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Interrupting Silence

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Walter Brueggemann is one of my favorite authors for a lot of reasons. First, he writes books that are scholarly but accessible. As an authority on the Old Testament, he brings something to light that expands my mind and lingers with me for days to follow. 

This book is kind of unique in that respect. While there's briefly some Old Testament, the majority of the book is about Jesus, with New Testament narrative as his foundation. Nothing is lost in that turn. This is still quality theology for the masses and academics alike.

The premise of this book is found from the first chapter: Silence can be a cover for something keeps us from wholeness, keeps us from justice. It can be a turning point in a story that was vitally needed. This is the silence we are found interrupting in a journey through scripture. 

It's also a very timely book. In divided times, it can be tempting to abstain, to withdraw in the name of comfort. Brueggemann encourages us to avoid this behavior, to continue to give justice and righteousness their due. It's a hard lesson, certainly not the easy way; it is also the way of Christ.
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In a very timely book, Walter Brueggemann, issues a challenge for persons of faith to resist oppression and hate.  A true contemporary prophet himself, Brueggemann utilizes his knowledge of the bible and his fine interpretive skills to illustrate examples of marginalized voices being the stimulus for overthrowing the powers that oppress.  Over the decades, Brueggeman has taught all of his students what a life of faith looks like, as it has been embodied in this faithful servant.
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Timely and short read on a topic that should be more thoroughly discussed and acknowledged in the faith space. It provides some good food for thought and nicely forms the biblical basis for some ideas I have been toying with. The many old and new testament examples were super helpful and I would definitely build on some of this work as a reference while speaking on topics related to #MeToo, Immigration and fighting for the defense of black lives as Christians.
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We must speak out. We must not sit back and let chaos and injustice run amok. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak out. Alas, many are guilty of keeping quiet when there is a need to speak up; and speaking up when there is a need to be silent. This book about interrupting silence is a call to all to bear the arms of vocal activism in the midst of unholy forces seeking to silence our witness. As one who has consistently spoken out against the excesses of powers and the abuse of the weak. There are many quotables about many different things:
"The church at its most faithful is allied with artistic expression from the margin that voices alternatives to dominant imagination."
"Prayer—beyond conventional polite prayer—is an act of breaking the silence."
"In the institutional life of the church, moreover, the breaking of silence by the testimony of the gospel often means breaking the silence among those who have a determined stake in maintaining the status quo."
"Prayer is a refusal to settle for what is."
"The parable exhibits the relentlessness of refusing silence, the unwavering resolve to continue to speak and to ask."

Brueggemann hopes that this book would inspire more to know when to keep silence and when to break silence. Breaking the silence is equated to breaking the status quo. He goes back to the Bible as he ponders about the place of silence. When Israel were enslaved in Egypt, God used Moses to speak out against Pharaoh who oppressed the people.  It was economic greed by the powers and economic dependency by the oppressed. Any dissent would be met harshly economically and militarily. Israel groaned under the harsh rule. So much so that the victim card continued to be played out even when Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery. God used the prophets of old as His spokesmen in speaking out against evil and idolatry. Here is where the author's familiarity with the prophetical texts shines through. The prophets spoke out against the "triad of exploitative labor, unjust taxation, and exhibition of surplus wealth" as rebellion against God's will. He even calls prophets as poets, those who use "stylized" speeches to expose the evil deeds and the shine forth God's desires for the people. In the New Testament, Brueggemann looks at the ministry of Jesus through the gospel of Mark to see how Jesus undo the excesses and evil in first century Palestine. He then contrasts that with our contemporary battles surrounding contentious matters such as: white privilege; Western privilege; Male privilege; heterosexual privilege; American exceptionalism; and entitled Christendom. He closes with a call to the Church to play her part to liberate people. Speak out for equal rights. Speak out against any form of bigotry. Do not silence the women. Tackling the difficult passages in the Bible about gender, he looks at the silence of the women in the Church to say that it cannot be read as a "flat absolute." He proposes a re-reading of the passages in the light of modern concerns surrounding gender equality, gay rights, and others. Yet, such attempts only create controversies.

My Thoughts 
First, Brueggemann starts well with a call to Christians to speak up especially when we have the freedom to do so. In a book that promotes courageous speech, Brueggemann reminds us about the mandate to do what is right when we are able to. Like the late civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr who said: "The time is always right to do the right thing," Brueggemann is not only urging our exercise of free speech, he emphasizes right speaking and right interrupting. If we fail to use it, we may lose it.

Second, Brueggemann is convincing when it comes to biblical characters speaking out against the excesses of their day. The prophets, the oppressed, the persecuted, and even Jesus spoke out bluntly against the evil of their day. The point is that we should not be ashamed to break silence. In many parts of the Western world, we have become accustomed to being nice. Even in churches, people prefer to say nice things when everything is positive and keep quiet when things run south. This comes at the expense of truth speaking. The Bible didn't tell us to shut up when it comes to criticism or dissent. Instead, we are called to speak the truth in love. This is something that Brueggemann has done well in this book.

Third, the later parts of the book can be controversial, especially when it comes to re-reading Scripture. His statement about "The old pattern of silencing served old-time religion, and old-time religion is in the service of old-time politics of domination and old-time economics of privilege" is a polemic against old-fashioned beliefs that failed to change with time. Things are not often so straightforwardly new-fashioned vs old-fashioned. There is a need to nuance what people mean by new and old. We need to be careful not to straitjacket anyone into categories that don't fairly represent their views. Conservative folks can be flexible. Liberal groups can be rigid. Perhaps, when taken as an invitation to discussion, this book would be a wonderful conversation starter. Readers should take this position when reading this book.

Walter Bruggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. A highly sought after speaker and theologian, he is particularly known for his skills in rhetorical criticism, as demonstrated in his bestselling book, the Theology of the Old Testament and the Prophetic Imagination.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.

This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
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Brueggeman's work is always intriguing for me. His way with words and eloquent but simple way of communicating makes his deep theological premises easy to read and follow. Some of the things I loved about this book were:
1. The fact that each chapter could be read as an individual study, but they were also interconnected. I felt like I could put the book down & come back to it anytime and not feel confused or behind.
2. The reflection questions at the end of each chapter were thought-provoking and relevant.
3. His connections from the biblical narrative to our modern-day world were seamless and logical. I appreciated the way he made the text come alive in its original context, and then applied it today!
4. His chapter on keeping women silent in the church - EXCELLENT! Such great material here.

With all that being said, I did feel like I was expecting a little bit "more" from this book - I'm not exactly sure what that 'more' was. Perhaps some concluding thoughts to tie it all together, or a little more of Brueggeman's personal commentary. That being said, it was still a helpful and engaging read!
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A work that encapsulates both the compelling and frustrating natures of Brueggemann and his work.

Over the first seven chapters Brueggemann incisively explores narratives in the Old and New Testament as they relate to breaking silence.  He considers the cry of the Israelites regarding oppression by Pharaoh; Amos' unwillingness to be silenced by the priest in Bethel; David's meditation on how an unwillingness to cry out to God for forgiveness and to keep silent hurts and kills; the Syro-phoenician woman's challenge to Jesus for healing; Jesus casting out the demon who made a boy mute; and Bartimaeus being quieted by the crowd but proving unwilling to be silent.  In these chapters Brueggemann is often at his best, providing compelling exegesis and commentary, showing how God brings forth justice for the dispossessed and marginalized, although at times, as is often the case, he's stretching things a bit.

And then we get to the last chapter, and ostensibly the point of the book: associating all of these earlier episodes about silencing as oppression and applying it to women preachers in light of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and how such is a similar type of silencing.

And so the book really becomes a means by which a liberal progressive Christian attempts to show Biblical continuity in making such a claim.  In so doing the rest of the book loses a bit of luster, and questions arise about the selective choice of silence.  Silence is not merely an oppressive tool; Habakkuk summons all to be silent before God in His holy temple (Habakkuk 2:20), and there is silence in heaven when the seventh seal is opened (Revelation 8:1).  

The argumentation in the final chapter often begs the question.  As is consistent with the theme, Brueggemann would have us read all of the NT in light of Galatians 3:28, never mind that Paul shows no inclination elsewhere to flatten or deconstruct the roles and positions mentioned in the verse.  Ephesians and Colossians are of course right out as not truly Pauline; he has to except 1 Corinthians from his discussion of how Paul views women, and whenever some evidence has to be excluded, you have to wonder why.  

Even if you're tempted to agree with his reasoning, you can hopefully see why there remain strong arguments against it.  The book would have been quite compelling without the final chapter; then again, without the final chapter, it would likely not have been written.  In the end, therefore, a bit disappointing.
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Interrupting Silence: God's Command to Speak Out by Walter Brueggemann is the author's latest book about how God calls us to speak out.  In this book, there are parts so simply yet powerfully written that they require time to process and extract the meaning.  That is part of what I love about the author's work.  He goes through Scripture and modern day events to show how God wants us to speak up.  In this book, Brueggemann shows himself to be more of a liberal theologian.  Overall,  there are some great parts to extract from this book.  I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher.  These opinions are entirely my own.
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The author sounds more like a naturalist than a believer. From subtly suggesting that the prophets got their speech from tradition rather than from God himself, to claiming that the apostles were confused in their writings, as if that is the only or best explanation, to even making Jesus fully human and not divine, claiming that he was taught by the Syro-Phoenician woman what his real mission was, as if he didnt know what she was going to say before she said it. 

While you will learn many interesting factoids about the texts explored in this book, you'll also get a sense of the authors unbelief. Overall disappointed with someone who is claimed to be the top OT scholar
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As always, Brueggemann presents an important prophetic voice, setting out for us the argument that we must use our power to speak up for injustice in the world; a biblical imperative. Sometimes I find his work to be so dense that I dont always connect with the issues, but I found this immensely readable.
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In Interrupting Silence: God's Command to Speak Out, Brueggemann explores the importance of breaking silences. He does this by exploring eight biblical passages where someone interrupted silence. He examines a variety of texts from both testaments and in different contexts. For instance, the silence can come from internal pressures (Psalm 32), royal power (Amos 7), a crowd of people (Mark 10), societal expectations (Luke 18), or other factors. In his chosen texts, those interrupting the silence are those who are oppressed or outsiders.

"All of these silence breakers have come to see that silence is a strategy for the maintenance of the status quo, with its unbearable distribution of power and wealth," Brueggemann explains. "Silence breakers characteristically insist that the old patterns of power must be disrupted and reconfigured."

With that introduction, Brueggemann captures the critical role silence can play - especially forced silenced. In my graduate studies in communication, I often found silence - and breaking of silence - associated with issues of power. Brueggemann brings that important understanding to our reading of scriptures. In doing so, he challenges Christians to side with those voices interrupting the silences.

"The church has a huge stake in breaking the silence, because the God of the Bible characteristically appears at the margins of established power arrangements, whether theological or socioeconomic and political," Brueggemann argues. "The church at its most faithful is allied with artistic expression from the margin that voices alternatives to dominant imagination."

With that goal, which builds on Brueggemann's arguments from The Prophetic Imagination and many other works, Brueggemann accomplishes in this book exactly what he praises various biblical characters for doing: interrupting silence. With attention to application and the present, his analysis of the stories challenges us to think about silences and when we need to break those silences. As he breaks the silence, I suspect most readers - like me - won't always be comfortable with his book.

Due to that silence-breaking purpose, its easy-to-read style, and the way it led me to reconsider some biblical accounts, I highly recommend Interrupting Silence.
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Brueggemann's latest has plenty of good ideas, but it feels inessential. It's a short read, and it feels very casual. These are ideas Brueggemann knows inside and out by now, so while he's clear and concise, it's a little rote, even if his points – primarily about the value of speaking out and creating a space to speak – are valuable, particularly in our current moment.

I'm suspect of a few of his readings. While it can be useful to make a character stand in for Rome/oppressive powers, sometimes that's a stretch of the biblical story. His reading of the story of the Gentile woman in Mark 7 misunderstands (misrepresents?) Jesus's activity in it. That she “reeducated” Jesus is an unnecessary stretch to make politicized point. That, at least as I read the chapter in Mark, he has the setting wrong makes it less convincing.

Even so, much of the book is worth grappling with (which is why it should be expanded, instead of feeling like an appendix to his more consequential works). The connections drawn between silence, privilege, and the status quo make for important conversation starters. There are hints of the other side, of the importance of “honest talk” being “received in faithful seriousness.”

Fans of his work might enjoy it, but probably won't find as much new ground as they'd hope; newcomers will find it to be a quick and accessible read. It might make sense as a part of a group study/conversation rather than as a pivotal work in itself.
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