Have you ever heard a sermon or Bible study that presents a text in a way that you had never considered? Those sermons and studies have always stood out to me. They force me to think in a different way about the whole biblical narrative and my faith. They make me want to go back to other passages in the Bible and read more deeply, in case what I’ve been seeing from them was too shallow, or perhaps even missed the point entirely.
Tom Fuerst, one of the pastors at Christ UMC in Memphis, regularly does that with Scripture passages. Tom is a prophet and scholar and story-teller. He reads the Bible with a critical eye, looking for those small details that may be crucial to the whole. And then he tells stories about the Bible and about life today in a way that engages and comforts and challenges.
Because of all that, I was excited to learn that Tom had written a book––a Bible study for Advent. It’s a book that does exactly what I would have expected from Tom, combining all his prophetic, scholarly and story-telling skills. The book is titled Underdogs and Outsiders: A Bible Study on the Untold Stories of Advent. It focuses on the five women in the genealogy of Jesus and sheds new light on each of their stories. I highly recommend it to you for your own reading, and even more if you can find a group to read and discuss together during Advent.
Even if you don’t read the book, I think you’ll enjoy my interview with Tom below. You’ll pick up on some of his approach to reading Scripture and also gain from his call for brutal honesty in the church.
See the transcript below, or listen to the audio here (right-click to download).
Teddy: My name is Teddy Ray and I’m here today with Tom Fuerst. Tom is a longtime friend and someone who is doing some great work in pastoral ministry and also in theology. I was so excited to hear… Tom, you’re finally writing something, and I was waiting for this––for you to put something out that I can hand people. Tom, just this year has written a book called Underdogs and Outsiders. It’s a bible study on the untold stories of Advent… I’m going to hold it up [we recorded in video] because Tom is posting all over his Facebook page these advertisements that are LeBron James and Mickey Mouse and anyone under the sun holding up his book.
I’m really excited to talk to you about this. It’s funny that you’ve done that goofy advertising campaign for what is a very vulnerable and deep sort of study.
Tom: Yeah, yeah, it definitely is. I’m trying to provide some juxtaposition between lightheartedness and “Oh wow, this book is kind of intense.”
Teddy: Yeah. I think you introduce it really well. In your introduction you say, “Jesus Christ did not come into a perfect family filled with perfect people who didn’t need saving. He came into a wrecked family filled with wrecked people who needed a savior.” It seems like that’s a theme that you keep capturing over and over again throughout the book. Not only in the lives of these women, but in your life, too. How did all these start to come together for you?
Tom: Yeah, I mean that was it. I feel like a lot of times what happens when we get together for church is we put on our best faces, we put on our best clothes, and we put on our best behavior, and we ask our children to be on their best behavior, and so we sort of put on this air of having it together. It seems to me when I read the New Testament that the church doesn’t have it all together, and on some levels, they’re not even pretending to have it all together. When you read the letters of Paul, they clearly are not pretending to have it all together. They’re bickering and arguing and they don’t get it right and there are people just at each other’s throats. Paul is writing these letters saying, “Hey, listen.” He is not saying be authentic, he is not saying, “Hey put on an air and pretend like everything is okay,” but he is saying like here is a cruciform form way to handle conflicts. Not to avoid them, not to pretend like they are not there, but acknowledge them and work through them in the method of the cross in that direction.
It just occurs to me that so much of the way we do church, and so much of what we assume about the Christian life, doesn’t involve this sort of brutal honesty about our imperfections and these vulnerabilities. So far as we are not being vulnerable with one another, acknowledging both our individual brokenness and also the brokenness of us together collectively, we really can’t be the church, right? I mean the church begins with confession. “I am a sinner and I am a man of unclean lips and I live with people of unclean lips and I need some help.” So far as we don’t acknowledge we need help, we can’t be the church.
Teddy: That’s great, that’s beautiful. Did you preach this through at any point? Did you preach through these characters or something similar?
Tom: Yes and No. I mean I’ve preached on the women. I’ve preach on Tamar, and I have taught many lessons going through Genesis and so I did Genesis at my service here a couple of years ago. In fact, I had a whole sermon on Tamar and I’ve taught lessons on her. I don’t think I’ve preached on Rehab. I think I have preached on Ruth, and I don’t know that I have preached on Bathsheba. So some of it I have preached on and I have done work on and some of it was really fresh and others I started from scratch.
Teddy: Yeah, so the things that you wrote here, the ways that you approach these stories. This was very different from the Sunday School version of these stories. Especially I think about the story of Rahab and you are talking about these Israelite soldiers in a totally different way than I have ever heard them presented. Where is this coming from? Is this scholarly opinion that we never actually get, or where did it come from?
Tom: Yeah, it’s drawing from the implications from the text. Obviously doing the work with the text, but then also reading commentaries. And understanding that the commentaries are trying to sound very professional, but they’re talking about very not professional texts. And so, these commentaries are making it scholarly and they’re drawing these connections with other texts and saying things like, “This is the symbolism happening here,” and really the symbolism is incredibly scandalous! But the commentaries will say, “This is scandalous.” But they don’t make you feel the scandal. I think ancient Israelite readers would have felt the scandal, they would have understood the symbolism and the references and they would have felt the scandal. I wanted to sort of draw out that feeling in a way that it would help us have some context for that feeling as well.
Teddy: Yeah, you did that well.
Tom: Oh, well thanks!
Teddy: Yeah, as I’m reading I was like, “Okay, nobody is going to miss this.” You can’t go on and go, “Oh that story of Rehab is just this nice little story about soldiers that she protected.”
Tom: Some of it is, it comes down to the realization… Again going back to the idea that these people are not perfect, they are a mixed bag and if we assume that even our biblical heroes are a mixed bag of sinfulness and brokenness like you and I are, then that gives us space to cringe when they do something. It gives us space to sort of chuckle when they’re out of line, it gives us space to wonder about their motivations. Of course I don’t want to go beyond what the text says, but at the same time, there are clues within the text about what is happening in these stories that we just have a difficulty picking up on because they’re 6,000 years later or something.
Teddy: Right. Speaking of that, we’re 6,000 years removed. You are a white man, who is a pastor in a church writing about these women 6,000 years ago, or some less than that. How did you overcome all those different sorts of barriers to put yourself in some of these people’s shoes?
Tom: Yeah. I’ll say this, obviously I can’t overcome those barriers. The idea will be more, how do I acknowledge that they’re there and work with them, understand that they’re what they are and try to bring in other voices. I relied heavily on a couple of female scholars who gave a different kind of approach to the text that wasn’t outside of the bounds of good protestant theology, good orthodoxy, but still reflected deeply on the experience of women and how the experiences of women under regimes of oppression or under patriarchal cultures might have responded to this and what they were trying to do. So I tried to listen very deeply to what they were saying.
Then the other thing was just to try to be as familiar as I can be with the text and ask questions of the text. You know, our inductive Bible study in seminary, you and I had inductive Bible study together actually, and it taught me to ask questions.
It taught me to say, “Hey, why is this little piece in the text? It seems like it’s insignificant.” And yet I realized that the authors of these texts don’t waste words. They don’t have the time and energy to waste words. They’re being very precise. Why are these little details here, why does it matter that the Israelites are camped at Shittim right before they crossed into the Promised Land? You know, that connection between prostitution, the Israelites prostituting themselves and idols, and then they’re going in and the first person they meet is a prostitute. That’s not just mere coincidence. I have to ask questions about that, and I think any good interpretation has to bring those two things together.
I think relying heavily on some female scholars is a help, and then just doing the work with the text and just really wrestling with it.
Teddy: This is one of the things that I have loved about your approach to any theological question is, there is this deep searching of the scriptures to say, what is actually here? You consistently refuse to accept the easy answer or the quick answer or the answer that’s already out there. What’s really underneath this, and I think people are really going to benefit from that.
Tom: I appreciate that. Not everybody does!
Teddy: Quit messing with our world, right? We already know what to believe about this. Stop introducing new things.
Teddy: What are you hoping people might gain from this, if they’re studying on their own, if they’re studying it in a group, what are you hoping will come?
Tom: I think at the end of the day, the realization that, if Jesus’ family tree was filled with all these broken branches before he arrived, then that’s all that he works with now. I mean he is dealing with these broken branches now, and it’s okay, we don’t have to hide these things. We don’t have to put on our best face and our best clothes and make our children behave. We don’t have to suppress depression or mental illness or anger or divorce or any other thing that’s happening. That we really can be open about these things. In fact we can’t be the church unless we’re open about these things.
I don’t know that I have some big revolution in mind. I’m just not Rob Bell or anything. I think if the small number of people that might be interested in reading a book like this can just simply get a glimpse of the fact that God works with sinners, that God works with broken people, and if He doesn’t then He doesn’t have anybody to work with, then maybe there can be little smoldering revivals here and there.
Teddy: You keep talking along those lines and you share so personally throughout this book about your own experiences. Was there a moment or a few moments of that kind of revelation for you that really changed things?
Tom: I think not growing up in church was probably a huge part of the way I approach this. I think everything I preach and everything I teach and everything I write is in some way related to my family. You see it on the first page when I dedicate the book to my mom, and this is in hopes that all of your pain and all of your suffering might find redemption. There is this sense in which the entirety of my ministry and the entirety of the way I think about these things is grounded in the assumption that our stories have a redemptive arc and that God is working our stories, individually and collectively, to this resurrection kind of end. We may not see that. We may just see just a small part of it, just as these five women didn’t really see the full outcome of what God was going to do. I think for a long time, I’ve just had this back of my mind realization that this includes my family, that this big story of redemption includes my family, whether I see it or not. And it includes me, and it includes my brokenness, so let’s engage that stuff, let’s talk about it. So the book is probably really a natural overflow of how I preach then.
Teddy: Yeah, I can hear that, definitely. How did you choose these five women? How did you choose Advent? How did you choose the form of a bible study sort of book? How did all that happen?
Tom: Great question. First Abingdon approached me about it. They were looking for an Advent study and they asked me if I had anything I might be interested in writing about, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about these five women. Pretty much everything about the book is Abingdon’s idea except for the subject and the actual writing. They chose the bible study, they wanted it to be Advent, they wanted it to have five chapters and an introduction, and so it was basically, “Hey, do you have an idea for five chapters and an introduction?” And I said, “Yeah. Let’s talk about the women in the genealogy of Jesus. Let’s really dig in here.”
And I knew immediately what I wanted to write about, because again, it just seemed natural to do it. Advent is a time where our brokenness ought to be acknowledged, our waiting, the fact that we recognize there is a redemptive arc, and so Jesus is coming, but he’s not here and we can’t see it, and we feel this desperation from our own brokenness. And I didn’t want to just talk about that abstractly. I didn’t want to just say, “Hey, we’re waiting for redemption.” I wanted to say, “Look, these are women who waited for redemption and didn’t necessarily even see it.”
And so, the waiting we feel, at least we have Jesus 2000 years ago. You and your situation right where you are and the imperfections of your family and your own soul, you may feel like this is not going to end, but there is a redemptive arc to this, and these women are the promise of that.
Teddy: Okay, I’m gonna ask the opposite of the easy question.
Tom: All right.
Teddy: Who should not read this? Who is this book not for?
Teddy: Okay. As in children to what age?
Tom: I would say leave that up to the parents…
Teddy: When are you going to let your daughter read it?
Tom: Yeah, my daughter is seven, she’s not going to read it until we’re properly ready for her to… There is sex in there, right? I mean that’s the thing. The bible is an adult book and it’s not always PG-13. Sometimes it is downright rated R or even worse in certain passages. I took on a few of those passages. I mean it’s not smutty, it’s not super overly graphic or anything but it deals with sex, it deals with rape, it deals with the way men use sex to hurt women. And those are pretty, I think in light of certain political things happening now, it’s pretty relevant, but it’s not necessarily the kind of thing I want my seven year-old to read. I would say, I would leave it up to parental discernment.
Then maybe people who are easily scandalized and don’t want to see these things in the Bible, they’re going to see it as unholy or something. I could say they should not read it, but at the end the day, I mean they may be the people who would benefit the most from seeing the scandal of the Bible.
Teddy: Yeah. Anything else you didn’t get a chance to say that you want to talk about here?
Tom: Yeah, what stood out to you? What was a chapter or a thing that really stood out to you, that you said, “This is interesting,” either an interesting approach or something you hadn’t thought about that way before?
Teddy: Right. I named the one that had stood out the most which really was, man the way you treated Rahab. I had never thought of that entire story that way, that these are unrighteous people coming to her and that she did the righteous thing in the middle of it, just turning all of that upside down. That was brilliant. I really appreciated that.
Tom: That whole thing about circumcision, it occurred to me, the king comes to her and he says, “Hey, have you seen these people?” He’s like, “How would she know they’re Israelites?” Well. She knows. Yeah and I think she is so compelling because she is the person they’re told to destroy. They come in and they’re going to use her body and then throw her away with the rest of the Canaanites, but she makes the greatest confession of faith in the entire book. To me that communicates, whatever unease we might feel with the Canaanites genocides, I think the writer of Joshua probably felt the same.
Teddy: Do you think that’s just one more piece of when Israel read that, do you think they just read that and were cut to the core, “What is wrong with us here?”
Tom: I would at least hope that there was enough cut to the core that they realized, “Hey, we’re not a whole lot better than the Canaanites here. But for the grace of God, we would be them.” What makes us holy is not that we’re more morally pure than the outsiders, it’s simply that God has said this is the community through which I’m going to reveal my son to the world. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we act just like the Canaanites.
I think the thing that really probably stood out to me in studying this was the Bathsheba chapter. I had not really given a whole lot of consideration to her, whether she was seducing King David or whether she wasn’t but agreed, or whether she didn’t even have a voice. I think I was reading Brueggemann through that section, and he just talked how she didn’t have a voice, like she didn’t talk during the whole thing. And I thought, “This is what happens.”
This is the text’s subtle way of saying, not that she is seductive and initiates this, this is the text’s subtle way of saying she did not have a voice. Women did not have a voice. Even best case scenario, is she really going to be able to say no to the king? I mean, really? It really gave me a different look and I just love Nathan there. I just love what Nathan does and the way he… I think the difference between a… How do I want to say this? I want to say this very clearly but not in an inflammatory way. He illustrates what prophets do. We have preacher stories; he tells parables. We’re talking about this great golf shot we had or some cute little narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories in sermons, but this guy comes with this full out story that is so subversive to the king’s power and challenges him on sealing of this ewe lamb. So I just love Nathan there, but I didn’t want to get distracted by that. I just wanted to keep focusing on Bathsheba there because she is the one who doesn’t have a voice, and I just kind of wanted to air her story.
Teddy: To focus on her in that story, it makes you realize how uncommon that is because she doesn’t speak.
Teddy: It’s easy to move to David and to Nathan because these are the principal actors. She can end up viewed almost just as an object, which I think is what you draw out.
Tom: Yeah and one of the commentators, if I remember correctly, I was actually looking at this recently. David is actually enacting what Samuel said the king was going to do. In Samuel 8, Samuel said, “Listen, the king is going to take and he is going to take and he is going to take.” And then what you see, you have all these take verbs in the David and Bathsheba story. So Samuel is not just talking about Saul, he’s talking about any monarch, that power is inherently un-self-critical and it takes. Amazing stuff.
Teddy: Yeah. All the way through it was. Your research is so evident in all of this. Really appreciate it.
Teddy: I think it does exactly what you said. The deeply researched, scholarly researched, but then you present it like a normal person, which I think you know has always been one of my big things is, talk to people like they’re normal people. Because otherwise it just gets lost in, “Oh, this is scandalous,” without painting that picture in the same way.
Teddy: Well, Tom thank you. Really appreciate this.
Tom: I appreciate it buddy.
Teddy: People can get this at Abingdon’s website. They can get it at Amazon.com. Anywhere else?
Tom: Those two will work.
Teddy: Okay, either of those. Underdogs and Outsiders, I would highly recommend it for anybody, whether you’re doing an Advent study or you grab it on your own. I ended up just reading it on my own and loved it for that. I can see where it would be a lot better if I were discussing it with a group. Go pick it up, enjoy it. Tom thanks again. Appreciate it.