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Journey to the Common Good

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Walter Brueggemann writes a thorough comparison between the Jewish exodus from Egypt (scarcity to plenty as provided by God) and the US with it's own beliefs in scarcity - we "need" bigger houses and more things to feel secure. Interesting and well-argued.  The lessons we can learn from Exodus, Jeremiah, and Isaiah are the need to move from the feelings of scarcity if we are to act for the common good.  When we are focused on survival and buy into the belief that we need more things, it empowers the government and not the people.  

Brueggemann is not for readers looking for a breezy read and an easy answer to life's concerns.  This book is a deep dive into some complex issues, but it's well worth reading (and rereading).
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Our world is in a crisis. Whether it is economic or financial, social or spiritual, the pandemic is rocking the world from its sense of normalcy and security. The economies of the world are mostly in recession and with the continuing loss of jobs experienced by many, and with many more to come, people need hope more than ever. There is also the continuing tussle between opposing groups with opposing philosophies of life. The Right vs the Left; the East vs the West, and the various other divisions that are split based on age, education, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and others.  What is good? How do we progress to a better world? The way forward is actually to learn about lessons from the past. Author and esteemed professor Walter Brueggemann urges us to go all the way back to the wilderness narrative experienced by ancient Israel. Calling  wilderness as "the hard work of alternative," Brueggemann reminds us that such an environment pushes us toward greater dependence on God and exposes our innate sinful tendency to complain. It forces us to look toward life according to the mercy and providence of God instead of self-dependence or self-centered subsistence. More importantly, we are reminded that life is a gift from God and it takes a wilderness crisis to wake us to the reality of how God had provided for us through all times and how we all need God. Under Pharaoh, Isreal could neither protest nor complain. Living freely in the wilderness, the freed slaves of Israel could even complain against God! Brueggemann observes how our modern culture has "freed" the various people groups who had previously faced "repression, brutality, and abandonment."  In this book, Bruggemann offers three paths toward a common good. From the Exodus narrative, he attempts to show us how hope could progress from personal anxieties to the practice of neighborly love. Readers are challenged with the question: "What is the common good?" Like how Jews welcomed Christians to share in the joy of seeing Israel liberated from Egypt, we also share in the natural common anxieties surrounding food, safety, security, and freedom. We see how Pharaoh exploited the Israelites and how God eventually delivered Isreal from slavery into freedom. Seeing how God had provided for His people should encourage us to hope in the future of promised abundance. For that, we need to recognize our anxieties caused by a scarcity narrative that often prevents us from generosity for the common good. We need to depart from the old to enter the new. These movements away from scarcity to abundance are essential in order to avoid extreme nationalism, toleration of poverty, policies that harm the environment for the sake of selfish profits, and so on. It is a mindset revolution that is needed. 

Brueggemann begins with a declaration of abundance in the early history of Israel. They were expected to provide for the needy amid the rich blessings from the LORD. God was instilling neighbourliness in the culture then. Such a reminder is needed because any desire for more providence must begin with the fact that we have once been blessed beyond measure. The moment we forget this, we lose our bearings of generosity, hospitality, and neighborliness. Bless for we have been richly blessed. The moment we resist the call toward giving toward the common good, we are resisting the "cultic, moral, and economic dimensions" of a future of the common good. From the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, Brueggemann identifies the dangers of boasting in three achievements: wealth, might, and wisdom and counters them with a higher triad: "steadfast love, justice, and righteousness." These subversive attitudes would spark a new revolution toward neighbourliness.

Finally, in Isaiah, we learn about the way forward in a time of loss of a failed urban economy. Instead of a Christological reading as advocated by Brevard Childs, John Sawyer, and Robert Wilken, Brueggemann opts for a post-critical reading that is appropriate for our own time. Readers should note that he is not jettisoning any forms of Christological approach. He is simply making room for a wider interpretation that might shed greater light to complement any Christological perspective. He takes three memories from the royalty promise; the presence of the divine in the temple; and the divine rescue from the enemy empires and shows us how they converge into one giant imaginative leap to assert that what Isaiah said about Jerusalem then is applicable to society now. He calls this a "double read." He describes six movements (or I prefer to call motifs) that we should note with care and prayer: Loss; Grief; Hope; Assurances; Non-Contestation; and Non-Departure. These coincide with the flow of the book of Isaiah. 

My Thoughts
Reading the Old Testament is often more challenging than reading the New Testament. Our different time periods make it difficult to comprehend ancient contexts. Even with the interpretive and imaginative mind of Brueggemann, the common reader among us might find it challenging to take an imaginative leap of faith to bridge the ancient books of Exodus, Jeremiah, and Isaiah toward a post-critical interpretation as advocated by the famous professor. I notice the stark lack of real-life stories that could illustrate Brueggemann's thoughts. He makes up for this lack by using biblical examples from the Bible itself. This makes the book quite challenging as readers would have to do their own imagination and subsequently application. While the end-application might take a bit more work, the real value in this book is the various themes and motifs that we can draw from the Old Testament lessons. Brueggemann calls them movements we need to be conscious about. Such movements are well anchored in Scripture. This is necessary for a generation of believers that are increasingly less literate in their Bible knowledge.

The strengths of the book lie in its faithfulness to Scripture and the author's rich knowledge of Bible history. True to his "prophetic imagination," Brueggemann boldly moves from the biblical texts to our modern contexts using the movements of God's goodness toward Israel and uses them as parallels to our modern desire for societal goodness. Part Two is a powerful call that goes beyond the things that many of us long for: Wealth, Might, and even Wisdom. He elevates steadfast love, justice, and righteousness as a new paradigm for us to shift toward. It is more of a challenge to make our pursuit more holistic rather than dumbing them down with new motifs. For instance, wealth is good but what makes it better is to use it for the sake of loving people. Having Might is wonderful but what makes it more meaningful is to use it to achieve justice. It is good to have Wisdom but without righteousness, any pursuit of wisdom would end up in the vanity category as affirmed by the writer of Ecclesiastes. 

All in all, I believe this book is a clarion call for us to read old books with continued fresh perspectives. We might argue on the specifics but as far as the call for change and transformation is concerned, Brueggemann is spot on. This book has been updated with materials delivered at Regent College's Laing lecture series back in 2008.

Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus of Old Testament studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where he taught from 1986 to 2003. He has authored hundreds of articles and over sixty books.

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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This is an updated edition of the publication of the 2008 Laing Lecture series at Regent College, Vancouver, BC. As such, it's instructive to see that the human journey "from scarcity through abundance" to living as neighbors is still the work we need to continue doing.

I usually love Brueggemann's writing. I subtracted a few stars here because the introduction, written on the day of George Floyd's funeral in Houston TX in 2020, felt very much like it was written by a white man to white American Christians in the upheaval of that particular moment. For example, at one point, he references the phrase, "I can't breathe" to describe the overabundance of quail God bestowed on the Hebrew people in the wilderness. I almost stopped reading the book at that point, it seemed so insensitive. There were other 

I'd really go with 3.5 stars, but 4 is too many because of the introduction's shoddiness.
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Journey to the Common Good is scholarly and accessible. It’s a text that raised important questions for believers in a strange and difficult age.
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It's probably not surprising that the common good is at the heart of Walter Brueggemann's "Journey to the Common Good," a 2010 publication being updated and released on the occasion of its 10th anniversary and with a framework that addresses the contemporary dual issues of the Coronavirus and racial injustice.

I'm somewhat hesitant to confess that I can be hit-and-miss with Brueggemann, not because of any theological concerns but simply because Brueggemann is, in fact, one of the world's most renowned Old Testament scholars and he writes as one of the world's most renowned Old Testament scholars.

Even for this seminary graduate, Brueggemann demands full-on attention and a willingness to be immersed in biblical exegesis.

Brueggemann has never particularly strived for accessibility in his writing, though the peculiar thing about him is that to hear him speak you'd never realize it. He brings things beautifully to life.

To be fair, I've had friends and peers who disagree with me and who consider his writing to be as accessible as can possibly be.

This text, a relatively short text calling the church to journey together for the good of our community through neighborliness, covenanting, and reconstruction, is updated to more fully link the wilderness tradition of Exodus to our current crises. Brueggemann sees this as an opportunity for the church to pursue a genuine social alternative to the Pharaoh. He expands his original ideas with clarity and simplicity in calling the church, once again, to journey toward the common good and that we all love our neighbor.

"Journey to the Common Good" is beautifully written and researched, scriptural exegesis abounds and Brueggemann is quick to acknowledge where he's taking a creative, contemporary leap. There's an undeniable progressive theological leap here, after all Brueggemann is ordained in the United Church of Christ, but Brueggemann is quick to acknowledge and discuss other theological positions.

"Journey to the Common Good" isn't necessarily a book for the casual reader of Christian living or faith-based materials. Rather, it's for those more adept at terminology and with at least a fundamental familiarity with and knowledge of Old Testament. I'd dare say it helps to be familiar with Brueggemann and given that he leans progressive theologically it's likely important to either be in that same arena or at least willing to explore the vast world of theology.

"Journey to the Common Good" is one of my favorite Brueggeman texts. While I may wish it was a bit more accessible for the wider audience that truly needs it, the material presented is incredibly valuable and a reminder of the remarkable work and life of Walter Brueggemann in bringing the Old Testament to life.
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