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The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship – W Brueggemann

August 20, 2016

TWTRTWWhat is the underlying cultural script or metanarrative that guides the values and lives of 21st-century North Americans? And in what ways does the Bible offer an alternative and opposing cultural script?

Of course, some evangelicals on the Christian right have their own account of the dominant cultural script and the Bible’s countervoice. They point an accusing finger at what they see as the dangerous loss of prayer and of God in public and political life, and they lament the loss of moral clarity and backbone and the erosion of what they define as family and biblical values but which are actually a baptising of their own worldview.

The text of the world is described in various ways throughout the book: It is the text of the Enlightenment, of modernism, autonomous freedom, technical solutions to every problem, sexual emancipation, systematic violence, to name but a few. The book is about the redescription (by means of the Word) that protests against the initial description and presentation of reality (the World) which is not an adequate or trustworthy account.

The subtitle The Bible and discipleship does not imply a ten point plan on how to encourage discipleship in a congregation, for “Discipleship is no easy church program”. Brueggemann dwells on the fundamental issues of the God who calls and the God who sends. In short God calls to discipleship, that is, to follow his presence and purpose and promise, with disciplines being needed for the project. God sends because (a) this God has compelling authority to issue imperatives that anticipate ready acceptance and (b) this God has a compelling passion for what is to be affected and enacted in the world over which this God is governor.

The ‘Word Redescribing the World’ occupies itself with the Biblical text and the way in which Biblical rediscription may be practiced with authority in a cultural context in which old patterns of authority have become outdated.

‘Proclamatory Confrontations’ describes the preacher’s difficult task in his/her confrontation with truth and power. He characterizes preaching as truth speaking to power – “in our postmodern world it is a power that is endlessly subtle, complex and elusive”. Preachers no longer have the power they once had and unless they have some sort of tenure/freehold, they have to avoid emptying their churches. Maybe the best they cam do is a narrative retelling of a text such as Nathan’s confrontation of King David, bringing out the tensions, so that the congregations can apply for themselves, without having it spelt out, how that might apply to the superpowers and global businesses of today.

In ‘A Fresh Performance amid a Failed Script’ we get the impression that the covenant is unconditional but, later on, that it is conditional upon Israel’s obedience. That reflects the fact that scripture is a dialogue with more than one point of view. Indeed, some point to God’s violence in killing the Egyptians.

In ‘Faith at the Nullpunkt’ we see that God always does something new when is people have run out of their own resources and are at their wits’ end.

‘The Word Redefining the Possible’ begins with Jerusalem as a general metaphor that can be applied to all our cities and Brueggemann links it to the urgent issues facing our cities today.

In ‘The City in Biblical Perspective: Failed and Possible’ he shows how Israel lamented the loss of city and imagined a new start – he suggests that the churches should get involved in prophetic action – so maybe things like the Church urban Fund and the Oasis project aren’t so much doing the government’s work for it but demonstrating truth to power.

In ‘Evangelism and Discipleship: The God Who Calls, The God Who Sends’ we are reminded of the costly break with familiar living in the call of Abraham, Moses and the disciples and that evangelism is not merely recruiting for church membership but is also a summons to imagine a world very different from that in the narrative of the world of consumerism where people are disposable.

In Options for Creatureliness: Consumer or Citizen’ he contrasts contrasts consumers who “pat our bellies” in self-indulgence and citizens who “flex our brains.” After repeating what he has written elsewhere about the move from God as creator to the one who acts in history, by the likes of Von Rad, his talk of the dangers of consumerism as a life of self-preoccupation is cast in the light of Biblical citizenship which is one of being truly blessed givers.

The section ends with a chapter on ecumenism as the shared practice of a peculiar identity. ‘Ecumenism as the Shared Practice of a Peculiar Identity’ suggests that mainstream churches have much in common but don’t challenge the powers that be for wealth accumulation – then again, Christian Aid has managed to galvanise them on debt relief.

In ‘Vision for a New Church and a New Century: Part I: Homework against Scarcity’, he presents a vision of a community of disciples that is shaped by the Word, firstly by commissioning the disciples to fight against scarcity and then by describing how holiness becomes generosity.

In ‘Patriotism for Citizens of the Penultimate Superpower’, he remembers preaching in a Hungarian church where they sang their national anthem and then, to be polite, sang the American one. The contrast is between faith and aggression.

There’s too much repetition for my liking and he isn’t specific enough on examples of how the church can be counter-cultural – too many generalities.


The beginning point for this new collection of Walter Brueggemann’s essays is not new at all. It is where he always begins—with the text of Scripture. Few persons in our time have been more committed in theory and practice to the significance of the words of Scripture for faith and life, for our time and for all times. …

To speak of “the Word that redescribes the world,” using language appropriated from Paul Ricoeur, is to call attention to the fact that the biblical text functions among us as a “second thought,” coming after the initial description of our life in the world according to the dominant metanarrative of our society. …

It is more or less a given, by convention if not by conviction, that one must have a biblical text for a sermon. Sometimes the text is more than that, utterly absolutized. Often it is a lot less than that, a text read but not taken seriously.

Truth to power is a simple (simplistic?) model that almost no credible contemporary preacher can readily embrace, unless one is tenured, or at the end of a career, or has a reliable patron. Those who preside over insti­tutions with programs, budgets, and members filled with anxiety are not likely to practice, with any simplicity, the notion of truth to power. Perhaps most contemporary preachers are too well kept and too cowardly. We are, in our present circumstance, short of being a fugitive like Moses, short of being a raven-fed figure like Elijah, short of being on the royal payroll like Nathan, short of being clairvoyant like Daniel. No contemporary preacher is likely to speak truth to power like Moses, so clearly and so effectively that the utterance will dismantle an empire and free slaves. No contemporary preacher likely will crash the palace like Nathan to tell an indicting parable to the king.

Conversely, consider truth. There was a time when the church was a primal authority and the authority of the preacher was immense. There was a time when the preacher was the best-educated man in town. There was a time when issues were less complex; but not now. Now it is the case that truth has become democratized and secularized, and held in many quarters. Every preacher knows to pay attention when drawing near to the specialized learnings that are present among others in the congregation.

The narrative process maps the world of faith, the world of social power, the world of economic tension between labor and capital, between haves and have-nots, between power and powerlessness. It may also map familiar power grids in families and churches and seminaries. It may invite us to play all roles and every role and many roles in the narrative drama. We may listen as the one addressed or as the one sent. We may imagine ourselves as resistant to address or we may assume a new role for Pharaoh, willing to be addressed and repent, capable of imagining the Exodus narrative with a different outcome. Note well, in any case, that scribal refraction is not excessively “hot” about relevance. While the text, in our scribal imagina­tion, may send out lines of connection and allude to contemporaneity, for the most part the interpretation stays within the text and lets the listen­ing congregation stay within the text without being scolded or shamed or threatened.

The present moment is a splendid opportunity for rethinking the task of education and socialization of our young in the church. The church has suffered for a long time from timidity and collusion with dominant values in our culture. …

Ancient Israel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is capable of thinking theologically about the future of the world and about the future destiny of individual persons. Its preferred and most characteristic mode of thought, however, is done through critical theological reflection about the community of Israel itself, …

The city is not a primal or intentional theme in the Bible. It is an incidental theme that surfaces only as a byproduct of other issues. Moreover, it is not likely that what is said about any ancient city, concrete or anticipatory, is directly pertinent to our urban issues. …

The God of the Gospel calls to praise and obedience. That is because, so we confess, that is the one true God who is the giver of all life, and who intends that all life should gladly be lived back to God. It is God’s rightful place to invite and expect such a turn back to God in joy and well-being. …

“The talk makes the walk possible, and the walk is to heal, to break all vicious cycles of diminishment that violate the intention of the creator”.

Classic ecumenism in the twentieth century has had to do with partnership and cooperation among established denominational traditions. These denominational groupings have tended to reflect centrist, mainline churches that, in their own particular spheres, exercised some theological hegemony. …

I have suggested that Jesus’ summons “Do not be anxious” (Luke 12:22) is an indispensable piece of homework for a sustainable economy of generosity and abundance. Without that homework in faith that commits to a conviction that there is enough, revolutionary or progressive economics has no chance. …

The “patriotism” that concerns the preacher is not a generic, one-size-fits-all category. Patriotism is state specific, and so the theme of this chapter is the patriotism of the United States of America as concerns U.S. preachers. …

It is most unfortunate that the so-called Documentary Hypothesis has been reduced to a scissors-and-paste explanation because, as later tradition history has made clear, the impulse of the Documen­tary Hypothesis is the recognition that the root tradition consists in lay­ers and layers of interpretation, since the root tradition never arrives at a final interpretation. Each subsequent interpretation, in a new time, place, and circumstance, and from a somewhat altered perspective, must re-say the tradition in a way now seen to be adequate and satisfying.

The two creation narratives of Genesis 1-3 attest that the origin character of the world as God’s creation cannot be voiced in only one way. More specifically, human persons and human community must be renarrated not only as image but as dust, not only as dust as image.

this cadenced recital is not user-friendly, but it shows how this tradition is rooted in violence that implicates both God and people. It is God who struck the firstborn and killed kings—eggs necessarily broken, one might say, for the omelet of emancipation and well-being,

At the outset, the city in the Bible is a Canaanite phenomenon, looked upon resentfully and fearfully by the Israelites who are a peasant, hill-country enterprise.

The city is a place of division of labor, with different social roles and consequently differ­ent social classes; stratification of power, with kings and their entourages on top of the heap; surplus value, in which the “upper class” urban elites lived off the produce of the peasants who themselves lived hand-to-mouth, pro­duce taken either by shrewd commercial transactions or by imposed, coercive taxation. The economy of the city was no longer aimed at use value, but at surplus that provided a cushion from the vagaries of life—a cushion for some, produced by the labor of others.

Eventually the city failed. The Jerusalem establishment of temple monarchy, and the ideology of self-importance and self-sufficiency self-security, turned out to be false. It may have fallen because of the external pressure of Babylon, or because of the internal failure of bad lea (see Ezekiel 34), or because of the spent quality of YHWH’s lo patience, exhausted by the endless recalcitrance of the city. But for ever reason, the city failed.

In my opinion, this is the same pregnant moment in which ourselves in urban America. I speak of course metaphorically and imaginatively, but here, too, the royal city that specializes in acquisitiveness, that has banished the countervoice of Abiathar, has failed. The failure of communal relations and the failure of consensus meaning are evident, the power of acquisitiveness can sustain itself only for a while, perhaps a long while; but it does so without moral credibility. And so I suggest that in ­public imagination, the church and its pastors must situate themselves at this pregnant moment of failure and loss.

Israel can only wait, for in the psalm there is no answer. But in this prayer test and petition, Israel has told the truth about the city and about YHWH, about misery and need….Suffering produces hope (Rom. 5:3-5), but not just any suffering. Sufferin that is recognized, admitted, voiced, and enacted produces hope. We do not know why, but it is so. Suffering denied and unarticulated produces numbness and irrational rage. Israel knew that. And so, I propose a second response to the failed city of Jerusalem, second not first. It is a season rich, exuberant, imaginative hope for a restored, new Jerusalem. But the new one requires the complete relinquishment of the one that is gone…… Nehemiah institutes severe financial reform that pertains to the rich
charging interest to the poor (Nehemiah 5). There will be no new city unlessthere is a neighborly form of debt management. Ezra insists on sabbath (Neh. 13:15-22). The sabbath observation goes deep to root identity and asserts that the new city is not about acquisitive­ness; the community in sabbath is disengaged from the production-con­sumption game….

I spoke with a Presbyterian layperson in Atlanta about the city. He told me that in growing up, his father had a shop down­, next to Rich’s department store. After school, he often went to his father’s shop, and often the two of them went to Rich’s for a Coca-Cola. It a wonderful happening, even more wonderful in memory. But now Rich’s is gone, replaced by a bank. The old city that centered in Rich’s is no more. And he said, “When I see it or think of it, I am enraged and sad at the loss.” We talked about relinquishing a city that is no more. Out of much thought and prayer, he told me, one day he drove down and parked across the street from where Rich’s and his father’s shop had been. He sat in the car and cried. Cried long, cried bitterly, cried for what was and is not, cried over a city now reduced to banks and exploitative labor, cried a lost shop and a lost family and a lost world. And then, he told me, he started his car. He drove to his suburban urch. And for the first time, he signed up to work the soup kitchen, to contribute modestly to a new urban possibility.

“Thou shalt not make graven images,” a refusal to be commodified a denial that the free rule of God can be turned into a market fetish to be bought and sold, a refusal that holiness should be reduced manageable handleable, salable goods (Exod. 20:4).

That same commanding voice, after declaring the holiness of and the sanctity of the neighbor (kill, adultery, steal), culminates the tenth assertion, “thou shalt not covet” (Exod. 20:17). This mandate against coveting is not a little psychology lesson about e is rather the Creator’s curb of acquisitiveness, the endless temp to reduce social relations to market transactions.

the entire passover provision of Exodus 12-13 is quite specific and self-conscious about liturgical detail. It is clear, nonetheless, that the primary intention of the narrative and the liturgy is to construct a counter-world whereby pharaoh’s totalizing power and totalizing explanation of reality are regularly defeated. The Israelite boy or girl is invited to live in a social reality where pharaoh’s abusive power does not prevail.

And while there are important historical-critical issues, we may here mention Daniel,  wherein the self-aware Jew Daniel negotiates his way ugh the civil service of Babylon by a refusal of the rich food of the empire and a reliance upon the simplicities of a Jewish diet. The refusal of food from the empire is linked to his being embedded in a particular exilic sense of identity.

The practice of debt cancellation stands in deep opposi­tion to the imperial economy, which is a practice of hierarchical power and social stratification. This provision stands at the center of Deuteronomy, a script designed to distinguish Israel from Assyrian possibility. This provision is more than simply a legal regulation. It is a remarkable exploration of a social possibility that is clearly unthinkable in the empire. The empire stands or falls with the administration of debt, for it is debt that distinguishes the powerful and the have-nots.

Israel as an intentional counter-community articulated a covenantal ethic neighborliness as an alternative to the commoditization of social relation­ships it sensed in imperial practice.

Deuteronomy makes one of its foci “widows and orphans,” that is, the paradigmatic power­less and vulnerable in society. The Israelite ethic urged here, alternative to imperial rapaciousness, is precisely concerned for those without resources or leverage to maintain and protect themselves.

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