Week 5, McLaren's Commentary

Chapter 5. In Over Our Heads

Genesis 4:1-17; 6:5-8; 7:1-5; 8:1; 9:7-17

Psalm 51

James 4:1-8

It’s becoming clear that in my reading of the Bible, violence is a serious problem. It wasn’t in the approach to the Bible I was taught. Perhaps that’s because in the version of Christianity in which I was raised, there was a long and unacknowledged tradition of violence - from European colonial powers, from American settlers (aka colonizers or land thieves), from a history of slavery and racism and apartheid/segregation. Perhaps many of us didn’t notice the theme of violence in the Bible because we were busy hiding our own violence from ourselves. Whatever the reasons for our ability to miss it, the Noah story - especially when compared with its Babylonian antecedents - puts human violence front and center.


Neither traditional conservatives nor liberals have been very comfortable with the power of storytelling in oral cultures. As I’ve worked on this book, I’ve grown to respect how different the ancient mind was from our mind today. This chapter is one of the few where I try to be explicit about this different approach to the Bible that I believe we must become comfortable with. It’s not simply a matter of a new interpretation of this or that story; it’s a new way of interpreting altogether ... a new way of understanding what we mean by the word “interpretation.” My shorthand for this way of interpretation is “the wisdom of storytelling.” My work on this project has deepened my respect for that unique kind of wisdom.

The words “God must be better than that” will come up several times in the chapters to come.

 They suggest that the Bible records a quest not unlike the quest of scientists. Just as they aspire to develop theories, test them, and then replace them in their quest for a more complete and accurate understanding of the universe, people of faith develop beliefs and stories, test them, and then replace them in their quest for a more complete and accurate understanding of God.

 The Bible, then, is indeed a revelation of God. But it doesn’t reveal God in one final official portrait. Rather, it shows us sketch after sketch, portrait after portrait, by artist after artist. As we see those sketches and portraits change over time, we begin to understand that the glory of God is so great that no single portrait could ever perfectly and definitively contain it.

 Several people are doing helpful work on this subject, including Adam Hamilton, Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, Derek Flood, and Steve Chalke.