Obedience, Suspicion and the Gospel of Mark: A Mennonite-Feminist Exploration of Biblical Authority

Eleanor Epp-Stobbe

The Conrad Grebel Review 19, no. 3 (Fall 2001)

Studies in Women and Religion/Études sur les femmes et la religion 5. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998

The genesis of this book was “as an experiment in feminist thought”(ix). Born out of Harder’s personal struggle in the context of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith tradition while embracing the challenges of feminist theological writing, this volume explores the nature of biblical authority.

Both a critical and a constructive model of theology are incorporated here. Harder’s discourse embodies a constructive process consisting of moments of critical reflection followed by a creative moment. This book begins with a discussion of methodological strategies and theological focus. The methodological approach and particular choices made by Harder are placed in the context of the hermeneutical discussion on biblical authority.

Chapters two and three deal descriptively with biblical authority in the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith tradition and with feminist theological thought. John H. Yoder and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are selected as conversation partners, because both scholars come from “communities of interpretation that agree on the importance of the relationship between discipleship and the process of biblical interpretation”(8). Yoder’s writings are examined because they provide a normative language of discipleship for many Mennonites. Schüssler Fiorenza’s work is an example of contextual biblical interpretation of discipleship from a feminist hermeneutic community.

The focus shifts with chapter four, where attention is paid to Biblical authority in the language of the Gospel of Mark. Harder is committed to wrestling with the discipleship tradition in the Gospel of Mark which she identifies as creative power and subversive power. With this shift in focus, Harder attempts to reread the biblical text while rooted in her Mennonite feminist experience, thus maintaining a dynamic relationship between the biblical text and the practices of the community.

Harder presents a thorough and extensive theological and biblical analysis, exploring Anabaptist-Mennonite theology, feminist theologies, and exegesis from the Gospel of Mark. The detail work is expansive and commendable. Arguments can be made against the conversation partners of Yoder and Schüssler Fiorenza as adequately representative. However, the beauty, art, and skill of the writing is most evident in the panoramic view that this successful experiment takes.

The strength of the book lies in the vibrant “interweaving of theological convictions and interpretative practices”(x). As the analysis moves with broad strokes to two particular communal discourses (Anabaptist-Mennonite and Christian feminist), and to two individual voices within those discourses (Yoder and Schüssler Fiorenza), the reader experiences living with the tension and embracing polarities alive within this experiment.

Harder’s use of feminist thought invites participation and ongoing development. Harder’s methodology of wrestling, creativity, critique, construction, intermingling, and connectedness addresses communities committed to discerning God’s word. The author’s theological method is not a new approach, it is grounded in feminist thought. However, it is unique that the book considers a hermeneutic of obedience and a hermeneutic of suspicion by focusing on the common theological concept of discipleship. Harder’s personal voice permeating this book is a vulnerable act, a gift for theological and biblical writing: “Because I too am easily blind to my own use of biblical interpretation to justify my own actions, I must open myself to the critique of an enlarged hermeneutic community. At the same time, I will listen to the text as closely as I can, acknowledging both the strength and limitations of my context. Neither obedience nor suspicion alone will define my approach to the Bible”(95).

A book that seeks to illuminate a critical and creative theological and biblical hermeneutic of discipleship deserves serious attention. It may be particularly crucial for Mennonites who have emphasized communities of commitment and discernment, but who often hesitate to enter circles of dialogue with other hermeneutical communities.

Eleanor Epp-Stobbe, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba, Voices for Non- Violence, Winnipeg, MB