Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (1 of 3)

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann came to Regent College to give the Laing Lectures on October 8 and 9. I graduated from Regent in the spring, but currently I don’t live too far away, so I decided to hoof it up to Vancouver to see friends and listen to some good lectures.

The lecture series was titled, “The Church in Joyous Obedience: Biblical Expositions.” Brueggemann lectured for about 50 minutes each time. Then he was responded to by Phil Long, who teaches Old Testament at Regent, and by Paul Williams, who teaches Marketplace Theology at Regent and is trained as an economist.

The first lecture was titled “From Exodus to Sinai: The Journey to the Common Good.” I’m going to summarize the lecture here, but be warned: I’m working from my notes rather than a transcript, so I may not present Brueggemann’s, Long’s, or Williams’ ideas quite the way they would. But I’ll do my best. Update: The audio of all three lectures is available for purchase from Regent Audio here.

Brueggemann began by saying that the great crisis among us is the crisis of the common good. The journey that we must make is the journey out of our selfishness to the common good. He then proceeded, in the first part of his lecture, to look at one impediment to the common good in the Old Testament: Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Pharaoh’s Egypt, Brueggemann says, is the paradigmatic example of a threat to the common good. He begins looking at Egypt in the latter portion of Genesis, when Pharaoh has a nightmare about a coming famine (chapter 41). Joseph then interprets the dream and becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command. He proceeds to create a food monopoly that makes Pharaoh wealthy and, by Gen. 47:25, creates a nation of slaves who are grateful to be slaves. We know of Exodus deliverance, but we don’t acknowledge that slavery to begin with was a result of manipulation in the interest of power. By the beginning of Exodus, everyone is anxious: the slaves, who have submitted themselves to the state monopoly, and Pharaoh, who is scared to death of his own workforce. This anxiety, Brueggemann says, produces insanity in policy. The anxiety system of Pharaoh precluded the common good.

But then, he goes on, suffering comes to speech. There is a cry, a prayer, declaring publicly that the social system has failed. This cry reaches the ears of YHWH, whose ears are a magnet for the cries of the abused. YHWH then sends Moses, a human agent who can dream outside the imperial reality. There is a juxtaposition between Pharaoh’s nightmare of scarcity and Moses’ dream of liberation.

The second part of the lecture has to do with God’s abundant provision. The plagues come, the Israelites are freed, but by Exodus 16 they want to go back. They are still living under Pharaoh’s terms of anxiety. God provides them with quail and manna, and in Brueggemann’s words, “they wondered what it was, and it turned out this wonderbread did not fit their categories.” Manna, Brueggemann says, “is a show of YHWH’s inestimable generosity that stands in contrast to Pharaoh’s nightmare of anxiety about scarcity.” In fact, bread is a recurring sign in the Old Testament of divine generosity: 2 Kings 4:42-44, Isaiah 55.

All empires, says Brueggemann, act according to the principle of scarcity. All are anxious and think they need more, whether it be manpower, bread, oil, land, etc. But the quotas of the empire can never be met. So he asks, “Why do you bust your ass to serve the empire?” Why are baptized people in the rat race? The text issues a summons away from the ideology of scarcity.

The third part of the lecture deals with God’s act of generosity breaking the anxiety of scarcity. The 10 Commandments, Brueggemann maintains, are about an alternative grounded in generosity. Commandments 5-9, for example, tell us that all kinds of neighbors are not to be exploited as they are in Egypt. Commandment 10 condemns predatory practices that make the little guy vulnerable to the big guy. This Brueggemann related directly to the recent economic collapse. Commandment 4 encourages the Israelites to undertake community enhancement and activities that have no production value.

Brueggemann concluded his lecture with a few points of instruction: first, people who live in anxiety and fear have no time or energy for the common good. Second, it takes an immense act of generosity to break the grip of anxiety. Third, those who receive generosity can care about their neighbors. You can’t just preach to those wrapped up in the ideology of anxiety; they must be able to receive generosity.

He also pointed out some applications: First, Pharaoh’s kingdom of anxiety is alive and well today. Second, there is an alternative to the kingdom of scarcity. Theological education is learning the act of departure from this kingdom. Third, the journey from scarcity to abundance to neighborliness is a journey that all must take. Fourth, this journey is entrusted to the church and its allies. Brueggemann referred here to the New Testament feedings of the 5000 and 4000. With these signs, Jesus says that wherever he is, the world of scarcity is transformed into the world of overwhelming abundance. In Mark 8:14-21, the disciples didn’t understand because their hearts were hardened – just like Pharaoh. But those who receive the bread of abundance, Brueggemann says, have energy beyond themselves for the sake of the world.

After the lecture, Phil Long was given the chance to respond. Here are just a couple of things he pointed out, or asked questions about: first, was Pharaoh’s dream just a nightmare, or was it also a providential dream? Second, how do we understand the phrase “common good”? Even the builders of the Tower of Babel were working for their understanding of the common good. Third, how do we understand “abundance”? Is it to be seen in socioeconomic terms? Long hinted that he thought a good understanding of abundance is connected to the word “Shalom” in the Old Testament. This is deeper, and can exist even in socioeconomic adversity.

Paul Williams had more things to say, but as with Long, I wasn’t able to write them down quickly. He asked whether it was the case that the crisis we’re in is that we’ve reached an ideological dead end, with multiple competing definitions of what the common good is. We should not just appeal to a vague common good, but to a particular good, and a particular God. Williams commended Brueggemann for using the phrase “consumer militarism,” rather than “consumer sovereignty.” Brueggemann responded that he came up with the phrase because of his observation that, in the United States, you can’t maintain our level of consumption without a strong military that wrests resources away from others. Finally, Williams also expressed surprise that Brueggemann had not mentioned the notion of Jubilee from the Old Testament as a way of further defining what the “common good” was.

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