Rebuilding the Foundations (John & Walter Brueggemann) -- Review

REBUILDING THE FOUNDATIONS: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture. By John Brueggemann and Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xii + 211 pages.

                The Bible is an ancient book that several billion people look to for guidance on all manner of concerns, spiritual and otherwise. There is much distance separating the ancient world and the contemporary world, which has led many to cast aside the Bible as a collection of outmoded and irrelevant stories from another era. To read the Bible as anything other than literature, might be akin to watching Leave It to Beaver for guidance on family matters. Perhaps it would be helpful to experience a conversation between two people who have expertise in matters biblical on the one hand and contemporary on the other. That is just what this book, Rebuilding the Foundations, attempts to do.

The authors of the book are a father/son duo. The father in this case is biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who is well known in my circles not only as a biblical scholar but as a prophetic figure. He has a knack for connecting ancient and contemporary worlds, bridging the perceived gap between eras, bringing modern culture under the lens of the biblical narrative. He certainly believes that the Bible has something worth hearing today. His partner in this conversation is his son, John, who is a sociologist by trade, teaching sociology at Skidmore College.  This combination makes for a most interesting and thought-provoking book.

The two authors speak to six areas of moral concern—care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The six areas that they focus on are taken from the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, who identified six moral foundations set in terms of dilemmas that societies must navigate: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Turmoil will follow if leaders in society choose the latter of the two pairs. While they don’t engage in any full discussion of the work of Haidt and his colleagues, they explore the nature of human social relationships using these six categories. As for the purpose of the book, they intend to illuminate "the moral disorder of our time" (p. 5). They believe that our current patterns of life, especially in the West, are unsustainable and require reorientation. They hope that this book can help stir conversation toward that end.  

The format of the book is straightforward. Each of the six positive characteristics are addressed in a chapter, with John Brueggemann first addressing the moral character from the perspective of sociology, though it’s clear he has a good understanding of the biblical story. Then, his father, Walter, addresses the same question from the perspective of the biblical narrative. The point here is inviting us into a dialogue between ancient and modern. The authors do recognize that some find this project strange. After all, as they note, the perception on the part of many is that “sociologists are all na├»ve leftists; people who love the Bible are premodern rubes.” It is clear that they do not hold this view to hold water! They write that this conversation isn’t new. They’ve been having this conversation for some time, and invite us into the conversation (p. 5).

The first chapter, "Care," is focused on economics— whether people have sufficient material resources to sustain them. Addressing this question from a sociological perspective, John draws on contemporary studies of wealth and income distribution, which suggest that growing levels of income insecurity don't match our values. Looking at the same question from a biblical perspective Walter suggests that Deuteronomy "is the great manifesto in the Bible for socioeconomic, political justice," and he proceeds to show us how this is true (p. 17). As one might expect, who has read Walter Brueggemann’s works, he doesn't pull his punches, declaring that the Bible insists that a "Predatory economy is false and cannot be sustained" (p. 28). 

Chapter two focuses on fairness, which sociologically speaking puts an emphasis on "relative comparison." The question here is how we buy into the program of the market, which biblically speaking is designed to disregard the neighbor. There is no neighbor because the other is a competitor for scarce goods. Chapter three focuses on liberty, which has two different sides—freedom from and freedom to. The former is the libertarian option, which is popular in America. Where we find ourselves politically will determine how we perceive the role of government in society.  Whom does it serve? Chapter four focuses on loyalty, or how people stick together in an age of bowling alone. John makes the intriguing statement that the United States "was founded on disloyalty" (the freedom of dissent) (p. 81). Biblically, Walter looks to the stories of Elijah and Elisha, who demonstrate an interesting form of loyalty in that they help people outside the community. But both were loyal to God, even if not to the monarchy, and thus the people of God.

The chapter on authority is an interesting one. Both authors recognize that there is a need for authority, but they raise questions about how it is exercised. John distinguishes authority from power, with authority being relational in nature, while power is often coercive. This is a chapter, especially John's portion, that speaks directly and explicitly to the current situation in American society. Walter opens up a new vantage point on the question by speaking of a culture of loss, and then explores the idea in terms of the exile, a conversation that includes engagement with Job. Here's the key, using Job, hope does not involve a return to what was before. He writes of Job, noting that the book "does not look back. It looks forward" (p. 130). 

The final chapter and final moral foundation, focuses on sanctity. Sociologically speaking, the focus is on appropriate social relationships and activities. John explores our social norms, suggesting that there are two ways of defiling social norms—libertinism and commodification of social life. The first stretches boundaries of decency, and the other seeks to accomplish things in society by turning people into commodities. The second way of relating tends to deplete resources and trivializes human relationships. Walter explores the concept through texts that speak of food and how it is produced and shared. He speaks here of food being a gift of God, and as is true of him, he speaks of abundance rather than scarcity.

The authors close out the book by addressing a series of questions that focus on their divergent disciplines and methodologies. They’re invited to share how the see their disciplines converge and diverge. It is interesting that Walter speaks here of theory and narrative. While sociology focuses on theory, biblical scholarship focuses on narrative. He also notes that for him the focus is not on fighting critical battles about historicity of the text. He wants to hear how the text speaks to our current situation, bringing a word of justice to the conversation. It’s this latter lens that Walter uses to focus on the lens rather than fighting critical battles about historicity.

The book is well worth reading. It addresses contemporary questions by bringing the resources ancient and modern into conversation. As a person of faith, whose profession involves addressing contemporary concerns using the lens of scripture, this is a most hopeful book. It is a good reminder to those of us who are charged with such work that the text of scripture has a relevance that transcends time, even if it is in time. With the point of the book being responding to the moral disorder of our day, much of which is economic and consumerist, the conversation is all the more enlightening. It is good to hear from father and son engage in conversation. It’s clear that even though the son has embraced a “secular” discipline, he is no stranger to his father’s world. The same is true of the father regarding the son’s discipline. There is something deeply theological about all of this!


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