Category Archives: Book reviews

Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos. Making Wise the Simple: The Torah and Christian Faith and Practice

Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos. Making Wise The Simple: The Torah In Christian Faith And Practice. Eerdmans, 2005.

Van Wijk-Bos, professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has written a helpful and important, if somewhat frustrating, book on a Christian appropriation of Old Testament law.

I greatly appreciate Van Wijk-Bos’s sympathetic reading of Torah and her deep concern for faithful Christian living. She helps us better understand how from the start Torah was rooted in God’s healing mercy–not legalism and fearfulness. She writes as a Christian, but with high regard for the Jewish tradition. While the scholarship is deep and sound, the writing is accessible, clear, and generally engaging.

However, the book’s organization seems fragmented and the book doesn’t follow as coherent a flow of logic as might be desired. It’s impact is lessened by its scatteredness.

Overall, though, Making Wise the Simple makes a strong contribution on a vital theme.

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G. K. Beale. We Become What We Worship.

G. K. Beale. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. InterVarsity Press, 2008.

I read this book because it is one of the few I know of that addresses what I see as a hugely important and interesting theme in the Bible–idolatry. While I like Beale’s basic argument, that we become like the things we give our highest loyalty to, I found the book quite a disappointment. I would not recommend it except for those with a strong research-kind of interest in biblical teaching on idolatry.

My main criticisms have to do with Beale’s very narrow sense of what idolatry is about–he minimizes the social dynamics of idolatry linked with nationalism, ethno-centrism, religious exclusivism, and various other ways idolatry and violence and injustice connect. He approaches the Bible with great reverence, but seems oblivious to many of the core elements of the Bible’s critical stance towards imperialistic social institutions and the role these institutions play in turning people and their religiosity against the true God.

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Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline

Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline. Herald Press, 2008.

I like the basic argument of this book very well. A Canadian Mennonite peace educator and practitioner has taken on a tremendously important topic: how do we respond to harm-doing without adding to the cycle of harm? And he states a clear point of view, that punishment (by definition a form of violence) is never appropriate. And he seeks to follow the logic of this point of view wherever it takes him–challenging the use of on corporal punishment on children, the use of retributive approaches to criminal justice, and the justification of international violence (i.e., warfare).

On the positive side, Redekop draws the insights of the restorative justice movement to articulate concrete alternatives to dealing with harm-doing in ways that do indeed promise to bring about genuine healing. His proposals may seem utopian, but they are based on actual human experience and are carefully thought through. Given the dead end road we are on with our dynamics of punishment and spirals of violence, he presents us with bases for hope that change may be possible.

I am delighted to see such a thoughtful and internally consistent presentation of this perspective. Though Redekop does not engage theology very seriously (and this is a problem), he frames his argument from within the Christian peace church tradition and its interpretation of the Bible. Sadly, Redekop’s Mennonite tradition with its generations long profound and lived-out opposition to state violence has nonetheless not been very self-aware about the damaging punitive practices toward its own children that have undermined its witness. Redekop alludes briefly to his own punishment-drenched up-bringing in a Mennonite family. And it’s great that he makes these connections–an exercise in self-awareness still pretty rare among the Mennonites I know and know of.

I do wish Redekop had been able to engage theology more deeply, but he at least gives theologians some impetus to test and expand his argument.

I do have one stronger criticism. I am sorry to say that I found the writing style to be uninspiring. The book has an exciting story to tell, but does not tell it in an engaging way. I had to plow on through most of the book. So my recommendation will be qualified. I fear people who are not already disposed to appreciate Redekop’s thinking here may find the book fairly tedious going and may lose patience. I hope not, though, because there is much wisdom and new thinking here.

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. SPCK, 2009.

N.T. Wright has achieved that stature among theologians that he can whip off a long, wordy direct response to a critique of his thought and have it become a major publishing event–which I think is mostly a good thing. I do find his switching back and forth between “N.T. Wright” and “Tom Wright” as the author of his various books to be irritating. And this book is being rushed out, seemingly in order to utilize the buzz among evangelicals concerning the debate between Wright and the super-Calvinist pastor/theologian John Piper while it lasts. The British edition has come out in paperback and can be purchased on line in the States.  The American edition, to be published by InterVarsity this month will start out in hardback–another indicator of the effort to exploit Wright’s popularity.

Nonetheless, this is an important and helpful book. As with all of Wright’s work, we have an engagingly written, theologically oriented, and exegetically careful treatment of central issues of the interpretation and application of New Testament writings. In this case, Wright focuses on the issue of “justification” in Paul’s writings–especially Galatians and Romans.

For the more general reader who is not particularly interested in the extremist views of someone like John Piper, chunks of Wright’s book will lend themselves to skimming. However, when he focuses on his constructive interpretation of Paul’s thought (which is, happily, for most of the book), Wright gives us a great deal to chew on. Basically, Wright understands “justification” in the context of the salvation narrative of the entire Bible–and makes what seems to me to be a quite persuasive case for this kind of reading. Linking with the argument of his fine recent book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (to be reviewed on this website soon), Wright interprets Paul as presenting justification as a world-transforming impetus from God in the present world–not as a matter of an individual believer finding one’s way to an otherworldly heaven after death.

He sees Paul articulating a “covenant” theology: “the belief that the creator God called Abraham’s family into covenant with him so that through his family all the world might escape from the curse of sin and death and enjoy the blessing and life of new creation” (page 222).  Well said!

So, all things considered, I highly recommend this book and anticipate the publication of Wright’s promised big, big book on Paul’s theology–which will, no doubt, be published under the name “N.T. Wright.”

Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

Barry Hankins. Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America Eerdmans, 2008.

Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University, in this cleanly written and remarkably objective short biography of Francis Schaeffer, the so-called evangelist to intellectuals, divides Schaeffer’s public live into three distinct stages. One’s feelings about Schaeffer and his impact on “evangelical America” might be closely related to which of these stages the reader is most interested in.

The first stage would be of interest to those who want to know about one important element of the intense fundamentalist reaction toward and separation from mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States (and the subsequent conflicts among the separatist fundamentalists, especially those in the Presbyterian tradition).  The young Francis Schaeffer (he was born in 1912) began his seminary studies in 1935 at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Schaeffer’s home town). Westminster had been started in 1929 by the prominent and militantly conservative  New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen in direct opposition to what Machen and his collaborators saw as in intolerable drift toward liberalism on the part of the flagship Presbyterian seminary at Princeton.

Schaeffer studied at Westminster for two years, a time of increasing tensions within the Westminster community that culminated at Machen’s death in 1937 when another splinter seminary was formed. This new school, called Faith Seminary, was led by disenchanted Westminster faculty Allen MacRae and the infamous Carl McIntire. Schaeffer was Faith’s first student, first graduate, and was the first minister ordained in a new demonination formed by MacRae and McIntire known as the Bible Presbyterian Church.  This new group, according to Schaeffer, felt especially concerned about three issues: Westminster was seen as too extreme in its commitment to Calvinism, Westminster was too tolerant concerning the use of alcohol, and Westminster was amillennial rather than premillennial.

Between 1938 and 1948, Schaeffer served several Bible Presbyterian congregations as pastor, joining wholeheartedly in the efforts of Bible Presbyterian leaders to persuade like-minded congregations to leave the mainstream Presbyterian denominations and join with them.  He emerged as a rising star in this context, but in time felt fairly battered by the constant conflict such an approach to Christian faith seemingly required.

So when the opportunity arose in 1948 to move his family to Switzerland and undertake the task of helping to reintroduce doctrinally “orthodox” Christianity into western Europe, the exhausted young pastor accepted the call. During the 1950s, the Schaeffers struggled to make their way. Francis did find the opportunity to engage Europe’s most prominent Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in a brief dialogue. Schaeffer managed to alienate Barth fairly quickly, leading to a note from Barth calling an end to the “conversation.” Barth believed that Schaeffer had basically accused him of being a heretic, devoid of truth and logic, so what was the point of dialogue?  “The heretic has been burnt and buried for good,” Barth wrote. “Rejoice, dear Mr. Schaeffer (and you calling your-selves ‘fundamentalists’ all over the world)! Rejoice and go on to believe in your ‘logics’ and in your-selves as the only true ‘bible-believing’ people! Shout so loudly as you can! But, pray, allow me, to let you alone” (page 39).

By the summer of 1954, Schaeffer came to the end of his relationship with Carl McIntire and the Bible Presbyterian Church. The bitter break led to a loss of financial support from and formal connection with the church agencies that had sent Schaeffer to Europe. Out of this turmoil came the opportunity to begin an independent ministry, L’Abri. This constitutes the second stage in Schaeffer’s career–Hankins terms it “The Making of a European Evangelical” in distinction from the first stage, “The Making of an American Fundamentalist.”

The ministry of L’Abri led to a quite different focus for Schaeffer. Rather than struggling over the creation and sustenance of a doctrinally pure church over against other Christians, Schaeffer’s attention now was focused on offering hospitality and witness to young people, many of whom were not Christians. In this context, Schaeffer developed his apologetic approach, meant to persuade these non-Christians of the truthfulness of the faith and to lead to their conversion.

Schaeffer’s effectiveness with this work led to the gradual growth of L’Abri and of his reputation. Part of his appeal was the sincere effort to provide a non-judgmental, empathetic presence for young people struggling with hope and meaning.  Part of the appeal, added to significantly by Edith Schaeffer, was practical love and care shown to the ever-growing number of visitors. However, as Hankins suggests, part of the appeal of the Schaeffer ministry also stemmed from underlying certainty in the truthfulness of the message being delivered. Schaeffer’s break with McIntire really had nothing to do with the general theology of Presbyterian fundamentalism–especially the insistence on the perfect errorlessness (“inerrancy”) of the Bible and the utter rejection of the validity of “liberal” Christianity.

Schaeffer’s big breakthrough came with the idea to transcribe his lectures for publication. The books that resulted, in particular his “trilogy” (Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, and He Is There and Is Not Silent) became a bit of a sensation. They gained wide circulation among North American evangelical Christians, expanding Schaeffer’s ministry greatly–and changing the focus a bit from encounters with European atheists and agnostics more to working with doubting Christians and former Christians from North America who made the pilgrimage to L’Abri.

The third and final stage in Hankins’ story comes when Schaeffer moved from books to film in an attempt to expand his audience. How Should We Then Live?, a film series and an accompanying book that sought to provide an analysis of Western culture in service of Christian apologetics did indeed expand Schaeffer’s audience and signaled a whole new focus for his ministry. His filmmaker son Franky persuaded him to enter into North American controversies such as the struggle over biblical inerrancy and the conflict over abortion.

This entry into these issues moved Schaeffer into the political arena with both feet–and aligned him closely with the emerging Christian Right. In fact, Franky (now Frank), in his recent memoir, Crazy for God (reviewed here), makes a not far-fetched claim that his father’s final three works (How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, and A Christian Manifesto) and their attendant conferences and publicity combined with overt efforts to expand the Schaeffers’ network of allies (which included links with “co-belligerents” such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye) served as one of the founding impulses in the emergence of the Christian Right as a major political force in the United States (Frank came greatly to regret his role in this process).

Francis Schaeffer became a kind of superstar in conservative Christian circles–becoming friends with Presidents Ford and, especially, Reagan. Schaeffer suggested that Reagan’s election provided a providential “window of opportunity” for politicized Christians to move the US back to its Christian foundations via, among other things, legislation to criminalize abortion. Schaeffer contracted cancer and died in 1984, so we don’t know what his assessment of the Reagan administration might have been, but it’s hard to imagine he would not have been disappointed.

Hankins, who treats Schaeffer with a great deal of sympathy throughout the book, suggests that when looked at now in retrospect, these three stages in Schaeffer’s career provide a fairly coherent whole. During the third stage, many of those who had been ministered to through L’Abri and Schaeffer’s early books (including several such as theologian Clark Pinnock and historian Ronald Wells who went on to prominence as evangelical scholars and teachers), came sharply to critique what seemed to them a shift toward a much more militant and fundamentalist orientation. In Hankins’ telling, though, the main difference between stage two and stage three was simply the move toward a more overtly political focus–indeed a significant shift that transformed the nature of Schaeffer’s audience, but not one reflecting any philosophical or theological changes.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Schaeffer phenomenon. Any criticisms I could mention would be minor–the book is well-written, based on solid research, and tells a fascinating and coherent story. My main regret is simply that the book is too short. It is part of a series of biographies on various religious figures and clearly was required to fit in lengthwise with other books in the series.

Reading this book certainly triggered a lot of memories and reflections for me. I encountered Schaeffer’s work about the time he was making the transition from stage two to stage three. During the summer of 1975, I joined a new church and immediately became immersed in a book study group that was working through Schaeffer’s trilogy. At that point I was a self-identified fundamentalist who very much lived in a dualistic world–my Christian faith on Sunday and college studies during the week. Schaeffer’s message to me was to bring these worlds together. I swallowed that message hook, line, and sinker, and in many ways the course of the rest of my life was set.

During my senior year in college I read everything Schaeffer had published plus numerous other writings from his L’Abri colleagues such as Os Guinness, Udo Middelmann, and Hans Rookmaaker. About this time I also encountered Anabaptist writers, especially John Howard Yoder. For a brief time these two schools of thought vied for my allegiance. Very quickly, though, Yoder won a decisive victory over Schaeffer. The key issue was his attention to the story of Jesus and his utterly persuasive case for the present-day normativity for Christians of Jesus’ politics. I came to see in Schaeffer just another version of political Constantinianism and a theological (or Christological) evasion of the core elements of Jesus’ message (including, at its heart, pacifism).

By the Spring of 1977, I was ready to leave Schaeffer behind. The process was accelerated with the film series How Should We Then Live? I co-taught a course at the University of Oregon on this series right after it was released. I have learned that the best way to become aware of the weaknesses in scholarly works is to teach them. That certainly was the case with this book and film. As we taught the class, I became increasingly disenchanted with Schaeffer’s perspective and his tendency to make highly questionable generalizations and fit everything into his apologetic box. I had numerous debates with my co-teachers, and in the end I was through with Schaeffer. When he followed up this project by moving much further to the Right politically and joining with some of the most obnoxious Christian and political leaders in our country, I realized his true colors were becoming ever more apparent.

Hankins’ book helps me understand better my experiences and perceptions of Schaeffer–and confirms most of them. As I said above, Hankins writes with great objectivity and sympathy–there is nothing here to suggest any motivation to attack Schaeffer. But he is a good enough historian to give us the information we need to assess Schaeffer’s career for ourselves.

Several elements of the story jumped out for me. I knew a bit about Schaeffer’s connection with the arch-separatist Carl McIntire, who had become quite an embarrassment by the end of his long life. It was interesting and revealing to learn how closely Schaeffer worked for McIntire and for how long they remained close allies. Schaeffer certainly remained utterly hostile toward anything that sniffed of theological liberalism throughout his career. This hostility seems especially problematic given that many of the elements of Schaeffer’s critique of anti-human aspects of Western culture have a lot of truth to them. But his antipathy toward fellow Christians who would share that critique and want to work to bring healing in our culture undermined his efforts tremendously.

A classic case, which I alluded to above, is Schaeffer’s attitude toward Karl Barth. On any reasonable theological spectrum, Barth stands pretty far to the right, pretty strongly founded on the biblical message, and pretty affirmative of the theological tradition (i.e., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et al). But Schaeffer did treat Barth as an arch-heretic, a thinker firmly below the “line of despair” who consistently leads Christians astray.

A telling comment by Hankins, which he brings up almost in passing and does not emphasize at all, puts this in perspective. “It is highly unlikely that Schaeffer ever actually read Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the other modern thinkers he would later critique in his lectures and books.  It is doubtful that he even read Barth in depth.  Schaeffer’s knowledge of these thinkers was superficial….[He] was a voracious reader of magazines and the Bible, but some who lived at L’Abri and knew him well say they never saw him read a book” (page 43).

Hankins does not go into much detail about Schaeffer’s rationale for his uncompromising stance on biblical inerrancy and his rejection of the theory of evolution. These stances were front and center through all stages of Schaeffer’s career and certainly mark him as a fundamentalist and even as, in some basic ways, anti-intellectual.

The one account of Schaeffer’s intellectual shallowness that Hankins tells in some depth is quite revealing. Schaeffer’s final book, A Christian Manifesto, centered on Schaeffer’s long-standing assertion of the United States as originally a fundamentally Christian nation. This was part of his critique of how we had lost our bearings as a culture due to losing the original Christian element. Two of evangelicalism’s most accomplished historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, challenged Schaeffer’s reading. Noll, especially, patiently devoted a great deal of time to respectfully arguing his case in a series of letter exchanges with Schaeffer. Despite being unable to marshal any evidence to support his argument, Schaeffer refused to budge–implying that the present cultural war required his argument, regardless of the evidence.

My impression, based in part on my own experience and in part on reading Hankins’ book as well as numerous other pieces over the years, is that Schaeffer (even if poorly grounded) provided evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s and 1970s with inspiration to enter the intellectual life. For some, this inspiration opened doors to a lifetime of learning and working to intergrate faith and scholarship. Perhaps he deserves our appreciation for this. However, given the enormity of his influence in encouraging powerful anti-intellectual dynamics among Christians and a politics of division and coercion that culminated in the disaster of the George W. Bush presidency, it’s hard not to conlude that ironically and tragically, the deepest legacy of Francis Schaeffer was to hasten the diminishment of the standing of Christianity in our world.

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.

Adam Hochschild has told us an engaging and dramatic story with tremendous significance for our present day. As Hochschild points out, in 1787, “well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.”  He states that just as “such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today” it was, “to most people then, unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise” (page 2).

That date, 1787, is important for Hochschild’s story because on May 22 of that year a group of twelve people met together in London, England, to begin a movement that would within twenty years lead to the British Empire ending the slave trade and within another thirty years lead to the actual abolition of slavery throughout the Empire.

This group of twelve included ten Quakers, continuing the anti-slavery concerns that long characterized many in that community, and two others, both Anglicans. One, Granville Sharp, was for many years a crusader for various social justice causes, known to be a bit eccentric. The twelfth man, the central hero of Hochschild’s narrative, was a young man studying for the ministry named Thomas Clarkson.

In his studies at Cambridge, Clarkson entered an essay contest, and prepared, as an academic exercise, a piece arguing against the slave trade. What began as an exercise in debate soon came to possess Clarkson’s soul. Initially, he later wrote, “I had no motive but that which other young men in the University had on such occasions; namely the wish of obtaining literary honor.” The more he learned, though, the more horrified he became. “In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief.”

Clarkson won the top prize with his essay. His finished his studies, set to begin what seemed likely to be a successful career in the ministry. But, as he reported later, slavery “wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true….If the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Hochschild suggests that this day in June 1785 when Clarkson struggled with the need for “some person” to fight slavery “is a landmark on the long, tortuous path to the modern conception of universal human rights.”

Clarkson continued to wrestle with his grief and passion. “Could a lone, inexperienced young man have ‘that solid judgment…to qualify him to undertake a task of such magnitude and importance;—and with whom was I to unite?’ But each time he doubted, the result was the same: ‘I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my mind there. But there the question still recurred, “Are these things true?”—Still the answer followed as instantaneously “They are.”—Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere.”‘ Only gradually, it seems, did it dawn on him that he was that person” (pages 89-90).

Once Clarkson became clear on his task, though, he took it on with a depth of commitment and effectiveness rarely matched in all of the history of human efforts for justice. The rest of his long life was devoted to this work–and he lived to see it come to fruition.  Clarkson died in 1846 at the age of 86, eight years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Shortly before Clarkson’s death he received a visit from American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who recognized his greatness in the cause.

Quakers play only a peripheral role in Hochschild’s story (unfortunately), but he does make a point to mention several times in the course of the book the Quaker tradition of Quaker men never removing their hats while in the presence of powerful people. This sets up the concluding sentences of the book, an account of Clarkson’s funeral. “In both the funeral procession and the overflowing church where the service was held, the mourners included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from long-sacred custom. They removed their hats” (page 354).

This book is much needed tonic today for anyone today who trembles at the thought of successfully resisting the forces of violence and injustice that seem so overwhelming. Hochschild probably wisely sticks simply to telling the story. I would have liked more analysis of the processes of abolition (when the final legislation is passed, we get only a cursory account of the action). I also would have liked more attention to the role of the Quakers who were central to the effort. However, the story of the perseverance, the numerous set-backs, the extraordinary suffering of the Empire’s slaves, and the ultimate success against overwhelming odds is well told and carries its own power.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Thomas Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition

Thomas P. Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. Hill and Wang, 2008.

John Woolman, the Quaker “saint” who died in 1772, is certainly worthy of continued attention–as is given in this careful and thorough biography. Woolman strongly opposed slavery in a time when even many Quakers were slaveholders. He also opposed warfare and materialism. He wrote a spiritual classic, his Journal, which continues deservedly to be read widely.

I approached this book with great anticipation because while I have known of Woolman’s witness for years, I still didn’t know much about the man and his life.

Slaughter, a history professor at Rochester University in New York, writes a very close-grained account of Woolman’s life, making the most out of the fairly scarce resources we have about this exceedingly modest and spiritually rigorous Friend. So, this book makes an important contribution in giving us the details of Woolman’s outer life that shaped the inner life so powerfully expressed in the Journal.

The Woolman that Slaughter recovers for us (and I should emphasize that Slaughter seems quite sympathetic to the subject of his book–this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet job) does not come across as an overly attractive person. In particular, Woolman seems fairly hateful toward fleshly human life and even his own family ties. He departed on his one trip across the Atlantic to witness to British friends well aware of his delicate health. He expected to die (as he did) while following his calling, loved ones notwithstanding.

My biggest disappointment with this book is Slaughter’s lack of attention to the broader context of Woolman’s life–both in the sense of the dynamics of the world in which Woolman lived (e.g., I wanted desperately to know more about the retreat of Pennsylvania Quakers from political life in their colony–a retreat that reached fruition during Woolman’s life and one that was, apparently strongly encouraged by his own ministry; we are only given glancing hints concerning this event by Slaughter) and in the sense of Woolman’s impact those who followed after him (e.g., one of the big issues pointed to by the book’s title is the abolitionist movement and the transformation among Quakers from tolerance toward slavery to total opposition–Woolman seems to have pioneered these changes but we are not given much of a sense of how).

So, I finished the book wishing for something quite a bit different that what I received. I recommend it only with strong qualifications. It’s pretty long, not particularly engagingly written, and too narrowly focused. We do learn a lot about the details of Woolman’s life–he’s important enough (though Slaughter doesn’t tell us enough about why) to warrant our attention. But so much more could be done with the fascinating story of John Woolman, his life and times, and his legacy.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Paul Boyer. When Time Shall Be No More

Paul Boyer.  When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Even though this book is in some ways now getting a bit dated (for example, one wonders how Boyer’s analysis would be differ now in light of the powerful impact the Christian Right had during the Bush II administration), it remains an extraordinarily helpful resource.

Paul Boyer, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, gives a detailed and reasonably objective portrayal of the background and emergence of what he calls “prophetic belief” (that is, dispensational premillennnialism) in the United States. Boyer is a reliable chronicler and engaging writer. He’s critical of prophecy belief, but does a good job of letting the story come through in a way that even a supporter of prophecy belief would gain understanding.

Boyer does a good job setting the context for prophecy belief in the United States. He pays special attention both to the role of the United States in the future-prophetic schema and to the role of the establishment of the Israeli nation-state as the lynchpin for current assertions of the imminence of the End. In particular, it is interesting to learn of how the understanding of Israel’s “re-establishment” changed after 1948 when it turned out that masses of Jews did not convert to Christianity as had been understood to be a necessary precursor to fulfillment of the prophecies about Israel as a restored nation-state.

The alarms Boyer raised back in the early 1990s are even more worthy of taking seriously today–this approach to Christianity will continue to wreak major havoc. His background study, hence, remains relevant, even essential.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Jerome Segal. Joseph’s Bones

Jerome M. Segal. Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible. Riverhead Books, 2007.

This is one of those books that probably makes a better contribution in how it stimulates the reader’s own thinking than in the particular argument it makes or information it conveys. Segal is a professional philosopher and (in the best sense of the term) an amateur biblical scholar.  This book mainly operates in the latter of these arenas, though its strongest suit (being its questions and testing of speculative hypotheses) surely reflects Segal’s own active philosophical mind.

That is, Segal obviously loves the Bible and draws on his long experience of teaching the Bible to young people in his Jewish community–but he writes as an outsider to the biblical studies guild. This “outsider” stance works mostly to Segal’s advantage. He is free to ask fresh questions and not bound to the distracting kind of scholarly apparatus that dooms so much biblical scholarship to irrelevance due to its thousands of qualifications, its “objectivity,” its arcane debates and butt-coverings, and its focus on minutia. Continue reading

Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality [critical notes]

Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment. Herald Press, 2003.

[These are notes from September and October 2003 made in preparation for this review.]

I wanted to like this book, because I have liked Willard Swartley so well.  He was a very important teacher for me when I attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in the early 1980s, and we have continued to have friendly contact from time to time in the years since.  I am very happy he published this book because we have had so few materials of a scholarly nature to interact with concerning what is surely the most difficult issue the Mennonite Church has ever faced.  I am hopeful Swartley’s book will open the door a bit for the sake of much needed conversation.

However, as will surely be clear in my comments to follow, I am not very happy with what Swartley has actually produced.

Preface

Swartley states that we “need to distinguish between exegetical work and the hermeneutical task” (p.11).  I find Swartley’s notion of hermeneutics to be quite impoverished.  He seems to have little to say about what are probably the most significant issues concerning using the Bible for ethics; implicitly assuming, it would appear, that our task is simply determining what the text means and then this meaning takes care of itself.

This Preface and Chapter One would have been good places for Swartley to interact with the excellent essay by Norman Kraus on “the two ‘H’ words” in the book Norman edited, To Continue the Dialogue.  That Swartley is obviously familiar with that book – he cites several of its essays throughout his book – and yet ignores probably the most important essay in the book tells me that he simply does not realize the complexities of these issues.  This failure to work with what I understand to be the key hermeneutical issues is a tremendous problem.

While I appreciate Swartley’s assertion of how important it is that we seek “to speak in love” (p.11), I am troubled with his failure to engage the testimonies of gay and lesbian Mennonites in this book.  Roberta Kreider’s two edited collections of such testimonies, From Wounded Hearts and Together in Love, are resources he should have interacted with.  This refusal to include gay and lesbian Mennonite voices in his discernment process leads me to find his quote from Miroslav Volf at the end of his Preface exhorting us to listen carefully to the voices and perspectives of those with whom we disagree ringing a bit hollow.

Chapter One: My Journey on Homosexuality

Swartley uses the term “homosexuality” without defining it or recognizing just how contested of a term it is.  This creates a problem right away when he states that with regard to “homosexuality one encounters at the level of the ‘plain sense’ of the text only prohibitions, and strong ones at that” (16).  He is already contradicting himself since, as he himself acknowledges later almost in passing, “homosexuality” is a modern term – so the “plain sense” of an ancient text can tell us nothing about “homosexuality.”

Swartley assumes that the basic issue that we have to deal with is “homosexual practice, i.e., same-sex genital intercourse” (p.17).  However, this is not self-evident.  Maybe the basic issue is, instead, the treatment of vulnerable, oppressed people in the community of faith.  Or, maybe, the basic issue is intimate relationships more broadly understood, including friendships and the other elements of committed intimate relationships besides sexual intercourse.  It would have helped if Swartley would have recognized this uncertainty and given some explanation as to why he should be focusing simply on sexual intercourse.

When he writes that “homosexual practice…always appears in prohibitive language” in the Bible, Swartley is making both a meaningless and an inflammatory statement.  It is meaningless in that the Bible cannot possibly be talking about homosexual practice, since the concept of “homosexuality” is modern.  This is important partly because the statement “homosexual practice,” though not clearly defined by Swartley, seems clearly to be meant as an all-encompassing term including any conceivable expression of sexual intimacy between two men or two women.  But the Bible clearly never has this in mind.

What the Bible seems to portray, at the most, in “prohibitive language” includes male-on-male threatened rape (Gen. 19; Judg. 19), male-male cult prostitution (Lev 18; 20), male-male orgies (Rom 1), and exploitative male-male sex (1 Cor 6).  However, the Bible also uses “prohibitive language” of male-female sex in parallel situations (rape, prostitution, orgies, exploitation).  Hence, it seems inappropriate (and inflammatory) to label these prohibitions as having to do with “homosexual practice.”

Chapter Two: The Old Testament and Early Judaism

In general, I found Swartley’s approach to the biblical materials highly disappointing.  He focuses primarily on citing various scholars, playing them off one against another, dismissing the one’s he disagrees with as “unconvincing” without giving one enough data to help the reader draw one’s own conclusion.

Surprisingly to me, given what I remember being taught by Swartley himself in his Biblical Hermeneutics class, he spends little time delving into the texts themselves and virtually no time talking about the broader literary contexts for the passages he does discuss.  So, he simply (very briefly) discusses Genesis 19 without, for one thing, noting the broader context beginning in chapter 18 of the story setting a contrast between Abraham’s receptivity to the angels and Sodom’s hostility.  That is, Swartley does not address what the point of the Sodom story is in its broader literary, treating it instead in narrow isolation.

Swartley makes the point (p.31) that the Bible speaks of “acts,” not “orientation” (or, I would add, not “homosexuality” as an element of a person’s identity).  True enough, but this fact makes it crucial for us then to be quite attentive to the particular “acts” that are referred to – and to why these particular acts are problematic.  And if we are focusing on particular acts, we must question strongly the assumption that we may automatically move from these particular acts to making generalization about all possible acts.  We would never conclude from stories of problematic heterosexual acts such as rape, sex with prostitutes, and involvement in orgies that sexual intimacy in the context of committed, mutually caring, monogamous heterosexual relationships is immoral.

Swartley argues that in Genesis 19 it matters that the “lust” leading to attempted rape was homosexual lust (pp.31-32).  However, how can this be “homosexual” lust when it obviously cannot include women?  It seems to me, in reading Genesis 19 together with Judges 19, that these two stories are not differentiating between whether the people being threatened with rape or actually raped are male or female (that is, whether the “lust” was homosexual or heterosexual), but between whether the victims are guests or not.  The daughters are rejected by the mob in Genesis because they are not guests; the concubine is accepted by the mob in Judges because she was a guest.  That is to say, neither of these stories have any relevance whatsoever to current discussions concerning same-sex intimacy.

In his discussion of Leviticus (pp. 33-36), Swartley does not discuss the broader context of Leviticus nor the hermeneutical issues related to the use of the Old Testament law codes for present day ethics (or for present-day Christian ethics).  He mostly simply cites various scholarly opinions, some of what have very little to do with the actual text we are considering.  This entire chapter on the Old Testament is a wasted opportunity to actually look in some depth at several fascinating texts and try to figure out what the texts are actually saying in their broader contexts.

Chapter Three: Jesus and the Gospels

Swartley states that “Jesus nowhere condoned the sin of the sinners to whom he graciously related.  Rather, he empowered them into a transformed status in society” (p.44).  I read the Gospels as presenting things in a more complicated way.  In some cases (e.g., poor people, sick people, bleeding women), Jesus indicates that what society sees as “sinful” (or “unclean”) is not sinful in God’s eyes.  In other cases (e.g., his followers violating the Sabbath in order to eat), Jesus critiques those who label others’ life-enhancing actions as sinful because they violate the alleged letter of some law.  In yet other cases (e.g., the “woman who was a sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment), Jesus offers acceptance with no sense of critique of the “sin.”  Perhaps in some sense in all of these cases Jesus could be seen as “condoning” sin.

In general, Jesus focuses his critique of sinners on those who hurt others (e.g., the Pharisees) and offers unconditional acceptance for vulnerable and oppressed people.  He shows a clear desire to help people to live whole lives, challenging them to make changes that would help them to do so.  But he is not bound by the letter of the law to support people in power using rules to hurt vulnerable people – which is what has all too often in the church in relation to sexual minorities.

Indeed, as Swartley insists, the Gospels portray Jesus as “not soft on judgment” (p.45).  But who generally are seen as the likely recipients of this judgment?  Isn’t it almost always those who try to block entry to the community of faith due to their legalism, not those allegedly guilty of “unrepentant sexual sin”?

Chapter Four: Understanding Paul on Homosexual Practice

Swartley begins his discussion of Romans by zeroing in on 1:24-27, and he asserts that “its function is to describe theologically the nature of humanity’s condition outside salvation in Jesus Christ” (p.50).  In contrast, I would say that the “function” of these verses needs to be understood in terms of their larger context.  In light of that larger context (most immediately, Paul’s argument in Romans 1:16–3:28 ), the function of these verses seems to be to set up Paul’s readers for Romans 2:1ff (as you judge others, you are just as sinful) which is setting the readers up for Romans 3:21 (reconciliation with God for all who trust in Jesus Christ).  That is, Romans 1:24-27 is misread when it is not read as part of Paul’s message of God’s unconditional mercy, a message that, to be understood, must be heard as shattering the kind of self-righteousness that Paul’s readers are prone to when they point fingers at the sins outlined in chapter one.

Swartley asserts that “same-sex desire and practice are regarded as the result of a God-disowning culture” (p.51).  Here his refusal to recognize that there are many types of “same-sex practice” (as there are many types of “opposite-sex practice”) is particularly pernicious.  The broader section running through 1:32 makes it clear that Paul is talking about extreme behavior here.  It is a misuse of this text to draw any general conclusions concerning same-sex affectional orientation from it – just as the story of David with Bathsheba tells us nothing about opposite-sex affectional orientation or the morality of healthy opposite-sex relationships.

Again, in this section, Swartley focuses much more on citing various scholarly opinions as if that is the key to understanding the text, instead of taking us into the text itself and struggling with the genuine issues of how to translate the text’s meaning for our day.

I found Swartley’s comment on p.66 to be a bit sanctimonious and annoying: “I prefer – and it seems to me to be more honest – to not attempt to rework what the texts say and mean with or by tenuous interpretations.”  In my opinion, Swartley could himself be accused of reworking what the Romans text actually says.  He takes what is meant to be a description of non-Christian behavior and twists that into the basis for normative ethical prescriptions for Christians.  As well, he turns the meaning-in-context of this passage on its head, taking what is used by Paul as part of his argument against judgmentalism (2:1ff.) as a basis for his judgmentalism against gay and lesbian Christians.

Swartley ignores several aspects of this text that are important for correctly understanding it.  (1) The whole of 1:16-32 picks up the theme of justice/injustice (unfortunately often translated “righteous,” et al), which in the Bible are relational terms concerned with people living in harmony with or harming others.  If we consider the sexual allusions as in some sense being linked with the vices mentioned in 1:28-31, we see that the sexual behavior problem likely has to do with the behavior being unjust and causing harm.

(2) Swartley never mentions the close parallel of Romans 1 with Wisdom 13–14, a connection that could support the idea that Paul was drawing on some stereotypical attitudes among his readers for rhetorical effect more than developing an original argument.

(3) Swartley never addresses the paucity of material in the Bible concerning women’s same-sex “acts.”  The only possible reference in the whole Bible is here in Romans 1, but this text is irresolvably ambiguous.  The reference in 1:26, “their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” could be saying the consequences of this “exchange” was “female/female” sex or, on the other hand, it could be that the consequence was simply being overwhelmed with lust in general.  One’s conclusion on this issue probably would follow from what one understood Paul’s general concern here to be, same-sex sex or out-of-control orgiastic sex of various kinds.

Perhaps Swartley’s most problematic textual discussion is his treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:9.  He starts with a single, very ambiguous word (p.67) – as if the meaning of a passage of the Bible is centered on individual words.

The conclusions Swartley draws about this word, arsenokoites, are problematic enough.  As I understand it, we simply do not have enough evidence to ascertain with any certainty that we can conclude that this word (used nowhere else in the New Testament [except for 1 Tim 1:10] and nowhere else in other surviving first-century Greek writings) simply means the sum of the two Greek words from the LXX translation of Lev. 18:22; 20:13, “male” and “laying.”  The similarity between the one word “arsenokoites” and the two Lev words certainly is suggestive, but compound words are not always simply the sum of their two parts.

The bigger problem is Swartley’s failure to be attentive to the context of this verse.  He presents the context as being one centered on the pornoi (the “fornicator”) who is discussed in 1 Cor 5, totally ignoring the context of chapter six immediately preceding 6:9.  Paul’s concern in chapter six, as in Romans 1, is justice/injustice, not “fornication.”  Paul confronts the Corinthians for taking their disputes to secular courts (with the possible subtext that these were wealthier church people using the secular courts to help them exploit poorer church people).  Paul’s punch-line here is that you can’t get true justice from these courts because they are run by unjust people, people characterized by the vices listed in 6:9-10.

Included in this list of vices are terms with uncertain meanings – possibly having sexual aspects.  “Arsenokoites” likely does have some sense of male/male sex as part of its meaning.  Given Paul’s concerns with his vice list here, and given the context for the word’s later use in at least a few early second-century instances, this male/male sex seems linked with injustice, not with all male/male intimacy in all cases.  The second term, malakos, literally means “soft” (see Mt 11:8 ) and could easily here in 1 Cor 6 simply have the sense of “morally lax.”

Amazingly, Swartley seeks to resolve the ambiguity in 1 Cor. 6:9 concerning the possible allusions to male/male sex not by reflecting on the immediate context in the preceding verses, which points toward a justice-oriented concern (implying that it is unjust expressions that Paul has in mind) but by jumping over to Romans one and using that as a basis to conclude that Paul’s main concern in1 Cor 6 was a general condemnation of “homosexual practice” per se (p. 70).

Another problem with Swartley’s approach to 1 Cor 6, echoing his treatment of Rom 1, is that he takes what is a descriptive statement of non-Christian morality serving rhetorical purposes that have nothing to do with sexual ethics (in Rom 1 challenging the judgmentalism of his readers, in 1 Cor 6 challenging the use of non-Christians courts by his readers) and twists that into a prescriptive statement for Christian morality.  Swartley, it seems to me, must resort to doing this because in the New Testament we have a total lack of such prescriptive statements concerning same-sex intimacy.

Chapter Five: Analysis of Contemporary Culture

(1) Swartley combines a blanket condemnation of what he sees to be morally reprehensible about Western culture with a refusal to differentiate among “homosexualities.”  There are surely parallel types of sexual behavior among gays as a group and among straights as a group – in each group ranging from fidelity in life-long partnerships to crass promiscuity.

By refusing to make distinctions here Swartley (1) lumps all who are open to same-sex marriage-like partnerships together with the worst advocates of “free love,” and (2) in this way undercuts any possibility of making common cause with people who would share much of his critique but make a distinction between sexual behavior that is morally inappropriate (for both same and opposite sexual relating) and morally appropriate same-sex relationships.

(2) I wish Swartley would interact with a book such as Didi Herman’s The Anti-Gay Agenda.  I believe that this book helps us see a more central cultural dynamic that drives the Mennonite Church’s (and other denominations’) hostility toward gay members.  Herman helps uncover the political forces from the New Right fueling the anti-gay movement.  Doug Ireland’s article “Republicans Relaunch the Antigay Culture Wars” in The Nation (Oct. 20, 2003)shows this dynamic is still going strong.  I am sorry that Swartley, who has been so exemplary in his peace work over the years, would even implicitly be making common cause with such cynically reactionary forces in our society.

(3) This chapter is full of problematic assertions, assumptions, and innuendos.  I’ll just mention a few.

(i) “Homoerotic attraction…has become part of the dominant cultural agenda of the West” (p.75).  This seems to be a case of greatly exaggerating the problem one is opposing as a means of justifying one’s fearfulness.

(ii) “The sexual revolution of the 60s is a paramount factor in understanding why the homosexual issue has become a cause in Western society” (76).  This statement reflects Swartley’s assumption throughout that “the homosexual issue” is primarily about sexual behavior rather than human rights.  One could just as easily argue that the core dynamic bringing the quest for human rights among gays to the surface were parallel quests for human rights for colonized peoples, African-Americans, women, disabled people, et al.  Given Swartley’s own work for peace, he would likely face a great deal of cognitive dissonance should he admit that the key issue here is human rights, which is possibly why he is so quiet in this book about the horrific persecution vs. gays in our culture and the churches.

(iii) “Western culture is founded on human autonomy” (76).  Of course this is an incredible over-simplification.  But granting at least some of Swartley’s point, it seems totally wrong-headed to imply that the hope for acceptance in the churches and support for intimate partnerships among gay Mennonites is a problem of individualism!  This hope seems to stem from the exact opposite inclination – a recognition of the need for and value of Christian community.

(iv) “It is striking that from Ezekiel 16:49 through the church fathers, wealth and especially greed and injustice, are linked to homosexuality” (78).  Besides the fact that Ezekiel 16:49 most certainly is not a reference to “homosexuality,” this is a blatantly prejudicial and illogical statement.  The famous people I know of who are greedy and unjust are almost uniformly heterosexual.

(v) “The route to be included in God’s salvation and the body of Christ is through repentance and confession of sins, baptism, God’s free justification, and the gift of the Spirit [not on the basis of some ‘human right’ based on some form of justice]” (83).  This points precisely to the issue within the Mennonite Church – we have individuals and churches who are excluded from the fellowship even though they have followed this “route to be included.”

Chapter Six: Hermeneutical Analysis and Reflection

(1) I took a class on “Biblical Hermeneutics” from Swartley in 1981.  Much of the class admittedly focused on exegesis of biblical texts, however I was introduced to Hans-Georg Gadamer (briefly) for the first time and we read and discussed an essay by Rudolf Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?”  So I credit Swartley with helping me learn of the importance in biblical study of the interpreter’s “horizon.”

So I expected this chapter to include some reflections on our starting points in approaching biblical texts related to sexuality issues.  I was disappointed that it turned out simply to be a series of justifications for particular interpretations, focusing only on internal biblical concerns.  It is amazing how little self-examination Swartley undertakes in this book.  Of all themes that one could write about today, sexuality issues require a lot of self-awareness and honesty about one’s presuppositions.  And insofar as those presuppositions shape one’s interpretations, it becomes even more important to surface them and justify them.  Swartley fails on this score.

For example, what we receive from the Bible will be largely determined by which of the following two questions we begin with as we approach biblical materials.  Are we looking for clear bases to exclude gay Christians from full fellowship in the church (with the assumption that they are in unless it is proven they should be put out)?  Or, are we looking for clear bases to include gay Christians (assuming they are out unless proven otherwise)?  Swartley does not address this issue at all that I could see.

(2) Again, Swartley assumes that the starting point in approach the general issues is sexual behavior, not human rights or Jesus’ love command.  This seems extraordinarily narrow.

(3) Following Gagnon (though thankfully, he is not as relentless in doing this as Gagnon), Swartley writes of “the homosexuality issue” as being in the same cluster of “sexually related sins” as “incest, bestiality, adultery, prostitution, and soliciting prostitutes” (p.103).  I would tend to argue that “the homosexuality issue,” instead, is best seen as being in the same cluster of sins of injustice as oppression of vulnerable people in the community of faith such as widows, orphans, and strangers.  I don’t think Swartley adequately justifies his choice here.

(4) As an Anabaptist, I am not as persuaded as Swartley that the practices of medieval Christendom, Calvin’s Geneva, and New England Puritans of making same-sex illegal and of Paris executing “homosexual offenders” are evidence for how Christian Tradition provides support for present-day anti-gay perspectives within the church (p. 112).  Given that all these people were so wrong about warfare, violence, and capital punishment, why would we assume they were right about sexuality?

Chapter Seven: The Church’s Belief and Response

Swartley writes, “institutional and congregation leaders must be alert to the way homosexuality tends to stop everything else and becomes an all or nothing bargain” (p.119).  I think it would be much more accurate (and honest) to say that opposition to “homosexuality” tends to stop everything else.

I’ll just give one example from my experience.  A couple of years ago, Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, existed pretty much out of sight and out of mind, a tiny congregation on the margins of the Virginia Conference’s Harrisonburg District.  At that point, the congregation had no gay members or attendees.  One of the members had a lesbian friend looking for a location for her commitment ceremony, and offered the church building for that use.  Somehow word got out to a Conference pastor who contacted the District leaders demanding that Broad Street be stopped from allowing their building to be used in this way.  Broad Street resisted the demand, and in the course of a conversation with District leaders admitted that the congregation would be open to the participation of gays in their church life.  The first challenge to Broad Street’s decision to allow the ceremony came in December 2001.  In February 2003, the congregation was formally kicked out of Virginia Conference.

One of the main arguments I heard expressed for acting against Broad Street was that many people in the Conference were threatening to leave if such action didn’t happen.  District leaders even openly stated that they saw themselves faced with a no-brainer – either Broad Street or the many, many on the other side who were making the threats.  (A huge irony is that the original pastor who raised the complaint did not even wait around for the very abbreviated process leading to Broad Street’s expulsion – he led his congregation out of the conference only a few months after raising his initial complaint.)

To me this story illustrates that the initiative in “stopping things” in the churches due to controversy almost always comes from the anti-gay people.  Broad Street, like other Mennonite congregations in Germantown, Pa., Ames, Iowa, and Calgary, Alberta, simply wanted to exist within its Conference and be allowed to follow its own discernment processes.  The conflict arose not because of “homosexuality” but because of those activists opposing the presence of a congregation in their Conference that had a different perspective.

Chapter Eight: A Model for Congregational Discernment

Swartley’s rejection of allowing experience to play a central role in the churches’ discernment processes (pp.126-7) strikes me as self-defeating theologically and practically.  From the get go, we in the church are involved in open-ended conversations in which we draw on our experiences as the basic elements of our “horizon.”  The only way we can hope truly to understand (each other, scripture, tradition, et al) is to accept that we each bring a unique “horizon” to the conversation, a “horizon” shaped by our own unique experiences.

I want to insist that our only hope to live together in community is to respect these various experience-shaped “horizons,” to seek to learn from our differences, and to work together to find common ground that we can build our life together on.

Swartley is, of course, correct to point out the messiness of allowing experience in as a central element of our discernment processes.  However, this is precisely where our peace theology should help us understand that the only way to find genuine peace is to learn to respect each other and genuinely listen to each other (see my article in the July 2003 Mennonite Quarterly Review, “Pacifism and Knowing: ‘Truth’ in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder,” where I use the churches’ discussions on sexuality issues as an example of how a genuinely pacifist epistemology can help us proceed).

It could be that the Mennonite churches are basically facing a crossroads right now.  Either we commit ourselves to an ecclesiology that genuinely seeks open discernment where all members listen respectfully to one another in expectation that the Spirit of God guides the churches through such discernment or we commit ourselves to holding the line on the “traditional” view of “homosexuality.”  It seems increasingly clear to me that it is one or the other.

So, contrary to how Swartley presents the issues, this is not about sex.  It is about how the churches understand their basic identity and way of being.  What does it mean to be followers of Jesus today?  One of the best indications of how the Mennonite Church is answering this question is how the Church processes differences within the fellowship.  What I have seen in my 30 years among the Mennonites does not leave me very encouraged.

Conclusion

Though I am critical of Swartley’s book, and I am especially disappointed that as a biblical scholar he does not do more engaging directly with the texts in their literary contexts, I still am glad that he has published this book.

He seeks to be irenic, and that is to be appreciated.  Though he is quite dependent upon the work of Robert Gagnon (to Swartley’s detriment, in my opinion–see this critique of Gagnon) he does not share Gagnon’s scarcely disguised disgust with gay people – and that is so be appreciated.

Most of all, Swartley’s book took courage for him to publish, knowing he would be open to critical responses (and worse).  I would like to believe that it wasn’t simply a matter of, wow, we have to provide our people with ammunition for refuting pro-gay arguments.  I would like to believe that Swartley genuinely wants to foster broader and deeper conversations among Mennonite on these issues.

Peace Theology Book Review Index