CHRISTIAN HOPE AMONG RIVALS: How Life-Organizing Stories Anticipate the End of Evil
CHRISTIAN HOPE AMONG RIVALS: How Life-Organizing Stories Anticipate the End of Evil. By Michael W. Zeigler. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017. 214 pages. $28.00.
Christian Hope Among Rivals is a book that evaluates Christianity’s hope and compares it to the hope of other “life-organizing stories.”
If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with Christian hope. However, Scripture states that as iron sharpens iron so does one man sharpen another. And so it is that Zeigler’s work will hone even the seasoned Christian’s understanding of their hope. But that’s not his main goal. The main goal of the book is to compare Christian hope to the hope offered by other life-organizing stories.
So, what are these other life-organizing stories? My (false) assumption was that every life-organizing story had a name and was dogmatically organized as some other world religion, such as Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, etc. I was wrong. Though Zeigler does touch on Buddhism very briefly, that’s really not what he is up to at all.
A life-organizing story is not the same thing as a formal “religion” though they both functionally cover a lot of the same ground. Zeigler’s entire third chapter is devoted to establishing the parameters of “life-organizing stories” and for me to rehash it all in an book review would require more space and time than is available. However, this quote provides a helpful summary of what he’s getting at and should whet your appetite to learn more, “Comparing hopes entails comparing stories. Not just any stories, but the stories that shape human lives. Every person, in as much as he or she lives in a society and wants to make some sense of the world, inhabits a life-organizing story. People grow to interpret their lives in terms of what they come to find ultimately desirable and undesirable. They evaluate experiences by how these come into conflict or approach harmony with their desires. A life-organizing story offers a plotline projected toward a future in which resolution is expected” (p. 34).
Christian Hope Among Rivals is eight chapters long with a conclusion at the end, but it can be neatly divided into two parts connected by a bridge. Chapters 1–4 establish the foundation and subsequent components of life-organizing stories. Chapters 6–8 evaluate and compare the hope of four specific “life-organizing stories” with Christianity, and Chapter 5 serves as a bridge to connecting the “prep work” (Chapters 1–4) with the “exercise” (Chapters 6–8).
By the end of the book, Zeigler accomplishes what he set out to do. He does compare Christian hope among rivals.
This book was, for me, the most difficult reading I have done since I left the seminary. In fact, it might be the most difficult thing I’ve ever read. That I finished this book at all is a testimony to Zeigler’s skill as a writer to elucidate the subject matter.
One of the challenges I had in digesting the information in this book was juggling the terminology. Perhaps the following analogy will help. I took over ten years of piano lessons as a child (though never during the summer months), and now, after a fifteen year hiatus, I am attempting to reclaim some of those skills. I spend a fair amount of time on the piano these days attempting to master some hymns from our hymnal. It’s a torturous experience—just ask my wife. My hands don’t move from one chord to the next fluidly. After playing one chord, I haltingly move my fingers to the next chord before venturing to strike the keys in the hope of having rightly found them. What looks like two quarter notes on the sheet music is, in reality, separated by multiple whole rests as I struggle to move from one chord to the next.
That’s what reading this book was like for me. I had to learn terminology. “Eschatology” always meant for me “the study of the end times.” But that’s not how Zeigler (or the scholars he interacts with) use that term. While at the seminary, the term “theodicy” was used to describe the bad thing that ‘theologians of glory’ would do—justifying the ways of God to men rather than living under the suffering of the cross. In this book, “theodicy” isn’t something only ‘theologians of glory’ do, but it is something all theologians and life-organizing stories do. Not only that, but it’s OK for them to do so! In addition to learning new definitions to these terms there were other terms I had to learn for the first time, such as “scandalous evil” and “storied evil” and the distinction between them. I had to learn the importance and difference of ‘word-to-world’ and ‘world-to-word’ direction of fit, and I also had to learn things like ‘emplotment’ and ‘commissive speech acts.’ It made the reading very laborious.
The labor was worth it though. After comparing Christian hope with rivals, Zeigler then exhorts his reader to “stay in the story.” Specifically, staying the story of the God of Jesus who made promises to Abraham and fulfilled them by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Christian does not speak of their Christian hope by “claiming cognitive certainty, a religious consolation, an existential meaningfulness, or an ethical productivity that rises above others” (p. 164–65). Rather, the “appropriate place of struggle for Christians to maintain hope against despair is within the Christian story as narrated in the Bible, summarized in the ecumenical creeds, assumed in the dogma of the church, and reflected in the biographies of the baptized” (p. 165).
In Mark 8:38, Jesus says, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” The temptation of any Christian is to jettison the story of Jesus Christ in favor of a more appealing “life-organizing story” in an attempt to account for the storied and scandalous evil Christians encounter. This, however, we ought not do.
Zeigler says it well in his conclusion when he writes, “The Christian difference is and always will be this peculiar Palestinian construction worker who was crucified by order of a Roman procurator during the first half of the first-century. In spite of his ignominious demise, his disciples came to confess him as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord. They took up this outrageous stance because they believed the God of Abraham had raised him bodily from the dead, being the first to rise in a general resurrection God will accomplish on the Last Day. At that time, God will judge the living and the dead and set the world right. Christian hope is distinct because it arises out of this story” (p. 192).
I’ve never run a marathon, but I suspect reading this book is a bit like it. It’ll take time, you’ll exercise mental muscles you didn’t know you had. These said mental muscles will undoubtedly get sore after a bit, and you’ll be exhausted when you’re done—but you’ll be proud you did it.
This book was helpful and clarifying Christian hope and exhorting the reader to be wary of substituting the hope of the story of Jesus Christ with something else.
If you want to listen to Zeigler speak about his book, its genesis, and its development, you can do that here. I would strongly encourage it.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.
 Emphasis original.