The Jesus Lens: Can a Red Letter Christian question the “red letters”?

Question The Red Letters

Many people have proposed the need to interpret Scripture through a Jesus-shaped lens. In many ways this is a parallel to the idea of being a “red letter Christian” which places an interpretive emphasis on the red letters of Jesus. Some recent proponents of the Jesus lens approach (also known by the more academic term Christotelic Hermeneutic) include Peter Enns in Inspiration and Incarnation, Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible, Eric Seibert in Disturbing Divine Behavior, as well as Wayne Jacobsen in his video series The Jesus Lens, and many others.

It’s an attractive proposal, but as soon as we attempt to practically apply it we bump into a lot of questions as to what this would look like in practice. The first question is what one means exactly. There are basically two camps here: One uses the Jesus lens to show how all Scripture points to Christ and thus would argue that troubling texts like the commands to commit genocide in the Old Testament are actually good and loving (Wayne Jacobsen for example takes this approach). Others would instead use the Jesus lens as a way of evaluating which texts reflect Christ and which do not, and conclude that genocide and Jesus are incompatible (an example here would be Eric Seibert). While I have a deep appreciation for Wayne Jacobsen in many regards (there is a lot of great stuff in his series!) I’d like to make the case here for the latter approach of taken by folks like Eric Seibert and argue that Jesus shows us a way to question religious violence in Scripture motivated by compassion which follows in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, rather than one of legitimizing it.

Now once we make this move, once we recognize that this is what Jesus himself is doing (as is Paul) when he reads Scripture, it still leaves us with the question of practical application: How does this second approach of using a Jesus lens to critique religious violence play out in practice exactly? With Many Old Testament texts the answer seems pretty straightforward: We read for example Psalm 137 saying “Blessed is he who dashes the heads of toddlers against a rock” and it’s pretty easy to see how this in in conflict with how Jesus saw little children (as well as how he thought we should treat enemies). Where things get tricky is when we hit the New Testament. If it is not only okay to question Scripture, but a moral imperative that we see modeled not only by Jesus, but throughout the Old Testament itself — in the Prophets, in the Psalms, in Job, and even in the examples of Abraham and Moses — how does that work with the NT and with the “red letter” words of Jesus? Can we question those? Or said differently: Does Jesus call us to question even the NT as an act of faithfulness to him and his example?

Related: Rwandan Genocide Survivor Speaks Out

Of course the expected answer would be “No! This is our lens and so must be fully accepted and obeyed” but this very quickly gets us in trouble. Consider Jesus’ statement “if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” Raise your hand if you have obeyed this 100%. Gosh, that’s funny, I don’t see any hands (or should I say amputated stumps?). How about where Jesus says “If anyone does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” Which of you who are parents hate your kids? Would you want to go to a seminar on parenting where they taught you to hate for Jesus (and also taught your kids to hate you, too!). I don’t think so.

So when reading Jesus it becomes imperative that we not simply and uncritically apply what he says without question. In fact, taking Jesus literally would clearly lead to abuse–hatred, chopped off body parts, and so on. We thus need to really think through how we can apply the teaching of Jesus in a way that is not hurtful. While I don’t know anyone who has chopped off a limb, there are quite a few people who have been told by their pastor or priest to stay in a physically abusive domestic environment because Jesus would want them to.

The point of all of this is that we must question as we read the New Testament, we must seek to understand, otherwise if we instead blindly accept and obey without understanding this will inevitably lead to abuse and hurt. Obedience is simply not possible without understanding. So we must approach the text critically, we must question, and that includes the “red letters” of Jesus. Anything less is morally irresponsible. Jesus’ own practice of questioning Scripture models this for us, and it applies equally to our reading of Jesus. After all, the main thing Jesus is trying to do with his provocative statements of “love your enemy” and “hate your family” is to get us to think. They are purposely formulated to throw us off balance, to get us to question our assumptions of how the world works and what justice and power are like. Jesus does this constantly (the greatest is the servant, the last are first, blessed are the poor, die to live, lose to find, etc.) and all of this invites us to think, to question. To not do this is to completely misunderstand Jesus.

Now there’s more to be said here. The issue is not only with misunderstanding or misinterpreting the words of Jesus, as in the above examples. There are other issues in the New Testament that go beyond this. For example I have not addressed the New Testament in regards to the issues of slavery, the corporal punishment of children, and state-sanctioned violence (torture, execution, etc.) all of which the New Testament does not seem to speak out against in a way that we would want to today. That brings up the question: Do we follow the NT in what it affirms (and thus we can keep slaves as long as we are kind to them) or should we go further in the trajectory it begins which leads us to abolish slavery, not hit our kids, and outlaw capital punishment and torture.

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Let’s have another show of hands: Who here owns slaves? Nobody. We now call that human trafficking. It’s the other things that we are inconsistent with–corporal punishment of children, how we see the legitimacy of the state to torture people or to kill them in the name of justice, claiming to be a “Christians nation” as we do. We could of course add to this how women and sexual minorities are treated by the church.

Also by Derek: Healing Toxic Faith…Did Jesus Die to Save Us from God?

The fact that we can all agree on the moral imperative of the abolishment of slavery as a Christian necessity shows that it is possible to faithfully recognize the trajectory of where Jesus and the New Testament were headed, and thus to faithfully take that further in the 21st century in a way that the first Christians could not in the 1st century. We have done the same with caring for the poor, going far beyond what Paul and Peter were able to do in their own time with the establishment of orphanages, shelters, rehabilitation programs, as well as organizations like Compassion International or Bread For The World. I’m sure Paul never imagined an airplane carrying food across a continent!

Jesus shows us that to be faithful means that we must question and think critically in love, rather than blindly adhering to scriptural precepts despite how hurtful they seem today. That is what the Pharisees did, and what Jesus was so adamantly opposed to.  Jesus calls us instead to look at the fruits — working out how we can best find a way to treat each other—including those we regard as “the least” and as our enemies–that bears the fruit of flourishing and life, rather than a way that hurts and harms. That means Jesus calls us to question, to engage, to think critically, and thus to continue to move forward in his name.

These are all issues that can raise a lot of emotions, and there are Christians on both sides of the many hot button issues listed above. My prayer is that we can, despite our differences  work this out together in a spirit of grace as part of a diverse and messy Jesus-shaped community we call the body of Christ. That means listening to one another, hearing each other’s stories with compassion, not writing the other off just because you strongly disagree. Not insisting on “my way or the highway” and “God said it that settles it” but instead in humility interacting with one another in grace. As Jesus says, you will know them by their fruits. A good place to start demonstrating that would be in the comment section here.




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About the Author

Derek FloodDerek Flood is the author of Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Sojourners, here at Red Letter Christians, as well as writing regularly at his website theRebelGod.com. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice. Follow Derek on Twitter @therebelgod and Facebook.View all posts by Derek Flood →

  • Jonathan Starkey

    Sadly in Protestantism scripture has been reduced to utiltarianism. A book of moral code and ethics. Then we use Jesus the same way my moral and ethical compass.

    Scripture is primarily a manual of worship. A good theology is a good doxology. I study in order to worship. The Bible leads me to worship. And out of my worship come good deeds.

    Whatever ever camp your in? The Bible calls you to worship of Jesus.

    • Jonathan Starkey

      The OT is the story of a Nation a Kingdom, many of the stories are a negative object lessons (What not to do) stories of failure. Look here is where Israel fell. And sadly ending with the split of a nation, exploitation, losing the Spirit and a Kingless people.

      Then the anointed One, the Christ was born, King of Kings Lord of Lords, and we as gentiles join that story.

      The story of the OT points to Christ – Jesus (YAWEH Saves) – Know the Bible, to know your personal story.

      I should read the bible through the lens of Christ, simply because I am a Christian. I do all things through Christ. I can’t read the Bible a part from Christ.

      Does anyone read this thing with AWE?

  • http://www.friendsofspinoza.com/ JamesH

    What a fantastic post, thanks so much for sharing this. I’m in the Anabaptist tradition, where a Jesus-centered hermeneutic has often been used, but where this additional step you discuss is not as common. I personally feel that a Jesus-centered approach to scripture should still include a critical engagement with the Jesus tradition (his sayings on divorce or his words to the Canaanite woman might be one example) and the rest of the NT.

  • http://yaholo.net/ Yaholo

    At least for me, but I imagine many “Red Letter Christians,” it is not about how Scripture is interpreted. The words of Jesus Christ are the most extreme in their call to action, love, and commitment. To say, “What if Jesus meant what he said?” means that we acknowledge that the majority of Christian culture has minimized Christ’s teachings to allegory and hyperbole.

    This is not about a theological debate regarding the prioritization of the Red Letters, but an exploration of how differently we would behave, treat one another, and work together if we took them seriously.

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