Anthony Bartlett, Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence. Cascade Books, 2022. Reviewer: Kym Bills April 2023
A former Roman Catholic Priest, Englishman Anthony (Tony) Bartlett is now a US (Syracuse University) academic who with his wife Linda jointly leads the Bethany Center for Nonviolent Theology and Spirituality (https://www.bethanycenter.community/whoweare). Bartlett’s Preface and Introduction in Signs of Change acknowledge that the book depends on the more academic treatment about ‘semiotic openness’ within his 2020 Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard. Signs of Change provides illustrations of the earlier arguments based on an approach that “is both semiotic and evangelical, looking to actual religious effects and outcomes, and above all the concrete word of the gospel producing them. … the gospel is eruptive and self-validating”.
In Signs of Change Bartlett shows that the arbitrary and violent God of much of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Kings, also evident among many prophets, reflects the anthropology, understanding and culture of the settings, authors and compilers, and that this is reflected in parts of the New Testament and how it has been read. Bartlett documents the roots and signs of an alternative understanding of God and God’s expectations of humanity including compassion, forgiveness, non-violence and peace begun in Genesis 1 and within Exodus and developed in most of Job, Second Isaiah’s servant passages, Ruth, Daniel and Jonah, and in many key NT words and actions by Jesus and Paul. These form an alternative semiotics (sign processes and meaning making) to challenge the dominant narrative and understanding of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and its continuing influence within the New Testament.
This is important for those who seek to reconcile a God of mercy and love with the many biblical passages that suggest the reverse, and to understand Jesus’ death on the cross not as a sacrifice of a Son required by God the Father but as a self-giving by the Son who eschews violence in the face of human power and authority that is underpinned by violence. Bartlett considers that Jesus’ break with his ‘mentor’, John the Baptist, was based on Jesus’ nonviolence as against John’s hope and support for the fiery apocalyptic judgement of Elijah (see, Mt 3: 7-12; Mt 11: 2-14). The book’s title Signs of Change encompasses both the indications of an evolving different approach and the semiotics of that transformative inbreaking ‘kingdom of God’ understanding. Bartlett considers the evolution towards divine nonviolence in the Hebrew Bible to be ‘consistent’ and the canonical passages and books examined do help make that case. But the continuation of assumed divine violence within books of the New Testament means that interpreting such signs will inevitably remain contested. Signs of Change is accessible and thought-provoking for an informed non-academic lay readership that is open to Progressive Christianity and is highly recommended.
(Amazon Australia link to the book: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/1666703729/ref=cbw_us_au_dp_ags?smid=A4XRJ8S0WXSO0
An insightful review by Revd. Canon Professor Scott Cowdell of Charles Sturt University is at this link: https://www.pdcnet.org//collection/fshow?id=covrb_2022_0072_0016_0017&pdfname=covrb_2022_0072_0000_0016_0017.pdf&file_type=pdf )
Brian McLaren, Do I stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned. Hodder & Stoughton, 2022. Reviewer: Kym Bills April 2023
Former English teacher and pastor, the American Brian D. McLaren is a well-known advocate for ‘a new kind of Christianity’ and author of many well-regarded books since 1998 (https://brianmclaren.net/about-brian/ ). Do I stay Christian? is his latest book and for many good reasons, has been warmly endorsed by Richard Rohr.
It is a book for the times in the mostly declining church in developed Western countries. It is profoundly evangelical but not in the usual way. Rather, it honestly engages the reality that faces hurt and thoughtful members of congregations who have not yet left mainstream denominations and who harbour doubts about individualistic approaches to sin and salvation, are deeply disappointed by the behaviour of clergy and church leaders, and who are broadly disillusioned by simplistic preaching and theology, among many other things. Such constructive engagement may also assist those who have already left to reconsider.
Do I stay Christian? is structured in three parts in response to that primary question. Part One outlines the ‘no’ case including because Christianity: “Has Been Vicious to Its Mother (Anti-Semitism) … Suppression of Dissent (Christian vs. Christian Violence) … High Global Death Toll – and Life Toll (Crusader Colonialism) … Loyal Company Men (Institutionalism) … Real Master (Money) … White Old Boys’ Network (White Patriarchy) … Is Stuck (Toxic Theology) … Is a Failed Religion (Lack of Transformation) … Great Wall of Bias (Constricted Intellectualism) … Is a Sinking, Shrinking Ship of Wrinkling People (Demographics).
The ‘yes’ case for Do I stay Christian? in Part Two includes because: “Leaving Hurts Allies (and Helps Their Opponents) … Leaving Defiantly or Staying Compliantly Are Not My Only Options … Where Else Would I Go? … It Would Be a Shame to Leave a Religion in Its Infancy … of Our Legendary Founder … Innocence Is an Addiction, and Solidarity is the Cure … I’m Human … Christianity is Changing (for the Worse and for the Better) … To Free God … Because of Fermi’s Paradox and the Great Filter”.
Part Three provides advice on How to stay Christian if that is the choice made. Here the chapters are: “Include and Transcend; Start with the Heart; Re-Wild; Find the Flow; Reconsecrate Everything; Renounce and Announce; Stay Loyal to Reality; Stay Human”.
McLaren says he would be happy if readers could stay Christian and embody a form of (Progressive Christian) faith that will help reverse the problems in Part One and embody the aspirations in Parts Two and Three. But for those who: “need to discover that Christian faith wasn’t meant to be our tree. It was meant to be our song. Whenever we sing with love, joy, peace and patience, whenever we sing with kindness, gentleness, generosity and justice, there we manifest what being human means to us. Our song is our gift to the world”. (Amazon Australia link: https://www.amazon.com.au/Do-Stay-Christian-Disappointed-Disillusioned/dp/1250262798 A review by Jon Sweeney with a videoed author interview is at this link: https://www.pdcnet.org//collection/fshow?id=covrb_2022_0072_0016_0017&pdfname=covrb_2022_0072_0000_0016_0017.pdf&file_type=pdf )
Luke Burgis, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire, and How to Want What You Need. Swift Press, 2021. Reviewer: Kym Bills April 2023
Luke Burgis is a somewhat self-effacing American Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Business lecturer at The Catholic University of America who lives in Washington D.C. and has a focus on philosophy, ethics and psychology (https://lukeburgis.com/ ). His work is based on a rich foundation by René Girard who, among many other things, has explicated the power of sacrifice and scapegoating through the centuries. Wanting is not a theological book. Its message and suggested practical tactics to counter the pervasive power of consumerist culture, advertising and social media draws from Girard’s concept of ‘mimetic desire’. This is broadly consistent with a Christian approach led by the Spirit and based more on the Beatitudes of Jesus and in contrast to substitutionary sacrifice and ‘prosperity’ gospels. It is therefore of great relevance to those seeking an inclusive, ethical Progressive Christianity.
Burgis’s book is about why people want what they want. To understand mimetic desires: “The truth is that my desires are derivative, mediated by others, and that I’m part of an ecology of desire that is bigger than I can fully understand”.
Wanting has two main parts. Part One on The Power of Mimetic Desire addresses Hidden Models, Distorted Reality, Social Contagion, and The Invention of Blame. Part Two on the Transformation of Desire considers Anti-Mimetic, Disruptive Empathy, Transcendent Leadership, and The Mimetic Future.
In the course of addressing the detail of these subjects, Burgis provides 15 ‘tactics’ to help ensure that our desires are grounded in our values and correspond to what we deeply desire (with some having echoes in Saint Augustine’s Confessions and others to books by the late American management and leadership guru Stephen Covey):
- Name your models; 2. Find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis; 3. Create boundaries with unhealthy models; 4. Use imitation to drive innovation; 5. Start positive flywheels; 6. Establish and communicate a clear hierarchy of values; 7. Arrive at judgments in anti-mimetic ways; 8. Map out the systems of desire in your world; 9. Put desires to the test; 10. Share stories of deeply fulfilling action; 11. Increase the speed of truth; 12. Invest in deep silence; 13. Look for the coexistence of opposites; 14. Practice meditative thought; and 15. Live as if you have a responsibility for what other people want.
Those who choose to read this book and overlook its sometimes overly individualistic US management-speak may find that they never see and understand the world and our society in the same way again. I think that is an important read for those honestly seeking inclusive, ethical and practical ways to move forward within Progressive Christianity.
(Amazon Australia link: https://www.amazon.com.au/Wanting-Power-Mimetic-Desire-Want/dp/1800750560 A helpful overview review is provided by Dawn Berkelaar: https://inallthings.org/what-do-you-want-a-review-of-wanting-the-power-of-mimetic-desire-in-everyday-life/ )
Douglas A. Campbell, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. William B. Eerdmans, 2018. Reviewer: Kym Bills April 2023
New Zealander Douglas Campbell is Professor of New Testament Theology at Duke Divinity School and a specialist on Paul (https://www.douglascampbell.me/ ). This book provides an accessible introduction to Campbell’s more academic work pitched at “students or adult learners who haven’t had much exposure to the dense scholarly conversation” about Paul which seeks to “recover the real Paul … (and) his authentic voice by being honest about our reasons and positions”. It provides an excellent overview of Paul’s apostolic journeys and theological development in response to his context and practical challenges and in my case updated Pauline scholarship that was mostly accessed decades ago.
Campbell ascribes Pauline authorship to most of the 13 New Testament letters bearing his name and provides an earlier dating for some of them than is the established mainstream theological consensus. This is not always convincing but is evidence-based and it does not mean that Campbell is a fundamentalist evangelical scholar. Indeed, he has been constructively critical of some of the more mainstream perspectives of N.T. Wright who writes from an deeply informed Anglican evangelical perspective (see, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/scottish-journal-of-theology/article/panoramic-lutheranism-and-apocalyptic-ambivalence-an-appreciative-critique-of-n-t-wrights-paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-god/2B31450AEB9B2EB8B9BA384704B31534/share/358db35062c4402c013a5209d3361336aae4cf6a ).
Campbell reconstructs Paul’s life from his letters and uses “this information to control the information supplied by Acts” described as a later anonymous work that tradition ascribes to Luke that has ‘episodic’ but not ‘sequential’ veracity. Paul’s dramatic conversion (eg, Gal. 1: 13-17) is shown to influence all of his subsequent theology which is Trinitarian (eg, 2 Cor. 13:13 and opening to 1 and 2 Thes.) and that Paul considered was a direct commissioning by the risen Jesus to take the good news to the pagan nations. In occasional heated dialogue with Church leaders in Jerusalem, including James and Peter, Paul maintained that pagans could become Christian and participate in the Jewish hope of resurrection without embracing Judaism. In addition to his formidable intellect and experience, Paul facilitated agreement or at least acceptance to this by providing substantial financial support to Jerusalem. Paul’s successful pagan conversions were based upon genuine caring friendships, humbly working alongside tradespeople and by using connections and family introductions supplied by influential pagan converts – a relational networking strategy to establish loving Christian communities that sometimes went off the rails and needed Paul’s critical support.
Campbell’s book provided me with a useful corrective to a somewhat negative view of Paul that had accreted over the years. In particular, Paul’s loving ethical values of church communities that should be outward looking and dynamic. Campbell considers that for Paul faith is not an individual condition for salvation but rather, based on the faith of Jesus, salvation meant that resurrection is open to us. He says Paul was an implicit universalist in which God’s plan was that everyone would be raised in glory, pagan and Jew alike. That is good news that can appeal to Progressive Christians who seek to honour and include others.
(Amazon Australia link: https://www.amazon.com.au/Paul-Apostles-Journey-Douglas-Campbell/dp/0802873472 Publisher video interview with author: https://eerdword.com/eerdmans-author-interviews-douglas-a-campbell-on-paul-an-apostles-journey/ )
REVIEWS BY THE LATE JOHN PFITZNER 2011
The late John Pfitzner was a long-standing member of the PCNetSA committee. He was also an avid reader, and regularly contributed book reviews to the PCNetSA newsletter. His contributions to this page will be sorely missed.
A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots, Hal Taussig
This exciting and encouraging book is about progressive Christianity in USA, a new and vital form of Christianity that has emerged in the last fifteen years and is growing rapidly. A strength of the movement, according to the author, is that it is a grass-roots phenomenon; it has not been initiated from above by denominational leadership but has developed from below, at the local level. It is not yet widely recognised in society generally, but it is beginning to challenge the perception that right-wing Christianity is the only new development on the contemporary religious landscape. That the book confines itself to the American situation doesn’t in any way lessen its value for or relevance to our situation here in Australia.
The author, who is visiting professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and co-pastor at a progressive congregation, identifies five key characteristics of progressive Christianity: vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, the transgressing of gender boundaries, Christian vitality without an attitude of superiority, and an emphasis on justice and ecology.
According to Taussig, the emphasis on vital spirituality distinguishes progressive Christianity from the spiritual aridness of most of the liberal Christianity of the middle of the last century and has produced new and vibrant forms of worship. These new forms are participatory, combine older liturgical forms with new forms of expression, acknowledge and permit the expression of people’s joys and concerns, make use of a wide range of artistic expression and incorporate practices (eg meditation) from other religious traditions.
The combination of vital spirituality and intellectual integrity (freedom for people to question and to think for themselves) is a key distinguishing feature of progressive Christianity. It is a thoughtful version of faith that also involves spiritual experience and the expression of feelings.
The area where progressive Christianity has come to greatest public attention is in its courageous and groundbreaking stances around sexuality and gender. The rejection of homophobia and the affirmation of equal rights across lines of gender and sexual orientation have been fundamental for progressive Christians and have distinguished them from most other forms of present-day Christianity.
Another striking feature of progressive Christianity is its ability to combine an enthusiasm for Christianity with an increased awareness and appreciation of other religions and an avoidance of any attitude of superiority towards them.
In Part Two the author presents brief profiles of thirty-seven progressive congregations from a diversity of denominations and situations and also examines other progressive groupings and organisations, such as the Centre for Progressive Christianity. In this section he also has a chapter on ‘exiled Christians and their books’, in which he identifies Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Borg’s The Heart of Christianity as coming close to manifestos for progressive Christianity.
In Part Three the author critiques the movement and identifies some dangers (eg sectarian arrogance) and weaknesses (eg the lack of inclusiveness because of the absence of people of colour, poor people and working-class people).
In the final section the author examines and makes suggestions about future directions for the movement. He encourages the development of networks and opportunities for progressive Christians to meet together for mutual encouragement and sharing of experiences and materials, but without undermining the grass-roots character of the movement, which is its strength. He also advises that congregations remain for the time being within their respective denominational organisations, in spite of the decline of the mainline denominations, so that their energies do not become dissipated in organisational and bureaucratic activities. This section also includes a list of dos and don’ts for starting a progressive church.
This book is enlightening and encouraging for progressive Christians because it shows that, although they are a minority among Christians at present (and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future), they are part of a dynamic growing movement that is providing a new spiritual home for many disaffected Christians and people who had previously given up on Christianity. The book shows how these new communities of ‘self-confident, spiritual, open-minded, gender-bended, justice-seeking, Earth-loving Christians’ (p 53) are having a positive influence in our world.
Reviewer: John Pfitzner
Paul Was Not a Christian The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle
Someone seeing the title of this book for the first time might be excused for thinking it’s the work of a maverick scholar with a crackpot theory. However, the book is a serious piece of biblical scholarship by a reputable theologian who is at the forefront of a radical re-evaluation of Paul, underway for a couple of decades, that is being called the ‘new perspective’ on Paul. The author acknowledges that she is building on the work of other scholars but sees herself as taking it further.
Pamela Eisenbaum is associate professor of biblical studies and Christian origins at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She is an expert on early Christianity and, as a practising Jew teaching in a Christian seminary, has a unique perspective on the origins of Christianity.
Eisenbaum’s claim, which she argues powerfully and persuasively, is that Paul has been seriously misunderstood throughout most of Christian history. In particular, she maintains that the doctrine of justification by faith, as developed by Augustine and then Luther, and largely accepted by all churches as Paul’s central message and the heart of the Christian gospel, involves a misreading of Paul.
Paul’s so-called conversion experience, Eisenbaum claims, was not a conversion from one religion to another, from Judaism to Christianity (Christianity as a separate religion didn’t yet exist at that time). She maintains that Paul never repudiated his Jewish identity. Even after his encounter with the risen Christ, he remained a devout Jew. His conversion, Eisenbaum says, is better understood as a call by God to a particular ministry, as an apostle to the Gentiles, similar to the call of the Hebrew prophets.
According to Eisenbaum, a crucial key to understanding Paul is to recognise that in his letters he is addressing Gentile Christians. It is within this context that Paul’s negative statements about the law (Torah) are to be understood. For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection were a clear indication that the end-times were near, and this made it urgent that the Gentiles be brought to know the true God (Israel’s God) in order to escape God’s judgment. Previously, the way for Gentiles to be ‘saved’ was for them to become Jewish, that is, to come under the law
(Torah). But at this critical time in history, Paul sees that a new way for Gentiles to come to God has been opened up by the death of Jesus. Just as Jews have had the privilege of being made right with God through Torah, now Gen-tiles have the privilege of being made right with God because of Jesus.
Eisenbaum explains how the phrase traditionally translated ‘faith in Christ’ is more properly translated as the ‘faithfulness of Christ’, a reading being adopted more widely by biblical scholars. It is Christ’s faithfulness to God in going to the cross that opens the way to God for Gentiles, not their faith in Christ.
The book requires concentration from the reader because of the author’s close reading of texts and careful analysis of the evidence. It also requires patience, since the author takes time to build her case. She spends early chapters discussing the nature of Judaism in Paul’s time, refuting the Christian view of it as a ‘religion of works’ and showing that it was not as exclusive and intolerant as Christians assume. Since Paul was a Pharisee, she also examines what is known about Pharisees, showing that they were more flexible in their attitude to the Torah’s requirements than is usually thought.
Readers of this book will find it difficult to view Paul in the same way as before. Most of their fundamental assumptions about him and his message will be challenged. But they will also find a Paul freed of the doctrinal burden that later generations of Christians have put on him, and a Paul who is more recognisable as a person and whose message makes more sense. For progressive Christians in particular, this makes this book exciting.
Readers with an interest in this book might also be interested in The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning by scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar. The book presents new translations (The Scholars Version) of Paul’s letters, together with introductory and explanatory material. It reflects a similar understanding of Paul and his message to that of Eisenbaum.
Reviewer: John Pfitzner (2009, HarperOne. 318 pages)
Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity
Progressive Christians typically seek a faith that fits with a 21st-century scientific worldview and also tend to have a keen ecological consciousness. Both these concerns are central to this book.
The author, who is a minister of the United Church of Canada in Vancouver, weaves aspects of his own personal story into the dialogue he creates between the story of the universe given by the sciences and the Judeo-Christian narrative of the Bible. For a person who is neither a professional scientist nor an academic theologian he shows an outstanding grasp of essential aspects of present-day cosmology, biology and quantum physics and also current developments in biblical scholarship. The result is a book, written in a lively and lucid way, which challenges us, as human beings, to new ways of seeing our place in the cosmos and, as Christians, new ways of being church in today’s world.
Our present ecological crisis is a motivating influence for Sanguin. He sees this as the pre-eminent challenge for our time, requiring of us, as human beings, that we see ourselves as a connected part of the rest of creation, not separate from it, and that we change from dominating and exploiting the natural world to fitting in with it. He says, “If Jesus was conducting his ministry in today’s world, I believe his circle of concern would include the ecological crisis facing our planet” (p 168).
In the first half of the book (Part 1) Sanguin focuses on creation as a sacred text alongside the other sacred text for us as Christians, the Bible. Acknowledging his indebtedness to Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, he presents readers with a vision of the universe as the product of 14 billion years of evolution and a source of divine wisdom. He says, ‘The story of the universe, the story of evolution, is our story. It is not just happening “out there”‟ (p 123). He guides readers through the eight epochs of the universe’s evolution from the first fraction of a second of the big bang to the creation of heavy elements in exploding supernovas, the emergence of life and, eventually, the birth of consciousness. He presents this as an exciting story that can reawaken a sense of wonder in us and can re-enchant our world.
With this new story of where we have come from and how we are related to the whole of the rest of creation, we need, Sanguin argues, a new way of understanding the divine and how the divine is at work in the evolutionary process. An evolutionary God, Sanguin says, would need to be immanent in the process of evolution, not as a controlling presence but as the cosmic urge to self-transcendence. This God would be the hidden wholeness, the non-coercive intelligence nudging hydrogen and helium molecules to organise into galaxies; galaxies to birth solar systems; and cells to cluster together in formations of increasing elegance, beauty, and diversity. (p 121)
In the second half of the book (Part 2) Sanguin engages with the sacred text of scripture, bringing into dialogue the two sacred narratives: the narrative of nature and the narrative of the Bible. He shows how the great biblical meta-narratives can be read in a cosmic context. He also examines the teachings of Jesus from an ecological perspective.
Towards the end of the book, Sanguin examines at some length the biblical concept of Sophia (Wisdom) as the means of God’s creative activity in the world and shows how the early Christians linked the Sophia concept with Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we Christians need to be in tune with the divine wisdom hidden deep within the created world and in Christ.
In the book’s final chapter, Sanguin suggests various disciplines for Christians to practise in order to counter the false ideologies of today’s world (eg domination, consumerism) and to act in ways that show respect and care for our planet.
We have at our disposal a new under-standing of the universe, but we operate out of an old one. The work of integrating this new story represents a fundamental challenge to our theological and liturgical models. (pp 28–9)
In this book he himself has made an engaging and stimulating start towards meeting this challenge.
Reviewer: John Pfitzner
(paperback, 288 pages)