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

Going Old Testament on Nonviolence: a book review

Every reader of the Old Testament wrestles with the violence they find there. God in the Old Testament, sanctions wars, even calls for the destruction of women and children and seems merciless and genocidal in his dealing with the Canaanites. In contrast, in the New Testament, Jesus’s response to human violence is to die on a cross. Is there any way to reconcile the violent God of the Old Testament with the God of love revealed in Jesus?

fc-fullsizeThe angst over the violence of God in scripture is where Matthew Curtis Fleischer begins The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence. He notes the violence in its pages and the real stumbling block to belief which OT violence is to non-Christians. Fleischer is a reader, a writer, and an attorney.  Here he weighs evidence, and builds a case, asserting that not only are we able to reconcile the OT’s violence with the New Testament’s non-violence “but also how it supports the NT’s case for nonviolence and how the OT itself advocates for nonviolence” (7).

Fleischer builds his case in twelve chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the topic—the problem of violence in the Old Testament. In chapter 2, he introduces his key to reconciling the two testaments, namely, ‘incremental ethical revelation.’ That is, the Old Testament represented an advancement of the ethics in ANE culture (e.g.  legal protection for the disadvantaged, criminal penalties more humane, the roots of egalitarianism and women’s rights, rules of warfare, etc). Fleischer writes, “Although God’s OT laws and actions were imperfect, incomplete, fell short of the created ideals, and left much to be desired by current standards, they constituted a significant ethical improvement at the time” (21). And yet there were moral concessions to where people were at (e.g. Mosaic divorce law). 

In chapter 3, Fleischer fleshes out how Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets, examining Jesus’ six antitheses and the ways Jesus’ moral law didn’t ‘transgress OT laws’ but ‘transcended it (30-31). He develops this further in chapter 4, highlighting the ethical movement toward non-violence as fulfillment in the Bible (e.g. God’s condemnation of violence, the anti-violence of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus’ non-violent commands and the non-violence of the cross). Chapter 5 discusses the nature and purpose of incremental revelation, God establishing his existence and authority and teaching the basics of obedience to his people before moving on to higher moral standards.

Chapters 6 through 9 re-examine what the Old Testament says about Israel as a ‘set apart people,’ the Canaanite conquest, and God’s character as revealed in the Old Testament. The establishment of Israel as a ‘holy nation,’ and the punishment of the Canaanites were indeed violent; nevertheless, Fleischer traces the movement toward non-violence in the Bible, and how violence not being an essential aspect of God’s revealed character.  Chapter 10 notes that a lot of the violence in the Old Testament is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, not commanded by God but carried out by human hands. Chapter 11 describes the incremental revelation of God’s character in scripture (again, culminating in Jesus). Chapter 12 concludes the book, a closing argument for biblical non-violence.

Fleischer training as a lawyer serves him well as he weighs the evidence of scripture and builds his case. I think he makes a strong case for incremental ethical revelation, and as a Christian reader of the Old Testament, I’m inclined to agree with the concept. He calls as his expert witnesses like Bible scholars (e.g. Richard Hays, Christopher Wright, David Lamb, N.T. Wright, etc ), theologians (William Cavanaugh, Jacque Ellul, Jurgen Moltmann), Anabaptist thinkers (John Howard Yoder, Donald Kraybill, Greg Boyd), apologists (especially Paul Copan), as well as popular authors (Preston Sprinkle, Derek Flood, Brian Zahnd).  Fleischer synthesizes their insights into a Christocentric ethic, claiming that Jesus was where the story was moving, and He is the moral of the story.

Certainly, Fleischer notes the movement toward non-violence is already in the Old Testament. However, his Christological focus makes this is really the Biblical Case for Nonviolence. The New Testament ethic has pride of place, and the ethical development in the Old Testament is seen as steps along the way until we get to Jesus. I’m am inclined to agree with Fleischer’s reading and focus, though I wish he spent more time exploring the antiviolence of the prophets (particularly their understanding of shalom and the eschaton). The case for nonviolence is really there in the Old Testament.

I also wish his chapter on the Canaanite conquest was more detailed. He says some great stuff here. He mentions some things in passing that mitigate against understanding the conquest as a genocide (e.g.  ANE hyperbole, the nature of the settlement at Jericho, God’s judgment in relation to Genesis 15:16, the limited nature of the military campaign, Israel’s stalling tactics, and the counter-narrative of Judges showing a more peaceful conquest of the land). I think these are important things to wrestle with when you look at the book of Joshua, but they do not wholly alleviate our modern discomfort with what we find in its pages. As the Canaanite conquest is a central complaint of New Atheists (e.g. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), and this is the central chapter of this book, I wish he took a more detailed look at it, and the concept of Herem in the Deuteronomistic history.

But then I’m kind of an Old Testament guy, so wanting more engagement with the text, may be my own proclivity. I like a lot that Fleischer is committed to reading the Old Testament as scripture—acknowledging the influence its human writers but also understanding it as a revelation of God. This is a pretty solid look at the issues which I happily recommend. I give this four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review

 

All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance

Why don’t we practice peace?

Is that we don’t regard the biblical vision of Shalom as a practical alternative to the violence all around us? Is it all just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky idealism? Walter Wink observed, “Many of those who have committed their lives to ending injustice simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism” (Jesus & Nonviolence, Fortress Press, 2003, p.9).

And he’s right, isn’t he? Turn the other cheek seems like an awful way to stand up to a bully (if you like your face). Love your enemy sounds sooo naive. Pray for those who persecute you. Just what we need in the world: more thoughts and prayers!  If only Jesus had more American pragmatism about him. Didn’t he know that the best way to keep the peace is through a show of strength? Take up your cross? Nope. “Speak Softly and carry a big stick.”

But it isn’t just that we think the peace of Jesus as impractical idealism. We also lack the spiritual and moral imaginations to live at peace. Our Western mindsets cause us to think of our spiritual lives in individualistic terms. We talk about personal disciplines (e.g. daily Bible reading, prayer, quiet times, meditation). Our evangelical emphasis on personal conversion emphasizes our personal responsibility in the Christian life.  And yet to practice peace is to enter deeper in relationship. God’s shalom is always communal. It ripples out from Father, Spirit, Son—the perichoretic peace within the Godhead—into our hearts, our neighborhoods, our nations and all creation.

When we think about practicing peace we need to reimagine communal contexts for our actions. The individual who turns the other cheek may incur the violence of a bully or enable abuse to continue. But non-violent direct action becomes powerful when done in the community, before a watching world.

The Civil Rights era has become part of our cultural memory. Nonviolent protests in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham awakened national outrage at the injustices faced by the Black Community. America saw BullConner, the KKK, White citizen councils, firehoses and dogs, young people jailed and beaten and finally decided that enough was enough (and yes, there is still so much work to be done!). The power of turning the other cheek is that shames the oppressor into repentance (Wink, 27). Turning the other cheek is all about social change.

When an individual person loves their enemy, it does something. At least one person has learned to rehumanize the opposition—to not see their enemy, whether nations or those across the political aisle, as evil incarnate. But the real power of enemy love is found when churches and communities commit together to a vision of humanity that leaves space for the redemption of the other. Wink writes:

It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation, or the overthrow of oppression is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions. Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny [w]hat they have of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God. (58-59).

Can you imagine what it would look like if the church in North America were committed to this sort of vision of shalom? If we refused to demonize or write off anyone? What if we regarded Democrats, Republicans, the LGBT community, Westboro Baptist Church, Pro-Choice advocates, evangelicals, Muslims, terrorists, refugees, undocumented immigrants as all worthy of redemption?

The Advent vision of shalom is that one day wolf and lamb will lie down together (Isa. 11:6). The oppressed and the oppressor will be at peace; they will no longer be prey and predator. Do we dare hope for this? How can we become a people committed to seeing the humanity of oppressors, enemies, and adversaries?

Pray for those persecuted! But please, do it in public! Our world won’t be transformed when our cries against injustice are only done in private devotion.

The autumn of 2017 erupted with cries online of #metoo and brave women and men sharing stories of systemic abuse from Hollywood producers, actors, politicians, and executives. Time magazine named their person of the year “The Silence Breakers.” When darkness is brought to light, systemic change becomes possible.

Praying for the persecuted names injustice. It points it out. When we pray in public for the victims of religious violence around the globe, or victims of sexual violence, when we dare to acknowledge before God and the world the ways our unjust systems privilege one person’s race or economic status and do violence toward another, we both bear witness to our lack of shalom and commit to no longer being complicit in injustice. We can’t pray publicly about the persecuted, downtrodden and oppressed and remain the self-appointed guardians of the status quo.

Jesus’s call to nonviolence comes with a promise:

But  I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  -Matthew 5:44-45

It is as we love our enemies we become the household of God!

John Lennon’s sang: All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance. I dare to hope for God’s shalom. But if peace is ever to have a chance we can’t embody it alone. May we become the “we” that gives peace a chance.