Envisioning the Reign of God: Preaching for Tomorrow (Debra Mumford) -- A Review

ENVISIONING THE REIGN OF GOD: Preaching for Tomorrow. By Debra J. Mumford. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2019. Xii + 242 pages.

                Eschatology is a rather broad theological category. It involves all things future-oriented, from possible forms of divine judgment to the nature of the afterlife (if there is one). We often think of it in apocalyptic terms, while apocalypticism is included in the category, the category is much broader. In fact, not only is this a broad topic, but the perspectives are broad as well. Standing at the center of these conversations is the Christian vision of the reign of God (kingdom of God). We know from the Gospel of Mark that Jesus preached the kingdom/realm of God. Thus, it would seem natural that Jesus' heirs would also preach about the kingdom and other things related to eschatology. So, how might we approach these topics as preachers? That is the question explored in Debra Mumford’s Envisioning the Reign of God.

The author of this book, Debra Mumford, is an American Baptist minister and professor of homiletics at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In Envisioning the Reign of God, she introduces us to eleven different perspectives on eschatology ranging from dispensational and premillennial eschatology to an LGBTQIA/Queer vision. She states that her purpose in writing this book is rooted in her believe that by "studying diverse eschatological views, pastors and preachers may be able to infuse their congregations with enthusiasm and a new sense of purpose by helping them to develop a vision of the way the world can be because of the persona and work of Jesus Christ" (pp. v-vi). She notes that “eschatology is not just about how humanity will be judged on the Last Day but how we live our lives every day” (p. vi). In other words, this isn’t simply about heaven, it’s also about the earth!

In each of the eleven chapters in the book, Mumford introduces us to eleven eschatological visions, with a discussion of a person who exemplifies the position under discussion. In addition to offering a biographical sketch of the person under discussion, she introduces us to that figure’s theological views, with a focus on their eschatological concerns. This is followed by a discussion of implications for preaching and a series of "Questions for Exegesis." As she lays out these visions, it’s clear that she believes that each of these perspectives has something to offer, but also has areas of concern. Taken together these various voices provide the preacher (and this is a book written primarily for preachers) with resources that will enrich their preaching. Progressives might, therefore, be surprised to learn that John Nelson Darby, the founder of modern dispensationalism, might have something valuable to teach us, even if we don’t embrace his view of the church or the world. Nevertheless, he offered people who had little hope a vision of hope, even if it was in the next life. In addition, as Mumford notes, his life offers an example of faithful service to others. We might also learn something valuable from Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's feminist vision of an inclusive and egalitarian vision of the basileia of God. She points out both the strengths and the concerns with each of these perspectives, allowing us to discern which ones might be best consulted for a particular sermon. For those of us who tend toward an eclectic theology, this is extremely valuable. While I tend to be attracted to Moltmann's works, knowing more about the disability vision as exemplified by Nancy Eisland, or Emilie Town's womanist vision offers a different vantage point. Knowing their story is even more helpful. And, as proponents of intersectional theology note, these perspectives often interrelate with each other.

In chapter 12, Mumford brings these various strands together, suggesting what she believes is a "holistic vision of the reign of God." She picks out concepts from each of the writers, suggesting how they might be brought together into a larger vision of the future. Thus, she suggests that Rudolph Bultmann's idea of radical freedom, which offers a vision of freedom from one's past through the grace of God, might not change the world, but it can change the individual. It's not a vision that is sufficient in itself, but it has value for the preacher to draw upon. James Cone on the other hand, offers a vision of the realm of God that challenges oppression, and in doing so, he helps the change the world. Then there is the Mujerista vision of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who focuses on "kin-dom." Isai-Diaz suggests that the concept of kingdom helps us envision the possibility that "the people of God are a family that transcends blood relationships, and embraces friendships, love, care, and community. Kindom also displaces the primacy of the traditional nuclear family in which the man is the head and chief decision-maker for an individualized, inwardly focused, self-contained unit" (p. 204). Having drawn out these theological concepts she demonstrates how they can guide the exegesis of Scripture. She offers a series of steps toward reading the text that she draws from the work of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, as well as guidelines for putting together the sermon. As a concluding piece, she offers us a sermon she prepared and preach drawing upon some of these sources.

There are many possible eschatological visions. Not all are the same, but perhaps we can learn from most of them, even if we don’t fully embrace them. Once upon a time, I would have freely embraced the dispensationalism of Darby. That period of my life has passed, but I understand why it’s attractive. Over time I’ve learned the importance of listening to the perspectives of persons whose life experiences are different from mine, In doing so, my life has been enriched. What I appreciate about Mumford is that she offers us a way of hearing different voices that might speak to specific needs and issues at specific points in time. If we’re to faithfully envision the future, we’ll need to hear these differing voices, especially if we’re called to a ministry of preaching. After all, people are asking questions that are dealt with under the category of eschatology. Not every vision will work in every community, but there is much to draw upon here.


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