I can almost smell the soot in the air as Bill Harkins begins his essay, narrating his rather dystopian hike through a burned-out Montana wilderness. But he proves a capable guide, carefully leading his readers along a trail not unlike the one he walked that day, a journey toward seeing what is not at first apparent. Just as his own perception that day gradually shifted from the burn scar to the fireweed, from seeming desolation to the first evidence of the forest’s adaptive resilience, he helps me notice something I might otherwise miss: that healthy response to change is often much closer than I assume.
As a trained biblical scholar serving as a teaching pastor in a local congregation, I find Bill Harkins’s fireweed sightings—pointing out the capacity for resilience in families, congregations, and even neural pathways—both helpful and hopeful. I resonate with his confidence that communities facing significant change need not succumb to trauma or dysfunction on the one hand, nor require superhuman individual heroes on the other. Instead, by the creative and collaborative rearrangement of resources they already have, they can adapt to change in ways that are realistic, plausible, healthy, and—like the fireweed—a lovely surprise to see. A “resilience lens,” in contrast to lenses of “pathology” or “invulnerability,” reveals a capacity to flourish amidst significant change available not just to some, but to nearly every family or community.
I am intrigued that a feature common to each of Prof. Harkins’s various descriptions and examples of resilience is a creative synthesis of the old and the new. In each case, in contrast to “deficit-based perspectives,” resilient responses make use of resources already present in the community facing change. Like the fireweed flowering in the burned-out forest, the material for the response was there all along; what’s new is the imaginative reconfiguration of what’s already close at hand. To put this another way, resilience accomplishes a remarkable feat: second-order change using first-order materials.
Harkins makes a compelling case for pastors, leaders and members of congregations to view their common life through this resilience lens. If, as he suggests, the sorts of activities that typically define congregational life are in fact workshops where members internalize the skills and capacities required for resilient responses—if sustained close interaction in the “Interhuman Sphere” has the capacity to rewire people even at the neural level—then congregations play a significant role in strengthening and encouraging resilience. This is true in the moment, as a congregation helps members respond to unsettling circumstances. But it is equally true long before such circumstances arrive, as congregations together learn and rehearse skills and habits that will prove to be the “fireweed seed,” sprouting into adaptive change during challenges still in the future.
While Harkins is clear on the need for congregations to view their common life through a resilience lens, the trail he follows in his essay does not lead to many specific examples. Just what congregational practices and habits are most likely to foster resilience, and which are likely to undercut it? Why do some families and communities prove ready to move through the “murky, liminal . . . neutral zones” to creatively rearrange resources they already possess, while others do not? Resilient communities, Harkins explains in a number of different ways, seem to possess two related capacities: imagination and hope. So, what sorts of specific habits and resources can we give our congregations that internalize imagination and hope and—in the wake of the inevitable forest fires life will bring—blossom into creative resilience?
From Harkins’s basic sketch many possibilities suggest themselves: resources of shared faith, prayer practices, ritual, music, experiences and memories of deep community. Viewed through a resilience lens, all of these might take on more urgent purpose as habits that cache a supply of imagination and hope. Yet when I think of the various practices and experiences of a congregation, the “fireweed seed” that comes first to mind is the habit of stepping together into the narratives of scripture. Harkins’s essay suggests a credible explanation for the enduring role the biblical canon has had in the lives of generations of believers: at their core, these are texts of resilience. Awareness of this fact promises those who teach and preach these texts not only a better understanding of the documents themselves, but clues for how to help congregations experience scripture in ways that best enable a capacity for adaptive change.
Resilience as the DNA of the Canon
As I read Harkins’s essay, I found myself making a mental list of biblical texts that demonstrate the quality of resilience. As my list kept growing, it occurred to me that nearly every passage qualifies to some extent. Perhaps this should not surprise us: biblical documents were almost always produced as an adaptive response of the believing community at a given moment, as it struggled to make sense of faith in the midst of disorientating, often traumatic, new circumstances. Few texts could be described as evidencing “a steady state of competence and high functioning.” Instead, they are likely composed in the midst of some “liminal (threshold) state,” where “purpose and focus are temporarily suspended.” As such, they are nearly all instances of “struggling well,” creating a new narrative of faith as trusted structures and orienting frameworks disintegrate.
To take this a step further and suggest that resilience is the DNA of our biblical canon may at first sound melodramatic. But consider the story most biblical scholars tell of how the seminal core of the Hebrew scriptures (and thus the entire Bible) took its present shape. The backdrop to this narrative is a scene that—figuratively and literally—bears a striking resemblance to Harkins’s hike through that burned-out forest. In this case, however, it is the nation of Judah and its capital Jerusalem that were the smoldering ruin. The year of this “national forest fire” was 586 BCE, when four centuries of Judean national life disappeared in flames, immolated by the momentary anger of the Neo-Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar. Led from the devastation in chains, facing new lives as exiles in a strange land, the leadership of the Hebrew-speaking faith community faced a bleak new reality: all that had mattered, all that had given Israel meaning—the land, the temple, the Davidic kingship—was gone. Their survival as a people was beyond unlikely.
Instead, something remarkable transpired. The details must to some extent be pieced together and inferred; this community left behind no first-hand accounts. What they did leave behind was an unexpected act of literary resilience we know as the Pentateuch and Former Prophets. While scholars debate the precise sequence of redaction and composition, most agree that the final form of the sweeping narrative that now runs from Genesis through 2 Kings (often called the Deuteronomistic History) represents the exilic community’s resourceful response to the loss and trauma of 586. They took traditions already present (some form of originally separate literary sources they carried into exile, which scholars now label J, E, P, and D), and subjected them to a “second-order” transformation, producing an ambitious saga that was at the same time familiar and new.
The reworked narrative daringly insisted on Yahweh’s faithfulness to his covenant by foregrounding an ambivalence about each of the three foundations of Judean faith: kingship (e.g., its less-than-encouraging origins in 1 Samuel 8), temple (e.g., Yahweh’s indifference in 2 Samuel 7), and land (e.g., the land’s proclivity to vomit out its people in Leviticus 18:24-30). In their place it told the story of a people whose defining moment was a landless wilderness sojourn marked by dependence on Yahweh alone, and whose most authentic devotion—community practices like diet, Sabbath, and Torah study—could be fulfilled even in the new reality of Diaspora. At the same time, while these texts described a faith that could be lived out in exile, they did not entirely foreclose on the hope that exile was not the community’s ultimate fate. By imaginatively inviting readers to re-inhabit the lives of their ancestors (e.g., telling your child, “we are those slaves in Egypt . . .” Deuteronomy 6:20-25), the narratives subtly cultivated the possibility of an eventual new Exodus home. Recently scholars have found “trauma studies” a useful lens through which to view the literature of exile. Their instincts are right: the experience of disorientation pervades them. But if resilience is—as Harkins, quoting Froma Walsh, defines it—“the capacity to rebound from adversity strengthened and more resourceful,” then resilience seems a lens more able to perceive the whole picture.
If the exilic editing of the Deuteronomistic History (Genesis through 2 Samuel) is the seminal core of the canon we have, and if habits of resilience are built into its DNA, it might be instructive to take a few quick “core samples” (yes, another nod to Bill Harkins’s forest metaphor) to look for this capacity in other biblical texts. The prophet Jeremiah, for instance, experienced the trauma and aftermath of 586 not from exile, but from ruined Judah. In his vocation “to pluck up and to pull down . . . to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10), Jeremiah fills a role Harkins, quoting Gary Gunderson, calls a “boundary leader.” Through evocative, often agonizing, poetry he helps his people grieve and let go of what is lost, accept change, and embrace the new reality. He sends the exiles the counterintuitive instruction to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). And yet, in the face of all of this loss and uncertainty, he optimistically purchases his kinsman’s field, “For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:15). Thus Jeremiah helps his people synthesize the reality of loss and the promise of hope.
Set in a different diaspora location and century, the delightful tale of Esther conveys confidence that a family, in this case an orphan raised by her older cousin Mordecai, can discover what it takes to navigate the precarious reality of ethnic persecution. In their difficult circumstances, success requires compromise: both set out to keep their Jewishness hidden; Esther has no scruples joining the imperial harem of Persian King Ahasuerus. And yet in the midst of this “liminal state” where most markers of Jewish identity are impossible, Esther and Mordecai demonstrate quiet and patient resilience, drawing a few lines in the sand and eventually seeing injustice reversed in a dramatic way.
In a similar way the stories in Daniel 1-6 explore resilience in the face of powerlessness. While also set in the context of Babylonian exile, the tales are clearly written much later. They tell the story of four young Jewish captives, given the Babylonian names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are drafted into their conquerors’ imperial bureaucracy. Again, the protagonists are neither quislings nor superheroes. They blend collaboration with principle, refusing royal rations while eagerly learning the “literature and language”—which inevitably means the religion—“of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:5). These narratives, like Jeremiah and Esther, are written to buoy the confidence that regular Jews, in whatever difficult, ambiguous or compromised situations they may find themselves, will be able to “struggle well,” to imagine new ways of organizing principles, taboos, and loyalties that are both faithful and realistic.
If resilience—“the capacity to rebound from adversity strengthened and more resourceful”—might be said to be the DNA of the Hebrew scriptures, it is also surely the legacy of all who have taken these texts seriously. To their Jewish heirs these texts have given habits of resilience proven in millennia of survival against all odds. These texts prepared their New Testament heirs, meanwhile, to recognize the ultimate moment of resilience: Easter morning. Like the fireweed seeds that were in that forest system long before the fire came, scripture has a relentless capacity to help families and congregations discover new, unexpected life beyond what seems thoroughly bleak.
Questions for Reflection
1) How have you experienced scripture functioning as “fireweed seed,” creating new life, new possibilities, and new perspectives after traumatic loss or disorientation?
2) Bill Harkins quotes Kavin Rowe: “resilience is best learned in community.” What habits of experiencing scripture together might families and congregations recover so that scripture might be a resource for resilience when things get tough?
3) Resilient responses are imaginative, unexpected, sometimes even unorthodox. What are the characteristics of the sort of study, teaching, and preaching of scripture that encourages resilience? What characteristics tend to undercut it?