Book Review: Truth Speaks to Power

Posted: April 1, 2013 in bible, books, exegesis, justice, old testament, review

This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.

From larger-than-life dictators to too-big-to-fail banks, the 21st-century world is dominated by figures and institutions that exert an enormous influence on politics, the economy, and just about every other facet of modern society. Such systems of power, often driven by anxiety and greed, must continually consolidate control and suppress dissension in an effort to protect the status quo, inevitably resulting in the subjugation and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, outlines what he perceives as Scripture’s sustained witness againstany power structure that perpetrates injustice in its frantic pursuit of temporal security. Rejecting an Enlightenment mindset that would confine the Christian faith to “the private sphere,” Brueggemann calls the church “to practice neighborliness in a way that includes both support of policies of distributive justice and practices of face-to-face restorative generosity” (11-12).

The Problem: Fraudulent Power

Brueggemann provocatively summarizes the problem as he sees it:

Public power is everywhere wielded and administered by those with concentrations of wealth, who thereby control the supply of money, who control the legislation that governs credit and debt, and who fund (or refuse to fund) military adventurism and technological advances that are often in the service of the military. Thus power refers to a network of influence and leverage that may be channeled through the state apparatus or, as is the case in our society, through the private sector with its huge corporate combines. (2)

Supporting and legitimating such concentrations of power are what Brueggemann (following Karl Marx) calls “symbolizers” (e.g., the state, the church, the academy, the media). These institutions are crucial for preserving the status quo, and often benefit from their privileged and protected status.

The Solution: Subversive Truth

In answer to such large-scale injustices, Brueggemann advocates a return to the pages of Scripture—particularly the OT—where we encounter narratives that consistently challenge all such illegitimate and self-seeking claims to power. Over the course of four chapters, Brueggemann examines the stories of Moses, Solomon, Elisha, and Josiah, arguing that each narrative illustrates a distinct way in which the God of truth, working through human agents, confronted and subverted unjust power structures of the day.

Furthermore, after exploring each OT passage, Brueggemann highlights how various NT figures drew on and extended the same subversive critiques in their own day.

Unjust Structures

Adapted from a series of lectures delivered to a lay audience, Brueggemann’s writing is clear and forceful. Readers of all stripes will find the chapters accessible and engaging. While the first two chapters seemed forced at certain points (more on this below), the latter two were more convincing, offering readers some truly instructive comments about the Elisha and Josiah narratives. Brueggemann is a creative and insightful biblical interpreter, and where he succeeds, he succeeds masterfully.

Finally, despite the reservations mentioned below, Brueggemann rightly highlights Scripture’s repeated critiques of oppressive power. This reminder may be especially important for conservative evangelicals who have at times been reluctant to critique unjust social structures (notwithstanding those related to a few key issues), preferring instead to individualize and privatize Scriptural principles and commands.1 Readers would do well to recall (and perhaps reread) Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which stands alongside Truth Speaks to Power as a sobering warning to complacent Christians (160).

Suspicious Reading

Brueggemann intentionally eschews a taxonomic approach like that put forth by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture, insisting instead the narratives he examines are “one-off enactments from which generalizations should not be drawn” (8). Additionally, Brueggemann claims he won’t make connections to any particular political agenda(s):

I do not believe the Bible points directly to any political policy or action. . . . Thus I do not believe that one can make direct moves toward or connections with contemporary issues, even though we—liberals and conservatives—keep trying to do just that. (1-2)

However, Brueggemann seems unable (or unwilling) to leave the narratives in their historical contexts, repeatedly alluding (at least implicitly) to recent examples that, in his estimation, parallel the biblical stories he explores (e.g., “banks and insurance houses” [18], Óscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. [32], “the rapacious capitalist-consumerist economy of our society” [58], Richard Nixon [115], liberation theology [121], etc.). Nevertheless, he assures us he has “no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system” (160). Individual readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Brueggemann stays true to this stated goal.

The book’s most serious flaw is the way Brueggemann’s focus on socioeconomic power-critiques occasionally overrides the natural thrust of the biblical narratives. For example, in discussing the story of Moses, Brueggemann cites Joseph, Egypt’s “food czar,” as the one who helped Pharaoh create “a peasant underclass of very cheap labor” (17-18). Later he writes that Joseph likely “turned his life toward the pharaoh and away from YHWH” (23). There is nothing, however, in the narrative necessitating this overly cynical reading. The text instead seems to highlight God’s gracious provision through Joseph’s wise stewardship.Likewise, this overemphasis on power-critiques is also illustrated in Brueggemann’s suggestion that Bathsheba may have framed Adonijah as a pretext for murder—a theory that, while exciting, finds no support in the narrative itself (53).

Moreover, drawing on his distinctive dialectical approach to the OT, Brueggemann relies extensively on a “suspicious” reading of the text (particularly with regard to the story of Solomon), highlighting the significance of subtle ironies littered throughout the narratives in question (47). At times, however, such “doublespeak” seems a bit too subtle, leading this reader to wonder whether or not it really occurs as frequently as Brueggemann suggests (48).

Finally, Brueggemann questions the historicity of the biblical text at certain points (e.g., 36, 116). However, this doesn’t prevent him from listening intently to what the narratives teach us about the God who consistently stands with the weak and downtrodden.

Greed, Denial, Despair

Brueggemann closes the book with a chapter reflecting on the implications of his reading of the OT, highlighting modern expressions of unchecked power in our world, and calling the church to live out the truth amid a society that “depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair” (162).

How the Scriptural narratives outlined in this book are applied to contemporary issues will doubtless differ from person to person and church to church. Nevertheless, Brueggemann helpfully challenges all Christians to pay close attention to God’s Word, where we come face to face with a God who consistently sides with the weak, the orphan, and the widow. Indeed, it is in Scripture that we encounter the ultimate example of righteous power wedded to perfect truth: Jesus Christ, the humble king.

1 For example, see Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford, 2000).

2 Cf. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, The New American Commentary, Vol. 1B (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 850-852; John Sailhammer,Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 266. Sailhammer writes, “First with his brothers and then with the Egyptians, Joseph’s wisdom is seen as the source of life for everyone in the land.”


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