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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 272–274 

Book Review

For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought

Peter C. Blum. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2013. 177 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph R. Wiebe

For a Church to Come is a collection of essays, all previously published separately, by Peter Blum, Professor of Philosophy and Culture at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Each chapter is an exercise in what Blum calls an experiment: trying something out, uncertain of what it will produce. He asks, What happens to Anabaptist thought when it converses with postmodern theory? The theoretical voices that help him think through these experiments—and would aid the continuous reflection on their meaning for the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition—are Foucault, Derrida, and Levinas. As a series of genuine experiments, each essay attempts to put some dimension of Blum’s own tradition at risk—peace, patience, family, foot washing—by taking up a writer who unsettles its accepted meaning. Specifically, Blum wonders how the Mennonite proclivity for “a certain Christocentric ‘will-to-community’ ” might be affected if it was not just a habit of mind but a continuous reflection on the extent to which Mennonite communities are genuinely open to being surprised by the waywardness and individuality of its members.

Like most collections, this one has no overarching argument that lends it coherency. Blum is unapologetic about the “frustrating” nature of this wandering and somewhat disjointed style. The organization matches the approach and in this way forms an implied argument: theological claims {273} are essays—trials, tests—and should reflect the contingency of the process by which they emerge. Also implied is the flip side to this argument: answering challenges put to theological claims—and their concomitant social practices—are not attempts to solve their problematic nature. Ecclesiological claims and the liberal individualism that criticizes them are not opposed but held together in pregnant tension. One helpful contribution of For a Church to Come is a healthy suspicion of using “church” or “community” as foundations for addressing theological and social problems. The riskiness of Blum’s method and analysis foregrounds both what’s at stake as well as what can be gained in relinquishing foundations in favor of tension. In short, the unpredictability and uncertainty of Blum’s experiments mark the book’s coherency and argument. The poetic and confessional interludes and epigraphs from figures as diverse as Bob Dylan, Tool, Music Machine, and Walker Percy give it an added disorienting quality, which experientially underscores his theology.

If there is one theologian who gives Blum’s theology an orientation it is John Howard Yoder. Several essays refer to Yoder explicitly, and Blum concludes the book with an appendix entitled, “Some Personal Reflections on John Howard Yoder,” where he outlines Yoder’s importance as both a friend and academic conversation partner. The chapters on Foucault and Derrida bring each thinker side by side with Yoder in order to understand the aspects of their work—genealogy, différance—that resonate theologically. But this is not to say that Blum uses Yoder—or theologians generally—as the interpretive basis for his thinking about postmodern concepts or philosophers. In chapter 7, “Two Cheers for an Ontology of Violence: Reflections in Im/Possibility,” he hesitates to make Milbank’s articulation of an ontology of peace the basis for Anabaptist-Mennonite nonviolence and instead reflects on the way deconstruction and its insistence on the unavoidability of violence—the very thing Milbank’s ontology claims to overcome—helps make nonviolence possible. Though Yoder gives Blum’s theology some familiarity and location, his is not a privileged voice. Blum’s treatment of philosophers and theologians is evenhanded and measured without reducing anyone to ciphers or spokespersons.

The book is helpful for anyone interested in theology and philosophy, especially for theologically minded readers interested in learning more about the complex ideas of theoretical thinkers. Indeed, Blum’s explanations and interpretations can function as a theologian’s introduction to postmodern philosophy. As a book that is “mainly about church,” it is instructive as a gesture of genuine receptivity—not just welcoming and tolerating divergent voices but bringing them to bear on some dearly held ideas and practices. Its presentation as well as its content convey this receptivity: the book is a performance of the openness Blum sees as the primary {274} characteristic of the church “as a voluntarily gathered local group of persons committed to being disciples of Jesus together, to being mutually accountable to each other.”

Joseph R. Wiebe
D. F. Plett Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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