Salvation here and nowBy Daniel Hertzler
I do agree with his critique of the Joshua story, from which we might reasonably conclude that the way to deal with enemies is to try to destroy them. Bergen writes: “This is a basic attitude of many Christian armies and missionaries as they battled their way into Europe, Africa, the Americas and most parts of the world. It still forms the basis for modern American ideals like manifest destiny and exceptionalism.” Well, of course. We hear this from our politicians all the time.
The Old Testament has plenty of good news. Bergen says it teaches us to think about salvation communally: “The Old Testament is dedicated to the survival and well- being of Israel as a whole rather than the survival or success of the individual.” He prefers the Genesis model over the Exodus-Joshua model. In Genesis, the lead characters attempt to get along with their neighbors instead of seeking to destroy them.
Bergen essentially ignores the Old Testament prophets. I find this a limitation. He does say the prophets proclaimed a “God who fights against us” due to Israel’s failure to live up to its side of the covenant. But today the church has often seen itself as God’s weapon to punish “evildoers.” I agree that this is a problem, but I find a theology of the Old Testament lacking when it omits the prophets.
As for bad news in the New Testament, Bergen suggests it “often refuses to deal with the reality of the central character it proclaims.” Jesus died on a cross, and the New Testament writers spend much effort discussing how to deal with this reality. As a result, “the message of Jesus is lost in a message about Jesus.”
Bergen suggests “the New Testament offers two forms of escape: apocalypticism and heaven. Both of these allow us to wait for some future event (Jesus’ return or our death) when God will solve these problems without help from us.” But, he says, if we choose to do more than simply wait for “the big rescue from the sky, we are confronted with a wide variety of tasks, goals and offers of help from God, who is concerned about the world as it confronts us.”
After all the fire and brimstone, Bergen’s ending seems rather tame. He is just another Christian like the rest of us trying to find a way to be faithful while living in a culture that theologian Walter Brueggemann has characterized as “military consumerism.” At the end Bergen needles us again about our tendency to be more concerned about heaven than about the Christian task that is before us.
Who should read this book? Anyone who is willing to have conventional ideas challenged. Would I recommend it to my pastor? Of course. He can handle anything. To the grandchildren? Probably. Anything to get them into the Bible. To a fundamentalist friend? Only if he does not have high blood pressure.
Bergen offers a vigorous alternative to the otherworldly concept of salvation that prevails among Christians of our culture. But those who do not want to hear the message might use his anti-heaven rhetoric as an excuse not to listen.
Daniel Hertzler, of Scottdale, Pa., is a former editor of Gospel Herald and the recent author of On My Way: The View from the Ninth Decade.
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