Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (3 of 3)

This is the third in a series of three summaries of the 2008 Laing Lectures given by Walter Brueggemann (part 1 is here, and part 2 is here). Update: the audio of all three lectures is available for purchase here.

The third in Brueggemann’s series of biblical expositions was called “Receiving Salvation and Doing Justice: From Vision to Imperative in Isaiah.” It was given on Thursday night, and the place was packed. But unlike the first lecture on Wednesday (when I had to sit in overflow seating), I showed up 45 minutes early, got in line until the doors opened, and got a pretty good seat.

Brueggemann opened with a couple of clarifications about how he was planning to interpret Isaiah. First, he wasn’t going to get into the issue of who wrote so-called 1, 2, or 3 Isaiah. He was going to view it as a whole, the way it was received into the canon. Second, it is popular among Christians to interpret many Isaiah passages Christologically. Brueggemann wanted to avoid interpreting Isaiah with reference to Christ, and attempt to look at it in its context.

The book of Isaiah, said Brueggemann, is a rumination on the city of Jerusalem according to the dominant ideological claims of the Jerusalem establishment. These ideological claims were vindicated by the miraculous rescue of the city from the Assyrian threat in 701 BC. Some scholars believe that Psalm 46 was written in response to the deliverance of the city. Brueggemann believes that the book of Isaiah both appeals to this Jerusalem tradition, and also calls it into question.

Brueggemann thinks that Isaiah is really about Jerusalem. The book has an initial harshness toward the city (chapter 1), shifts to promissory tenderness (chapter 40), and ends with ultimate hope (chapters 65-66). However, he suggests that Jerusalem, in Isaiah, represents an instance of a failed urban economy. He wants to extrapolate from this particular failed economy to talk about a failed economy of our own day: the United States, when its temples of the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.

First, the book of Isaiah is about loss. Chapters 1-39 are about loss as divine judgment.

Second, the book of Isaiah is about grief. Some scholars, Brueggemann notes, think that we ought to insert the book of Lamentations between Isaiah 39 and 40. Loss that is grieved permits newness, but loss that is denied creates dysfunction and violence. In a failed urban economy in the West, pastors need to think about loss and public grief.

Third, the book of Isaiah is about hope – but only hope that can happen after grief has been articulated. This is what chapters 40-45 are about. Verse 9 of chapter 40 contains the first intentional theological use of the word “gospel.” 52:7 is the second.

There is a second aspect to hope: a challenge to imperial reality. Brueggemann here refers to 41:21 and following, where the author imagines a courtroom trial where the Babylonian gods are taunted. Verse 25 begins YHWH’s testimony, where he refers to Cyrus, who would deliver his people.

The third aspect of hope is the presence of God; 41:13-14, “do not fear, for I am with you.” These words, spoken to exiles, are the most quintessential expression of the gospel.

The fourth dimension of hope is the location of divine assurance in human agency. If you read this Christologically, it points to Jesus. But before Jesus, you come to Cyrus. 45:1 – Cyrus is God’s anointed. This is extraordinary, in that the poet can imagine that a Gentile can become the savior of the Jews. One can imagine some Jews protesting this, and Brueggemann thinks they do, in verse 9.

The fifth dimension of hope: there is a contest between YHWH and Babylon. It’s the poet vs. the empire. The writer makes fun of Babylonian gods who have to be carried on the backs of donkeys in chapters 46-47.

The sixth aspect of hope: a summons to depart from the empire. This can be seen in 51:17, 52:1, 52:11, and 52:12, where, according to critical judgment, 2 Isaiah ends. It is another exodus. Brueggemann suggests that it is the task of the followers of the gospel to depart – not in a physical way, but by imagining oneself in a context where one can obey in joy. These, he says, may be ways to practice evangelical faith in an economy that has failed.

“So they departed.” Some did, at any rate. Brueggemann calls these who returned to Jerusalem the elite, or the fanatics, who became the principal bearers of Judaism. They left, dancing to the lyrics of 2 Isaiah, but then found Jerusalem in shambles. So when you move to 3 Isaiah, you move from the indicatives of the gospel to imperatives. 3 Isaiah begins in chapter 56 with commands.

There are five ingredients of the imperatives of 3 Isaiah that are important to us (although I only caught four):

  1. Membership. Who is the pure Jew? Who is included? Those who keep Torah.
  2. Worship. Don’t be pious while oppressing workers. Worship has to do with the practice of neighborliness.
  3. The book of Isaiah imagines a Jubilee economy, as seen in chapter 61.
  4. Engage in a large vision of what is possible.

Brueggemann concludes by saying that he has taken the leap of taking this as a paradigmatic script for us today. It is not clear that life can be construed beyond the empire. But poets have to try, because they are poets. They never arrive, because poetry would turn into a program if they did. The book of Isaiah is an argument that the old Jerusalem must be relinquished, and the new Jerusalem must be constructed. The poets (that is, the prophets) teach us to embrace the practice of loss, and grief, and hope, and eventually, to act.

Phil Long characterized his responses in terms of “amens” and “ahems.” He did point out, though, that his responses were based on the printed text of Brueggemann’s lecture, rather than how it was delivered. There were a few things Long mentioned where I was thinking, “Huh? Did Brueggemann talk about that?” But apparently he did in the printed text of his lecture, so I’ll pass on everything that Long mentioned: First, the amens: Long liked Brueggemann’s emphasis on Sabbath rest, on the need to re-think worship (which in many contexts has devolved into self-indulgence), on his fresh reading of Isaiah as presenting Jerusalem as a city with a deep fissure.

Long’s “ahems” were as follows: First, there was an exegetical point; Long wasn’t sure that the fissure in the center of the Isaiah narrative is in tension with the dynastic promise to David in 2 Sam. 7. The promise foresees just such failures as we see in Isaiah. Second, Long isn’t sure why we need to leave out Christological readings. If Christological readings were good enough for Jesus, they should be good enough for us. Third, Long appeared to be not sure what Brueggemann meant when he called divine wrath a rhetorical strategy. Long’s big question at the end was one Brueggemann did not answer: Where do we go from here? How do we live out our counter-loyalty in the face of empire? But, as Brueggemann said, the poets can only point. Brueggemann responded later with a good story: he had heard a preacher preaching about the exodus not long ago. He said that the water of the Red Sea didn’t open up until Moses had already waded in. We should begin to act now, rather than waiting for a whole program to be revealed.

Paul Williams, the second respondent, had an observation, a question, and an affirmation. The observation: we need to relinquish the idea of Christendom. We still have the idea that the West is a Christian society gone bad. Instead of trying to regain control, we should embrace exile. We also need to relinquish rank individualism and the culture of therapy, in which Christianity is seen as a means to my own self-fulfillment.

The Question: What is the basis of our hope? How do we move from indicative to imperative? We need the prophetic imagination, but we don’t only want to follow skillful rhetoric. Hananiah was skilled at rhetoric, but Jeremiah was the true prophet. Brueggemann then responded that in Jerusalem, the hope in YHWH became situated in human institutions, which was a mistake. Martin Luther, against Catholicism, thought the church should be classed along with fallible humanity rather than divine reality. This also applies to misplaced American hope in our Constitution and other institutions.

The Affirmation: Loved the idea of insterting Lamentations between Isaiah 39 and 40. We’re often detached and separated, but we need to make an extra effort to hear the cries of suffering around us.


3 thoughts on “Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (3 of 3)

  1. Hey Elliot,
    Thanks for a great summary, all 3 of them. I wish I was there to hear him in person, after having studied his books and referred to them in my papers. I particularly like Part 3, which is on the commentary on Isaiah, many of which I agree, especially the part about Christology. I feel that modern believers tend to be too rash and bring in the reading of Christ too readily without taking the time to chew over the original contexts of Israel at that time. Bringing in Christological views prematurely is often unhelpful when doing biblical theology.

    Great site you have.


  2. Thanks so much. This is a real gift that will keep on giving to those who happen on to your blog and then pass this along. martha sterne

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