A Gospel of Hope
Although Walter Brueggemann is best known as an Old Testament scholar, his newest book may surprise some readers with its emphasis on Jesus. The author’s comments on biblical texts, while always faithful to the original, are also faithful to the truth they shine on our current life. His insights are original and thoughtful. His own deep, living faith flows through his writing and speaking. He inspires me.
The gospel in the title of this slim volume is the good news Jesus proclaimed and lived: we can trust God’s love. We needn’t be afraid to follow Jesus today into the suffering of the world. God is with us and has our back, even though we can expect resistance from “Pharaoh” (the author’s shorthand for domination systems of society).
Our hope is that God is always doing a new thing and God is faithful. The Resurrection is a here-and-now symbol of God’s action beyond our imagining in the midst of our messy, fractured reality. Brueggemann says,
Resurrection of the dead is God’s capacity to take a circumstance of complete
shutdown and hopelessness and make something new from it. Easter is the
parade example of God’s readiness for newness that the world knows as
inexplicable miracle. (108)
To “be glorified with Christ” is to be present with Jesus in the astonishing
Easter wonder when new life erupts in the midst of death, when new love
overwhelms old hates, when new justice breaks the grip of old injustice,
when perfect love casts out fear and resentment. We are as new as resurrection day.
I confess. I’m an unabashed Brueggemann fan. But in spite of its virtues I don’t think this book does him justice. It’s a collection of short excerpts compiled by Richard Floyd, not otherwise identified. Some quotations are no more than a sentence and none exceeds three or four paragraphs. They are arranged by topics into twelve chapters. Many are brilliant and quotable:
“Hope is the deep religious conviction that God has not quit.” (105)
“…[We] are channels for [God’s] power and not reservoirs…” (123)
“Worship is an act of poetic imagination that aims to reconstrue the world.” (147)
“Pain is the matrix of newness.”(151)
But in spite of the power of individual sayings, I found the format choppy and hard to wrap my mind around. I was drawn in but left hungry for more context and development. Nowhere, not even on the cover, are we told the source of these quotations. I assume they are bits and pieces taken from sermons, rather than from Brueggemann’s thirty books and other writings listed on the frontispiece. There are no footnotes, so a reader must guess. In his Preface Brueggemann simply calls them “utterances.”
Many of the utterances are based on an unidentified Bible story or passage of Scripture. As a former Baptist I grew up reading the Bible, so was usually able to catch the allusions but not all. Do mentions of “the poet” refer to the writer of the Psalms or someone else?
A couple of quotations mention “brick-making,” which I take to refer to the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, when Pharaoh commanded them to make more bricks with less straw. The phrase must be intended as shorthand for oppression. But how would a reader unfamiliar with the Bible break the code?
And what about this: “We can tell the stories of Elisha, Jesus, and Peter and John, the stories of the boy and the little girl and the blind beggar.” That’s it. No context. The text moves on to examples of renewed life, but how many readers will understand the connection?
Or this apparent play on the valley of dry bones in Ezekial 37:1-14: “We are given resources for resurrection capacities. We discover in our own tired bones capacity to heal and empower others. And we, along with them, are invited to dancing and jumping and leaping and singing and praising God” (70) Some readers, though, won’t be leaping or singing but scratching their heads.
The quotations are arranged by topics in twelve chapters. Chapter titles include Abundance and Generosity, Anxiety and Freedom, God’s Fidelity and Ours, Jesus, Newness and Hope. I found material in these original, moving and inspiring. But at least half the book discusses what Brueggemann calls “neighbor love.” Its repeated use struck me as an awkward semantic effort to avoid the term “social justice” which has become synonymous with “liberal” in some Evangelical circles. I don’t quarrel with the author’s convictions on the church’s responsibility to address the world’s suffering and the systems that perpetuate it. I did find many of the thoughts in Neighbor Love repeated in other chapters, called variously Alternative Worlds, Justice, and Public Witness and Responsibility.
The author doesn’t name current political leaders or opine on issues. Instead he describes Jesus’ treatment of outsiders. He embodied God’s love, says Brueggemann, and in looking at his ministry and parables we notice that the people whom we often avoid — the widow and orphan and immigrant, the unlovely and mentally ill, sick and handicapped persons — are our brothers and sisters. They were the special objects of Jesus’ attention, not the rich and powerful. When we exclude or avoid them we’re not following him. It should come as no surprise that Brueggemann is one of the theologians who birthed the “Reclaiming Jesus” movement.
Brueggemann is distressed by the split in Christian witness. He tries not to take sides, but it’s clear where he stands on the social issues of our time. In a chapter called “Evangelical Identity” he says “The hallmark of the church is not certitude, it is openness to the Spirit.” He notes that most of us are ambiguous and ambivalent about the complex issues of the day, but we deny it. Thus, “… God’s spirit has little chance for newness. The first break in our common denial is to give voice to ambiguity and thereby to have an awareness that alternatives are indeed available and choosable.” (69)
The book does not criticize political parties or leaders by name. The author says we’ve all been seduced, including Christians, by consumerism, militarism, power struggles, the goals of personal success and financial security. Brueggemann calls these false gods. He reminds us that God loves us and is with us. Following Jesus is dangerous. It is radical. It will shake up the status quo. Like him, we will make enemies. But the good news and source of hope is that we can take risks for others because God has our backs. If we truly want to serve Jesus we have to leave our comfort zones and start to go where Jesus went.
Here’s how Brueggemann puts it:
The world is not up for grabs. It is not available for our silliness or for our violence of for our pollution or for our wealth or for our fear or for our power. [In God and in Jesus] we have seen… enough about mercy and grace and justice and truth to make the journey beyond our many failures. God goes with us into the newness, and we are on our way, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. (102-103)
That’s the gospel and the hope. Even if I’d have preferred a different format such as a collection of complete sermons or lectures, the “utterances” contained here make this book worth having in your home.
Carolyn Miller Parr is co-author, with her mediation partner Sig Cohen, of Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age (Hendrickson Publishers, due out in January 2019). She is a retired judge, workshop leader, and blogs at www.toughconversations.net.