“What Does the Bible ‘Do’ with Heroes?”

At The King’s College, we have a house system and each house has a namesake. Since I began teaching here in 2011, I have constantly wondered what to think and do with some of our namesakes that have mixed histories. Now, this has become a more pressing topic in our community and, of course, the Christian Scriptures have so much to offer us on this front.

The Bible is full of people who we might be tempted to idolize, but then we keep reading and find out “nobody’s perfect.” That’s the phrase I’ve heard repeated ad nauseum about house namesakes. However, the phrase is often used to deflect criticism of some morally questionable behaviors by namesakes.

  • Didn’t your namesake hate white people? Nobody’s perfect.
  • Didn’t your namesake illegally funnel money to rebel groups? Nobody’s perfect.
  • Didn’t your namesake volunteer for military campaigns because he reveled in war? You get it.

We’re an institution made up of Christian staff and faculty and guided by the biblical understanding of the world.[1] So, why is no one asking what Scripture has to say about namesakes? It’s the age-old problem: Christians assume Scripture cannot speak to their real, modern, and thorny knots they’ve tied themselves into.

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Ironically, most of the narrative space of Scripture is spent describing people who could easily qualify as house namesakes at The King’s College. But because they are ancient folks, and some people don’t even believe that Moses or David were even real people, they get disqualified out of the gates. Plus, what kind of Latin phrase can you possibly slap on a crest for the House of משא or Παυλος?

I would never be so bold as to suggest that we name our houses after biblical personae. They don’t even have last names, for crying out loud. However, I think we can look to the intellectual world of Scripture to see how the phenoms and legends of Scripture are rigorously portrayed. In doing so, we find a shortcoming in King’s culture that I’ve noticed and noted over that last eight years that I’ve been here.

It’s safe to say that biblical authors don’t need the phrase “nobody’s perfect” (we’ll let Hannah Montana keep that lyric for herself). Instead, they chose to describe in gory detail how fragile and profoundly fractured these women and men actually were.

Yes, Moses reluctantly leads Israel to Mount Sinai/Horeb, but not before he murdered a moses-slay-808man in the heat of the moment and almost gets murdered by God for not following the basic Hebrew covenant operating instructions (i.e., circumcising his son).

Yes, David had a “heart after Yahweh.” But notice how the author of 1-2 Samuel carefully depicts exactly how David committed genocidal raids while stealing goods as a mercenary for the Philistines, killing entire villages so that no one could find out about his thievery. The narrator is at pains to show how David lies about what he was up to. Quite simply, David put snitches in ditches. It’s no surprise that he later treated Uriah in a similar way when stealing his wife.

Heroes of the Hebrew Bible sometimes go on to foster idolatry, causing Israel to whores after idols they’ve built, to use the not-so-subtle language of Scripture. Gideon saves Israel and then smelts a golden vestment that becomes a snare for his family and people. Solomon wisely leads Israel and then constructs altars for human sacrifice a few hundred feet east of the Temple in Jerusalem. I can go on . . . literally . . . for hours.

Maybe we should flip over to the New Testament, where things are simpler. If one simply reads the Gospels with the question, “Were the disciples decent followers of Jesus,” the answer is a resounding, “No!” Mark’s Gospel is the harshest on the disciples, which is especially interesting if Mark’s writing is taken from listening to Peter’s preaching about himself (per Papias, an early second-century source). What’s more, the disciples seem to become most “hard hearted” to Jesus’ mission when Jesus goes out to foreigners (e.g., Samaritans, Syrians, Galilee, Decapolis, etc.).

Even after Peter’s Spirit-filled speech at Pentecost, he is still depicted as hostile to the gospel when it comes to foreigners (i.e., Gentiles). The Holy Spirit has to force him into the foreigner Cornelius’s house before he “gets it.” And even then, the last word we get on Peter is Paul chastising Peter for being resistant to Gentiles and giving into Jewish social pressures. Likewise, Paul alludes to the fact that his hearers know his frailties because he’s lived among them.

Bottom line: The biblical authors don’t celebrate heroes in Scripture and then tack on, “but of course, they’re not perfect” as a superfluous qualifier. No! They go the opposite direction. [2] They soberly explore the depths of their sin and light up the deep fractures that caused them to sin against God and against humans (e.g., Samuel confronting the first messianic king Saul, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?”). Do we think they expect any less from us today?

Scripture teaches plenty about namesakes: celebrate how God has clearly used a person in His unfolding plan throughout history while extensively exploring their sin in thought and deed. Notable people in Scripture are portrayed within a despite-this-person’s-huge-failings framework at every opportunity. This anti-idolizing method of writing out redemptive history acts as an inoculation in the thinking of Scripture. When it comes to every single human outside of Jesus, faults go in the front so that we can understand how redemption works. When it comes our last messianic king, the New Testament extensively and painfully explores his faultless faithfulness in the form of a slave and unto death on a cross.

Maybe our house discussions, competitions, and rituals should take a note from Scripture: faults in front so that we can more clearly see what’s redemptive and who is driving all of history.

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[1] Technically, we’re not a “Christian institution.” The adjective “Christian” is only supposed to modify humans that identify as such. The church is really the only “institution” that can be properly called “Christian.”

[2] From a NT colleague: “My main thought would be to include Heb. 11, which is a natural objection to the argument, and respond by noting some of the bad characters included there as well as what they’re praised for.”

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