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 theological background content, found in the Leader Sourcebook. John Rohde Schwehn wrote the theological backgrounds, and what follows is an interview with John about that process.
Dan’s simple illustrations and hand-lettered text convey a rich, in-depth, and joyful theology. What parts of his work do you appreciate most?
I love how Dan's works return us to a Biblical faith that is deeply ecological, connected not only to the Creator but to the whole creation; the land is as much of a protagonist as the people! I also love how this wise, gentle follower of Christ returns us to scripture's radically anti-empirical themes, and God's unceasing dedication to liberation. He illustrates a God who casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. Dan offers these themes not to burden us with guilt or dread, but to open us to the joyful harmony between all living things, the planet, and the cosmos that God so lovingly desires.
How do you think visual illustrations help people digest theology?
Theology is the discipline of seeking to understand the mystery of God through our broken faculties of language and logic. But the God of the cross will always reject our tidily organized systems of understanding! Our best efforts to know God constantly come up short in fully grasping this wondrous faith, so we need to engage every way of knowing that God has given us. Just as God's Spirit speaks in the lilies, the wind, and the human heart, so can She call to us in Illustrations and doodles! Though theologians will continue to labor (and should!) to articulate an eschatology (for example), what can really be better than the visual of a wide table, set beside a river, promising abundance and shalom to every living thing? I'll go with that one.
Describe your creative process of writing each theological background.
Dan's writings are deceptively dense and comprehensive. His inviting illustrations and handwritten script throw every generation of reader straight into the deep end of the theological pool, where Christian symbols and scripture and sacrament and doctrine all swim together with great richness and challenge. My process of writing theological backgrounds was to read Dan's words several times, return to the many Biblical stories and texts he references, and finally choose one or two of the themes that Dan highlights to tease out a little further. Following Dan's lead, I also want to (re)contextualize this work for our 2021 sensibilities and conversations.
What is a favorite illustration of yours in Manna and Mercy?
When I teach Manna and Mercy, the illustration I return to the most (as does Dan) is the pyramid. We think that this hierarchical way of organizing society and distributing power is inevitable, but it isn't! The "wilderness school" shows us another way to live that in no way resembles a pyramid of oppression, subjugation, and force. In each incarnation of his pyramid, Dan (a pastor) always implicates religion that functions to maintain the status quo, that baptizes the accumulation of wealth and is complicit in preserving oppressive power.
Just for fun, I also really love the prairie dogs that pop up now and again, editorializing for us the absurdity and shock of some of these sacred stories. I also smile every time I see Dan's self-portrait as he sits singing "la de da" among the peaceful lions (MM, ch. 9). Oh, and the hugging. I love all the pictures of God and Jesus giving us hugs.
Anything else you want congregational leaders to know about the theology of Manna and Mercy?
Following Dan's work into the heart of biblical faith will bring great joy and radical challenge to your congregation's journey of wondering how we are called to live and who God is still calling us to become. These materials are accessible, playful, and deep—and they also are not for the faint of heart! But they are for those of us who know in our guts, our hearts, and our brains that a new, better world is possible, and promised. They are for any who need reminding that we in fact belong to a much longer story of a people created, forgiven, and sent for the sake of the whole creation that God so loves.