Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, a guiding light for progressive Christians, has made an influential name over his long career for his pastoral and practical use of the Old Testament. He is known best for his book The Prophetic Imagination. Much can be said for the virtues of such a work and the reams of books that Brueggemann has since written. His address at a June 2018 Sojourners’ gathering, however, exemplifies the gaping weaknesses of contemporary progressive Christianity and why its future is not promising. The address was both a highlight reel of many of Brueggemann’s greatest hits and a more programmatic discussion of what “prophetic imagination” looks like in our modern world.
One could look at the front page of the New York Times or scroll the Huffington Post to discern his “prophetic” program – which might be the first sign it might not be as prophetic as Brueggemann imagines. As a program against the powerful and evil capitalists, it might cause Brueggemann some pause that his agenda is embraced by a party that controls the media, most cultural institutions, and curries more wealthy voters than the so-called party of capital and empire.
If we could put our finger on one particular issue that gets to the very heart of the Protestant Mainline’s precipitous decline we might go no further than scripture. Sure, in the 19th and 20th century, liberals balked at the divinity of Christ or the virgin birth or the resurrection. Liberal Christians were more rational, optimistic, reformist. Those days are long gone. Radical is the word. With the flailing liberal imagination looking for a life line amidst the barren wasteland of the modern world, liberal Protestants turned to liberation and against western civilization, which is the civilization they mostly championed up until they did not. America is now an empire. The West is one monolithic sin. Rapacious capitalism has ruined everything it has touched. Patriarchy has not had its theological moment yet but it is being locked and loaded as we speak.
With the loss of scriptural authority, progressives have lost connection to the very lifeline of the historic Christian faith. Preaching and expounding the Holy Scripture, the word of God, was one of the very bedrock convictions of historic Protestantism. One can dismiss the virgin birth, or even read the bible disregarding miracles and supernatural interventions by God, but still maintain some connection to the faith. Thomas Jefferson did as much.
In our current moment, many progressive Christians read the bible not for a “word from the Lord” but for the Lord to back their word. And more often than not, it’s the politically chic idea that merely seeks some sort of spiritual garb to dress it up – empire, resistance, liberation etc. God is doing a “new thing,” what Brueggemann calls a “lively God” who acts. But the lively God of Brueggemann is not the God of the bible, because he’s doing new things that move him beyond the bible. How do we discern this lively God from the God of scripture? Brueggemann seems to offer us no direction. The assumption is that it is, well, just obvious.
Brueggemann’s work is noteworthy, in part, because he is (was?) an insightful mainline voice who took scripture seriously and engaged with it in creative and imaginative ways. But it’s the word “imagination” where we run into problems. One might use imagination in a more restrained and cautious way or an unrestrained and foot fancy free way. Brueggemann, for my taste and theological conviction, was often too liberal and imaginative, but nonetheless worth reading and learning from.
What is so depressing about the latest address from Brueggeman is that it is so ordinary, banal, and studiously orthodox in its liberal pieties. What happened to the prophetic imagination? And when did it become so sanctimonious? Does the prophet have anything to say against the progressive Americans who live in the coastal enclaves where the vast majority of capital resides and who largely agree with Brueggemann’s prophecy? A prophet is not supposed to “itch the ears” of hearers because he has a word from the Lord. It is a word that casts down their idols and calls into question their complacency. One can only imagine a ballroom of progressive activists nodding their heads in agreement with all of Brueggemann’s points.
The address is a study in how imagination can go very wrong. First, he says that the monarchy of Solomon and centralization of worship in Jerusalem during his reign was an example of “ideological totalism.” There is no acknowledgment for Brueggemann that Solomon was the divinely appointed king. No acknowledgement that the enforcement of religious centralization in the Jerusalem temple was sanctioned by Yahweh. God commands Solomon to build the temple! And what about the enforcement of ritual purity required by the Torah? Brueggemann writes, “The temple, and the priest who operated the temple, fashioned a series of purity laws to determine who the purer people and the impurer people were, to determine who had access and who was excluded from the goodies.” Not a word that purity laws were passed down by Moses as official Torah teaching. It is all just manufactured to support centralized imperial power and exploitation of workers.
How does a bible scholar of some repute read the bible in such an unnuanced and historically naïve way? The ancient world is not the modern world. The half-baked Marxism that underlies these critiques of “capitalism” is just a straw-man that progressives trot out on occasion for a ritual burning in effigy with no recognition what many economists have freely acknowledged: that evil free market capitalism is more responsible than any other single factor for lifting more people out of extreme poverty in Africa and Asia. That does not mean that there is not a downside to free markets. Of course there is! There are always costs and benefits. What Brueggemann seems to believe is that there is some sort of economic program, endorsed by the bible, which magically generates economic growth with no downside.
Capitalism is essentially slavery, we are told. Citing the controversial – and largely unsubstantiated – thesis that American wealth is wholly the product of slavery, Brueggemann makes a favored claim advanced by the Left that capitalism and slavery in the U.S. developed together and are the real basis for American wealth. Here’s just a sampling:
“And particularly, we might pay attention to the book by a Christian Baptist, The Half of It Has Never Been Told, which makes the compelling argument that the wealth of the United States basically is grounded in slavery. So if you think about the things that go around cheap labor and slavery, what you come up with is regressive taxation, high interest rates, stacked mortgage rates, and debt — so you can imagine the way we are helping college students get into insufferable debt, which assures that they will be willing workers in the extraction system for all of their working life. Plus the fact that we have to recognize that this system is committed to the deregulation of banks and all sorts of deregulation, that lets creation be exploited. Deregulation really means the unleashing of predatory forces against the vulnerable.”
So like Solomon’s kingdom, which was a “totalized” system of exploitation of labor for wealth extraction, contemporary capitalism is pretty much the same thing, give or take about three thousand years and the development of a completely new economic system that was unknown in the ancient world. But barring that and a few other small details, it is basically right there in the bible. How did we not see it until now?!?
Let’s be clear: I am not saying capitalism, in its various forms, cannot be critiqued. It should. American foreign policy should be criticized and debated. Christians should be concerned with injustice and for the poor. That seems quite clear from the bible. What is not clear is the very particular, often overly abstract, and generalized political program that folks like Brueggemann want to extract from the bible. In the end, it looks like social gospel progressivism without the spirituality. It’s a political program in search of biblical validation.
Can we read the bible in order to get a political program? Or form of government? The short answer is no. You cannot. And that’s where Brueggemann mirrors the worst tendency of fundamentalists to press scripture into the service of their own agenda. It is an abuse of the bible. The bible can speak to us about politics but we must come with an ear to hear rather than an agenda to impose.
Imagination is a double-edged sword. More often than not, however, the bible warns against it. The tendency that the prophet Jeremiah experienced is that we humans have a tendency to claim that our dreams and imagination are the Lord’s.
25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’26 How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, 27 who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. (Jeremiah 23:25-28)