Reading the Bible with the Damned

Michael Halcomb. Review of Bob Ekblad. Reading the Bible with the Damned. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005. 203 pp. $17.95.

Ekblad’s work, which shares its title with a course that he often leads at Regent College, is an attempt to help “sensitize and form Christians for the specific task of communicating the good news” (xiv) to those in the margins of society. This volume, an anthology of sorts for Ekblad, flows from his discomfort with both the typical “white, middle-class, Christian family” (xiii) as well as the ongoing struggles and sufferings of society’s shunned—those ignored by the “empire-like” (7) mainstream culture.

Operating out of a liberation theological paradigm, Ekblad draws on such noted thinkers as Paulo Friere, Thomas L. Campbell and James L. Kugel to bolster his work. Written in an easy-to-read, narrative form, this composition is divided into nine chapters—with the shortest numbering ten pages and the longest thirty-six. The first chapter sets the tone for the book. Largely influenced by the Latin American movement known as lecutra popular de la biblia (grassroots reading of the Bible), Ekblad employs a teaching style that helps marginalized readers “identify contemporary equivalents to the biblical narrative (location, characters, verbs, and other details) in their own lives and world” (5).

Ekblad begins with the Emmaus narrative and readers are asked to leave their comfortable Jerusalems and expose themselves “to encounters with strangers through whom God can open [their] eyes” (3). Following that, the audience meets a praying Abraham and is pushed to relate with the patriarch’s lack of concern for the lost of Sodom. Ekblad writes, “If Abraham had only been courageous enough to intercede for Sodom in the absence of even one righteous person” (3).

In chapter two, readers find themselves interpreting Genesis with prisoners in a rugged jailhouse and ex-inmates in a crowded, low-income house in the projects. Turned off by the creationist/evolutionist debate, Ekblad’s hermeneutic allows him to approach Genesis in a less historical and more theological way, a way that helps those “in and out of jail” (11), sense the presence of a respectful and loving God. He teaches them that this God longs to know them and create new beginnings in the midst of their dark, chaotic and often hopeless situations. While many of these societal “outsiders” consider themselves unholy and thus unworthy of being in the presence of a holy God, Ekblad often reminds them that “most of Genesis takes pace outside the garden of Eden and outside the ‘Holy Land’” (11); it was in those places that God created new beginnings for His people.

Ironically, the third chapter is titled “Getting Back into the Garden”. The focus however, is not on reentering Eden per se but on receiving God’s grace. This section of the work is rich with theological insight as it digs beyond surface readings of the Edenic and Cain & Abel narratives—stories that often times lead to negative images of God. The metaphor most discussed here is that of judge, which, for prisoners Ekblad argues, is an inherently debilitating and unconstructive image. In fact, he argues that this inappropriate representation of God has its origins in none other than the serpent. One remedy to these harmfully, pessimistic ideas, is to begin to see and understand God not as a judge, but as a physician—a gracious and loving God who is ready and willing to heal.

A similar concept is utilized in the next chapter when Ekblad envisions God as a “therapist” (68). While such a thought is certainly not foreign to the Biblical witness, to replace “judge” with “therapist” seems unnecessary. While those serving time frequently feel as though the “system” is out to get them, this is not always the case. Instead of adding fuel to the fire of negativity towards judicial authorities, Ekblad could cast judges in a more positive light by focusing on their dedication to justice, protecting society, loving discipline and power to free. Each of these images can shed favorable light on the nature and person of God—who is both judge and therapist.

In chapter five, the audience finds themselves encountering God in Exodus—a fine parallel for immigrants trekking through the desert and heading for the Promised Land. Identifying with Moses—whom Ekblad argues is no “hero figure” (110)—prisoners and readers alike perceive that God often chooses excuse-making nobodies as His leaders and mediators. Moving from Pentateuch to Prophets, chapter six reiterates this point. In his survey of Isaiah, Ekblad asserts that, while prophets were “often called from what would have been the mainstream of their time, [many] were raised up from among the exiles themselves” (113). To those viewed by the dominant society as “damned losers” (126), this is often empowering and liberating news.

Chapter seven, that last Old Testament-centered study, focuses on how to read and pray the psalms. Ekblad makes an intriguing move here when he teaches that the psalms can be used as weapons in spiritual combat. Almost in a Peretti-like-fashion, he argues that behind every negative option is an evil spiritual force. Asserting a body/spirit dualism, Ekblad writes, “Jesus teaches us to pray for and love our flesh-and-blood enemies even as we cry out to God to combat the deeper spiritual enemies” (140).

The eighth chapter, one of two concerned with the New Testament, deals primarily with the gospels. Ekblad discusses gospel readings such as: Jesus’ call of Matthew the tax collector; Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac; the parable of the lost sheep; Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman; and the meanings of suffering, election and atonement. Ekblad is careful to stress the fact that Jesus meets people where they are and there embraces them. As far as the gospels go, nowhere he says can one “find a single negative word coming out of Jesus’ mouth toward the people on the margins of His day” (156).

Given the current discussion regarding immigration in America, chapter nine, which focuses on the Pauline epistles, employs powerful imagery and elicits numerous thought-provoking questions. Of all the chapters in this tome, none seem as timely as this one. Ekblad’s analogy of Christ as a law breaking, rescuer of aliens in a foreign land, resonates deeply with illegal immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity. Though it can be eye opening, it has the potential to be politically and ecclesiastically controversial.

Reading the Bible with the Damned is a commendable work. Despite numerous grammatical errors and frequent offensive language, this book is theologically adept and socially active. Ekblad reminds his readers of their call to minister to “all peoples,” especially those in the margins. While there is much to applaud, this work also warrants a few critiques. Much of Ekblad’s agenda is to counter traditional teachings of the faith; he seeks to do away with mainstream readings in the name of his liberation paradigm. However, his focus on God as “therapist” aligns him with mainstream American Christianity—for whom “therapist” is the dominant metaphor (i.e. Joel Osteen and the Word of Faith Movement).

This reviewer’s main concern was Ekblad’s attempt to dismiss repentance. One wonders how persons can be liberated from their sin without being made aware of their guilt? That said, Ekblad does not forthrightly water-down the Scriptures. His exegesis is theologically responsible and he offers numerous insights from passages often glossed over. This publication is creatively written, easy-to-read, informed and passionate. Fit for both the scholar and layperson, Bob Ekblad’s work is artistic and resourceful as it seeks to unite theology with service in the name of Jesus.


  1. One wonders how persons can be liberated from their sin without being made aware of their guilt?

    This is a good question that you raise. One that I repeatedly circle through my mind these days.

    Most doctrines of depravity (at least as far as I can see) suggest, in a very general sense, that sin affects the entire person. I don't know that one has to be a Calvinist (or even a Christian, for that matter) to recognize that sin and evil permeate our world, cultures, and society. I think we feel it at a very fundamental level. Even for those who ignore it, there are countless examples of everyday depravity and also of extreme depravity. For example, I just today purchased a copy of Life magazine's "The Most Notorious Crimes in American History."

    If one can intuitively recognize evil, then where is the need for guilt? In a natural sense, I wonder if a sense of personal shame for sin is a more natural and appropriate response. For example, Adam and Eve hid. Prior to disobedience they were "naked but felt no shame."

    How does guilt relate to shame? There seems to me to be a correspondence, but I am not sure in what sense. Perhaps shame leads in to guilt. If this is the case, then it would seem as though many conservative preachers and evangelists over the years have got it all backwards when they preach guilt but not shame.

  2. Jon,

    I think you're right on about the relationship between guilt and shame. I think many people feel guilty of sin and know they are guilty but still do not really feel ashamed about it. In my preaching I have stated numerous times that one of the cultural aspects of the NT that the Church of today must recover is that of shame. We are much too lax on this whole issue.

    As for recognizing it, one does not need to be Calvinist. I do think, however, that recognizing shame may depend on whether or not one knows God. You don't realize that you need to be ashamed until you stand next to an incredibly holy God who makes you realize it.

    Just some thoughts. Glad to engage with you on this and other topics.

  3. Interesting topic you raise: Do we need God for shame???

    I think the answer is no.

    I recall in my Christian college days several years back we had the school's chaplain speak to us in chapel on the issue of integrity (or some such topic). One of the issues he mentioned was that one's integrity is measured in the little compromises. A specific example he mentioned was driving on a private/restricted street. The street connected the campus and made driving around a lot easier. There was a sign posted that said something about "private." It was a bit vague, but most of us interpreted it as meaning that the street was not a public access. But we used it, anyway, of course b/c it was so convenient.

    Our chaplain came down hard on us: Driving on this road is an issue of integrity. It was "wrong" to drive down this road.

    This affected my conscience. I felt bad (shame) for driving on it. Sometimes I drove on it, sometimes I didn't. I felt guilt, though, when driving on it.

    But here's the twist: There was nothing legally wrong with driving down this road! The sign was vague, but this street was (and still is) a public street.

    I felt shame b/c it was imposed upon my by a religious leader within a religious institution. But there was nothing "legally" wrong with it. Was I guilty? Not legally. But I did feel shame.

    This is just one example of perhaps many. The Pharisees kept people in bondage through the norms imposed from their leadership position within their religious institution.

    Shame, then, can be manufactured by society and religious institutions, can it not?