology was much more charitable than John Piper’s!). These emergent folks embraced doubt and argued for it’s necessity. And ultimately, I deeply admired their commitment to social justice and speaking out about oppression. But with Jones’ history of abuse and the deafening silence of his clan, it seems as though emergent Christianity isn’t the most holy, “let justice roll” kind of institution. It’s a contradiction–the same community who may argue against Mark Driscoll or speak up for LGBT rights also blatantly ignores a woman like Julie because of endorsement contracts and personal friendships.
This really does remind me of David, once we dive deeper into the narrative about this well-known character. Past the heroic, optimistic depictions of David so often found in VBS lessons we find a man who is profoundly complex. He’s a great guy sometimes, and absolutely lousy a few verses later. And just as the “good stuff” isn’t limited to the Goliath story, all the “bad stuff” isn’t limited to David and Bathsheba.
- David is arguably the strongest leader in Israel’s history. During his tenure Israel reached it’s height of power.
- In the latter part of 1 Samuel, David joins the Philistines against Israel. He plays the political game pretty well to save his own skin. But this is done at cost to his own country. It could be argued that Jonathan and Saul both died because David dabbled in this allegiance fiasco.
- David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister, and David does absolutely nothing about it.
- Several times in 2 Samuel David is given the option (and sometimes even the obligation?) to take vengeance. But often he shows grace to these people.
- 2 Samuel 22 is a song attributed to David. In it, as well as many of the Psalms, we find some of the most rich depictions of who God is. But within this song, David also espouses prosperity theology. He goes as far as to say that God rewarded him for his clean hands. At best, David is rewriting history here.
- The last words of David in 1 Kings are actually a command to kill off an old enemy. That certainly wouldn’t make for an uplifting sermon.
And so we are left with a complicated, nuanced picture of David. We find great insight in his songs and life, but we also encounter problematic theology and ethics.
We are already like David. Just as David flip-flops between the Philistines and Israel, so too do we navigate our own political wellbeing. Just as David orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy to kill off Uriah, so too do we carry out our own self-interest at all cost. Just as David refused to punish his son for raping Tamar, so too do we let our allegiances blind us to the plight of the abused. We let all sorts of things get in the way of speaking out about abuse.
But David’s life is filled with many good actions, too. Just as David exhibited decisiveness in so many instances, so too can we live our lives courageously in the face of adversity. Just as David was forgiving at times, we too can stop the cycle of violence in our world. When we read about the life of David, we can see ourselves in his shoes.
We are the cheaters, the liars, the conspirators, and the violent people of this world.
But by the grace of God we can be gracious, determined, and forgiving. We can learn from David when he is aligned with YHWH’s will. And we can especially learn from those times when he strays from YHWH’s path.
We are already like the “heroes” of the Bible. And as we see with the life of David, that’s not always a good thing. I don’t think progressive evangelicalism has a good handle on this kind of ethic. Just as I had once viewed David as entirely good, so too is progressive evangelicalism clinging to this binary way of thinking among their own network.
This kind of approach to ethics will probably not get you a book contract. It would probably make for a lousy conference–after all, most Christian conferences thrive on the larger-than-life cult devotion of a select few authors and leaders. But anytime we taper down our morality because of money, fame, or power, we find ourselves among the goats of Matthew 25–because we likewise “cash in” for ourselves and fail to see Jesus in those who are needy, abandoned, and abused.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus’ words are undoubtedly worth reiterating to our binary-prone minds.