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A Wilderness Zone by Walter Brueggemann

08 April 2022

Anthony Phillips on the reflections of a scholar

THESE welcome musings written against the background of the Covid pandemic “by an old, weary interpreter who no longer has the stamina to do extended work” require urgent attention. The author uses reflection on biblical passages to challenge the reading of our current social reality by making us look again at the “facts” in front of us. It results in an unflinching commentary on American society disrupted by Donald Trump (but equally applicable elsewhere), indicating the necessity for political action under God.

He begins by likening our present position to the wilderness experience of the fleeing Hebrews liberated from Pharaoh but ever tempted to look back longingly at an illusory past. What is required in our risky journey is faithful imagination in a God who will provide. Next, he considers the reality of abandonment by God, for which he prescribes a faithful response.

This is followed by a discussion of failed cities and drawing on the book of Isaiah, a vision of what could be. Then, accepting the reality that economic power lies in the hands of a few, Brueggemann holds that the oligarchs may be outflanked by “the holy God and the peasants acting together”.

After urging the necessity for truth-telling of one’s history, the importance of migration, and the global unity of humankind, Brueggemann argues for “grief work”. The victims of the virus should be “properly remembered and treasured” as more than a passing statistic. But there is more grief work to be undertaken in mourning for an economic and powerful “world that is lost to us beyond recovery” that we may choose one in which God delights.

Indeed, the author argues that church leadership must pay acute attention to economics, arguing for an end to cheap pay and a relinquishing of some surplus wealth — an issue that, I suspect, will loom large in the politics of post-Covid and Brexit Britain. After arguing for a counter culture to the commercialism of Christmas, Brueggemann turns to destiny, fate, condemning the impotence of the loss of agency. The Bible assumes that we are to be active in “generating new social possibilities”.

After emphasising the “inconveniences” of the cost of discipleship and reflecting on God’s ability in the face of total brokenness to deliver a reality above all our old certainties, Brueggemann berates the dangers of self-sufficiency. Reaching the “land of promise” will require new imagination, attitudes, policies, and practices.

Essays follow on food scarcity and food security, the sovereignty of God, and, importantly, possibility and reality. Brueggemann argues that “virus time” showed that “the protocols of conventional capitalism” could be discarded, as the impossible became possible, but always at a cost: “the caveat of Gethsemane pertains!”

After comparing poetic assurance with lived reality in relation to time, the author asks what evokes God’s stunning reversal from abandonment to compassion, as witnessed in the exile and return. Finally, he asserts the importance of the expression of gratitude — an antidote to both pride and despair — and concludes by recognising the fidelity of God even in the worst of circumstances: something which the preacher must always assert.

Brueggemann may no longer have “the energy or interest to do the hard critical work upon which good faith depends”, but this study again unquestionably puts us in his debt. Unlike our contemporary society, the Hebrews valued the wisdom of “the elders”. There is plenty of it here, delivered with raw passion.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


A Wilderness Zone
Walter Brueggemann
Cascade Books £17
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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