The blessing that God bestowed upon Jacob brings us face to face with the fact that God wants a fight.—Peter Rollins
Matthew J. Korpman’s latest book—Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully—is a compelling and stunning dance between the axiomatic and the uncomfortable. On the one hand, much of what is in the book is so self-evident that it’s difficult to imagine a book is even needed to express it. On the other hand, the obvious things of life are often the first to lose their apparency. Perhaps this is due to the fact that error is often a bed of velvet and flannel that lulls the mind to sleep. In order to awaken the mind, truth must tear the sheets from the bed and invite the mind to awaken to the messiness of life—a task most of us understandably reject. And if there was one thing that Korpman’s book does, this is it: it forces us out of the bed.
The premise of Saying No to God is simple—unlike the modern adage of “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” scripture actually calls us to the opposite. It invites us to do more than merely accept but to wrestle, reject, and contend with God. This relational tension which Peter Rollins affirms when he says “God wants a fight” (86) is an integral part of what it means to walk with God. Consequently, to deny this aspect of our vertical relationship is to miss what it means to be authentic lovers of the divine.
Korpman argues from the Bible itself that the most biblical relationship we can have with the Bible is not one of unthinking acceptance but one of reflective tension. On a practical level, what this means is that we are to take what scripture says about any given subject and weigh it against the character of God. If something is out of line with God’s character we are to fight him rather than mindlessly apply it. In other words, the character of God becomes an interpretive lens through which we can engage the Bible in that reflective tension. Rather than fighting scripture based on culture or tradition, or embracing scripture based on those same premises, we are to discover the heart of God and then through that heart, resist and engage in a living, present and dynamic back and forth. This is the opposite of the comfortable formulaic and static approach to truth most Christians take where, rather than the uneasy and deeply contemplative approach to faith and ethics, we simply live via black and white categories.
But as I said at the start, Korpman’s point—while uncomfortable to modern Christianity’s blind-faith culture—is spread evenly across the narrative of scripture. Korpman himself takes the time to analyse such examples as Abraham fighting with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather than saying “you are God, who am I to question you?”, Abraham contends with God for the sake of God’s own glory. Likewise, when God purposes to annihilate Israel, Moses confronted God and rebuked him for what he felt was an act out of harmony with the heart God had already revealed. We see the same in the New Testament where a Centurion, rather than blindly allowing Jesus to enter his home because Jesus said so, argued with Jesus and in doing so gained the praise of Jesus. The Canaanite woman—a descendant of a tribe whose entire obliteration God himself had commanded—also gains the praise and admiration of Jesus when she fights with him for the healing of her daughter. And of course, there is the classic story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and winning. His name was changed to Israel which means “you have fought God and won” and from him came an entire nation—and eventually the birth of the church community—which are rooted in the same identity: a people who fight with God and win.
How tragic then that the church has forgone this aspect of its heritage. Korpman takes the reader into a tragic history of a Christendom which, rather than fighting with God on the basis of God’s own heart—begins to apply the letter of the law in situations in which they should have been more reflective and unwilling. For example, Korpman takes us to the Christianity of the pre-Civil war south in which slavery was defended on the basis that scripture never condemns it and in fact, can be most easily used to condone it. This approach became the foundation for many Bible believing Christians who felt that God himself provided them with a foundation through which they could defend the institution of slavery and even look upon the abolition movement as a demonic attempt to undermine the authority of scripture. Korpman argues that these Christians, rather than arguing for scriptures accommodation of slavery, should have looked at the stark reality of slavery, compared it to God’s heart of love, and then declared to God “I do not care how much the Bible accommodates slavery—I will not do it.”
In such an act, a person would be—in a sense—saying “no” to God and yet, in an ironic twist—the very act of saying no to God would emerge as the greatest manifestation of obedience because in saying “no” to God, the person is really saying “yes”. In other words, anytime we allow the heart of God to guide our ethics even in ways that might contradict a specific verse in scripture we might on the surface be saying no, but in a deeper sense be saying yes. This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he condemned the Pharisees whose obedience was always “yes” to the written letter but simultaneously “no” to the spirit behind the letter. What Jesus wanted was for his people to be driven by a “yes” to the Spirit, even if it manifested in a “no” to the letter.
Is this uncomfortable? Yes it is! Perhaps even dangerous. And yet, we see this same act reflected in Jesus’ own life. The law of Moses was clear—an adulteress should be stoned, end of story. And yet, Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery. He broke the law of Moses that God himself had given because he was operating on the basis of God’s heart as supreme to the written law. In the same way, ceremonial law stipulated that the bread in the sanctuary was for sacred use only—and yet Jesus praises David for giving it to his hungry men. In other words, Jesus praises David for breaking a direct command of God. What are we to do with such scriptural idiosyncracies? It seems quite clear that there is a narrative undertone that permeates the arc of scripture and it goes something like this: obedience to God is not about being “yes-men” who respond to God with formulaic affirmatives, but rather the act of knowing God so deeply that you can say no to him in order to say yes. To quote from Korpman himself,
God’s word is an instructive guide. If we disobey it for the right reasons, we are faithful saints. (19)
Korpman then brings this concept into the present. How does such an approach inspire us to relate to modern issues of homosexuality, sexism, nationalism, patriarchy and similar controversies? Some churches have kicked people out because they are homosexual. Families have done the same going so far as to disown a son or daughter in the name of faithfulness to God. But what if such people looked to God and said, “I know you don’t approve of such a way of life, but if you want me to disown my son the answer is no.” In the act of saying “no” such people, would in fact, be exercising what can only be defined as the apotheosis of obedience—that is, its greatest manifestation. If more Christians lived this way, Korpman argues, we would see less injustice in the name of God and more mercy, more kindness and more love because the church would have as its priority the fullest manifestation of the divine heart rather than its contemporary emphasis on negligent and injudicious acquiescence. As Korpman himself asks, “Can we learn to say no to God, in order to ultimately say yes to him?” (341)
Now of course, Korpman does not leave things there. Toward the end he explores when it is appropriate to argue with God and when it is not. In doing so, he dissects alternative examples in scripture in which a person argues with God and reaps his divine judgment. As such, it is clear that while God invites disagreement, there is a kind of contention that is righteous and one that is not. When we engage in the kind of tension that is unrighteous, God clearly responds with indignation rather than praise. And yet, Korpman demonstrates that in each scriptural example in which God counters his opponent with anger the argument is rooted in something contrary to the character of God, not something in harmony with it.
Thus, the character of God emerges as the primary lens through which we can decipher the Biblical ethic. But if we attempt to argue with God using our own fallen human biases, the result will be tragic rather than joyful. Korpman looks at a number of examples of this—one being Miriam’s rebellion against Moses. This rebellion, Korpman demonstrates, was rooted in a kind of xenophobia toward Moses’ non-Jewish wife. The result was God struck Miriam with leprosy and sent her out of the camp for seven days. In this and many other examples, Korpman demonstrates that arguing with God is not a free for all but must always be rooted in his heart of love.
And I would contend that this approach is not only biblically defensible but desperately needed in our churches particularly as it relates to the application of Ellen Whites counsels. Many pastors and members can attest to the overwhelming difficulty of dealing with those who use the counsels of Ellen White and apply them blindly without filtering them through what we know of God’s heart. For them, the prophet said it and that settles it. I think, for example, of people who push violently for absolute reverence in the church because Ellen White said so without considering that we live in the lonelies era of human history and people are often craving conversation and relationship.
Likewise, a whole slew of perspectives from her pen as they relate to diet, dress and other issues need to be constantly weighed against her own metanarrative of God’s heart and thus applied through that lens rather than blindly. Such a reflective approach would indeed lead us to argue with Ellen White and not simply apply her blindly but would also lead to greater adherence to her overall message which was rooted in the Wesleyan passion for a revelation of God’s character of love. This would be no different to people in her day who disagreed with her regarding certain counsels over which she consequently changed her mind. But of course, the disagreements must always be rooted in the heart of God and not our carnal predilections. When they are, we can contend with what is written but temporal in the name of what is transcendent but eternal.
As I conclude most readers are probably wondering if I recommend this book. My answer is yes and no. I recommend the book for anyone seeking to rise from the comforts of formulaic religion and consider a more dynamic, radical faith. For those who are defensive of the cushions afforded by simplistic ethics, this book might just ruin your spiritual loll—so stay away from it (or not). Also, if you are the kind of Christian who is unable to consider alternative viewpoints with a pinch of grace, this book won’t do you much good. Korpman approaches some of the stories he explores with a more historical-critical lens than most conservatives are comfortable with. However, take it from a fellow conservative (that’s me) that if you are willing to celebrate the main themes of this book without becoming entangled in the minor differences you will actually find a great deal to admire not only in the portions which you can accept, but even in those which you find untenable. In doing so, you will walk away with what Korpman refers to as both a “radical” and “faithful” approach to scripture that is sure to enhance your own walk with God.