Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review: Seven Stories by Anthony Bartlett

If you are picking up this book for the first time do not doubt that it contains the germ of something capable of transforming everything. Not only does it show that the God of the Old Testament is consistent with the God of the Sermon on the Mount, but it carries a sea-change in the meaning of church. Rather than an institutional guarantee for an afterlife, Christian identity is a profound journey of human change in this life, one always intended by a God of unimaginable love and vitality. The resurrection of Jesus is a pledge of a transformed Earth where all of history is invited into a fullness of life, a time and place where violence has no part. - Anthony W. Bartlett, Seven Stories

Not all Christian education curricula with a progressive bent are created equal. Some are very good at providing background information but short on providing resources within itself for actually teaching that information to participants. Others seem to assume that participants already know or agree with what is being taught and don't try very hard at having lesson points tease anything into active thought. Still others don't even make their points very well to begin with, trying to be an alternative to more evangelical options but not being clear or bold enough in presenting something different.

These sorts of critiques could be leveled at any curriculum, really. But in this pastor and teacher's experience, it is a unique problem in many meant for mainline and other more theologically liberal settings.

Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible by Anthony Bartlett is a new resource for more progressive educational spaces. It is clear from the introduction what it wants to be and do: reorient how one reads and considers the Bible as a series of texts that reject violence rather than encourage it. Bartlett's approach is unapologetic and a little risky as he pulls from the latest Biblical scholarship including historical-critical methodology, as well as interpretive lenses such as Girardian memetic theory.

With such an ambitious stated agenda, one may wonder how well this will translate for the reader or learner. How will he undertake to present these concepts?

The book begins with about a 40-page section titled "Method," which serves as background for either the teacher or reader. It explains the basic assumptions and background for all that will follow, including some of Girard's thought and the interpretive philosophy that the rest of the book will introduce and use. For one planning to lead others through this study, it will be helpful for them to read these lessons. For the one undertaking this on their own, they will want to sit with this section as well. This section signals that Bartlett seems to understand that one will not be able to jump right in and know what he's talking about.

After that, each lesson has a basic format. The first page includes learning objectives, a few core Biblical texts, and some key points and words/concepts. These serve as helpful up-front statements of what the chapter will seek to achieve. After that come 5-6 pages that explain relevant concepts related to history, Biblical background, and some commentary on how these texts might relate to today. One is frequently encouraged to pause and read a portion of the core Bible texts from the beginning of the lesson. The end includes questions for reflection, some to recall and reinforce what was just learned and others for more personal reflection. There is also a glossary of key terms from the lesson and suggestions for further reading.

I found the structure of each lesson appealing, and I think that this book assumes that each participant will have their own copy so as to follow along and do their own work prior to each class. The content will be challenging for some, and it will fall to a competent teacher who has done their own studying beforehand to help guide people through their questions and reactions.

As to the overall project to present a nonviolent reading of the Bible, Seven Stories holds its own in making its case. It shows how violent Biblical texts serve as commentary for a God striving to move humanity toward peaceful existence, and centers its interpretation on the ethics of Jesus, as well as his own death as an exposing of our often limited imagination and tendency to solve conflicts through violent means rather than breaking the cycle.

Seven Stories is a clear curriculum seeking to advance something rather than falling into the usual dangers of getting lost within itself or being too timid in educational method or theological rigor to be useful. Many progressive churches will find it worth a look.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)