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We don’t have to please God in any other way than to be brutally honest. Bono

Ned Bustard: The Bible is Not Safe

The Bible: Not Safe for Work—or the Church, for that Matter

by Ned Bustard

You can grow up in churches that claim fidelity to the full counsel of Scripture, and never discover what is really in the Bible. We skip over and skirt around the shocking bits or we explain them away. And we tell ourselves this whitewashing is for the best, all in a good cause. We keep the difficult passages secret to prevent others from stumbling. We keep them hidden because they are not suitable for children.

Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups exists so that those secrets can be revealed. It was published by Square Halo Books, Inc. It consists of woodcuts, etchings, linocuts, and such depicting the Bible as it really is—in all its raw, violent, and sexy glory. There are over 130 images by a wide range of artists—living and dead, Christian and non-Christian. 

Many of the stories illustrated in Revealed are typically suppressed by people who think they’re doing God a favor. This content reflects poorly, they feel, on Holy Writ. To bring them up at all—let alone to call attention to them and represent them artistically—opens you up to charges of impiety and disrespect. 

The human authors of Scripture had no such qualms. They told the unvarnished, unexpurgated story of God’s dealing with humanity. And their choices are born out by the way this book has been received by readers. Far from diminishing their respect for the Bible, the book has enhanced it. Paradoxically, the people we have been concealing the hard passages from—creating the false impression that the Bible doesn’t speak to the world as it really is—come away impressed with the searing honesty of revealed Scripture. 

Sometimes the shocks are hidden in plain sight. Every child knows the story of Noah’s Ark, that floating zoo whose two-by-two menagerie was curated by the bearded, smiling saint. But the roly-poly old man on his plump wooden boat is only part of the story. The biblical account of the Flood paints a horrific picture of drowning and destruction. What is lost when we race too quickly to the rainbow, ignoring the millions swept away in a tidal wave of wrath? 

In an earlier age, children’s stories were surprisingly dark (for example, the Grimms’ fairytales come to mind). However, that is no longer the fashion. When we tell our children stories from the Bible, we slant them toward our more wholesome tastes. 

If we do not elide the violence, we certainly steer clear of the sex. In the Bible, Lot is raped by his daughters. Tamar turns a trick with her father-in-law. Joseph runs from the boss’ wife’s attempts at seduction. Samson trades his strength for Delilah’s bed, and David—the “man after God’s own heart”—fathers a child with another man’s wife, then murders the husband to cover up his adultery. And yet a surprising number of people who consider themselves familiar with the Bible have no idea about any of this.              

Revealed is intended to provoke surprise, even shock—not for its own sake, but to awaken readers to the depth and breadth of the Bible. The contemporary belief that the Bible is outdated and irrelevant is best challenged by the Bible itself. Yes, this is an ancient book full of alien cultures, customs, and histories. But it is also a book about people. Ordinary people who are not only spiritual beings, but also greedy, needy, hateful, hopeful, selfish, and sexual.

By reading only the “safe” parts of the Bible, we limit the imagination and remove the mystery of following God. What we are left with is an irrelevant, felt-board faith full of superficial spirituality and bathrobed disciples following a blue-eyed, blond savior. Most people who consider the Bible irrelevant are simply unaware that it depicts the entire spectrum of human existence, and speaks to it. To take the Bible on its own terms, we must view it as a unified story, without omitting the disturbing parts. Otherwise we lose the richness of this  interwoven tapestry, where every strand (whether we realize it or not) is integral to the other.

The Bible tells one epic story, most of it taken up with evil, conflict, and sorrow. This drama is what makes it such a good story. The story is filled with hope and despair, heroes and villains—and like the best stories, the good guys win in the end. That victory is what makes the happy ending so . . . happy. 

“To read the Bible the way it is written,” Calvin Seerveld says, “you have to give up your own agenda, you have to dwell in the text and see the whole woven tapestry of the bible from Genesis to Revelation. When you do, you will find that God speaks to you and with you.” It is reading the Bible in this fashion, as one unified whole, that the beauty and power of God’s Word begins to be revealed.

One of the disturbing stories early in the Bible is that of the incest of Lot with his daughters in Genesis 19:30–38. The artist who depicted this account in Revealed, Tanja butler, writes, “I found the dramatic gesture for this scene in a painting by Jan Massys, 1563. Massys presented an erotic scene in celebratory mode with sumptuous costumes and lascivious expressions. In contrast, my print represents callous, despairing determination and inebriated weakness.” Although Lot was said to be a righteous man and was delivered from the punishment of Sodom, he is still guilty of shocking crimes. He exposed the chastity of his daughters to the men of Sodom, and in this passage his daughters make him drunk and rape him, conceiving grandsons through incest. But is there anything that can’t be redeemed? Even in this depraved account there is hope. Ruth, a distant child of Moab, would eventually be grafted into the line of God’s chosen people, and ultimately be included in the genealogy of Christ.

Scripture does not flinch when confronted with evil or beauty. Every sphere of life is addressed by God’s Word, including the unpresentable parts. God is God over mountains and valleys, joys and sorrows, beautiful births and violent deaths, the marriage bed and the dark alley. If we don’t depict the “naughty bits,” the great Story of the Bible becomes bland and weak. It loses not only its power but also its veracity, forced to abide in a half life of half truths. 

"Revealed reminds us that verbal metaphor does not always translate smoothly into visual form. Awkward or not however, visual form does grab our attention and generates a more graphic sense of what words may be saying. So an illustrated text may come alive for us in fresh ways. What comes to life in Revealed is that the Bible is a collection of stories about human foibles and failure rather than triumph. The surprising images in this illustrated Bible remind us once again that we are saved by Grace." Joel Sheesley, professor of art at Wheaton College

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Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups is softback, 9x10 inches, and 264 pages, published in 2016 by Square Halo Books. It consists of woodcuts, etchings, and linocut by a wide range of artists—living and dead, Christian and non-Christian. Artists in this book include Hans Burgkmair, Margaret Bustard, Ned Bustard, Tanja Butler, Matthew L. Clark, Lovis Corinth, Erin Cross, Albrecht Dürer, Jean Duvet, Wayne Lacson Forte, Richard Gaston, Eric Gill, Steve Halla, Craig Hawkins, David Busch Johnson, Diego Jourdan Pereira, Edward Knippers, Chris Koelle, Kevin Lindholm, Franz Marc, Chris Stoffel Overvoorde, Steve Prince, Mark T. Smith, Justin Sorensen, Ryan Stander, Rembrandt van Rijn, Henri Van Straten, and Kreg Yingst. For more information, see  http://www.squarehalobooks.com/revealed.html.