Buy This Book! Watch these DVDs! (a review, in praise of “The Jesus Driven Life”)
Famous biblical scholar Walter Wink described Michael Hardin’s book, The Jesus Driven Life as a “magisterial synthesis of much that can be known about Jesus and the early centuries of Christianity and their continuing relevance for today”. I must admit I was a little sceptical at first when I read such high praise. And when I started reading from an academic perspective I found some of the quirky colloquial turns of phrase a little off-putting. However, two things quickly became clear and drew me into the book, firstly it was not intended primarily for an academic audience and secondly it drew on an enormous range of scholarly material with rich insight and coherence. Wink is right, Michael Hardin has something revolutionary to offer the church.
Recently I have been making my way through his teaching DVD series (based on the book) with an eye to a useful resource for my ministry. It is a key tool for Michael’s organisation, Preaching Peace (www.preachingpeace.org). With each DVD I have become progressively more excited about the value of the series. The DVDs will, I suspect, reach a wider audience and be much more accessible than the book. Michael is a man with a mission and preaches/teaches with both intensity and clarity, and a pace that is easily grasped. To do this he draws on his enormous knowledge of the biblical tradition in its original languages and history. He is also startlingly well read in the early church and patristic literature. He knows the reformation writers and more recent theology well and holds this together with scientific and anthropological theory from Rene Girard. Although originally from a Catholic and then a fundamentalist background, Michael knows and understands critical theory and indeed a wide breadth of scholarship. In short, for someone so dedicated to preaching the gospel and doing theology and ethics at a local community level with lay-people he is an astonishingly bright guy.
As I said earlier, Michael is a man with a mission and the centre of that mission is the rediscovery of the gospel of peace, or to be more pointed, the centrality of peace and non-violence to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is broadly-speaking the focus of Preaching Peace, which he co-founded. This overarching mission divides up into several aspects which become clear in the DVDs. Let me list some of them:
- He is intent on furthering a project, associated with the names of Barth and Bonhoeffer, which seeks to re-centre faith on Jesus and re-centre our way of reading scripture on Jesus. This is a project that remains, in spite of the verbosity of the former of these two theologians, significantly incomplete. This is also an Anabaptist project and thus he is synthesising Barthian and Anabaptist hermeneutics.
- He is challenging at its roots the dominant evangelical account of salvation and Christianity. The title of the book (with its play on Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”) indicates Michael’s determination to offer an alternative way of reading the Bible to that which informs evangelicalism and fundamentalism. It begins with the interesting claim that (a) Jesus is the Word and starting-point of our faith and (b) Jesus had his own distinctive way of reading his bible (hermeneutic). His boldness in taking this trajectory to its logical conclusion is invigorating.
- He is calling the peace churches (aka the Anabaptist movement) back to its radical roots and away from any tendency to slide into the dominant evangelical mode of religion. To this end he asserts and defends the view that not only are we called to follow Jesus in reconciling non-violence, but God is (in Godself) non-violent. If there is any incipient Marcionism in the peace churches, he offers them a way of re-reading their Old Testament in the critical light of Jesus.
- He seeks to gain a broad-based audience for the anthropological understanding of Rene Girard which enables and opens up the more radical possibilities often unnoticed within the witness of scripture.
- He also seeks to gain a broad-based audience for the best of recent scholarship from the New Perspective on Paul, thus integrating a large theological vision with significant recent developments in Biblical Studies.
I could go into more detail, since there is plenty of room in 32 half-hour teaching sessions to engage a wide range of issues, including the perspectives of Augustine, Anselm, Irenaeus, Calvin, Luther and much more.
For me this project has galvanised my theological education to date in a way that is hard to do justice to in a brief space. Michael’s influences are similar to my own. I too have had my eyes opened by Barth, Girard and the Anabaptist movement (in particular John Howard Yoder). Not only does he tie things together for me with a boldness that I have hitherto shrunk back from, I also find myself learning lots of new things along the way. So I warmly recommend the work of Michael Hardin to any brave enough to engage it – especially to ministers and pastors who seek an alternative to the sterile traditions of evangelicalism and progressivism which do battle like twin gladiators in the current cultural landscape of America and elsewhere