Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly 7. Rigid or Flexible? & 8. Distant or Near?
This post is the final installment in my review of David Lamb’s new book God Behaving Badly. These final two chapters, I must confess, are superb, and after being quite unsatisfied with the book up until this point, Lamb’s careful and balanced treatment of these final two questions is most appreciated and welcome.
In chapter 7, Rigid or Flexible, Lamb addresses the issue of divine (im)mutability. He points to a number of biblical texts that affirm the viability of each position; God is indeed atteted in the Hebrew Bible as both unchanging yet changing. This is a welcome departure from the earlier chapters in the book, wherein Lamb sought to pick a side, making the issue a matter of either/or rather than both/and (one of my main critiques of what he is doing; forcing the either/or alternative mutes dissonant theological voices in favor of those which are most complementary and amenable to what seems to be a preconceived notion of who God ought to be). But Lamb does nuance his point, arguing that God does not change in regard to divine fidelity to a word of promise and blessing–a point with which I would agree–but that God does change as a result of, for example, “prayer and tears” (141). Or, putting it another way, Lamb maintains that YHWH “changes in the context of showing compassion toward his people” (142). This is a noble observation, though I would contend it does not exhaust all instances in which God changes in the Old Testament. Terry Fretheim’s work is here quite instructive.
It is also in this chapter that Lamb makes what is my favorite statement in the entire book, precisely because he is exactly right. He writes: “When our systematic theology comes into conflict with the Bible, the former needs to be modified, not the latter” (145). Even in my own book (see “my book” tab at the top of the page to order) this was a salient issue: there seems to be a distinction between who God is as constructed by classically defined systematic theologies (which themselves are problematic for their attempts to systematize that which is unsystematic itself, the Bible) and various divergent biblical witnesses to God. Lamb is spot on in his statement; unfortunately, however, I am convinced he falls prey to his own indictment in each of the previous chapters.
In chapter 8, Distant or Near, Lamb again refreshingly takes a mediating approach, not favoring one possibility over the other. He notes that the Hebrew Bible is laden with the faithful asking where God is, yet these petitions (laments) provide a theological vocabulary with which the faithful may speak honestly and from the depth of their experience (see my sermon on “Daring Prayer” HERE). It places the struggle and questions in the context of the life of faith, and allows one to bring these questions and concerns to God. Lamb rightly reminds that Jesus too spoke this way; the most patent example would be his final words on the cross in both Matthew and Mark, both of which are questions, and both of which quote from a lament psalm, Psalm 22:1.
Yet despite seeming distant at times, the Hebrew Bible also provides numerous examples of YHWH’s nearness. God speaks with his people, walks with them, and dwells among them; these are ways the HB communicates divine closeness. Jesus, suggests Lamb, embodied an entirely different sense of closeness in his drawing near, associating, and dining with those whom the majority would aim to be as distant as possible: tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes.
In both chapters 7 and 8 I see the thought of Terry Fretheim in evidence, though Lamb does not mention Fretheim explicitly. The idea of divine mutability and closeness, coupled with the notion of the human/created order’s role in having an affect on God’s flexibility and/or nearness are important concepts that more Christians need exposure to, and I applaud Lamb for raising these issues in a thoughtful and manageable way for the intended audience of his book. I am hopeful readers of his book will benefit most from Lamb’s more balanced perspectives in these final two substantive chapters, recognizing that YHWH as portrayed in the HB is far more complex than many interpreters, lay and scholarly, give YHWH credit for being (and more complex than I think Lamb has given him credit for being elsewhere in the book).
Rounding out the book is an epilogue that summarizes briefly each chapter, followed by Lamb offering some reflective conclusions. One of these left me both satisfied and unsatisfied. Lamb writes: “Instead of ingoring passages that seem to portray [YHWH] negatively, we need to study them, discuss them and teach them to gain understanding . . . we will find that [YHWH] and Jesus can be reconciled and that the God of both testaments is loving” (178). I am in total agreement with the first part of this quotation; where I begin to stumble, however, is on the word “reconciled.” Affirming that God (the God of the OT, that is) can be “reconciled” to/with Jesus smacks of what Marcion himself attempted to do, emphasizing the loving, compassionate image of the divine manifest in Jesus, to the detriment of problematic aspects of God’s behavior elsewhere in the canon. Yes, the God of both testaments is loving; I grant Lamb that point. But what is missing here is that the observe is also true; the God of both testaments can be angry, wrathful, vengeful . . . or, more all-encompassing, the God of both testaments can be terribly disconcerting. I worry that Lamb’s statements here confirm what I have raised issues with in the other segments of this review: that the underlying motivation has been an attempt to moralize an unsettling and problematic at times depiction of God with an equally whitewashed, tame picture of Jesus. Yes, both are loving. And yes, both can be terribly unsettling as well.
Lamb concludes with three observations: 1) God is fascinating (complex, unable to be described simply); 2) God is relational; 3) God is good (all the time). I’m with Lamb on 1 and 2; the biblical text, however, I am not convinced allows one to speak as definitively as Lamb would like on #3.
Your thoughts on Lamb’s book, and my comments of it?