On Meeting Brueggemann: Scarcity & Abundance

Monday night I checked off a big item on my bucket list. I met Walter Brueggemann. (For those of you wondering, I readily admit I was every bit the theology-nerd fanboy I’d hoped I wouldn’t be when I turned around and saw him sitting in the seat behind me just before he got up to lecture. Seriously, it was pathetic.)

In commemoration of the occasion, I’ve been reflecting on the influence Brueggemann’s theology has had on my own understanding of what God is doing in the world. Although I’ve only come to his work in the last six years, he has left a deep and indelible mark on my life. One of the primary ways he has reworked my imagination is in terms of scarcity and abundance. Beginning with the first time I listened to his “Food Fight and Faith” lecture, these categories have really worked me over in pretty fundamental ways.

An overview:

When God created he created a world characterized by abundance and blessing. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea swarmed and filled the skies and seas. Humankind was commanded to fill the earth, subduing it and taking as their starting place the Garden where an abundance of food and provision was at hand. This abundance, however, was counteracted by the scarcity of a world in which sin had let death loose. In the end of Genesis 3, God describes how the world now will be and a paradigmatic part of that world is now scarcity, with the attendant anxiety that we will not have enough. (Adam’s curse that he will work the ground by the “sweat of his brow” and the earth will fight back with thorns and thistles is testament to this.) With the rejection of life (rooted in God) comes the fear of not having enough.

As such, in typically Burueggemann-esque language, we can note that Pharaoh controls all the goods of Egypt but has nightmares about running out (Genesis 41). He enlists Joseph to ensure a secure future and Joseph accomplishes this (for Pharaoh, anyway) by creating a monopoly over Egypt’s resources, money, and people (Genesis. 47). This progression of scarcity and fear ultimately leads to greed and then “violence against disposable people” – first the people of Egypt and then the Hebrews.

For Brueggemann, this cycle of scarcity, fear, greed, and violence is paradigmatic for the world we live in. This becomes a “totality” – the sum total of our experience, outside of which we cannot imagine anything else “working.” This is just the way things are in the real world. Borrowing from the work of people like Randy Harris, James Bryan Smith, and Richard Beck I’ve tended to talk about the same reality in terms of fear and power.

Against this “totality” – the realm of what is possible within the bounds of the way the world works – the kingdom of God provides an alternative reality in which God calls us back to his original intentions, which includes a return to blessing an abundance. Powerfully, Israel is called out of Egypt – who controls all the bread, and all the meat, and all the water – into the wilderness where they quickly conclude that they will die. They do this only to find that outside the reach of Pharaoh, outside the possibilities of the way things are, God does impossibilities and provides abundant bread, meat, and water.

Dealing with what God can do outside of our systems of scarcity and violence stands to have a profound impact on the way one does business in the world. These (im)possibilities have been a major meditation of mine over the last few years and I want to explore them more in coming posts.

On Meeting Brueggemann: Scarcity & Abundance

Is It Like Jesus?

I was recently reminded of two episodes from my earlier life. The first is from back in my school days. The leadership of a supporting congregation asked me to come speak to them because they wanted to express concern over my use and promotion of the (then new) English Standard Version. After all, this new translation was endorsed by individuals who were persona non grata in our corner of Christianity and “we don’t feel comfortable using a translation of the Bible they endorse.”

The second came several years later when I was neck deep in congregational ministry. We were developing a sort of small group program and someone had suggested we call them “Brother’s Keepers” groups. The idea was immediately nixed by one of our church leaders who responded, “There’s a band that plays at one of those other churches up the road that call themselves The Brother’s Keepers. We don’t want to be associated with that sort of thing.”

It doesn’t matter that I could’ve named twice as many preachers that were verboten in our tribe that used our beloved King James Bible than I could the ESV. Nor did it matter that “brother’s keeper” found its origin in the Bible rather than with some contemporary Christian house band. In some ways, the corners of our tribe I used to inhabit had (sincerely and inadvertently) become primarily defined by how they differed from other faith traditions. “We don’t want to be like those churches.”

But, I’m going to admit: I’m not terribly interested in playing that game. I think there’s another metric we need to consider. I no longer really care whether or not something makes us look like some other church.

I want to know if it helps us look like Jesus.

If it looks like Jesus, I’m not going to fret over who else it makes us look like.

Is It Like Jesus?

Ash Wednesday

Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the fact that the Christian Calendar is best understood as a discipline rather than mere tradition  – “Because this is the way we’ve always done it!” – and as such, there’s wisdom in its responsible practice. Specifically, practicing the Calendar asks us to exercise spiritual muscles we typically aren’t inclined to use. For me, this is perhaps most evident in the observance of Ash Wednesday (which is this Wednesday).

Kicking off the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday asks us to dwell on our own mortality. Across centuries, continents, and theological tradition Christians begin their preparation for Easter by marking their heads with ash and confessing, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We begin preparing for the celebration of Christ’s victory over death by acknowledging and reflecting on the problem of death. In a culture that treats death as taboo, this is important: if I’ve learned anything, it is often the taboo things that exert the most influence over us.

That is, the specter of death drives an enormous amount of what is painful and broken in our society. And, against our inclinations to push death away at every turn, Ash Wednesday asks us to drag it into the light, dealing both with the ways death shapes us and with the ways that Jesus has set us free from slavery to it.

This is distinctly unpleasant — but like any discipline, it is necessary.

Ash Wednesday