The enduring, prophetic imagination of Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, the prominent Old Testament scholar who retired a decade ago from Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia is now 81 years of age. Despite his age, his retirement, his impressive number and range of previous publications, he continues to preach, teach, travel to speak and write with youthful vigour and prophetic imagination.

In 2014, Brueggemann published two new books that both highlight his steadfast desire to bring the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, into prophetic relevance to and critique of contemporary American (even more broadly, North American) society. The prophetic critiques in these two books invite us to consider the detriment that results from a lack of lament as well as a spurning of Sabbath.

Reality, Grief, Hope charts the ways in which our society is ideologically allergic to grief, despair and lament. From the increased usage of psycho-pharmaceuticals to insure happiness, to the state of permanent war to provide for our security, to the predatory economic policies that keep the global rich rich and poor poor, to the confidence of our special right to rule the world, Brueggemann argues that North Americans are in the grip of a deadly ideology.

The only hope for life is, by a sheer act of faith in the goodness of God and God’s Creation, to extricate one’s self from the dreams of the Western empire, to embrace reality with sober courage, and to return to more sustainable ways of living in neighbourhoods of shalom – a project the local church needs to model.

In Sabbath as Resistance, Brueggemann connects the imperial ideology of our North American society to three death-dealing and anti-reality practices. First, he points to coercive socio-political practices that we take for granted to secure our comfortable place in the world. Second, our exclusive theologies that speak of grace but are de facto rooted in legalistic expectations for community membership. And, third, the accepted prevalence of multitasking that ensures high personal productivity at the cost of a fragmented life.

By delving deeply into the Exodus, Israel before her liberating and law-giving God at Sinai, and the prophets, Brueggemann shows the necessity of Sabbath as a legal work-stoppage which undercuts the cultural values of effectivity and efficiency and opens a renewed pathway to neighbourliness, trust in God and God’s Creation, and a brake on out-of-control human desires.

Both books are well-suited for a variety of settings: small group study (each book is approximately 100 pages), preaching commentaries (both books are structured around rich biblical interpretation of a variety of important but often-overlooked texts), or personal devotional reading.

While Brueggemann’s work is important for us to hear and seriously consider, there are aspects of these books that may present roadblocks for some readers. First, Brueggemann’s critiques are especially directed to his U.S. context. Those readers who do not reside in the U.S. will need to translate his observations to their own national contexts. The temptation, maybe for Canadians especially, will be that sense of superiority over the perceived socio-political bumblings of our neighbours to the south. In many of Brueggemann’s observations, the Western cultural ideologies in view span national borders.

A second roadblock that some readers of the CC might encounter is Brueggemann’s interpretive grid that he brings to his study of the Old Testament. For those committed to a Reformed “redemptive-historical” hermeneutic, there may be a sense of bittersweetness. On the one hand, Brueggemann might be seen as being light on the “redemptive” part while being (thankfully, in my view) heavy on the “historical” part. This can be seen, for me, particularly in how tangentially the person and work of Christ is brought to bear not only on the interpretation of Old Testament passages but also in applying these insights in a redemptive way today. Without a firm grounding in Christ, Brueggemann’s suggestions for moving out of our cultural dead-ends run the risk of merely exchanging one kind of legalism or moralism for another.

Yet these are not insurmountable roadblocks. Christian readers formed by Scripture and liturgy will be able to take Brueggemann’s claims and discern the personal, communal and societal applications readily enough. The important question to ask in light of these and other observations of our contemporary culture is: When will the church realize its enslavement to the unsustainable values of our society, and discern the way to be the salt and light of an alternative which is life-giving in its call to faith, and prophetic in its public witness? Brueggemann’s work, these two books included, is a gift for us to receive with grateful hearts and courageous wills in this critical endeavour.
 

  • Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019). Mike adapted this reflection, published by Kuyper December 13, 1899, for our cultural context.

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