A Review of
Materiality as Resistance:
Five Elements for Moral Action in the Real World
Reviewed by Gwen Gustafson-Zook
The fear, the rage, the anxiety, the trauma is palpable these days. Fueled by a global pandemic, racial injustice, economic inequity and an ever-looming climate crisis, the church is at a crossroads: will she stand to meet the rising tide or will she retreat to the cloistered confines of padded pews and escapist theology?
Into this tense moment in time, a modest offering (100 pages) has come forth from the well-renowned, well-respected, loquacious theologian, Walter Brueggemann. This small volume holds the potential to empower the church to be relevant in the face of the crises that are quickly taking on tsunami proportions in our lives. Walter Brueggemann’s Materiality as Resistance: Five Elements for Moral Action in the Real World is a resource that the church needs at this time. Exploring materiality through five well researched essays, Brueggemann connects the dots with his keen knowledge of biblical material and the wisdom gained from years of thoughtful engagement with the world. The result is a concise study guide geared to enable the church to embody mature faith in the face of the multiple calamities that define our era.
The church, says Brueggemann in referencing the New Testament book of Hebrews, needs to move beyond infant’s milk, maturing to the place of taking in solid food; food that will equip the church to respond to “the urgent matters of good and evil” that reveal themselves in our world. With such mature nourishment, the church – and those who follow Jesus, the Christ – will be empowered with “skills and faculties for moral thought and moral action in the real world” (Brueggemann, 4) and thus be able to the respond to the material needs around us with deliberate attention.
The introduction provides historical context for an understanding of materiality. Materiality is not to be confused with materialism. Rather it refers to understanding one’s place in the world as a physical being, responding to the needs of others who are also material. This concept grows out of an acknowledgement of God as the Creator of a material world; a world into which Jesus, the Christ, became incarnate – that is, material – and proceeded to respond to the material needs that confronted him. Brueggemann identifies five dimensions of materiality that are subsequently explored, one per chapter: money, food, the body, time and place. The explorations, however, move beyond the expected or obvious into arenas that have profound implications for our lives in the present.
Beginning from the Wesleyan admonition to “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can,” Brueggemann expands the frame to explore in-depth implications of these seemingly simple statements as he delves into questions of a mature materiality around issues of money. He states, “These matters [around our relations to money] are complicated for members of our society because a pervasive practice of consumerism, enabled by a theory of capitalistic privatism, treats money as autonomous, as unrelated to the larger context of society. And when money is treated autonomously, all of the anchoring guidelines of Wesley are promptly nullified.” (Brueggemann, 8). What follows is a thorough exploration of Wesley’s dictates around money in light of our context. Among other things, he addresses economic inequality and the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the need to “save” not only money but also the earth and “the widows and orphans” and the need for devoted resources toward the enhancement of the common good.
In his critical reflection on food that draws on numerous biblical tales of lavish tables and hungry crowds and blessings around food, Brueggemann explores, in detail, scarcity and abundance, distribution of food and food consumption. He brings up questions of where food is grown, how it is grown, how it is delivered and the impact of our practices on the climate. He addresses the inequality inherent in our systems of distribution and the challenge to embrace alternative practices that enhance our relationship with the earth as well as our relationships with our sisters and brothers.
While each of the chapters are thought provoking, Brueggemann’s discussion of mature materiality and the Body is particularly relevant for our time. Growing out of an understanding of Romans 12 as an invitation to present one’s body as a “living sacrifice” to God, Brueggemann first addresses appropriate self-care and healthy sexuality. But he doesn’t stop with these seemingly obvious issues. Citing the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brueggemann explores how black bodies in our country have had a history of being “snatched” through practices of racial injustice. After a lengthy quote by Coates, Brueggemann states, “I have included this much from Coates because ‘innocent’ Christianity, often preoccupied with spiritual matters, has not developed a capacity to honestly assess the continuing brutal bodily reality of the public domain that is a concern of the mature self…It is a present, even urgent, question, then, of how to find standing ground and sustaining companions that make possible the long, arduous work of transformative resistance to body snatching as common practice and ordinary policy.” (Brueggemann, 43, 45). This is work that is crucial and Brueggemann provides an onramp for exploration of this reality in our world and in our churches.
Chapters on Time and Place are equally compelling, each exploring themes relevant to our time, including the need for rest in the midst of frantic living, the importance of a home place and the disorienting reality of homelessness. Brueggemann concludes by reiterating that the Bible is preoccupied with material matters. Likewise, our lives are also lived in a material world that are the source of both hope and anxiety. He states, “The convergence of the materiality of our lives and the materiality of the Bible commends us to think honestly, critically, and faithfully about the material dimensions of our lives according to the purposes and promises of the God of the gospel.” (Brueggemann, 91).
Brueggemann’s expansive biblical knowledge makes this slim volume a treasure trove of thought-provoking material for congregational use (i.e., sermon series), small group discussions (or Educational/Sunday school material) or personal study. If I were using this book in an instructional setting, I would plan for one week to explore the Forward (written by Jim Wallis) and the Introduction (written by Brueggemann) followed by one week for each chapter. Each of the short chapters concludes with thoughtful “Questions for Discussion” that are varied enough from chapter to chapter to provide interest and engagement for people with varied learning styles. The very thorough endnotes and extensive references provide ample material for further study and exploration for those inclined to dig deeper into these topics. The church would do well to embrace, to study, to internalize the content of Materiality as Resistance so that she can respond to the realities of these days with theological integrity and embodied love in the world.