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.

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Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (2 of 3)

Just like I did last year, I’m writing summaries of this year’s Laing Lectures. Update: The audio of all three lectures is available for purchase here.

Brueggemann’s second lecture was called “Boasting in Power or Boasting in God? Jeremiah’s Either/Or of Public Faith.” In this lecture, Brueggemann continued his concern for the common good, and began to speak in threes.

He said that in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy organized and institutionalized the concern for the common good into a social ethic: practice hospitality to runaway slaves, no withholding wages, no injustice to immigrants, and practice gleanings (Deut 24) – that is, don’t harvest all of your field, but leave parts of it for the widow, orphan and immigrant. This commandment names three money crops – grain, oil, and grapes – and juxtaposes them with the second triad of the widow, orphan and immigrant. This command, Brueggemann says, seeks to break down separation between commodity and consumer, and to situate the economy of Israel into the neighborhood.

But the Israelites reject this vision. Moses urges them in Deuteronomy 15 to give liberally and ungrudgingly. Brueggemann pointed out that this passes has five unlimited infinitives, and is the only place in scripture that he knows of that has that. He didn’t explain exactly what this meant, aside from saying that it meant Moses was really serious. Moses connects this command to the fact that the Israelites were themselves slaves in Egypt. He never gets tired of saying it (Deut. 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22).

The text, Brueggemann said, makes a connection between God (YHWH) and neighbor. However, there is a powerful counter-narrative that resists this connection, because the world of Pharaoh is powerful for all of us. This counter-narrative consists in three things:

1. An imagined nostalgia for the “good old days.” The Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, even though they were slaves there (Numbers 14).

2. Graded holiness. Brueggemann claims that there came to be three levels of holiness in the tabernacle, and later the temple, because of the concern of the powerful to differentiate themselves from the less powerful. He compared this to the three divisions of people on a commercial airline. This differentiation in holiness concerns health care, moral ratings and economic possibility. The resistance to the common good, Brueggemann said, has cultic, moral and economic domensions.

3. King Solomon stands at the center of the counter-narrative. In his life, there is a fresh enthrallment with Egypt and graded holiness. Egypt itself practiced graded holiness. Solomon himself is married to Pharaoh’s daughter and clearly wants to emulate his father-in-law.

There are, not surprisingly, three aspects of this narrative of the royal regime.

First, it is clear that Solomon is committed to the accumulation of wealth: both money and women (700 wives and 300 concubines).

Second, it is clear that Solomon is committed to power. He was an arms dealer, importing horses and chariots. This wasn’t connected to a particular policy; just finance. He had, in Brueggemann’s words, created a national security state.

Third, Solomon became a great practitioner of wisdom. It may just be a personal achievement, but Brueggemann says it was probably a celebration of Solomon’s patronage of the arts that enhanced his regime. It also could be seen as an accumulation of data so that the elite would have a monopoly on knowledge. Solomon may have been celebrated for his worldly awareness, but Brueggemann compares him to the Wise Men of the Vietnam era who didn’t know what to do.

Brueggemann then continued to elaborate on Solomon. When David hands over power to Solomon (I Kings 2), he says, “Keep the Torah and you’ll be fine.” Then he proceeds to give Solomon a hit list. It is, Brueggemann said, like something out of The Godfather. Solomon would like to kill the high priest Abiathar, but can’t, so he banishes him to his home village of Anathoth (I Kings 2:26). Solomon’s perspective came to dominate urban Israel in an act of resistance to the neighborly demands of the law given at Sinai. The Jerusalem enterprise saw itself as entitled to privilege and security. This Brueggemann explicitly links to what we now call “civil religion.” Sinai, however, continues to have its advocates: the prophets.

Jeremiah presided over the great crisis of his day (Brueggemann compares it to 9/11), the conquering of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Interestingly, Brueggemann points out that Jeremiah was from Anathoth, the very same village to which the high priest Abiathar was banished 400 years before. The text at the center of Brueggemann’s lecture is Jeremiah 9:23-24:

“Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.”

Brueggemann calls wisdom, might and wealth the “royal triad,” against which YHWH sets his own triad of steadfast love (hesed in Hebrew), justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah). One is a triad of death, and the other is a triad of life. The village voice from Anathoth, Jeremiah, was able to trace right from Solomon Jerusalem’s way of ignoring YHWH.

Brueggemann then made four extrapolations:

1. Brueggemann thinks that Paul has this passage in mind in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul understands that the way of the cross is an extension of the same contest between these two triads.

2. In the United States since Teddy Roosevelt, we have been posturing as an empire. The national security state thrives on wisdom, might and wealth. In this passage, there is a clear summons for the people of God to be in tension with the theological claims of the national security state.

3. Being out of sync with God’s holy agency is lethal. God’s holiness forms an alliance with pain. The alliance of holiness with pain generates truthfulness. The bodily performance of truth, Brueggemann says, is up to the people of God.

4. As Jesus says, no one can serve two masters. Brueggemann points out how interesting it is that Solomon’s name is on Jesus’ lips in Matthew 6 (and its parallel in Luke 12) when he teaches his disciples to not be anxious.

After Brueggemann’s lecture came the two responses, which I’ll mention briefly because this post is already too long.

Phil Long said, positively, that Brueggemann has helped us hear with fresh ears the biblical call to stop worrying and trust God, who delights in being called “Father.” He also agreed with Brueggemann’s reading of Solomon. Negatively, though, he calls into question Brueggemann’s negative construal of sacred space. Even if sacred space eventually came to act in a discriminative way, laws about sacred space were not originally intended to function that way. The initiative came from YHWH to construct the temple, and also to set some men apart as priests. And priests were allowed to enter the holy place not because they were better, but because they were consecrated and represented Israel. Further, YHWH not only commissioned the tabernacle but validated it by visiting it after its completion. Brueggemann responded that while the text did say that, he had a hermeneutic of suspicion about those texts – implying, of course, that these texts were changed by those in power to validate their power.

Paul Williams took up Brueggemann’s call to choose between two triads, and questioned whether our choice is as free as we assume. Isn’t our problem not that we make bad choices, but that we want bad things and keep wanting to get them? We can’t get out of this dead end on our own; we need to be rescued. Brueggemann responded that when he emphasized the choice between two triads, he had in mind the OT calls to Israel to choose (Josh. 24:15). Williams affirmed Brueggemann’s thoughts on the political nature of the church. It is only as the church that we can position ourselves vis-a-vis the nationalist state, and this can only happen if Christ is our head. Boiling things down to principles of neighborliness won’t work. This is how the Bible and the flag end up on the same platform. Williams then illustrated this with the religious history of Britain since World War I, beginning with close ties between religion and nationalism, and ending with hostility toward the church because of its association with the modern project. Williams can’t help but wonder if the current situation isn’t healthier, and hopes that the church in America will separate itself from nationalism sooner rather than later.

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.