Review: Brueggemann on an unsettling God

A review of Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible, Fortress, 2009.

Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk and direct from the distributors Alban Books.

This book is drawn from Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament (available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. An Unsettling God seems to be Part III of Theology of the Old Testament with few changes except for a different introduction.

Brueggemann highlights the relational nature of God. God enters into dialogue in which he shapes and is shaped. Brueggemann describes how this works in relation to four dialogue partners: Israel, humanity, the nations and creation. So far so good. But Brueggemann privileges the mutuality of the dialogue. The result is in effect the god of open theism. Though Brueggemann does not use this label, he disavows the God of classical theism. The result is not so much the unsettling God of the title as an unsettled god! Brueggemann assumes a relational God and an immutable God are incompatible. But the grace of God allows us to affirm that God chooses freely in his grace to be influenced by the prayers and actions of people.

Brueggemann presents a catalogue – almost an inventory – of Israelite faith. As a result there is much of value and much to learn from this book. It reflects the work of a man who has spent many hours deep in the text. When Brueggemann is engaging with the text of the Old Testament he is always worth reading. His commentaries are always worth consulting.

But when Brueggemann moves to implications his theological presuppositions become problematic. In An Unsettling God he rejects synthesis, believing this would impose a system on the text. Instead he highlights its multivocal nature. A variety of voices are heard in the text whose differing perspectives ‘cannot be harmonized’ (34). The result is a thoroughly postmodern approach to the Old Testament (though modernity is assumed with Brueggemann cutting up the text and reordering the chronology with all the assurance of someone who was there).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the book is an absence. For all Brueggemann’s emphasis on the many voices of the Old Testament, one is silenced – the voice of atonement through sacrifice. There are no references in the Bible index to Leviticus 1-10, nor to Leviticus 16. This is an account of what the subtitle calls the ‘heart of the Hebrew Bible’ that excludes the Day of Atonement! As a result Israelite faith is reduced to ethics with some scope for failure. In Brueggemann’s hands this looks remarkably like the ethics of Enlightenment liberalism. His marshalling  of what he calls the ‘data’ of Old Testament faith promises much, but in the end reveals more about Brueggemann than about God.

This fatal omission of atonement through sacrifice is due no doubt to the modern distaste for God’s wrath and atonement through blood. But it also results from another common problem in modern theology, one that is less often remarked upon, but no less fatal, namely the tendency to disconnect sin and death in the way that Genesis 3 and Romans 5 connects them. Brueggemann says, for example, ‘the dependence [of humanity upon God’s life-giving breathe] raises the acute problematic of mortality, which is not in itself related to sin.’ (60). ‘The power of the Nihil is not to be reduced to or explained by human sin and guilt.’ (146) Brueggemann speaks of Yahweh being in conflict with the ‘power of the Nihil’ in what he calls (with at least more honesty than most) ‘dualism’ (143). Brueggemann cites passages that speak of God’s primordial defeat of Leviathan and the dragon, but without explanation interprets them as implying on-going conflict. When the Bible does speak of the chaos of Genesis 1 returning it is not the result of God’s weakness, but his judgment against sin. So Jeremiah 4:23, for example, speaks of the earth again being formless and empty. But this is because God himself as acted (Jeremiah 4:28) in judgment against the sin of his people (Jeremiah 4:14). The God who created in grace can uncreate in judgment.

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The Thursday Review: Robert Hubbard on Joshua (NIVAC)

Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Joshua, NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, 2009. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

I was excited to get this book for two reasons. First, the NIV Application Commentary series is fast becoming one of my favourites. I was sceptical of its three sections for each passage: ‘original meaning’, ‘bridging contexts’ and ‘contemporary significance’. But I’ve been completely won over. Some contributors pull it off better than others, but generally it produces commentaries that take seriously the original text in its biblical theological context while also offering lots of help in applying the text today. Second, for all the sometimes excessive output of commentaries that we have these days, we are ill-served with commentaries on Joshua for preachers.

I was not disappointed. Robert Hubbard’s commentary on Joshua is excellent and my best buy recommendation for Joshua.

The ‘original meaning’ sections are great. Too often commentaries are full of dry technical material on philology, geography and history that add little to the text. But, despite the thorough the nature of this section, Hubbard seems to manage to make it all count. I found it full of suggestive comments that would inform any sermon.

Hubbard believes the book was compiled by the Deuteronomistic historian from earlier (and early) sources. He contrasts the portrayal of the conquest of a short, wholly successful campaign (Joshua 6-11) and the portrayal of a protracted struggle for control conducted at a tribal level (Joshua 15-17, Judges 1). Hubbard therefore believes Joshua ‘offers a repetitive, stereotyped account marked by occasional hyperbole’ while affirming ‘its historical value’. ‘The presence of such traditional devices should caution readers against an overly literal interpretation of texts in Joshua.’ (39) He ‘accepts both the valuable contribution of Joshua to historical reconstruction and the limits of the book’s information (e.g. its selective contents, its highly-structured narratives).’ Personally I prefer to see the campaigns in Joshua 6-11 as the decisive battles that broke Canaanite resistance making Israel the dominant power in the land. This left the tribes with a mopping up campaign in which, according to Judges 1, they were only partially successful. On the violence of the book, Hubbard says: ‘I do not see myself ever feeling completely comfortable with what transpires in Joshua.’ I would have liked some acknowledgement that the violence of Joshua is the challenge of hell writ small.

My main complaint with the commentary is that does not really address how the promise of the land plays out for new covenant believers. At one point Hubbard reminds us that Christians have an inheritance in heaven (445), but there is little on tracing the theme of the land through to the renewal of creation in a new heaven and a new earth. There is no recognition of the way Jesus and Paul extend the promise of the land to the promised of a new earth (compare, for example, Psalm 37:4 and Matthew 5:5). The result is that the contemporary signifiance sections often have a somewhat moralistic tone with the opportunity to place the injunctions in the redemptive story lost somewhat.

In conclusion, a great commentary, but read it alongside a good biblical theology.

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Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Jesus Wants to Save ChristiansA review of Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, Zondervan, 2008. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

What you make of Jesus Wants To Save Christians depends a lot on what you think it is trying to do.

Read it from the beginning and it reads like an attempt at an engaging introduction to biblical theology. It starts by claiming, ‘This is a book about a book.’ Judged along these lines and it seriously falls short. For one thing Abraham is missing. An introduction to biblical theology without the defining promises to Abraham. Bizarre. Second, it presents a very inadequate treatment of the cross. The cross is seen an act which subverts the myth of redemptive violence and offers a model of renouncing power in favour of solidarity and self-giving. This may be true, but clearly it misses so much – probably because the theme of God’s judgment is also underplayed.

But what happens when you read the back cover first? ‘There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more than $20 million. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty. This is a book about those two numbers.’ Now we have a book about how Christians should respond to poverty and violence, a book which approaches these topics through biblical theology. Read in this way, the book is full of powerful allusions and helpful insights. (And it may well enrich your biblical theology along the way.)

The focus is on the theme of slavery and exodus. Israel’s history is assessed with this is mind, making Solomon the low point because of his recourse to slave labour and armaments. If you assess Israel’s history from the perspective of their calling to be a light to the nations then Solomon becomes the high point as the writer of Kings makes clear in 1 Kings 10. Both perspectives, I suspect, are valid, reflecting the complexity of the biblical narrative. Interestingly Bell and Golden miss the opportunity to draw out the exodus theme further with Jeroboam who appears to be a new Moses, liberating the people from the slavery of Rehoboam, but ends up being the new Aaron as he erects two golden calves.

So don’t read Jesus Wants to Save Christians as an introduction to the Bible story (I would recommend my own From Creation to New Creation purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US or Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US). But read it as book on the Christian response to poverty and injustice. Even here I’m not sure it will convince those who reject the idea that the Bible offers a critique of American (or Western) way of life. The move in the first chapter, for example, from things being all out of joint east of Eden to American imperialism is made without justification and will not persuade the skeptics.

Finally, the style of writing requires some comment. There are a lot of one page sentences. Quite a few one sentence paragraphs. I guess you would describe the style as playful. It forces you to ask questions, sometimes questions you, rather than presenting information in a straight-forward manner. Sometimes this works to good effect; sometimes it’s just irritating.

One of my maxims is to avoid footnotes except for citations. Footnotes are a sign of lazy writing – the writer cannot take the time to work out whether and how to put the material in the main text. Bell and Golden go mad with footnotes – including one which is simply an explanation mark (another feature of lazy writing, by the way). Ah well, rant over.

The word, imagination, counter-worlds and community building

This post is an extract from an assignment for the Northern Training Institute (of which I’m the director) by Jonathan Skipper who is working with students in Barcelona. Brueggemann is far from being an evangelical, but this is a great statement (especially as Jonathan expounds it) of the power of the word of God and the role of imagination to create an alternative, missional community in a hostile world.

Walter Brueggemann in An Introduction to the Old Testament purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US sees the Torah as a “normative act of imagination that serves to sustain and legitimate a distinct community of gratitude and obedience.” (24) It “provides the materials for the social construction of reality and for socialization of the young into an alternative world where YHWH lives and governs… [It is] an act of faithful imagination that buoyantly and defiantly mediates a counter-world that is a wondrous, demanding alternative to the world immediately and visibly at hand.” (26) In a world that is increasingly hostile to Christian faith, the Pentateuch gives the church deep resources for “maintaining a distinct identity for faith in an alien cultural environment.” (27)

We live in a world of competing narratives and it takes an effort of imagination to see outside of the dominant social constructions of reality. The problem is that the dominant narrative we live in provides us with a twisted version of reality. Thus we need God’s Word to show us how things really are. And we need to work hard and imaginatively to sustain this alternative, true view of reality, for the overwhelming pressure is to conform. The purpose of such imaginative remembering is for the sustaining of communities who live distinctively, who live in God’s reality. Such living, when consistent with the vision, will clash with the modes of living acceptable to the dominant narrative. Thus the pressure to conform is even greater, and that includes the pressure to keep our counter-world vision in a box where it does not seep through into actual life and thus is no threat to the dominant vision.

Much of the Pentateuch is deliberate in creating mechanisms for sustaining such an alternative way of seeing and doing for the purpose of sustaining the people of God in their distinctive lifestyle in the midst of hostile peoples: the festivals, the memorials, the structure of the tabernacle and sacrificial system, the deliberate exhortations to remember and to teach the next generation and so on. Seeing how the Pentateuch is full of such community-sustaining structures helps us to understand that means are important in sustaining us and also shows us that the Word itself (the whole Bible, of course, not just the Pentateuch) is the means par excellence that God uses for doing just that.

Student ministry comprises groups of Christian students coming together to form communities of alternative gospel light in an alien and hostile cultural environment. There are strong ideological forces at work in the secular university, some of them woven into the structure of how things are, and others articulated explicitly in lecture halls and seminar groups, that do not make it at all easy for Christians to live out the gospel in the university context. There is enormous pressure to conform and to keep quiet.

What will sustain and empower such groups of Christian students to live out their calling? What will sustain their alternative, true way of seeing and doing? It is of course God Himself that will sustain them, and He will teach and nourish and train them through His Word. This is in essence an argument for the centrality of the Bible in the life of a christian student group, for it is the means by which God will teach them, rebuke them, correct them, train them in righteousness and thoroughly equip them for every good work.
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Great audio resources from ProcTrust – now free

This may be old news for other people, but I’ve only just noticed that Proclamation Trust are now making a lot of their audio lectures and sermons available free for download. There’s a tonne of great stuff there.

Let me pick out one recommendation: John Woodhouse on the Psalms and 1 & 2 Samuel. I’m pretty sure this was originally two series, but they’ve bundled them togehter – I benefitted hugely from both.