The 1978 edition of The Upside-Down Kingdom corresponded to the maturation of a generation of Mennonites away from their home communities. These Mennonites were becoming keenly aware of social ailments. They were asking questions of meaning, identity, and faithfulness in the midst of a secular and pluralistic culture. These Mennonites soon learned that they were not the only Christians asking such questions. Half of my urban congregation grew up in a non-Mennonite home. Many of them read Donald Kraybill, and Kraybill's mentor John Howard Yoder (9), and they started attending Mennonite fellowships. They liked what they read. The Upside-Down Kingdom tapped into attitudes appealing to many urbanites which have some connection to Anabaptist values still present in many Mennonite congregations. Twenty-five years ago Donald Kraybill set out to assist those seeking a Christian identity, and he used a very Anabaptist / Mennonite framework in this task. The updated and revised twenty-fifth anniversary edition pursues this same intent with the same methodology as the original edition.
The Upside-Down Kingdom seeks to integrate belief and action. Since Jesus devoted much of his time to the marginalized of society, so too must disciples of Jesus labor with and on behalf of the marginalized in our society. While enumerating the many rationales that detour us from the path of Jesus, Kraybill argues that "the inner life yields social fruit-of one kind or another" (31). Social ethics rooted in spirituality attracts people. Sadly, much religious material reinforces the segmentation of our culture. Particular theories of atonement, dispensationalism, and a fragmented life have all contributed to a belief / action split. In this way The Upside-Down Kingdom indicts the faith which divorces confession of Christ from discipleship of Christ while affirming those pursuing discipleship in a messy world. This approach may open Kraybill to charges of misrepresenting salvation. I suspect Kraybill might respond, "so be it." The impact of faith on life is more his concern. Integrating belief and action brings healing for the actor and testifies to the way of God in Christ. Kraybill, however, does leave underdeveloped the spiritual disciplines that enable a disciple to follow after Jesus as well as questions pertaining to heaven and eternity.
In classic Anabaptist / Mennonite form Kraybill keys the reintegration of life in the person of Jesus (19), and more specifically the Jesus which appears in the synoptic gospels (10). The Bible is interpreted through the life of Christ; commentaries on the life of Christ (tradition) must conform to the Christ of the gospels. The "Index of Scripture Cited" corroborates this preferential choice for Matthew, Mark, and Luke of the New Testament (200ff). Kraybill masterfully exposits the Jesus story. By page 108 I needed to stop reading and jot a note to myself, "I love the Bible stories! Reading them makes me want to be more generous." Engaging the Jesus of the gospels can lead to conversion and regeneration. The attitude a reader brings to the book will partially dictate the response to the stories of Jesus. Will we be a rich young ruler or Zacchaeus (112-113)? If one approaches Jesus unable or unwilling to relinquish a spiritual block (like a rich young ruler) it may happen that the book will leave a person puzzled or even sad. If one comes looking for salvation of self and world with willingness to eliminate all blocks to following Jesus (like Zacchaeus) it may happen that Kraybill's exposition will give hope and direction. And then again it may leave the reader somewhat bewildered.
The challenges of Biblical interpretation and application are not new to Kraybill, and he looks to the trusted Anabaptist hermeneutical key of community discernment. The study questions near the back of the book (257-262) are designed for a group study, and they provide an opportunity for conversation on the provocative call of Jesus. This format makes The Upside-Down Kingdom an excellent resource for Christian Education Sunday morning or a mid-week group. The accountability and support of a group study increases the germination rate of the many seeds which the book plants. I would consider coupling The Upside-Down Kingdom with a book centered on spirituality (books authored by Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, or Wendy Wright are all good choices).
The Upside-Down Kingdom is still bringing people to my church. Earlier this year I greeted a visitor and learned that he was checking us out because "Mennonites have a good reputation". He had worked with a mission agency in Ethiopia and met some Mennonite workers at the Mennonite Guest House in Nairobi, Kenya. They got to talking about their faith traditions and the Mennonite recommended this book to give some insights to Mennonite thinking. Over twenty years later this person sought a Mennonite congregation. I don't know how long he will stay or how well my congregation reflects the high standard of discipleship which Kraybill describes. I hope there still is an upside-down atmosphere among the congregation which has made this pilgrim willing to journey with us. I hope this also for the denomination and for all of Christianity.
Pastor, Faith Mennonite Church