National Lutheran News

The gospel according to the prairie dogs

The Rev. Dan Erlander illustrates his own biblical graphic novels. Image from Manna and Mercy

If a pastor and author is going to undertake telling the story of “A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe,” he needs partners. Perhaps he would consider a couple of prairie dogs and a dynamic preacher from South Africa.

Many Lutherans are familiar with Daniel Erlander’s book Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life, a foundational work that congregations have used to teach the faith. Erlander was formerly village pastor and resource director at Holden Village, an ecumenical retreat center rooted in the Lutheran tradition, in Washington state.

But years ago, he grew concerned about the way people have used the Bible to justify things he didn’t believe God would affirm, such as violence, oppression of women, domination of the earth, and economic inequality. There was theology available that offered alternative interpretations. But these tended to be densely written and inaccessible to the average church-goer. So he wrote his own book, Manna and Mercy, a journey from Genesis through Revelation, with that ambitious “brief history” subtitle.

One thing to know about Erlander: He truly writes his books, as in, the text is handwritten. He also peppers each page with whimsical illustrations. Two “lowly” prairie dogs recur throughout the book as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the action.

Manna and Mercy is really a graphic novel of the Bible, told through the very specific lens of the Jesus story. That would seem to be an obvious lens for a Christian to use to approach Scripture. In fact, the lens of the Jesus story opens up a radical re-reading of the text, as Erlander warns in the introduction: “Therefore, parts of the Bible come clearly into focus — those parts which envision a just, merciful, peaceful, inclusive, and nonhierarchical society. Other parts recede — those which tend toward enthnocentrism, exclusion, patriarchy, and domination.”

The Rev. Daniel Erlander

Erlander truly writes his books, as in, the text is handwritten.

Or, as the prairie dogs put it, when God sends the “partner-people” out of Egypt into Wilderness School to learn how to live with one another and with all creation, “They have to be taught how to live?” “They’re only human.”

“Dan tells the story in a winsome way, with humor but also with depth,” says Tom Witt, who coordinates Daniel Erlander Publications out of Minneapolis. “Through manna — bread — and God’s mercy, he focuses on the twin ideas of food-sharing and forgiveness.”

A world away

Halfway around the world, Manna and Mercy resonated in a profound way. Alan Storey, who pastors at Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, South Africa, encountered the book. Storey is a gifted preacher who challenges those who follow Jesus to model what Jesus believed in — unlimited love and forgiveness. Storey began leading “Manna and Mercy” retreats in South Africa, taking participants through the entire Bible in a weekend. He came to speak in the United States and met up with Erlander. The two became friends and, in essence, ministry partners through this material.

“Dan has said that Alan’s the best Bible study leader he’s ever heard,” says Dr. Christian Scharen, assistant professor of worship and theology at Luther Seminary, who has participated in Storey’s Manna and Mercy retreat, which have also been held at Holden Village, in Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, and in the Sudan.

Storey comes from a country where the Bible was used — by the government and by some Christian churches — to justify apartheid and the brutal oppression of its black citizens. But it also inspired leaders in the liberation movement, including Storey himself and his father, Bishop Peter Storey, former head of the South African Council of Churches.

“In the context [in which] he grew up, Christianity wasn’t just something you did on a Sunday morning. People lived and died by this,” Scharen says.

“Alan is one of the truth-tellers,” Witt says. “He cuts right through and applies Gospel values to contemporary questions that people struggle with.”

The Rev. Alan Storey

Storey comes from a country where the Bible was used — by the government and by some Christian churches — to justify apartheid and the brutal oppression of its black citizens.

Using Storey’s approach to Manna and Mercy, any examination of Scripture needs to consider four important questions. What does the text say about God? Humanity? Creation? Their relationship? These questions can lead to a conclusion at the center of Storey’s reading that many retreat participants find particularly uncomfortable. Not everything biblical is Christ-like.

But that’s all right, Storey assures, because Jesus does not call people to follow the Bible, but to follow him.

So then here’s another question to ask, says Storey: Would Jesus say “Amen” to our way of living? When poverty, inequality, oppression, and violence persist, the answer must be, “No.”

Yet, to remain people of faith is to believe in the mending of the entire universe. As Erlander paraphrased in the Scripture he says most inspired Manna and Mercy, Ephesians 1:9-10, “God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, according to God’s pleasure set forth in Christ, as a promise for the fullness of time, to unite everything in Christ, everything in heaven and everything on earth.”

Maybe the prairie dog says it better: “Someone’s getting ready for a party!”

Kimberly Burge is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer and author of a forthcoming book about girls growing up in post-apartheid South Africa.

Using Manna and Mercy

When you first see the book — the carefully printed letters of the text, the drawings where God, animals, people, and the universe all speak — Manna and Mercy looks deceptively simple. It is simple in a way that makes the biblical story understandable for everyone from middle-school classes through college through adult Bible study groups. But the complexity and scriptural revision that it unleashes means that additional resources are helpful and sometimes necessary.

Daniel Erlander's corpus

At the website, mannaand mercy.com, nearly 50 video clips feature Alan Storey walking through portions of the book. The clips range from under two minutes to 15 minutes. Titles include “In Love, By Love, For Love,” “Jesus’ Third Way,” and “God Hates Sodomy” (but not for the reasons you might have heard). The clips are also available as a four-DVD set that can be ordered through the site.

“This isn’t just another Bible study,” says Mary Carlsen, professor of social work and family studies at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, who has participated in the retreat along with students. “It’s important to have an engaging and energizing approach. Short of having Alan and Dan there in person, the videos are a way to make the material come alive.”

Study guides for elementary school children and confirmation classes can be downloaded from the website, along with Storey’s PowerPoint presentation that expounds on the book.

Copies of Manna and Mercy can be ordered through the website or at danielerlander.com. It is also on sale at the Luther Seminary bookstore.

—Kimberly Burge

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Mary Carlsen as a professor of religion. She is actually a professor of social work and family studies.

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