new Mennonite Life logo    December 2001     vol. 56 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

Book Reviews

Duane K. Friesen, Artists Citizens Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture. Scottsdale, Herald Press, 2000. Pp. 349. ISBN 0-8361-9139-0.

Dale Schrag and James Juhnke, eds., Anabaptist Visions For the New Millennium: A Search for Identity. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2000. Pp. 237. ($26.00–paperback) ISBN 1-894710-00-2

Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2000. Pp. 277. ($28.00 – paperback) ISBN 0-9685543-3-4.

Duane K. Friesen, Artists Citizens Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture. Scottsdale, Herald Press, 2000. Pp. 349. ISBN 0-8361-9139-0.

Here is a major work in Anabaptist theology at once inspiring and bewildering. I confess I came to Friesen’s book as one interested in but not yet committed to the Mennonite/Anabaptist way. This is probably not the book to share with the wavering! After two hundred and ninety pages of analysis, argument, and anecdote, the author in an almost mystical two-sentence postscript confesses to have reached the limits of his own thought “and of language to convey those thoughts.” Then follow eleven bullet-pointed statements, each one of which serves to illustrate the “multilayered network of tensions that Christians live with in being faithful to the Gospel.” Once more into the breach, it seems. After a process of writing that took, by the author’s own admission, nearly ten years to complete, it appears as though Friesen has much more (or is it much less?) to say. This curious conclusion strikes me as emblematic of the text as a whole. Clearly Friesen intends a major statement concerning an Anabaptist Theology of Culture. And just as clearly the performance of the text aspires to such. But it is unclear to this reviewer that Friesen has in fact accomplished what he set out to do.

The book is divided neatly into two parts. In the first part, Friesen sets out his particular theological account of “an alternative cultural vision to the dominant culture.” Following Yoder’s inspiration and responding to the work of Hauerwas and Willimon, the author recovers the “alternative culture” tradition of the Bible and church history. He argues that this tradition calls Christians to be aliens in their cultural contexts, but in an effort to overcome what he sees as the potential “quiet complacency” lurking in Hauerwas and Willimon’s model of Resident Aliens, Friesen goes on to argue that this same tradition emphasizes the need for Christians to be fully engaged with their dominant culture. That is, Christians are at once both alien and citizen. The subsequent chapters in this section set out his theological model at length. Friesen sees Martin Luther King, Jr. as embodying his (alternative culture) model of theological reflection. In King's life and work we catch glimpses in exemplary fashion of the Christian as (necessarily) artist, citizen, and philosopher. To describe his formal Trinitarian theological model Friesen employs a quilt metaphor (“to suggest the creative constructive nature of this enterprise”) in which three vertical theological motifs and three horizontal motifs “tell the same story, but in three different ways.” (A similar Trinitarian quilt, one each for the artist, the citizen, and the philosopher can be found in the appendix following his postscript.) This model can/should become embodied in the world (what he calls the church’s mission to “seek the peace of the city”) by the church’s taking seriously its focal practices such as rituals of moral formation (baptism, communion, prayer), process (discernment, reconciliation, and forgiveness), pastoral care (mutual aid), and service to the wider community.

This last category serves as the transition to Part II in which Friesen develops his argument for how Christians are to engage the broader, secular culture in ways that seek not to control it but to seek its welfare and well being. Christians have the responsibility to cultivate aesthetic excellence that will gift the world with works of beauty, meaning, and health. They are called to be dual citizens (not in an Augustinian, Lutheran, or even Calvinist sense but rather) in an analogical fashion whereby their experience in the focal practices of their church forms the vision of the kinds of structures and practices for which they should work in the broader culture. Thus, to take but one example, since the believers’ church is a voluntary society (“based on the freedom to respond noncoercively to God’s love”) the “church must support public policies that protect religious liberty and the exercise of conscience.” Finally, Christians are to be philosophers in that they are to seek wisdom about how to live in our complex pluralist society. Two possible sources for such practical wisdom external to the Christian narrative may be found in some aspects of other religious traditions and modern scientific understanding.

At the end of the day, Friesen’s brand of ecumenical Mennonite thought as set forth in this book leaves no stone unturned. And indeed considering his project, I imagine it cannot. This is both the book’s appeal and its problem. How can a single volume contain (even at its prodigious 290 pages) what needs to be said of theology, ecclesiology, and missiology and at the same time, aesthetics, politics, and philosophy? And having attempted it, how can it not but simplify too much, abstract too much, order and map out an unruly reality too much? So bewildering and overwhelming is the cascade of names, concepts, and themes that one is left to wonder for just whom was this work written. It is much too specific for the generally educated reader, much too general for the academic specialist. Friesen’s ten-year burden is rather the burden of a lifetime. Indeed, possibly of a millennium.

Ashley Woodiwiss
Associate Professor
Department of Politics & International Relations
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois

Dale Schrag and James Juhnke, eds., Anabaptist Visions For the New Millennium: A Search for Identity. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2000. Pp. 237. ($26.00–paperback) ISBN 1-894710-00-2

Is any other faith group so concerned about its identity as Mennonites? What group, other than the Mennonites, has produced more scholarly articles on its reason for being? ‘Identity’ and ‘identity crisis,’ terms snatched out of the vocabulary of psychotherapy, have appeared on the Mennonite scene only in recent years. Is it a sign of angst of a peoplehood sliding into decline? Or is this concern evidence that this group is mobilizing itself for a new thrust in mission?

The subject of Mennonite identity has sufficient drawing power that more than one hundred gathered for a conference on this topic on the Bethel College campus, June 15-18, 2000. Twenty-six presenters, each limited to fifteen minute ‘manifestos,’ spoke with prophetic abandon on their particular perspective of an Anabaptist vision for the future. At the close of the conference two speakers, Glen Stassen and Paul Keim, each offered forty-five minute summations and reflections as a one-person ‘listening committee.’ The twenty-eight presentations published in this volume capture the lively and stimulating conversation of the conference. Here is a book where scholars will find a rich deposit of provocative leads for study and discussion. Beyond that circle, a wider reading public will be intrigued with this sprightly and many-sided discussion focused on a small, serious-minded religious group grappling with its identity amidst the turbulent currents of modernity and post-modernity.

Sixty years ago when I first began to take note of Mennonite writings, I encountered a literature that seemed so bland. Articles in church periodicals had a careful sameness, a safe correctness. Not so the presentations at this conference. In the twenty-eight articles one finds a lively mix of piety and skepticism, sober admonition and mischievous anecdote, lyrical flights and somber warnings, and a generous sprinkling of self-depreciating humor.

It is a daunting task to review this book, a smorgasbord of Mennonite commentary. Each manifesto is unique and compact, so distilled. I suggest that the book should be read only a chapter or two at a time. Read and ponder. One is struck by the candor of the writers. They even blurt out their thoughts without customary academic qualifiers and disclaimers. In their openness and vulnerability, there is intimation that the speakers were accepting their audience (and now we as readers) as a trusting fellowship. One immediately recognizes that this was not a typical academic conference with its facade of scholarly detachment. Along with the honesty of the presentations, I am impressed with the variety of perceptions and styles of approach. Here is a rich diversity. And, most important, they all contemplate with high seriousness their Anabaptist heritage. In this is a non-verbal bonding that suggests the presence of unity and transcendence in diversity.

One senses among the writers a lingering, forlorn hope that “a single, unifying vision will be able to animate our increasingly diverse community.” After listening to twenty-six statements from Mennonites, Glen Stassen, a Baptist, had the temerity to single out four “mustard seeds” in their midst that give Mennonites a particular identity:

You have: The way of Jesus.

If this core listing had been submitted to a committee of the twenty-eight speakers, the final draft would probably have been revised, with, perhaps, some additions.

One finds among the writers healthy commentary on what they think is wrong with Mennonites. Glenn Stassen, the outsider: “You don’t know how to brag on your tradition. . . . You have very high standards . . . not everything is [can be] perfect.” Paul Keim adds to this list: the loss of heroes and prophets . . . “the loss of boundary definitions” . . . “a theology that does not relate to women with honor and respect” . . . a peace theology that is undermined by a “stubborn persistence of a church/world dualism” . . . “a simplistic analysis of conflict” . . . “an ethic of conflict avoidance” . . . “difficulty with coming to terms with the limits of perfection” . . . “the perpetuation of an ethnicity that is perceived as elitist, exclusionist, and arrogant” . . . a people “searching for a spirituality that suits [them]” . . .a people who have “bought into a culture of consumption.”

The above is only a starter in the Mennonite inadequacies and imperfections the writers have listed. I laid down the book with a feeling that these writers are carrying a burden of anxious activism: calls to engage the world, articulate the vision, confront the powers, confess all the sins. It gets exhausting. But to add more, this searching for identity seems so American. One of the gifts that bless North American Mennonites is their network of friendships around the globe. The uniqueness of Mennonite identity surely is linked to a sense of having dear sisters and brothers in many countries, even in lands of the enemy.

Among the delights of Anabaptist Visions are the many whimsical and poignant images and stories: Brenda Martin Hurst’s tale of cars for boys and hope chests for girls, Katherine Jameson Pitts’ account of rearing their third child – Abby, Vernon Rempel’s wind and a barbed wire fence, Ritch Hostetler’s ditty of off-the-wall singing, Paul Keim’s homemade dandelion wine, and many more.

This is an extraordinarily stimulating book. In reading it one is drawn into the dialogue. Immediately you become engaged in adding your contribution to Anabaptist Visions. I urge that one read this and find others with whom to discuss the varied visions of Mennonites, a house with many windows. Here is a book to be recommended to study groups and Sunday School classes for reading and discussion.

Robert Kreider
North Newton, Kansas

Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2000. Pp. 277. ($28.00 – paperback) ISBN 0-9685543-3-4.

It may be telling that the first comprehensive, synthetic treatment of biblical interpretation among Anabaptists comes from beyond North America and from outside Mennonite academic circles. Its author, Stuart Murray, is the Director of Church Planting and Evangelism at Spurgeon’s College, in London. Murray writes as a not entirely uncritical evangelist of biblical interpretation as practiced among or commended by the Anabaptists for the renewal of the church. The publication of his book by Pandora Press, in Ontario, has the effect of re-evangelizing North American Mennonites.

That effect is indirect, since the book does not address Mennonites and only rarely (and then incidentally) even refers to Mennonites. Instead, Murray is convinced of the ecumenical potential of “Anabaptist hermeneutics,” which he hopes to rehabilitate for “post-Constantinian interpreters” in the wake of Christendom’s demise, the alienating complexity of modern biblical criticism, and the concomitant control of biblical interpretation by scholars. By way of justifying his own “intrusion” into the existing welter of interpretive approaches, Murray argues that Anabaptist hermeneutics provides an alternative—a salutary alternative, especially for marginalized groups and actual congregations—to a lingering Contantinianism and its symptoms. Those symptoms include the predominance of historical-critical methods and the dislocation of biblical interpretation in seminaries and/or among scholars. Since these have their proximate source among “the Reformers,” Murray is keen to draw contrasts between the magisterial Reformers and their Anabaptist contemporaries. Especially in re-locating biblical interpretation in the congregation and among all of its members, stressing the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, giving priority to the New Testament, and insisting on obedience as a hermeneutical principle, the Anabaptists differed from the Reformers and offer a viable alternative for today. So argues Murray.

He conducts his argument in six chapters that form the heart of the book. These bear the titles, “The Bible as Self-Interpreting,” “Christocentrism,” “The Two Testaments,” “Spirit and Word,” “Congregational Hermeneutics,” and “Hermeneutics of Obedience.” As Murray acknowledges, these topics will be familiar even to casual students of Anabaptism. Further, many of readers of Mennonite Life will be familiar with the sources and authorities on which Murray relies, such as Walter Klaassen’s Anabaptism in Outline. This is no criticism of Murray, who has read very widely and well in both the (translated) primary sources and in a diverse secondary literature, as the book’s many hundreds of endnotes attest. He has as his goal, not to produce fresh readings of the sources, but to offer an account of the coherence of Anabaptist hermeneutics and of its distinctiveness. He sees both of these exemplified in the topics that serve as the titles of his six central chapters. Anabaptist hermeneutics coheres around those integrated topics, and part of its coherence consists in its distinctiveness over against Catholic but especially Lutheran and Reformed alternatives.

The Anabaptist movement was diverse. Murray does not deny the diversity but mitigates it. Occasionally, he identifies extreme views and then concludes that most, or at least many, Anabaptists held to an attractive medium. For example, some Anabaptists were given to a wooden literalism and legalism, while others denigrated reason and relied entirely on the Spirit; but “most” struck a healthy balance (p. 141). Or he finds in one Anabaptist leader, or among “ordinary Anabaptists,” a mediating view that he endorses. For example, in the controversies over “Spirit and Word,” or inner and outer word, Murray finds (as have others) “the attractive mediating option expressed in the writings of Pilgram Marpeck” (p. 136). Murray also finds attractive the views of Hans Denck on the same issues, suggesting that Denck was no farther removed from “the centre of Anabaptism on the spiritualistic side than Grebel and Mantz were on the literalistic side” (p. 152).

When he identifies a “centre of Anabaptism” by which to measure both Denck and Grebel, is Murray making a theological or a historical judgment? There is nothing wrong or even problematic in preferring one or more Anabaptists to others, or in concluding that some of, say, David Joris’s views continue to merit our consideration—that they remain true, let us say—while others do not. But these are theological assessments, not historical ones. On the other hand, that “most” or “many” or “ordinary” Anabaptists believed this or that is a historical claim. Of course, any theological assessment of a historical movement will include historical judgments and claims, but Murray sometimes blurs the distinction between these. This sort of blurring seems to follow from the twin convictions that a movement characterized by diversity nonetheless displays an identifiable, distinctive coherence; and that precisely this identifiable, distinctive coherence recommends itself to us on theological and hermeneutical grounds—grounds that the distinctive coherence itself provides. In other words, the Anabaptists’ views, as Murray describes and adjudicates them, themselves constitute the persuasive arguments on their own behalf. They do so, Murray expects, especially if we are post-Constantinian and post-Christendom, and perhaps post-modern.

Murray’s book qualifies this characterization in at least two interrelated respects. First, Murray entertains substantive criticisms of some Anabaptist views, such as their “Christocentrism.” An exclusive focus on Jesus may implicitly deny the theocentricity of the Bible (and of Jesus! —p. 91). Murray mitigates this criticism, as he does others, by describing an only apparently one-sided conclusion as a corrective to prevailing views. Typically, and second, the views needing correction were those of the Reformers. So a part of the Anabaptists’ contemporary appeal lies in their contrast with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. While they provided or shared some of the rubrics under which Anabaptist hermeneutics operated (scripture as its own interpreter perhaps most obvious among them), they also share major responsibility for the hegemonic modernity to which Anabaptists proffer(ed) an alternative. The coherence of that alternative depends to a substantial degree on a contrast with other views.

This is perhaps the least satisfying feature of Murray’s book. While he insists that Anabaptist statements must be read in context (e. g., p. 148), he does not extend the same courtesy to others, whom he sometimes misrepresents. For example, Luther did not see the Old Testament simply “as Law” (p. 118). He found the proper understanding of “the righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17), and hence the gospel, preparing lectures on the Psalms. Thomas Aquinas did associate the “literal sense” of scripture with the author’s intention, as Murray says (p. 27), but Thomas held that the author of scripture is God.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Murray’s book for readers of this journal will be its concluding chapter, “Anabaptism as a Conversation Partner.” The partners he has principally in view are Pentecostalism and Latin American liberation theology. His remarks on both of these, in relation to Anabaptist hermeneutics, are provocative. Given Murray’s view that “the Anabaptists’ descendants have tended to err on the side of literalism and to denigrate the role of the Holy Spirit” (p. 136), it is not surprising that he sees Pentecostalism as an appropriate conversation partner, or that he would be especially favorable to Hans Denck. But Murray’s remarks also address certain limitations of “the Anabaptist model” itself (p. 250). In this vein, I endorse his suggestion that “the hermeneutic community” should be a global and “trans-temporal community,” inclusive of the Christian tradition. Such an inclusive community would refuse Constantine the power—even the ad hominem power—to decide its membership. It would also put Anabaptists into conversation with those, pre and post-Constantine, pre and post-Reformation, who first identified and subsequently engaged the very topics that provide the titles of Murray’s central chapters. And, of course, I endorse his recommendation that we “need not imitate Anabaptism in disregarding scholars.”

To appreciate Murray’s book, which I hope will be both carefully read and appreciated, it may be necessary for North American Mennonites to regard the Anabaptists, with Murray, as representing a catalytic moment accessible now, rather than as fountainheads of a tradition. While Murray speaks, as we all tend to do, of “the Anabaptist tradition,” he doesn’t describe a tradition; rather, he describes certain views of people who wrote in the brief period from 1525 to 1560. Following precedent, he describes their hermeneutics under a set of perennially controversial and, thus, still unresolved topics. The tradition will have taken its shape over time and in more routine ways, from the reading of scripture in worship, from preaching, from the singing of hymns, from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, from weddings and funerals, from festivals of the Christian year, from catechesis and baptism, from institutions of education and administration and mission, and from acts of witness and protest, evangelism and dissent. Murray doesn’t describe a tradition, but he does remind us that the reading and interpretation of scripture lies indispensably at the heart of all that we are and do as Christian congregations. His reminder, from England, may be a re-evangelization.

The book includes an extensive bibliography of works in English. The lack of any index is deeply regrettable.

Ben C. Ollenburger
Professor of Biblical Theology
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary
Elkhart, Indiana