Thursday, January 19, 2012

Subverting idolatrous narratives

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Walter Brueggemann,
subversive biblical scholar
This week has been one of these weeks when I've felt absolutely spoiled rotten by being a grad student in a university environment. Monday through Wednesday, the seminary held its annual School for Leadership Training (SLT). This being my last year, it is also likely my last SLT. So what a way to go out, to have renowned Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, as our keynote speaker for the two-and-a-half day conference. Brueggemann played a significant role in transforming my attitude about the Old Testament from one of disinterest and ambivalence to deep appreciation, as evidenced in one of my papers last year. So this was a big deal for me...

In Dr. Brueggemann's three keynote lecture-sermons during evening worship Monday through Wednesday, he presented two competing narratives: 1) the Narrative of Accumulation and 2) the Narrative of Abundance. The organizers of this event have graciously made these three excellent messages available on the EMU podcast blog:
  1. “Conflict from Above: The Drive for Accumulation”
  2. “Conflict from Below: The Possibility of Astonished Gratitude”
  3. “Sabbath as a Means of Transition from Anxious Scarcity to Grateful Abundance”
Read on for more summary of Dr. Brueggemann's messages and a critique of his theological application of his biblical interpretation to contemporary concerns...
Dr. Brueggemann argues that both narratives - Accumulation and Abundance - have strong representation in the Bible. The former he roots in the pre-Exodus narrative of the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt, with Pharaoh as the master accumulator par excellence (cf. Genesis 47:13-31), while the latter he roots in the Exodus narrative of the Hebrews wandering in the desert, with their god, Yahweh, providing for all their needs: manna, quail, water, etc.

Both narratives, though, also echo across the biblical narrative, Old Testament and New, and reach beyond the biblical text, through human history and into our contemporary circumstances. The Narrative of Accumulation, Brueggemann argues, is rooted in idolatrous hubris and is therefore deeply sinful. It is a narrative that is predicated on the notion of Scarcity which leads to Anxiety. Anxiety gives birth to hoarding and monopolizing. Monopoly eventually has to resort to Violence in order to protect its interests.

Contrasted with this idolatrous narrative is the Narrative of Abundance with God as the provider. In God's economy, we move from Scarcity to Abundance, from Anxiety to Gratitude, from Monopoly to Neighborliness, and from Violence to Peacemaking. The tension between these two narratives in the Bible is constant, just as it is constant in our own lives and collective life as the church.

For all Dr. Brueggemann's incredible work with Old Testament texts, particularly the prophetic literature, and his powerful speaking and wonderful sense of humor, I was left feeling a bit disappointed by the application of his biblical interpretation to contemporary concerns. His comparisons to contemporary circumstances were almost always critical references to the United States, particularly its political and economic systems. This was fine with me, since political theology has become so prominent in my reading and thinking. But it never led to what the church should do as a social-political body inhabiting space in the Empire.

In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter has pointed out the tendency of both the Christian Left and Right to conflate the biblical nation of Israel with the modern nation-state of the U.S. I fear this is what Brueggemann is falling into when trying to take his top-notch biblical work to the streets, where it indeed should be taken. But I couldn't help but feel a sense from Dr. Brueggemann that any social-political action on the part of Christians should somehow be done primarily through the mode of influencing/participating in the government. There was next to nothing said about how the church as a body could or should combat the Narrative of Accumulation with its own public shape and witness.

Perhaps Dr. Brueggemann's own location as a mainline Protestant predisposes him to such constantinian thinking, which is unfortunate given the strength of his critique. A more Yoderian or even Hauerwasian ecclesiology presents more creative options for public Christian witness that not only critiques vocally the Empire but also enacts the Narrative of Abundance to a watching world. This is somewhat strange, given that Brueggemann has an endorsing blurb on John Nugent's new book, The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God. Nugent does a wonderful job in this book of assembling Yoder's scattered writings about/using the Old Testament and presents them in a unified, coherent manner. It is, as Nugent says, the "prequel" to Yoder's The Politics of Jesus. It gives us a picture as to how Yoder sees the people of God in Israel become the people of God in the church.

So to draw such theological-ethical conclusions, from a Yoderian view, is a category mistake on Brueggemann's part. He is strong on narrative proclamation and sacramental participation, but thin on ecclesiological witness.

Critiques aside, though, I remain deeply indebted to Dr. Brueggemann for his awaking my imagination and love for the Old Testament, and for his wonderful work at our just-concluded seminary conference. Last night at the final worship service, we celebrated communion after his final message on Sabbath in a decidedly Eucharistic key. It was tremendously meaningful worship all around and after communion, Dr. Brueggemann prayed the benediction to conclude worship and the conference. With arms stretched out to receive the prayer, my heart was glad for this brother in Christ and the fruits that God has produced through his work for the church, particularly for helping it read more daringly its ancient foundational narrative.

Such daring reading awakens what Dr. Brueggemann called in his prayer the "evangelical imagination" which allows us to see idolatrous narratives for what they are, and to more faithfully live into the true Narrative of Abundance that is life in God's economy. May the church be blessed with such imaginative fortitude and abundant faithfulness...

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