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Imperfect pilgrims


Imperfect pilgrims

Complications of Christian life and history

Rosaria Butterfield’s third post-conversion book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key (Crossway, 2018), rightly challenges our natural tendency “to build the walls higher” and turn our homes into castles that exclude unbelieving neighbors. She also opposes attempts to “reinvent a Christianity that fits nicely on the ‘coexist’ bumper sticker, avoiding the disgrace and shame of the cross for a respectable religion that bows to the idols of our day: consumerism and sexual autonomy.” Butterfield’s solution: radically ordinary hospitality where we invite in believers and nonbelievers not for showtime, but to be part of our ordinary lives.

Chad Bird’s Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Eerdmans, 2017) views the Bible as more complicated than some Sunday school lessons suggest. Bird drives that home with a dozen headlines (most are about sexual sin) that could be clickbait on today’s internet. Among them: “Spiritual Leader Discovered Drunk and Naked in His Home,” “Gang of Men Attempt to Rape a Man’s Guests,” “Two Daughters Impregnated by Inebriated Father,” “Twin Brother Deceives Blind Father and Steals from Absent Brother,” and “Mass Slaughter Perpetrated by Brothers to Avenge Sister’s Rape.” (Can you identify all five? They’re all in Genesis.)

Later Bird, a former pastor and seminary professor who writes about how he messed up his life, asks us to imagine a Bible “rewritten so that the failures of God’s people are expunged from the record. Suppose Adam and Eve didn’t spit out God’s command and devour the forbidden fruit. … Joseph’s brothers didn’t stab him in the back. Judah didn’t hire his daughter-in-law as a prostitute and impregnate her. … The message it would send about the Old Testament people is the same message we want to believe about ourselves: that the spiritual life is about being strong, not weak; victorious, not defeated; standing tall, not humbled low.”

We also want to think that about the great heroes of the Reformation, but Martin Luther had a dark side that we shouldn’t overlook. Two books published last year—Thomas Kaufmann’s scholarly Luther’s Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism (Oxford), and Richard Harvey’s passionate Luther and the Jews: Putting Right the Lies (Cascade)—are in agreement: The early Luther was optimistic about evangelizing Jews, but two decades of failure left him enraged.

Here’s the Luther of 1523, writing That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew and complaining that Christians “have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. … If the Apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles.”

Here’s the Luther of 1543, recommending (in On the Jews and Their Lies) these actions: “Put fire to the Jews’ schools and houses. … Take away from them all their prayer books. … Take away all their currency and gold and silver. … Do not let them have protection and safe-conduct. … Refuse them the right to have synagogues.” And Luther’s final statement: Jews “must leave our country.” Harvey points out that four centuries later, “Kristallnacht—the destruction of Jewish homes and property—took place on 10 November 1938, the anniversary of Luther’s birth.”

So what should we do with the unpleasant stories of the Bible and Christian history? They are no surprise: God saves sinners, but He doesn’t make them perfect in this life.


McKay Coppins’ The Wilderness (Little, Brown, 2015) shows us the state of the GOP in 2014 before Donald Trump took it over. Malcolm Guite’s Mariner (IVP, 2018) is a scholarly examination of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster, 2017) brings us back to the 1950s, when African-Americans had justifiable worry about vigilante killers. Bernard Harcourt’s The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens (Basic, 2018) is an overwrought look at the present. —M.O.


  • Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Sat, 04/21/2018 12:47 pm

    Only Jesus had love for sinners that was born of his perfect character.  This means that every Christian will fall short of that standard which shows our desperate need for Christ and his work in the crucifixion and resurrection.