Reading the Bible with a “Jesus tea-strainer”

July 10, 2014

I recommend this first episode of the Mere Fidelity podcast, which in this case is a conversation between three young evangelical theologians about capital punishment. The three are responding to a recent blog post by pastor and writer Brian Zahnd, who not only argues that we Christians should oppose capital punishment based on the teachings of Jesus, but that because of what Jesus reveals to us about God, God never condoned capital punishment in the first place—even though he certainly seemed to do so in the Old Testament.

Andrew Wilson, an English theologian who writes for Christianity Today, argues that Zahnd is guilty of applying a “Jesus tea-strainer” to the Old Testament—an increasingly popular way of reading the Bible. He explains:

So I’ve used the analogy [of the “Jesus tea-strainer”] quite often when people talk about the “Jesus lens.” By which they say, “We’re reading the Bible through the ‘Jesus lens,’ and it’s coloring what we’re doing.” I say I don’t think it’s so much a lens in some cases—it’s more of a tea-strainer: Instead of looking at things from a particular angle and then coloring your view through Jesus, instead you use a particular version of Jesus you’ve cobbled together from bits of the Gospels. And then you turn that into a fine-mesh tea-strainer, which you then try to push the Old Testament through. And only a few bits make it through and the rest of it gets stuck and left on the saucer. And actually even the Jesus in the Synoptics doesn’t fit through the tea-strainer you’ve formed because he doesn’t… he says, as I’ve already said, you read Luke 17 or something and think, “That is very hard to cohere with a progressive-y red-letter Jesus.”

By Luke 17, he means these red-letter words of judgment and divine retribution:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all – so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Luke 17:26-30).

As Wilson’s blog post on the “Jesus tea-strainer” makes clear, there are many more such passages from Jesus in the Gospels. Given these passages, it’s hard to explain the image of Jesus so beloved by our culture—as some kind of first-century proto-hippie who went around preaching peace, love, and tolerance!

Nevertheless, the three men go on to make the case that we should approach scripture, especially those troublesome passages that prick our consciences, with great humility. As Derek Rishmawy says, around the 27:00 minute mark, before we say that the Bible writer got it wrong, let’s first assume that we’re the ones who are wrong—that we’re failing to understand what’s going on in the passage.

This is, in my opinion, a helpful approach to scripture. We give God’s Word the benefit of the doubt and assume that the Holy Spirit has inspired the biblical writers to include these difficult passages for a good reason, even when we can’t understand what it is.

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