Daniel Erlander’s retelling of the Bible, Manna and Mercy, has been popular with Lutherans for decades. Now, Augsburg Fortress has made a curriculum based on Manna and Mercy that is appropriate for many age levels and situations. One component of this curriculum is the Leader Sourcebook, which includes 18 sessions for adults in addition to many other sessions for other age groups. Marc Olson wrote the adult sessions to help people really dig into Daniel Erlander's work. What follows is an interview with Marc about the process of creating the adult sessions as well as what he hopes people will gain from those sessions.
You wrote 18 sessions that guide groups through the pages of Manna and Mercy. What was your creative process for writing these sessions?
In order to get ready to build a session for Manna and Mercy, which usually involved one of Dan’s chapters, I would do at least three things:
First I’d read the whole chapter, looking for the ways God was described—especially what God was doing. I’d look for the verbs to which God was the subject. The other thing I’d try to pay attention to was what themes were at work in Dan’s retelling of the narrative. I’d attempt to boil it down to a word or two, which I’d write on a card.
Then I’d read the passages from the Bible that the particular chapter was built around. Usually this was a book or two; sometimes more. I’d attend especially to the verses or sections that Dan included. This part would also often include my own study or research on the history of the particular era of biblical history that surrounded those books.
Finally, I’d go read Dan’s endnotes, and look up, read, view, or listen to as many of those references as I could.
Then I’d drink a big glass of water, sit down at the keyboard, read the word or theme I had noted on the card, and imagine I was writing to some of my favorite friends, explaining what I knew and had learned.
Several times you refer to Dan’s endnotes. What do you want folks to know about this (often-overlooked) content?
Manna and Mercy is simple, but it’s not simplistic. Beneath and within Dan’s winsome writing and drawings is a core of serious and disciplined scholarship and critical engagement with the biblical texts as well as thoughtful theologians. The endnotes are like a library to wander in. They include some deeply important and useful quotations as well as a phenomenal reading list for anyone who wants to travel some of the avenues of thought that influenced and fed Dan’s work on this project.
How could a youth leader decide whether these sessions would be a good fit for a high school youth group?
I’d say try it. The discussion questions can be engaged at multiple levels, depending mostly on the level of trust your group’s members feel towards you and one another. Good trust invites honesty. The concepts in this book are accessible, the history is fascinating, and the themes are utterly relevant to our lives. I believe that there are very likely many high school groups that will be willing to engage this material more deeply and with greater self-reflection that some adult groups will be willing to muster.
That said, a leader considering the adult sessions for a high school group may want to review and reframe some of the questions, as some of the wording is aimed at adult experiences, including parenting.
Imagine dropping into a session of adults who are doing one of the sessions you wrote. What do you hope you would see and hear happening?
I hope that anyone who participates in one of these sessions will be willing to set aside some of the filters that we all have had to create to protect our psyches in the age of social media. Manna and Mercy was not constructed in an age of clickbait and propositions to debate or defend. Dan is telling a story (actually several stories—including his own!), and stories like this are less for consumption and entertainment as they are for chewing on, savoring, and exploring. Dan isn’t offering a bullet-pointed presentation with takeaways and to-dos. Like the peaceful-and-powerful preacher that he is, he is weaving a basket or a boat or a shelter (see the Hebrew word teva) that has space enough to shelter and welcome each of us.
So, in the session that I dropped into, I’d be most thrilled to see and hear people sharing the ways their own stories align and contrast with the patterns Dan so deftly weaves. And I’d be even more thrilled if the people who weren’t speaking were attending deeply to their fellows around the circle, listening, learning, and experiencing the way our lives overlap and are stitched together by bonds of affection and understanding. God’s mending of the universe happens in these small and local ways even as they are traced in the deep and broad patterns of history.
What is a favorite illustration of yours in Manna and Mercy?
I love when Daniel Erlander playfully offers his own face as the model for the biblical Daniel. When I see that drawing, I can hear Dan’s giggle and picture his smile—especially as he was anticipating the joy of one of his own gentle jokes.
Anything else you want congregational leaders to know about these sessions?
I believe that inviting people into a sustained small group conversation about Manna and Mercy will be an act of pastoral care as well as biblical teaching and gospel proclamation. There’s space here for everybody, and a prophetic invitation to witness and participate in God’s unfolding dream for the entire universe.