Mark Roncace, Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About (Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2012). (Amazon.com)
Mark Roncace is Associate Professor of Religion at Wingate University in North Carolina. He contacted me a couple of months ago about reviewing his independently published book Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About. I agreed, though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew one thing about the book: Roncace’s intent was to challenge people to engage the whole of the Bible, especially those readers who think of it as “the Word of God”. If you read this book with a Bible nearby the goal of the book is accomplished.
Message of the Book
Let me begin by saying it was a book that at times challenged me, made me stop to think, and exposed my own “pick-and-choose” approach to reading the Bible. At other points I felt like Roncace was exaggerating the problems he found in the text, but then I had to remind myself that this may have been my response because I have spent time engaging and wrestling with many of the texts he discusses. For Roncace, as a professor of religion at a university, he must meet students year after year who take something like an introduction to biblical literature class, who come to the class with all sorts of preconceived ideas about the Bible, yet who will find that there are large swaths of the “Good Book” that have been overlooked.
These students won’t escape Roncace’s class without reading those texts. Readers of his book won’t finish the book without being confronted by the same texts.
Summary of the Content
This book is technically seven or eight chapters long. It contains an Introduction and a short “chapter” titled Final Suggestions. In-between these bookends we have six chapters dealing with the topics of the Bible, God, Jesus, Doctrine, Morality, and “Other Morsels”.
In the Introduction Roncace introduces his aims: “The ultimate purpose of this book, then, is to encourage you to read another book, the Bible, in its entirety.” He has written this book in order to encourage people to engage the Bible, not to affirm all his interpretations of the Bible. He writes, “[If] you only read this book and test what I say, I will have failed miserably.”
Roncace critiques Pastors and Preachers for “cooking the Good Book”. This is the governing analogy from start to finish. I must quote this lengthy section for you:
“The raw Bible is just too hard to swallow, or at least that is what preachers think. So they cook the Good Book. They butter it up and water it down to suite our tastes. They distill the Scripture, filtering out the unsightly and unpalatable passages. Just as processed and packaged foods are barely reminiscent of what first comes out of the ground or from the animal (think mac and cheese or hot dogs), so too the clean, attractive Bible that they present in church is a far cry from the real thing. Like parents who don’t feed their children peas and carrots because they fear the kids won’t like the vegetables, or worse, won’t like mom and dad, so too preachers give us, the children of God, a candy and cookie Scripture because they want us to be happy and them to be liked. Consequently, we aren’t properly nourished.
Roncace says that Preachers know their Bible, they know there are difficult parts, but they think we can’t handle them, so these sections are ignored. He indicts preachers of all stripes: “…fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, main stream moderates, left wing liberals, emergent church pastors, prosperity preachers, mega-church celebrities, mini-church part-timers, and the list goes on and on.”
Preachers aren’t alone. Roncace challenges those of us who have Bibles, sometimes a few, who talk about knowing the Bible, but who never read it. He confronts readers to pick up their Bible, read it, and be challenged. According to Roncace this is central to the Christian tradition. Even if the Bible is the “Word of God” this doesn’t mean we are to passively read it. Rather, like Abraham who was told by God that he planned on destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, we are to challenge God, ask God questions, appeal to his moral reasoning. We are to be like Abraham asking if God might spare the city if he can find any righteous people, rather than merely submitting to God’s declaration to do this or that.
It should be noted the Roncace seems to be at home in process theology circles. He writes at the end of his chapter on God the following:
“I would suggest that God evolves and changes over time as he relates to his creation. God is in the process of learning and growing, just as we are. God, as is true of all living beings, is open and mutable…God isn’t perfect. God doesn’t know the future. And sometimes God doesn’t bother to relate to his creation—he’s not involved, he doesn’t care, sometimes. Yes, this is a major departure from traditional Christian theology, but it has the distinct advantage of being faithful to the character and nature of God revealed in Scripture.”
Roncace finds God to be evolving, learning, and therefore, what we read in Scripture, when we find morally problematic depictions of God, or places where God seems excessive in anger and violence (e.g., killing everyone with a flood) or misogynic, or passive about injustices like rape and slavery, we find a real depiction of the real God, a God who is learning to become better like we are learning, a God who can be challenged by us, who can learn from us. For many people this underlying theology will be disagreeable. Readers should know it is there, because Roncace wants to make sure he is open about it, but even if the reader disagrees fundamentally with Roncace’s theology, that doesn’t negate his point that there are seriously problematic texts that need to be read.
Since Roncace has framed this discussion of the Bible in terms of eating the raw Bible, not the processed Bible, he titles his chapters “Course 1, Course 2…” In Course 1: The Bible Ronace begins by examining the differences between the first and second creation narratives in Genesis. He does the same with the Infancy Narratives and the Resurrection Narratives (Creation, Christmas, and Easter as he frames it). Personally, I found this chapter to lack excitement, but as noted above, I am not shocked or surprised by these variations because I have wrestled with them. There was a time when I had not done this, and there are readers of the Bible who have not done this, so this chapter remains valuable for some.
Course 2: God was a far more challenging read for me, personally. I can swallow the idea of an imperfect Bible. I struggle with the idea of an imperfect God. I don’t know how to bridge the disturbing depictions of God in my Bible to my understanding of God. I know many people who follow John Piper’s line of thought: God is God, so if God wants to command Israel to annihilate men, women, and children, God has the sovereign right to do this. Others pick-and-choose which images of God to retain and which to discard. Often I hear about defining God Christologically. This is where Course 3: Jesus prevents such an easy escape.
Roncace notes that God “…is portrayed as cruel, vindictive, childish, petulant, misogynistic, egotistical, genocidal, and maniacal.” As you can imagine, many evangelical readers will lose their lunch seeing such adjectives applied to God (if you think I am exaggerating, acquaint yourself with the brewing controversy over Eric A. Siebert’s writings on this topic, which Fred Clark summarizes in “White evangelical gatekeeping: A particularly ugly example in real time”). Roncace challenges those of us who are quick to quote and apply the words of Jeremiah 29:11 to our own lives, but who would never do the same thing with Ezekiel 5. He asks us to read or reread the flood narrative of Genesis 6-8; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18; God’s attempt to kill Moses in Exodus 4:24-26; the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart; the killing of the first born of Egypt; the laws regarding women in Exodus 21:7, Deuteronomy 22:25-29, Numbers 31:15-18; the abuse of slaves in Exodus 21:20-21; the genocidal commands of the Book of Joshua; the odd story of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter in Judges 11 (with the question, why didn’t God intervene here as he did when Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22?); the sending of an evil spirit to King Saul in 1 Samuel 16:14; the killing of David and Bathsheba’s baby in 2 Samuel 12:15; the punishment on Israel for David’s census in 2 Samuel 24; the lying spirit sent from God in 1 Kings 22; the cosmic gamble between God and the S/satan in the Book of Job; and many other stories.
Honestly, many of these bother me deeply, others I can rationalize, but when Roncace quotes Hosea 2, or Ezekiel 16, 23, where YHWH is depicted as an angry lover who will beat his unfaithful spouse, then you have to wonder whether the hyperbole-aimed-to-shock-the-reader explanation suffices. When the Gospels are addressed there are other problems: Jesus is vague about the Kingdom of God, he admits using parables to keep some from repentance, he says his mission is to Israel alone, he advocates seemingly impossible ethical codes upon his hearers as relates to hate, or lust, or divorce, or whether one can use any sort of self-defense. Sure, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but in Luke 12:50 he claims he brings a sword. He teaches love, but says that to follow him one must hate father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters (so much for Dobson’s Focus on the Family metanarrative). He tells the “Rich Young Ruler” that his salvation is predicated on obeying the Ten Commandments, which for him means selling his possessions to follow Jesus. He tells some potential disciples things like “let the dead bury the dead”. Some of Jesus’ apocalyptic language has proven extremely difficult to understand, and his depiction on the Apocalypse is hard to reconcile with the Gospels.
In Course 4: Doctrine Roncace examines the biblical message about doctrines like God’s omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, and asks if this jives with the narratives in the Bible. He examines whether there is obvious language about the Trinity. He questions the use of gendered words to describe God. He ponders the character of Satan, the varied ecclesiology found in the Bible, and other topics that I have found less challenging that his other chapters, in part. I think this is because as a Christian I have come to realize anyone can find a verse in the Bible to support one’s own preference. Theologizing is harder work than proof-texting. This chapter exposes that truth.
Course 5 strikes at the heart of doing Christian ethics. Roncace explores hot topics such as homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion (when does life begin?), but also those things ignored by many of us, like what the Bible says about carrying debt, or about the ethics of eating, or about caring for Creation. Again, as with doctrine, this chapter is important because our public discourse and debate shows that anyone can find a passage in the Bible to support their views. Now, this chapter may not impact Roman Catholics, because there are ecclesiastical safeguards for preserving orthodoxy, even if there are biblical passages that seem to counter that orthodoxy, but for biblicist types, this is challenging.
In Course Six: Other Morsels Roncace revisits a variety of matters such as why God didn’t reveal himself to anyone but Abraham’s family, the diversity of Christian canons, text critical matters, translation issues, archaeology’s lack of correspondence to some narratives (e.g., the size of Jericho), and so forth.
Roncace is honest about his theological presuppositions. Also, he is straightforward about his goals for this book. That doesn’t mean it won’t be frustrating. This book majors on deconstruction, but it offers little to no reconstruction (each chapter ends with reflections, and the final “chapter” gives some steps toward better Bible reading, but that falls far short of offering a helpful bibliology). It shows where the Bible is problematic, assumes that Christians should read the Bible, assumes that the Bible says something true about God, but it doesn’t tell you why if the Bible is so awful you should continue to honor it, or why you can’t pick and choose which parts you think are inspired and which parts are not, or why you should ground your affirmations about God in the whole of the Bible rather than a Rule of Faith as advocated by many theologians over the centuries.
Now, let me say this: Roncace’s critique works very well in biblicist circles. I admit, as an evangelical Christian of the “Low Church” variety, who finds myself in circles advocating the Bible as the “last word” rather than being governed by an outside “Rule of Faith”, this book (along with a few others) has forced me to think deeply about how I understand the Bible, how I read the Bible, whether or not a Rule of Faith is necessary, and whether my favorite passages (e.g., I am quick to quote passages indicating that Christians should not participate in violant acts against other humans) are my favorite because I have ignored those that I find distasteful (e.g., I am slow to embrace Jesus’ teachings on wealth, poverty, owning material possessions, giving to the poor, and so forth). I don’t imagine Roman Catholic and an Orthodox reader would be all that bothered by Roncace’s argument, at least not as easily as an evangelical, especially the type of evangelical who has “no Creed but the Bible”.
Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. If you are someone who spends time reading Scripture frequently, and you are serious about engaging the tough sections, then Roncace’s book isn’t necessary. I think he would agree, because his goal is to get people to read their Bible’s through honest eyes. If you, or someone you know, tends to read the pleasant parts of the Bible while ignoring the difficult parts of the Bible then yes, I do recommend this book. If you know someone who is quick to say something like, “Islam is a hateful religion as it says in the Qur’an…” then yes, this book would make a great gift. We Christians cannot engage in public discourse if we explain away each and every difficult passage from our Holy Book while magnifying those of another’s Holy Book.
Roncace’s book is a helpful antidote to exaggerated apologetical books, those who gloss over the tough sayings of the Bible, who emphasize the pleasant ones, and who misrepresent the Bible in doing so. Roncace is a Christian. This book isn’t quite the same as reading an author who was a Christian, but who has turned agnostic (e.g., Bart D. Ehrman), or an author who has never been a Christian. Roncace’s goal is not to force people to abandon their faith, but to move toward a mature faith, and faith that deals honestly with the Bible we have in our hands, not the Bible we have created in our imaginations.