Truth & Hope - (Walter Brueggemann) -- A Review

TRUTH & HOPE: Essays for a Perilous Age. By Walter Brueggemann. Foreword by Louis Stulman. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xv + 269 pages.

As I write this review, the world is experiencing a global pandemic that has taken nearly a million lives (that we know of) and has essentially put the world on pause. At the same time, in the United States, a series of shootings of African Americans by police has proven to be a tipping point in our national conversation about racism and white privilege. All of this is accompanied by an election season that involves perhaps the most divisive incumbent presidential candidate this nation has ever seen. All of this serves as a reminder that we do live in perilous times. Who better to help us navigate these age than Walter Brueggemann? His book Truth & Hope may have been written before the pandemic and the latest unrest in the nation over race emerged in 2020, these essays still speak to our times.

At least in my circles, Walter Brueggemann's name is as well-known as that of Barth or Tillich. Though he is in the twilight of his career, books continue to pour forth. While most of these books, including Truth & Hope, largely contain essays written at an earlier point in his career, they still exhibit Brueggemann’s acumen when it comes to interpreting Scripture, especially the Old Testament, and drawing from scripture theological truths that speak to the social concerns of the day. Brueggemann has both the visage of the ancient prophet and a similar sensibility when it comes to the question of whether God is on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, and the misunderstood. He is both the interpreter of prophets and a prophet himself.  Thus, while some of the essays contained in this book are recent and some are not, they offer words of wisdom for our day. 

For those who are not familiar with Brueggemann, he is a professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia and an ordained minister within the United Church of Christ. He is the author of numerous books and articles and is a well-traveled speaker and teacher (I had the privilege of moderating a panel that engaged his perspectives at a local conference). One thing about Brueggemann is that he will speak to audiences both conservative and liberal and not change his message. Thus, he pushes the buttons of all such parties.

The title of this collection of essays is key—Truth & Hope. Because we live in what has become a post-truth era when the President of the United States lies constantly, and his staff defends his viewpoint as the presentation of alternative facts. In other words, truth/facts are whatever the President determines to be the truth. While there are upsides to the move in recent decades to postmodernism, which has allowed for the recognition that there are multiple voices to be heard, the downside to this move is a sense of relativism that allows for these "alternate facts." In response to this trend, Brueggemann argues for the essentialness of truth as the foundation for hope.

Brueggemann is perhaps best known for his work with the Old Testament prophets, and in his preface, he notes that "the prophetic tradition regularly engages in truth-telling in order to expose social reality as a systemic act of 'falseness' that contradicts the purposes of God." (p. xiii). Thus, this is a book about truth-telling, about unmasking the falseness that is present in our systems. But, as he also states, the prophets also engage in "hope-telling." He writes that "hope is God-grounded in the convictions that even our wayward resistance does not negate God's good resolve for fidelity in the creation of futures. Without that God-groundedness, truth-telling can readily become more than harping and hope-telling only wishful thinking." (p. xiv). In these essays, Brueggemann seeks to ground both truth and hope in God.

The book is composed of fourteen essays that cover everything from holiness to certitude, from prayer to justice. At least two of the essays, chapters 9 and 10, seem to have connections with each other, in that he speaks of them by chapter number. Chapter 9 focuses on prayer as neighbor love, while chapter ten is focused on justice as the love of God. These are the two great commandments, which are linked together by Jesus. The chapter on prayer as neighbor love is a reminder that justice requires love, which requires prayer.

It is hard to summarize a book that covers so many topics in so many different ways. However, as one would expect from Brueggemann, each chapter, each topic, is rooted in Scripture. These are biblical studies of important topics for our day, reminding us that while the Bible was written centuries in the past, the words found here continue to speak. The very first chapter, on "holiness as round for knowing mercy," is rooted in his work with the opening chapters of the Book of Daniel, which he suggests is "dramatically alive in agonistic ways." He suggests that the "Daniel narrative may be a resource for the church in the midst of the national security state in the United States" (p. 2). As a response, he points us to Daniel, whose "work is to practice his Jewish identity in generative ways in an alien hegemony, to protect that identity, and to impinge upon the hegemony in transformative ways" (p. 3). This is definitely a different reading of Daniel than one will find offered by dispensationalists. What is true for Daniel can be true for the church in the United States as it attempts to remain faithful in an alien context. This again is vintage Brueggemann, who can bring even the Book of Daniel, as well as books like Ezra and Nehemiah into the conversation about truth-telling and hope-telling that is grounded in God.

If you know Brueggemann and appreciate his wisdom, you will find Truth & Hope worthy of your attention. If you're not as conversant you might first try elsewhere, such as with his The Prophetic Imagination as an introduction, and then move into this book. Either way, you will find a wisdom that will speak to the present age. I will note that I made use of an uncorrected promotional copy, so the page numbers might be a bit off. However, in essence, this is the book as it went to press. While written before the current crises, it offers a word that speaks to our current times, which are even perhaps more perilous than Brueggemann thought at the time this came together.


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