Tyler D. Mayfield
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 145 pages
Published January 4, 2022
I grew up in an evangelical tradition, and I began to exit that tradition as a college freshman. Especially after a world religions class that year, I began to search for a more inclusive theology — one that would not condemn friends and neighbors of different faiths. Tyler D. Mayfield’s Father Abraham’s Many Children is exactly the sort of book that I craved at that time.
It is no secret that we live in a world of religious pluralism; however, folks are often reluctant to have real conversations with people of other traditions. We want to be good neighbors to those of other faiths, but we may not know how to put theory into action. While there are countless harmful books on how best to convert others, this is the first book I have read on how faithful participation in a religiously pluralistic and harmonious society is part of what Christians are called to do.
Mayfield’s guiding questions are “how are Christians to engage this increasing religious diversity?” and “how might the Bible help us with this necessary engagement?”. As the title suggests, Mayfield uses the children’s song “Father Abraham” to guide his response. Abraham indeed had many children, not just Isaac, and Mayfield uses three stories of brothers in Genesis to challenge the notion of being exclusively “chosen” — Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau. Mayfield notes that we have often been taught to read Scripture in an exclusionary way, and he convincingly focuses on the “other” sons and “minor” characters to demonstrate the inclusivity of Scripture. The biblical commentary throughout the book is excellent and eye-opening — the exegesis alone makes the book worthwhile.
Yet, Mayfield’s argument in favor of religious pluralism did not always feel connected to his biblical scholarship. It would have been more effective for Mayfield to focus on the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity). I question how people from other traditions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism, might respond to Mayfield naming them “children of Abraham.” I wish that Mayfield had a bit more nuance in this regard, but he should be applauded for striking up a conversation that so many hesitate to begin.
Father Abraham’s Many Children is accessible for those with prior knowledge of biblical and theological study. Each chapter ends with discussion questions that would work well in Sunday school or a book group with an experienced leader. I would recommend it to groups that are willing to do homework between sessions or exceptionally curious individuals. I would also recommend the biblical exegesis to any pastor preaching on these texts.
21st century Christians can sometimes dismiss Scripture as outdated and narrow-minded. Instead, Mayfield relies on Scripture’s vibrancy and depth to see if it might be able to still speak to us today — and it certainly does. Even in the passages of which I was critical, I loved that he continued to ask what the Bible had to do with religious pluralism. And that is a model of interrogation and study worth adopting for any topic.
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