Both long-time church members and those outside the traditional church can find it difficult to read the Bible. Bob Ekblad encourages the church and the unchurched to read the Bible together, for what scripture has to teach us all. In this compelling book, he reflects on how Christians have often found it difficult to proclaim God’s good news to every realm of society, while those who have needed it most have frequently deemed themselves unworthy due to social circumstances or sinfulness. In Reading the Bible with the Damned, Ekblad demonstrates how to bridge this gap by showing us specific ways to engage people from all walks of life, from the poorest parts of town to inside the prison walls. This book is full of examples of how Scripture changes lives, offering practical suggestions on how to lead discussions on passages from the Old and New Testaments.
About a month and a half ago Reading the Bible with the Damned caught my attention, but I didn't want to buy another book when I have a number of books on my shelf still awaiting my attention, so I requested a review copy from Westminster John Knox press. Without communication of any kind, the book showed up in the mail a number of days ago, which meant I was committed to posting a review here. I was not contacted by the publisher in any other way, and I was not required to give a positive review, which will soon become obvious.
Bob Ekblad is a Presbyterian minister and prison chaplain whose ministers largely to "undocumented immigrants." Ekblad immediatley informs the reader that he resists and "detests" the "dominant theology" and actively seeks to challenge traditional theological understanding. I sympathize with this desire to a lesser degree, and I find Ekblad's interpretations of scripture often refreshing; however, it soon becomes clear that Ekblad approaches the text with a preconceived desire and expectation for its meaning. The author's desire to give the inmates grace often produces a valuable message of God's presence and mercy in the midst of our sin and weakness, but shrouds and obscures other areas of the gospel.
The writing is both scholarly and informed, but also accessible and absorbing. Ekblad cites many sources including the early church fathers and leaders in liberation theology. He teaches both how to lead Bible studies and read with the marginalized as well as relate stories of individual studies and how inmates responded to texts and provided interpretations with guidance.
Reading the Bible with the Damned relates how interpretation changes when reading the Bible with the marginalized: the oppressed, convicted, criminal etc., and at its best it is a valuable reminder of God's grace. Ekblad's interpretations at their best reveal that common theological interpretation is often derived from intellectual understanding and that a very different interpretation results from reading the Bible in a desperate situation in need of hope and grace. That said, Ekblad's approach often comes close to justifying sin and openly justifies breaking the law in the case of illegal immigration and perhaps even other crimes. Ekblad is highly political, which didn't bother me at first (I am largely nonpolitical), but he often strongly vilifies those in authority, including governments, government officials, courts, judges, prosecutors, police and border patrol agents. It is clear that he views many of the inmates as being in legally impossible situations. Ekblad unapologetically reveals a politically liberal interpretation of the Bible, and often borders on antinomianism, taking justification by faith so far that sinful lifestyle becomes justified. In addition, Ekblad openly denies both original sin and the depravity of man, both of which are central to my own theology and understanding of the gospel. Ekblad believes that humans are basically good and that their weaknesses are taken advantage of by the environment. He makes little to no defense for what I cannot help but call theological errors, and because he makes no defense it is difficult to know just how erroneous his theology is. It is possible that I simply misunderstand his work, or that he intentionally shrouds his theological core in order to give precedence to his message of liberation and grace (which I do not deny is important, valuable and outrageously right on in many places). These issues are kept fairly ambiguous throughout the majority of the book, but in the final chapters Ekblad denies Christ's sacrifice as a penal substitution (meaning that God punished Christ for our sin and that Christ was our propitiation):
In the Gospels it seems clear that God did not need Jesus to die. Those who plot his death are consistently religious authorities. Jesus' conscious and willing taking up of his cross is best interpreted as God's total solidarity with human beings and willingness to identify fully with the victims of human violence and injustice.
When we look at the notion of Jesus' life given as ransom, or bail, it is clear from an inmate perspective that bail would not be posted to God, but is required by the state. Jesus does not give his body and blood to God in a way that would be in keeping with penal substitution. (177-178)This at the very least obscures the gospel. Ekblad compounds this by failing to mention sin almost completely (I did not count but I think the word sin might only be in the book once or twice), and he uses the word "repent" only in the context of changing ones mind about thinking that keeping the law will justify. For Ekblad repentance is not the first part of the gospel.
With all that said, the book does offer a valuable perspective and for most of the book I was wincing, wishing that such beneficial biblical interpretation wasn't mixed with such bad theology. As a reader of puritan theology, Reading the Bible with the Damned was an intriguing look at a different approach. Jesus did not tell the woman caught in adultery to repent immediatley, instead he dealt with her accusers, gave her grace and then finally told her "Go and sin no more" (this story is not mentioned in the book). She was in a context where her sin was obvious, she was already found out and convicted, she needed grace first. Inmates are in much the same position, and I sympathize with Ekblad's approach because grace needs to be given and false theology does need to be confronted. People need to know that God still loves them, gives them grace and will meet them where they are. However, Jesus came to save people from their sins. Not from Hell. Not from oppression. But from their own sin. This is the gospel, and Ekblad never gets there.
I greatly benefited from portions of this book and there were large amounts of biblical interpretation in it that I found illuminating and inspired (his interpretation of Genesis is often quite amazing); however, I hesitate to recommend the book because of its dangerous theology. At its best it provides hope and grace to the marginalized, at its worst it justifies sin and obscures the gospel. While many of Ekblad's practical applications of scripture are accurate, gripping and radically empowering, the core of the gospel, sin and the need for forgiveness are lacking. It's possible that the theological dangers I see are simply the result of the book's narrow focus, but many seem to go much farther.