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March 3, 2014 issue

Salvation here and now

By Daniel Hertzler

When I first saw the title of this book, I wondered idly whether the author might be an atheist. On second thought, atheists probably do not bother with heaven. It is God they want to get rid of.

In fact, author Wes Bergen is a Mennonite scholar (and current mission worker in Ghana) from North Newton, Kan., who has taught Bible at Wichita State University. Maybe he developed this book from his notes for Bib Lit 101. Occasionally he refers to students’ inadequate views of the Bible. His anti-heaven emphasis may come from weariness at hearing their religious cliches.

The book’s purpose, Bergen writes, is to encourage salvation to happen rather than just talk about it. His students believe salvation is all about going to heaven. But Bergen asserts that “going to heaven is not a significant part of a biblical understanding of salvation. This is not to say it doesn’t exist as part of the answer of what salvation is, but it isn’t a major part.”

Bergen says he discussed his thesis with various groups, including high school youth. He cites the influence of scholars who “point me back to the text, to the Bible as it is rather than the Bible as I want it to be.”

Bergen’s path to understanding salvation takes an unusual turn. He approaches first the Old Testament and then the New from the standpoint of “bad news, good news.” First the bad, then the good.

Bad news in the Bible? Anabaptists have always viewed the Old Testament from the perspective of the New, because we find the greatest good news in the New. We might not look for bad news in the Old Testament, but on occasion we might avert our eyes — as, for example, from the seamy stories in Judges. I do not recall that these stories bothered me when I read the Bible as a child. It seems children are able to pass over such tragedies without being shocked as adults might be.

What is Bergen’s bad news in the Old Testament? He is particularly concerned about the “Grand Narrative” — Genesis to 2 Chronicles — which, he says, “reached its current form sometime after the Israelites are taken into captivity in Babylon… . I’m going to presume that the Grand Narrative reflects the ongoing debate within the community of Israel during the Persian period (roughly 520-330 B.C.).”

Because most of the Grand Narrative’s writers did not cite their sources, we are left to imagine how the narrative developed. Rabbis surmised Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and this idea has persisted. To suggest otherwise is to invite a backlash. Years ago when I was editing Sunday school material, a writer observed that Genesis was probably written in Babylon. I thought this was reasonable, but I should have crossed it out. The statement caused such a stir that management felt the need to put an advertisement in Gospel Herald, the Mennonite Church magazine, to apologize.

I agree in general with Bergen on how the Hebrew Bible came together. My hunch is that Jewish leaders in Babylon took their cue from Jeremiah 29 and wanted to help their children avoid the mistakes that brought them to exile. So, they said, we need to teach them our story and also the law of the Lord as in Deut. 6:4-9 — whose teaching methods some Jews still follow literally.

Bergen says it was only when the writers looked to the distant past that they saw God working in remarkable ways as the Israelites got out of Egypt and into the promised land. The return from Babylon was not like this at all: “No plagues, no manna, no angels.” I have not noticed that Ezra and Nehemiah complained about this lack, and I wonder if Bergen is making too much of it.

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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