Alan Jacobs and the Bible

If you’re no stranger to me, you’re no stranger to Alan Jacobs. I’ve only met him in person once or twice, but I read everything he posts on his blog and his essays when I have time. His book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was jammed so full of reading recommendations, I almost started it again as soon as I finished. Reading a book or essay by Dr. Jacobs sometimes feels like watching a juggler perform. He has an amazing ability to weave multiple literary ideas into a coherent pattern, and just when you think you’ve been impressed, he brings in another book and sets it whirling. I would love to take a class from him.

Christian people, books, and ideas appear frequently, almost inevitably, in Dr. Jacobs’s writing, but he rarely talks about what it means to live as a Christian or what standard a Christian ought to operate by. When he does, I often find myself cocking my head and going, “Huh.” In one post, which I can’t find right now, he said that his Christianity informs his life hardly at all, a statement to which the only right response is, “That doesn’t sound like Christianity.” After reading many similar posts over the years, I have come to the conclusion that my main issue with Dr. Jacobs is not so much a quibble over theology as it is a disagreement over the Bible. In a recent post, he says this:

It’s also fascinating to note how little the apostles understand the message they been entrusted with. They know that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, and they know that the Christ’s own people rejected him and demanded his death – but beyond that they’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean. The idea that what Jesus offers them (and all of us) is God’s limitless grace is rarely mentioned. It’s there, but only in tentative and vaguely articulated form.

I didn’t pick this post because it’s particularly egregious, only because it’s recent. He makes an interesting point about the psychology of the apostles, but then he says, “They’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean.” I assume Dr. Jacobs is saying that Peter and the rest had only a vague understanding of God’s grace until Paul fleshed it out for them.

I’m not opposed to the idea that God’s people gain understanding over time. Just think of the wealth of commentary and tradition built up over the past two thousand years. In many ways, the church fathers were, in fact, church babies. My disagreement, I think, is actually a different stance toward the historical figures in the Bible. I assume that the words, decisions, and actions of the people of God are right, unless Scripture explicitly says otherwise. The zeal of the apostles post-Pentecost was not wrong or even misguided. Even the zeal of Apollos was not wrong, though his did have to be redirected (Acts 18:26). When we read the book of Acts, we shouldn’t assume we know something Peter doesn’t. Instead of smiling indulgently at his cute naivete, we should ask ourselves why the apostles spent so much time preaching Jesus as Messiah, rejected by His own people. Surely there’s an explanation beyond “They didn’t know any better.” We should be humble and charitable in our interpretation, a position Dr. Jacobs would certainly support in other contexts.

As I said, this particular example doesn’t bother me that much. But it does reveal something about the way Dr. Jacobs views the Bible, which is the view of most American evangelicals (I believe Jacobs is Anglican, which makes him evangelical, I think?). According to this common view, the Bible is a historical record of how human beings fail. Everything from Genesis to Jude describes God’s attempts to communicate lovingly and graciously and being given constant cold shoulders. Jesus came to save us despite our best attempts to ignore Him. As Dr. Jacobs’s friend Francis Spufford puts it, we all have the Human Propensity to F*** Things Up, and without Christ, not one of us could stand. So far, so orthodox. But this view gives rise to a rather awkward question: If the Bible is nothing more than a record of human failure, why is it so long? Couldn’t we have a few chapters here and there (the Fall, David and Bathsheba, the book of Amos) and then cut straight to Jesus? Evangelical Christians seem remarkably uncurious about the Bible and what it has to do with their everyday life.

It’s true that the actual people in the Bible did not know the full picture — Eve thought Abel was the promised seed (Gen. 4:25) — but that doesn’t mean that the full picture wasn’t present. The whole Bible is one prophetic book, not created by the will of man, but by the movement of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), which means God’s limitless grace is as present in the story of the Flood as it is in the letters of Paul. That means the Flood story is still important and we need to study it. We don’t forget the candles just because the sun has risen. Candlelight is light, and remembering how it held back the darkness helps us understand the nature of the sun.

The thing that makes me nervous is how often Christians who doubt the power and wisdom of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, quickly drop other points of Christian dogma. They become squiffy on Creation, on biblical chronology, on Christian economics, on politics, on marriage, on the ordination of women, on abortion, ad inferna. Jesus doesn’t talk about most of these things, after all, and Paul can be controversial, which leaves us wandering through the philosophers, picking out whatever strikes our fancy (and won’t get us in too much trouble). The only antidote to such theological cherry-picking is embracing the wisdom of the whole Bible, whether the embrace makes us uncomfortable or not.

Despite our disagreement, I value Dr. Jacobs’s writing highly and hope he continues to poke his finger in all the right eyes (including conservative ones). I should also mention that he doesn’t easily fit into any camp, and if somehow this blog post swims into his ken, he may very well take issue with the way I’ve presented him. He will do so kindly, I’m sure.

All that said, I urge him to find a solid book on biblical theology and spend some time reading it as charitably as possible. (Here’s a good one.)

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