Reviews

Holding the Bible (Awkwardly) in the Midst of a Pandemic

Review of two books by N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann

In the midst of both a global pandemic and nationwide protests against anti-black racism, President Donald Trump had peaceful protestors forcefully removed from Lafayette Square by an unidentified military force so that he could walk across the street for a photo-op in front of historic St. John’s Episcopalian Church. He wanted to pose holding a Bible. The outrage expressed by Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde was echoed through much of the Christian community. This bit of pious propaganda was an act of blasphemy. Indeed, if you believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then this wielding of the Bible as the ideological legitimation of a Trumpian worldview was nothing less than a sin against the Holy Spirit. While people were calling for racial justice and equity, the President waved the very text that was at the heart of the faith of George Floyd.

There can be no doubt about where reading the Bible will get you in the face of racism. The biblical call to justice and creational reconciliation breaks down every boundary of race, ethnicity, gender and economic status. There is no racist Christianity, only racist heretics. But what about the pandemic? There was the President awkwardly waving the Bible while more than a 100,000 of his fellow citizens had died of Covid-19. I’m just wondering if we might share some of that awkwardness. While the Bible might be abundantly clear when it comes to racial justice, what does it say about something like a pandemic? If there were two prolific scholars to whom we might look for biblical wisdom in the face of the pandemic, they would be Walter Brueggemann and N. T. Wright. And the good news is that in the last couple of months they have each published short books of biblical reflection on precisely this topic. While both Brueggemann and Wright deeply believe that the scriptures speak powerfully in any and every cultural context and time, neither are given to quick and easy application of the text to specific historical crises. Indeed, Wright is convinced that asking, “Why has God sent this plague upon the world?” is the wrong question. The question isn’t why, but what. Given that such calamity and suffering has befallen the world, what is the appropriate response of those who follow Jesus?

Part of a bigger story

If the why question invariably gets bogged down in views of God’s sovereign control of history, then Wright will offer an alternative understanding of God’s engagement with the world precisely by reading the biblical text as a whole. We could call this a hermeneutic (or method of interpretation) of the Big Story. What can we know about God and the world if we look closely at the Big Story that we find in the Bible, and specifically at how that story comes to its fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth? What happens if we read the world, including a world of global pandemic, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus? What happens if we try to discern a Christian path forward in our present crisis through the tear-filled eyes of Jesus? What does the sovereignty of God look like from the perspective of Holy Week? If our lives are rooted and shaped by this Story, then what is the shape of discipleship in the context of pandemic? If we can characterize Wright’s approach as a hermeneutic of the Big Story (with the cross and the empty tomb at its heart), then perhaps we could describe Walter Brueggemann’s approach as a “hermeneutics of lingering.” Brueggemann sees the virus as an occasion to linger over particular texts and patterns of thought in the Bible to see what might emerge. Consequently, Brueggemann will spend longer time with texts addressing the triad of famine, pestilence and war than will Wright. And this allows Brueggemann to entertain the why questions a little more than Wright.

Insofar as famine, pestilence and war are repeatedly connected to the breaking of covenant in the Torah, do we not have some reason to ask what kind of social, ecological, political and economic sins might be at the root of this particular virus and its consequences?  Might there be deeper meanings to be discerned here than epidemiology is able to imagine? Brueggemann will “linger” over such questions more than Wright, but in the end, they come to the same conclusion. In the light of God’s inscrutable mercy, and the vision of global reconciliation, healing and new creation that we meet in the Bible, the question why is less important than the question what. What is a faithful response to the present calamity? There is deep resonance between these two leading biblical scholars. Not surprisingly, Wright and Brueggemann both bring us to the practice of lament. Like the Israelites in Egypt, the psalmists in the midst of disease, injustice and violence, Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus or abandoned on the cross, we respond to such suffering, such brokenness, such heartbreak, with tears, mourning and lament. Both authors appeal to Romans 8. Our lament in the face of this pandemic is in concert not only with the groaning of all creation longing for its own rebirth, but also resonates with the inarticulate groaning of the Holy Spirit. How do we respond to the pandemic? The same way God does. With tears. But tears are not enough. They are foundational to a faithful response, but we must not be paralyzed in our grief. As Brueggemann puts it, if we “groan without a future” then we are lost in despair. But if we live with a vision of “a future without a groan,” where every tear is wiped a way and there is no more death, no more disease and heartbreak, then we are empowered and enlivened by hope.

Speaking life & hope

That hope will take the shape of sacrificial love in the care of the sick and the elderly, advocacy for those who are most vulnerable because of structures of injustice, and neighbourly generosity in attention to public health precautions and taking care of each other.  But might this also be a time to linger a little longer than either Brueggemann or Wright on the social, ecological, economic and political practices and systems that continue to hinder the coming of the new creation? Might it be that the why question and the what question are intertwined? We can only know what we are to do in this crisis if we can begin to understand something of why we are in this situation in the first place.

If it is true that our lives are animated by “a future without a groan” how do we begin to live into that future? What might this mean for health care reform? How do we need to rethink patterns of global trade? What are the ecological implications of our crisis? If our vision is of “a future without a groan” then what needs to happen now to reduce the groaning amongst our most vulnerable neighbours, those who have inherited a culture of sorrow? Christians should not use the Bible as propaganda. And if we hold this text awkwardly, let it be because we humbly acknowledge that sometimes we don’t know how to read the Bible in ways that speak life and hope in the midst of death and despair. Thank God that we have folks like Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright who can help us to reread the scriptures for a renewed imagination.

  • Brian Walsh is a retired campus pastor and the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community in Toronto. His most recent book, with Sylvia Keesmaat, is Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice (Brazos).

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