In the Mail: Heiser's The Unseen Realm and Supernatural

When I received an email from a representative at Lexham Press asking me if I'd like to see one or both of Michael S. Heiser's new books The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches about the Unseen World — and Why It Matters I was hesitant to say "yes". First of all, I admit that the marketing language for the book—i.e., "what the Bible really says" —may be perfect for attracting biblicist Evangelicals, but I don't think about the Bible the same way these days. When someone presents the Bible as having a one, unified voice on any subject I am skeptical. As I've read the Bible over the years this just hasn't proven to be the case, contra the inerrantists who educated me. Second, I have an ambiguous relationship with charismatic-y Christianity. I was a Pentecostal in my late adolescence/early twenties. Even after leaving Pentecostalism, I retained a more or less charismatic perspective on things. But I'd say that has faded in the last few years. Not because I know that there are no angels, demons, or devils. Not because I know that miracles have ceased or that we can explain all supernatural phenomena if we give scientists enough time and data. But instead because I have to admit that while there have been experiences in my life that have prevented me from every adopting a purely materialist worldview, it would be hubris of me to claim that I have had experiences that subjectively verify things like angels and demons or even the semi-frequency of miracles. 

So, why would I accept the offer to read these books, books that have little to do with my current research, and books that address a topic that I tend to avoid? I guess curiosity. Also, I think I continue to wrestle with the claims made by the Pentecostals that indoctrinated me as a child as well as fellow Christians who claim to have had this or that experience with the unknown. I know the logical thing is to dismiss them. But I'll settle for being existentially agnostic about these things. What I can say comfortably is this: people over the ages have claimed to have particular experiences, and while I haven't had those experiences, and don't make life decisions based on the experiences of others, I'm open to the possibility that there is more to reality that I have experienced. In other words, I don't know what to make of angels and demons, but I wouldn't say I'm a naturalist either or antagonistic to the possibility that there are strange things in our world. (Maybe I should watch some old X-Files episodes?)  So, presumably I hold to some understanding of the "supernatural". I have hope in the resurrection of Jesus, for example, and I won't deny that there may be beings whose existence parallels our own but whose existence is merely analogous to ours. But this is the extent of it. There is little I'd be comfortable saying about such matters with any confidence.

When these books arrived in the mail over the weekend I gave the first couple chapters of The Unseen Realm a quick read. Automatically, I knew I was reading for a different purpose than what the author is intending. Heiser wants readers to get the "supernatural worldview" of the biblical authors into our heads (p. 13). Maybe I'm more Bultmannian that I'd admit, but I'm not inclined to try to adopt the worldview of the ancients in order to find value in the Bible. I can't deny I live in 2015 and that I understand the cosmos differently than the authors of these canonized books. But I get that many of Heiser's readers will affirm something like the inerrancy of scripture leading to the suggestion that once the reader has recognized that the biblical author(s) worldview can't be discarded when interpreting the biblical author(s) message that for some the only right thing to do is move, uncomfortably, toward embracing a "supernatural" worldview like those we see from many Pentecostals and other charismatic Christians (but rarely from Evangelicals who are an odd combination of pre-modern theology with modernist exegesis [cf. pp. 16-18]). 

Additionally, Heiser advocates for a "Bible v. Tradition" approach (pp. 16-17). While this language makes sense to the sola scriptura crowd, it doesn't resonate with me. The Bible is tradition. The canon is tradition. It may be a different form of tradition that a creed, but it is tradition. So, I'm not looking to discard tradition when interpreting the Bible. At least not as an essential principle.

All that being said, there is one area of agreement I share with Heiser: we need to stop pretending that our modernist re-readings of scripture are one-for-one equivalents with the intentions of ancient authors. There are a range of plausible "historical" meanings available to any biblical text and many of those plausible interpretations from a historical-critical perspective are not going to jive with our theological, modernizing re-readings. Where I would disagree with Heiser, I think, is in the attitude toward modernizing re-readings. I don't think the historical-critical reading is necessarily determinative of the spiritual, or ecclesial, or doctrinal, or liturgical "meaning" of the text for contemporary Christians. But I understand that many Evangelicals do think this: if a Bible passage may have meant one of several things in antiquity that we must "recover" that meaning today in order to read the Bible correctly. As I said, Evangelicals combine pre-modern theological sensibilities with the goals of modernist exegesis. While I won't pretend to have developed a thorough or sophisticated bibliology quite yet, I will say that I no longer feel those same constraints.

I know, I've said a lot, most of which would lead others to think I shouldn't be reading these books. So, in gist, why am I reading this book? (1) I am interested in Heiser's exegetical discoveries. I think those remain valuable. (2) There may be "spiritual" or religious value even if I don't feel the same obligation to conform my worldview to that of ancient people just because their worldview appears in the Bible. Like I said, when it comes to discussions regarding metaphysical and/or supernatural realities, I don't hold to a set-in-stone dogmatic opinion. (Except, for example, if someone's supernaturalism leads them to rely on unseen things that can cause harm while rejecting seen things that can bring healing. So, if your doctor tells you that you need to take a certain medication for whatever reason, take the medication! You can pray, and have faith in unseen realities, while also embracing seen realities! I reject theologies that put people at risk by creating a false dichotomy between "true faith" which is defined as embracing the "supernatural" over agains the "natural".)  (3) I am intrigued to see what sort of theological conclusions Heiser proposes for Evangelicals who I think as more modernist that they'd like to admit. 

Finally, yes, I have an ad on this blog for the book. I do think this general topic is one that Christians need to rethink. It is easy to accuse people on the other side of being too antiquated or compromising too much to modernity, yet I think most of us find ourselves along a spectrum that differentiates us from our co-religionist more in degree that in type. Christians tend to be most dogmatic about their views of scripture when they avoid reading the Bible. Heiser's challenge to revisit problematic and uncomfortable passages is one I support.