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Epistle to the Americans

01 May 2015

Jonathon Wright finds a scholar's message of limited wider appeal


Reality, Grief, Hope: Three urgent prophetic tasks 
Walter Brueggemann 
Eerdmans £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

IF YOU are an American Christian looking for a self-flagellating read, this is the book for you. Walter Brueggemann's aim is to call American Christians to prophetic action. The Church is to reject the ideology of American exceptionalism and embrace a narrative of neighbourly relationship.

The argument is based around a "dynamic analogy". It compares the attitude of the Jerusalem elite in the run-up and aftermath of the city's destruction in 587 BCE to the self-perception of the US in the wake of 9/11. In 165 pages, Brueggemann argues that an "imperial" ideology leading to denial of reality and despair can be countered only by the prophetic announcement of realism, grief, and hope. Fundamentally, he is asking readers what it means to be a Christian in the US.

As an extended sermon against a particular vision of American society (national security, self-interested government, and markets), this book is a good and thought-provoking read. Further, Brueggemann's comments on the Church's relationship with Psalms of lament will repay careful consideration. Do not, however, expect this to be a work of biblical exegesis. This is a manifesto that uses biblical texts for an (often strained) analogy with the present: can 9/11 really be compared to the impact of the destruction of Jerusalem on Israelite religion?

Readers need to keep a critical eye on the context of Brueggemann's biblical citations: he often uses Amos as a critique of the Jerusalem elite, although the passages cited are directed against the northern kingdom and cult. Similarly, Brueggemann refers to a wide array of contemporary scholarship to bolster his argument with-out critically engaging with some of its more dubious assertions. For example, in chapter five he cites a string of scholars who claim that St Paul's letters are a coded attack on Rome and the empire. But he never deals with the methodological problem underlying all of these works: there is no evidence that St Paul wrote in code.

Who is the book aimed at? While activists will find plenty to engage with, I doubt a parish book club would be rewarded for its efforts in reading it. Brueggemann is not systematic in his identification of sources, and hops without constraint through the Bible in utilising material. Its American focus raises some pertinent issues for British readers, but there are many dissimilarities as well. And readers on this side of the pond may need to have Wikipedia to hand to understand several unexplained cultural references. 

Jonathon Wright is an ordinand at St Stephen's House, Oxford, and a D.Phil. student.

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