7 stories: a book review

The trajectory of the biblical story is toward non-violence. We see this not only in the movement from the Canaanite conquest (and other so-called holy wars) to the cross of Christ, but also in the very telos of New Creation—wolf and lamb together, a child playing on a snake hole, swords into plowshares, and no tears in our eyes. Anthony Bartlett traces Seven Stories of seismic transformation themes working through the biblical narrative and culminating in Christ.

Bartlett read philosophy and theology at London University, spent 10 years as a Catholic priest, left the priesthood and came under the guidance of Carlo Carretto, discovered the works of René Girard and pursued and got Ph.D. from Syracuse University where he studied under James William (eminent Girardian scholar). Seven Stories is the product of eighteen years of Bible Studies which he and his wife led. This is a course book designed to explore the movement toward non-violence in Scripture.

The book divides into Seven Stories (clever title, right?) with an introductory section exploring methodology. Each section has three chapters. In the method section, Bartlett lays out the nature of scripture, and historical-critical methods, an overview of (objective) atonement models throughout Christian history, and he provides an explanation of Girard’s non-violent atonement. In each of the story sections, the general structure is: a lesson showing a concept in the Hebrew Bible, a second lesson showing the way an idea developed or began to be redefined by the Hebrew community, and a third lesson examining how the trajectory of Hebrew scripture reaches a radical conclusion in the person of Jesus Christ. The transformative shifts which Bartlett describes are the following:

  • 1. Oppression –> to Justice
  • 2. Violence –> to Forgiveness
  • 3. The Land and its Loss
  • 4. Wrath –> to Compassion (with special attention to Second Isaiah)
  • 5. Victim –> to Vindication
  • 6. The Temple and its Deconstruction
  • 7. History –> to its End.

These 7 stories, or lenses on the biblical narrative, probe different aspects of the Bible’s move toward non-violence. Because Bartlett is a teacher, and this book is set up as a text, for personal or group study. Each chapter concludes with lesson questions, questions for personal reflection, a glossary of relevant terms, resources for background reading and cultural references (e.g. relevant movies, literature or music). Each chapter begins with a description of learning objectives, core biblical texts, key points, and keywords. Similarly, there is an at a glance overview at the start of each section of the book.

The gift of each “story” is that it illuminates an aspect of the larger biblical story. However, a peculiar lens can also obscure certain details. Because of Bartlett’s Girardian bent (one that I am sympathetic with), he focuses his discussion of the history of the atonement (Method1.2) on objective models (Christus Victor, Sacrifice, and substitutionary atonement) without any reference to concurrent developments of subjective atonement models (i.e.  Moral Influence models). When he discusses the Hebrew concept of land and its loss (S.3), he offers a superficial analysis of the Hebrew theology of land, though certainly, he notes the shift that happens with exile and the coming of Christ.

I mention this less as a critique and more an acknowledgment of the book’s limitations. It doesn’t delve deeply into every concept in theology or the biblical text, nor does it deal with every issue comprehensively. This is an introductory text designed to call attention to a particular shift in the text—the shift towards non-violence in biblical revelation. I think it succeeds to that end, and while I am still sometimes confused by Girard (though I  like what I’ve read of him) Bartlett sharpened my understanding of his perspective.

This could be a good book for exploring biblical non-violence in a group setting. One of the things I appreciated most was the attention that Bartlett gives the Hebrew Scripture and the literary sensitive way he reads the text. He describes the calling of Israel as the Hapiru (marginalized outsiders). patriarchs, Deuternomistic history, the role of the go’el, and the sacred symbols of temple and land. Of course, Bartlett’s Christocentric reading means that he has an eye to where Jesus builds on and redefines what went before, but he notes continuities in the development of revelation as well as discontinuities. I give this book four stars. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book via Speak Easy, in exchange for my awesome review

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matichuk

I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

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