Flipping the Script: Mimetic Theory and the Nonviolent God

Jesus lived, died, and resurrected by the mercy strand in the Bible. nito/Shutterstock

(Editor's Note: This post was adapted from the author's speech at the Christianity 21 Conference in Denver.)

When I was in seminary, one of my best friends came up with a brilliant theological … pick up line:

"Hey, baby. What’s your hermeneutic?"

Despite the genius of that question, we soon discovered that anytime you start a pick up line with “Hey, baby” you’re in some trouble.

But it’s such a great question. Think of all the relationships that would have avoided painful break ups if they just defined the relationship in the beginning by answering the question “What’s your hermeneutic?"

Want to Know God? Get Religion.

Wooden crucifix photo, cosma / Shutterstock.com
Wooden crucifix photo, cosma / Shutterstock.com

Tony Jones has asked some of us progressive Theobloggers to chime in on God, you know, perhaps some kind of definition or doctrine (that word many of us progressives despise). You can read his invitation here. Tony doesn't want us to talk about Jesus, per se, but about God. I get that. He's in his evangelical context and he gets tired of all the Jesus talk. Lately it seems that the Emergent conversation has been all Jesus all the time. Now, that doesn't bother me, but then again I feel that in my end of the progressive mainline (free church progressive) we don't talk about Jesus enough. We talk about God all the time. Jesus, well, he's a bit of an enigma. What else is there to say? Nevertheless, Tony's invitation is an interesting one and I'm willing to chime in.

One caveat: I'm doing this as a way to speak of one Person of a Trinity. To speak of the One is, in many ways, to speak of the Three and the Unity. But this is just a blog post and not a 20-page essay. So ... yeah.

My answer: If you want to know God, get Religion. (Have you got good religion? Certainly, Lord!) Religion is a combined set of activities embodied by people. These activities are not limited to but may include the following behaviors: liturgy, charity, politics, and even theology (mystical and systematic), and doctrine. Religion can be communal or individual. Religion is the principal craft by which we know (cognition) and understand (hermeneutics) God.

Bridging the Bible Gap

CHRISTIANS HAVE LONG claimed the Bible as a central source of authority for faith and life. Yet church members are often at a loss as to how to interpret the scriptures. While academic biblical scholarship has flourished since the 17th century, there is a troubling disconnect between seminaries and congregations, between what hermeneutics specialist Hans de Wit calls “professional readers” and “ordinary readers” of scripture.

So, for example, master of divinity students at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, where I work, gain skills in literary criticism, socio-historical analysis, Hebrew and Greek language, source criticism, and canonical criticism, among others, with the expectation that they will become leaders who are “grounded in and continuously formed by the Bible,” according to the program’s stated goals. But at the same time, today’s North American Mennonite church members often exhibit a widespread lack of familiarity with biblical interpretive tools and in many cases a lack of regular engagement with the Bible.

AMBS professor Alan Kreider wrote, “The estrangement of many North American Mennonite Christians from the Bible, their sense that they know the book, that it’s overfamiliar or irrelevant, and their captivity to American ills of individualism, consumerism, and over-busyness—all of these make it hard to indwell the ancient text and make it life-giving today.”

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How to Read the Bible

Asked what he considered the most pressing problem in the American church, one seminary president offered a one-word response: “Literalism.” His diagnosis bears reflection. How we read is immensely consequential, since we rely on a sacred text as a means of connection with a living God. When Luther insisted on “sola scriptura” as a corrective to abuses of ecclesiastical authority, he opened up not only the richest conversation in history for the priesthood of believers, but also a large can of worms.

As literary critic George Steiner points out, Hebrew is one of the most ambiguous languages on earth. And Greek draws distinctions that do not survive translation. And the cultural assumptions of the ancient folk who sat on a hillside and heard the Beatitudes differ from ours profoundly. It takes careful, ongoing scholarship to help us imagine how they heard what they heard.

Sadly, hermeneutical criteria become lines in the sand, partitioning the family of God into camps where we huddle among the like-minded, clinging to readings we have come to rely on. Literalists warn their children away from the slippery lot who invoke words like “myth” and “metaphor” with alarming frequency. The latter often take refuge in the comforts of their learning and lose something childlike and open-hearted in the course of “higher” critical debate. Part of our work together is to provide a safe space for that debate, and then to have the courage to have it.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2009
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