A Blueprint for the Church to Face the Tensions within Society
A Brief Review of
Truth and Hope: Essays for a Perilous Age
Paperback: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020
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Reviewed by Billy Hinshaw[printfriendly] For Christians in America, a massive difficulty exists in reconciling the hope of a faithful God with the turmoil rent by fake news, racial tensions and threats of nuclear war. In Truth and Hope, Walter Brueggemann unearths and relates messages from Scripture that speak to today’s culture and society. Although well known for his Old Testament scholarship, Brueggemann is the quintessential pastor-scholar-theologian, breaking through the academia-church divide, providing suggestions and lessons that both academics and laypeople will find beneficial and challenging.
Brueggemann sets the stage for this new essay collection by echoing Jeremiah in identifying two main tasks for the church amidst growing social, political and religious tensions of today: “To tell the truth about the way in which our dominant way of consumer militarism (under the guise of American exceptionalism) will fail, because it contradicts the purposes of God, and to tell the hope that God is at work for an alternative world of peace with justice.” Throughout the essay collection, Brueggemann points out harsh truths in order to direct readers towards optimistic hope. In one essay, for example, Brueggemann challenges pastors and congregations to pursue “dialogic thickness” in a society of growing “monologic thinness.” In other words, he argues that biblical studies and pastoral care can both benefit from avoiding any sense of simplistic or narrow closure, pointing to numerous examples in the Psalms of ongoing and persistent restlessness, while maintaining that such lamentations can serve to benefit church congregations as they grow closer together and to God. Pursuing this activity, Brueggemann concedes, will require churches to possess a new energy and motivation, and yet this is all too crucial for countering a culture bent on finding easy answers to complex questions.
Concurrent to his practical exhortations for church life, Brueggemann puts on a master class of exegesis and interpretation. He cites, discusses and dissects various verses and passages from throughout the Old Testament, even connecting the New Testament, in further support of his exhortations. In another essay, Brueggemann sheds a new light on the life and times of Daniel in the service of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon during the exile period. Drawing from Daniel 1 through 4, he paints a portrait of Daniel as “a man undefiled, unseduced by empire, uncompromised in faith” (italics from original), fulfilling his public service commitments while never losing sight of his identity or faithfulness. Moreover, he shares an instance from Daniel 4 where Daniel’s warnings of destruction lead to a change of heart in Nebuchadnezzar. Providing further historical context, he identifies the exiled Jews in Babylon as a sociological example of the “Fourth World,” not in control of their own land or destiny, and it is not hard to make a similar comparison to the church in America. However, although this identification may follow the vein of recent works like The Church in Babylon by Erwin Lutzer or The Benedict Option by Rob Dreher, Brueggemann avoids the separatism and doomsday narrative those works infer. Instead, using Daniel’s example, he suggests that churches can live out their identity in ways that remain sanctified and untangled, yet are transformative to the culture around them. Brueggemann stays faithful to the context of the biblical text, deriving examples, conclusions and timely messages, and enhancing their relevance for today.
American Christianity is all too often complicit in the tensions within American society and culture. However, unlike the exiled Jews in Babylon, churches and Christians in America have control over their own ministry and how they interact with the society and culture around them. Brueggemann’s essay collection, edited and compiled by Old Testament scholar Louis Stulman, provides a blueprint for Christians and churches to face the facts about their condition, but then moves towards a transformative attitude grounded in hope.
Billy Hinshaw is a seminarian, writer and musician, working on his Master of Divinity degree at Bethel Seminary. He lives in Minnesota. You can visit his website, Bold Theology, and follow along with his reads on Goodreads.