Review: Walter Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty

The Reformed tradition reads the coronavirus pandemic in a narrowly personal and dualistic fashion, with little regard for the tumultuous realities of history. How far this falls short of the standards of the biblical witness is apparent from Walter Brueggemann’s somewhat improvised contribution to theological reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic: Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty.

The book has seven short chapters, each developing a distinctive Old Testament theme. I will focus here on the first and the last because they best fit my interest in the prophetic significance of the pandemic, but I hate to leave a yawning gap in between, so I’ve included a brief summary of chapters 2-6.

Reaping the whirlwind

The Old Testament, Brueggemann says, gives us three ways of explaining divine force.

First, the “transactional mode of covenant” says that a direct causal relationship exists between Israel’s behaviour and historical outcomes: ‘in a tightly ordered world “good people prosper” and “evil people suffer”.’ Typically, the bad outcome takes the form of pestilence, sword, famine and captivity (eg., Jer. 15:2).

Secondly, God sometimes acts forcefully in order to bring about a specific goal. For example, he sends ten “plagues” or “smitings” against Egypt in order to bring about the liberation of his people. Isaiah envisages a “day of YHWH” which will “terrorize the commercial-military establishment” in Israel (Is. 2:12-17).

These two texts taken together, from Exodus and Isaiah, bespeak the capacity and resolve of YHWH to act in massively destructive ways against any historical ordering that contradicts the intent of YHWH. YHWH, it turns out, has many tools of sovereignty beyond the force of love.

Thirdly, “God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all”. The classic example is the “whirlwind speeches” in Job (eg., Job 38:4-11), but the trajectory is also at work in the sphere of history. YHWH does not always explain why he acts with destructive force. That’s his prerogative.

The virus is God’s way of telling us that “the narrative of globalism and its conceit that we may master and use up the resources of the earth in our indifferent indulgence will fail.”

Brueggemann recognises that right now we are mostly preoccupied with the practicalities of managing the pandemic, from social containment to the application of science in search of medical solutions. But there is an aspect to human investigation that is not satisfied by administration and science. We are always looking for deeper explanations.

Our free-ranging imagination is not finally or fully contained in the immediacy of our stress, anxiety, and jeopardy. Beyond these demanding immediacies, we have a deep sense that our life is not fully contained in the cause-and-effect reasoning of the Enlightenment that seeks to explain and control. There is more than that and other than that to our life in God’s world!

So we have to find ways of naming God in this whole thing, and to Brueggemann’s mind the message is clear. The virus is God’s way of telling us that “the narrative of globalism and its conceit that we may master and use up the resources of the earth in our indifferent indulgence will fail.” It means that God will not be mocked—“not by Pharaoh or by Assyria or by Babylon or by any contemporary embodiment of hubris.”

The task of the preacher, finally, is to give expression to this deeper meaning according to our faith tradition. We may affirm that a “transactional quid pro quo” is at work: “Some practice and policies may evoke wrath.” We may say that the negative forces of creation have been mobilised to “perform the intention of the creator God”. And we must “pause before God’s raw holiness in a world that is not tamed by our best knowledge.”

It’s not that these chapters aren’t worth reading…

In chapter 2 Brueggemann looks at David’s choice of pestilence as punishment on the grounds that he would rather fall into the hand of the Lord, “for his mercy is great” (2 Sam. 24:11-14). If the virus is curbing our worst habits and slowing the world down, then perhaps we may “dare imagine with David that the final word is not pestilence; it is mercy.”

In chapter 3 Jeremiah’s vision of the restoration of social life in Jerusalem after the devastation of exile provides the template for the hope that the “new normal” will be better than the old normal.

The theme of chapter 4 is that prayer must recontextualise disaster within a relationship with God who is faithful, the outcome being the “renewal of the life of faith.”

Chapter 5 is a meditation on Psalm 77, as an act of reimagination in a culture of “consumer narcissism” in which “a religion of petty moralistic obedience goes with an economics of satiation.”

The virus is an alert about the “indifferent exploitative world of global self-sufficiency we have been making.” Against this, in chapter six, Brueggemann reads Isaiah 43:18-19 and affirms that God is “doing a new thing among us.”

Prophetic tradition knows, to the contrary, that the future does not reside in old treasured realities. It belongs, rather, to bold faithful thought that evokes bold faithful action.

The matrix of groan

The new thing, however, does not come about easily. It is birthed, Brueggemann says in the final chapter, “through the anguish and demand of labor pains”. YHWH cries out like a woman like a woman giving birth before he levels the wilderness between Babylon and Jerusalem to bring the exiles home. “The process of newness… is a process of pain that is very deep, so deep that it cannot be lived through quietly or serenely, perhaps not by either the creator or by the creation.”

He then considers four biblical texts that express “such anguished groaning.” Abel’s blood cries out from the ground (Gen. 4:10). Israel groans and cries for deliverance from enslavement (Exod. 2:23). Job protests his innocence by asking whether his land has cried out against him, whether “its furrows have wept together” (Job 31:38). The earth does not accuse him of exploitation. Finally, Jesus warns the Pharisees that if they try to silence his followers, the stones will shout out (Lk. 19:39-40).

Speechlessness, note, is not a strong biblical option. Even the ground speaks out, demanding justice.

These passages are examples, for biblical faith, of “the groan of pain and the shout of hope” that precede new creation. The future does not come mechanically or automatically. “It is rather a mystery-shrouded gift of God that all the creatures are invited to receive in deep cost.”

What is the cost? To acknowledge that the old order, marked by the injustices and injuries of unrestrained greed, has failed, and actively to renounce it.

The difficulty for the modern believer is highlighted at this point, really quite starkly, I think. We can imagine a “groan without a future,” because there is no guarantee for faith. It would be very easy to think, in this secular age, that the hope of new creation is mere romanticism—that there is “no Giver behind the gift.”

It’s not what the book is about—the chapter was originally written for a different purpose—but the potential for despair is very real, and it probably drives much of the current spate of defections. “Our talk of new creation might on occasion be a bit too facile in our buoyancy,” Brueggemann says.

But more important for now is the opposite proposition—that a new future might come without a groan. Our culture is too anxious to eliminate the groan, to reduce reality to entertainment:

the ideology of the global economy and its match in buoyant religious affirmation are, in deep ways, an act of denial, a practice of getting from there to here without any acknowledgment of the trouble or trauma or the cost of newness.

The church, therefore, needs to be educated for “relinquishment and renunciation.” We must learn to do without.

What stands in the way of newness, Brueggemann concludes, are the “twin habits of denial that refuses to groan in acknowledgment of a failed creation and despair that groans but entertains no prospect of newness after the groan.”

So we must learn in this pandemic—it is not said, but that is the implication—to groan hopefully. Two biblical models are put forward. First, Isaiah’s hope for “new heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem” (Is. 65:17-25) is (necessarily?) preceded by the pain of exile. Secondly, Jesus’ cry of abandonment from the cross, in the words of Psalm 22, is the “narrative-liturgical acknowledgment that even Messiah, the bodied hope for newness, must receive newness in the exile.”

Anything to add?

The book is quintessential, distilled Brueggemann, an honest and hopeful encouragement to exercise the prophetic imagination in a time of crisis. The bias towards Old Testament texts brings the whole social-political life of God’s people in the world into focus, and that’s a very good thing.

But if we want to engage the New Testament narrative properly, I think that we need more than an appeal to the groaning of creation. It is a consistent failing of evangelical theology to jump from Jesus’ cry of abandonment straight to new creation, missing the very distinctive political note on which Psalm 22 ends:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. (Ps. 22:27–28)

Before the renewal of creation comes the renewal of kingdom. Before the liberation of creation comes the “revealing of the sons of God” at the parousia, when the persecuted church was to be vindicated and glorified for its faithful testimony to the coming reign of Jesus over the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

We need to tease apart the narrative strands in Romans 8:19-23. The whole of creation looked forward to the vindication of the sons of God, Jesus’ many brothers, because that day would be a sign and confirmation of its own eventual liberation from its bondage to decay.1 Just as Isaiah saw the new creation potential in the restoration of Jerusalem, so Paul sees the new creation potential in the resurrection (cf. 1 These. 4:16) of the persecuted witnesses to the coming reign of Christ over the nations.

This gives us a better precedent for naming God in the large-scale events of post-biblical history. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the overthrow of pagan Rome—to the glory of the God of Israel—were part of the transactional quid pro quo and were directly foreseen. This was God acting forcefully in history to bring about his own purposes, because, as Brueggemann says, God is not mocked. In this regard, the New Testament vision is solidly of the same material as the Old Testament vision.

But the global consumerist narrative is entirely new and needs to be assimilated into the storyline. That is a crucial present task for a prophetic imagination reinvigorated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Submitted by Scott on  Wed, 05/27/2020 - 20:25

Andrew, thanks for the review/reflections on Brueggemann’s book. I was imaginging the book was a reappropriating of former material into a new format for the pandemic.

Do you sense him offering that the Coronavirus itself is a specific reaction to our poor, globalized (systemtically wrong) ecological habits? Therefore, it could be termed as “judgment” on that evil. Or is he just offering that this time of pandemic allows us to review and reflect on our poor, globalized ecological habits, which should lead to lament and renewed change?

I think he would go as far as to say that coronavirus has to be seen as an act of divine force and judgment. The first chapter is especially important, providing the biblical grid for interpretation. The third mode of explanation is more arbitrary, but the first and second identify disasters as potentially the means by which YHWH achieves his ends. Specifically, in the pandemic, God is reacting to the excesses of global consumerism. It brings pain, but he is careful to highlight the grace that is in it and the potential for renewal.

How would you understand this paragraph?

I became acutely aware of that “more and other” when my friend, Peter Block, commented on the virus. Peter is a Jewish secular guy not prone to meta-commentary. Nonetheless he said, “The virus is God’s way of ending consumerism; it is the end of the narrative of globalism.” Peter’s utterance was likely not a sober critical theological judgment. But he said it knowingly, and in his cunning way he meant exactly that. He meant, I take it, that the narrative of globalism and its conceit that we may master and use up the resources of the earth in our indifferent indulgence will fail. They will fail because such practices contradict the given reality of creation and the will of the creator. … It turns out that such God-talk does not situate God at the edge of our life or as “God of the gaps,” but attests God in, with, and under the several processes of creation. This God who will not be mocked—not by Pharaoh or by Assyria or by Babylon or by any contemporary embodiment of hubris.

Submitted by Tim Peebles on  Thu, 05/28/2020 - 10:00

Thanks for engaging Brueggemann on the pandemic, Andrew. It’s good to see at least three ways of biblically thinking of divine involvement in creation/history/politics, especially as an alternative to the individualistic/spiritualistic tendencies of western Christianity. I also resonate with the focus on a priestly-prophetic people, serving as a model and microscosm of what the whole should be like (including nature and politics). As such, the renewal of these people (i.e., NT Kingdom theology, on your account) would necessarily indicate a potential for the renewal of wider culture, politics, and creation, as you say. All good, so far.

My questions have to do with the paragraph that begins “before the renewal of creation comes the renewal of the Kingdom.” First, is a sequential—perhaps causal—account of renewal (first God’s people/kingdom, then the nations/creation) the single, consistent witness of the scriptures? I do see the political register of Psalm 22, but I don’t see a sequential renewal—at least not a strong one. And second, if the consitent witness of the biblical narrative is sequential (first the renewal/reform of kingdom/people of God, then the rest of of politics/creation), is that particular understanding of the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm one that we, to be faithful to scripture, must endorse and continue? Is it possible for renewal of micro and macro to be seen in the reverse direction (with macro first)? It is possible for them to run in parallel? In broader terms, is this particular, sequential understanding of micro/macro one part of what an ancient world view saw as natural, in ways that we might not?

A second area of exploration: in his second option for divine engagement (not the quid pro quo of covenantalism but the divine force for liberation), Brueggemann identifies a discriminating feature of divine action—that it is on behalf of liberation/emancipation, and therefore aims at the economic/political forces that hinder such liberation. In the Exodus story, this is clearly one national vis-a-vis another. But this raises my previous questions again: can we endorse this biblical witness to such discriminating divine liberation, but do so in a way that acknowledges the divides within a cultural and politics, such that divine force and energy move against the powerful and for the powerless, not just between nations, but within a particular one. Given the way the pandemic has exposed significant divisions of wealth and resources, access and opportunity, it would seem that a prophetic engagement on the pandemic must include, not simply a global judgment against western materialism and militarism, but also a discriminating judgment that this material-military complex has benefited some and hurt others, even within western cultures.

Submitted by Andrew on  Thu, 05/28/2020 - 19:41

In reply to by Tim Peebles

Thanks for this, Tim.

The sequence renewal of kingdomrenewal of creation is not that obvious in scripture mainly because both the Old Testament and the New Testament are overwhelmingly concerned with the sovereign rule of God in history. I would go as far as to say that there is no real vision of new creation in the Old Testament, only a renewal of Israel that is like new creation. In the New Testament the idea that all things really will be made new, with the result that even death is destroyed, pops up only occasionally.

I’m not sure how it would work to reverse the polarity, so to speak. The kingdom narrative presupposes both internal sin and external enemies (1 Sam. 8:19-20). When there is no more sin and the last enemy has been destroyed, there is no further need for Jesus to have the kingdom, and the creator God becomes all in all (1 Cor. 15:26-28). The new creation narrative presupposes the end of sin and the final defeat of all enemies. But it is always possible to think about the microcosm in macrocosmic terms.

In broader terms, is this particular, sequential understanding of micro/macro one part of what an ancient world view saw as natural, in ways that we might not?

I would certainly say that it is evident in Jewish apocalyptic: first God sorts out Israel, then he sorts out the nations making Israel the centre of a new international order, then he puts the cosmos right. Perhaps I should write something about that some time.

But why might we find it unnatural?

On the question of liberation, I don’t think the exodus story gets us very far. In effect, this remains part of the covenant narrative. God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham. The boundaries between Brueggemann’s three explanations are a little fuzzy.

There are many oracles against the nations in the prophets, however, that are sometimes quite loosely related to Israel’s story, so perhaps there is good ground here to claim that God is displeased with the impiety, immorality and injustices of the nations apart from the question of how these nations have treated his people. This is also apparent in Romans 1:18-32, for example, though I don’t think Paul means this critique in universal or global terms.

In biblical terms, of course, judgment of the nations would typically highlight exploitation and abuse of the weak by the powerful—and the same would be true for judgment of Israel. How relevant this is in our situation, I’m not sure. The differentials are certainly there, and the poor will suffer much more than the rich, but pandemic and climate change are mass global culture problems, not at all confined to the West. Aren’t we all culpable as humanity, or nearly all?

Thanks for your reply, Andrew. Let me try to clarify what I was getting at and perhaps advance a larger conversation. If it takes us too far afield, my apologies; I’ll explore these questions with you elsewhere.

My comments/questions (here and with your blog in general) were (and are) both particular and general—the former, having to do with particular biblical texts and their interpretation, the latter have to do with how we piece that altogether into a broader biblical narrative-historical theology (consistent with the hermeutic you advocate), and then reconstruct a contemporary narrative-historical theology. I tend to find you more persuasive on the first, (particular texts), a bit less persuasive in the second (the larger theological vision that emerges, both biblical and contemporary), and least persuasive on the third (developing a contemporary theological perspective).

I think my differing responses have to do with how you work with an awareness that our modern cultural and intellectual worldview is different than that of the biblical witness. It would seem that such awareness makes the task of developing a contemporary narrative historical theology, in relation to the biblical narrative historical theology, a complex one. And one part of that task, I assume, is noting and naming our presumptions—those things we take to be obvious—about nature, human nature, political nature, divine nature—in relation to the similar presumptions in the biblical milieu. Sometimes (as in my previous response) I use “natural” in that sense—what a particular culture takes to be given, obvious, presumptive, etc.

So, for example, it might seem natural and obvious to the biblical environment that there is a causal sequence between microcosm and macrocosm. As your response indicates, that doesn’t seem to be something that is taught or argued for—it is simply assumed. But that assumption does not seem obvious to me as a modern, cosmopolitan person. So is it possible for me—for us— to theologize, today, about microcosm-macrocosm in a way that differs from that presumed in the scriptures, while still retaining fidelity to the scriptures—to the idea of God’s people as microcosm— in those reflections? I think so, but I’m not sure your thoughts on that.

A similar issue arises with regard to divine judgment, through “natural” causes, against a whole society. I think the link between these three is presumed in ancient near east societies—everyone believed their god(s) could use nature to (collectively) punish a people (or their enemies). At the same time, all believed that such collective punishment could be just and acceptable—the most poor and margininalized within a soceity could be taken as part of the collective people represented by the king, even if the king’s policies and practices created or exacerbated their poverty. So if the king/hierarchy is punished, then all the people will properly be punished along with him (see Egypt and the Exodus).

But I find it exceedingly difficult to think in these terms—I can see that, empirically and pragmatically, this is likely to happen, but I can’t find any way to accept this as a normative or ethical presumption. And surely this is because, in large part, I’m a modern person informed by sociological developments (class analysis), political developments (democracy), and cultural developments (cosmopolitan engagement with other cultures) that undermine collective sensibilities with regard to responsibility and thus justice. At the same time, there are elements of biblical prophecy and practice that that seem to be attentive to class injustice (within Israel), suggesting that Israel’s god—whom they take to be the god of the whole creation—might have some stake in attending to poverty/class/internal injustice more widely than simply within the people of Israel.

Is it not appropriate, then, to theologize along these lines, within your narrative-historical approach? If not, we seem to be left with a theology of God caring about class and economic injustice within Israel, but not anywhwere else, a position that, if applied to other matters (global climate change, perhaps) would not accord with the contemporary theological vision we are trying to construct.

So, yes, climate change is a global problem, one that will have (already has) global consequences. But doesn’t a sensibility—at least modern, and perhaps biblical—that recognized greater responsibility for the West, and within the West, for those who are economically advantaged by the western configuration of capitalism—suggest a need for a different account of (divine) judgment, one that is not collectivist (in which marginalized countries, and poorer classes within them, are “punished” as much as the centers and elites)? While this can be considered as a theoretical question, it should be noted that the empirical impact of Covid is disproportionately harmful to poor and marginalized communities (in my home country of the US, at least), which is likely to be true of the impact of any global environmental crisis.

So, while I’m drawn to your desire to implicate God and divine judgment in the pandemic—I think that is an obvious theological move, biblically speaking—I find the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the poor and people of color to give me significant pause, a hesitation that I take to be rooted, not only in modern sensibilities, but also biblically inspired intutions. What I’m looking for, in your theology and elsewhere, is a biblical theology that develops those intutions, in a direction that is more positive engaged with—or at home within— modern cosmoplitianism, globalization, interfaith cooperation, sociological class analysis.

The alternative, I fear, is a theology of divine judgment—against society, through nature—that is a bit more at home among those, like myself, who are privileged enough to avoid some of the worst manifestations of that judgment. And that would be a contemporary narrative-historical theology quite at odds with the biblical narrative-historical theology, in which divine judgment, never seems to exclude the powerful and elite.

Longer than I originally intended. Eager for your thoughts.

Thanks, Tim. Good feedback. I feel like we’ve only just started to think through what a contemporary narrative-historical theology might look and sound like, supposing that such a thing has any mileage in it at all. Here are a few more thoughts.