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.
Department of Politics & International Relations