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Which Fork in the Road?

by Berry Friesen (April 22, 2016)

Most people in my experience understand life to involve consequential choices. Disagreements emerge when we describe those choices and their consequences.

For the evangelical wing of Christianity, the fundamental choice is between accepting or rejecting Jesus as our “personal savior and lord.”  The consequences of this choice include either personal joy or anxiety while we live on Earth and nonstop heaven or hell after we die.

For the liberal wing of Christianity, the fundamental choice is between a loving, open-hearted way of life or a selfish, rule-oriented way.  The consequence of this choice shows itself in the gracefulness (or lack thereof) of our individual personalities.  Beyond death, the god whose very nature is loving and open-hearted ensures everything will be well.

For agnostics and atheists, the fundamental choice is between authenticity and pretense, between a life consistent with a true self versus a life fashioned after a false self.  The consequences are experienced as a personally satisfying life or a sense of frustration and futility.

If Not Empire, What? (the Bible survey John K. Stoner and I published in December, 2014) says a fundamental choice is between the stateless, vulnerable communalism of YHWH (embodied by Jesus of Nazareth) or the false security of empire. The consequence of this choice shows itself in how the world functions, which we claim to be YHWH’s primary concern.

Four perspectives, four different sets of choices, four different sets of consequences.

In the April issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review, Michele Hershberger, professor of Bible at Hesston College, reviews our book in a way that bridges these four perspectives.  That is, she affirms communal faithfulness within history as the center of YHWH’s concern even as she calls attention to a dimension of life she calls variously “supernatural,” “miraculous” and “divine.”

Hershberger speaks well of our book, calling it “a valuable addition to biblical scholarship and the church, giving us not only a fresh survey of the canon, but also a solution for the apparent disunity of the biblical narrative concerning the role of empire. It provides a standard for discerning which texts should be given more authority for our ethics . . .”

But she also voices criticism, lamenting a perceived “diminishment of all things miraculous or divine.”  This lack of attention to “the supernatural” will “very likely push evangelicals to stop reading before they get to the compelling argument for a biblical alternative to empire.”

“How can we find the love and energy needed not only to fight the empire but to help YHWH redeem it?” Hershberger asks.  Though Christians may not “agree completely on which miracles were historical or how exactly Jesus is divine,” Hershberger insists we can “agree on our calling to resist empire, and to recognize that such resistance is an impossible task without supernatural help from YHWH.”

I think Hershberger’s critique has merit.  There is a vital and hugely significant spiritual dimension to life that is not sufficiently addressed in our book.  But in my view, neither “supernatural” nor “miraculous” is a helpful way to describe this feature of life because it is as much part of normal human history as flesh and blood.

Some authors are capable of writing about the spiritual dimension without lapsing into magical thinking.  Tony Bartlett comes to mind with his deep understanding of mimetic theory and brain science.  Alas, Stoner and I are not such authors.

If Hershberger’s point is that resistance to empire is in part a spiritual battle in which spiritual resources are essential, then I can only wholeheartedly agree.

My hope and desire is for us to embrace such a correction while remaining fully rooted in human history.  Because YHWH has chosen to dwell on Earth, human history is where YHWH’s purposes unfold, take on flesh and are revealed.