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Monday, March 11, 2013

"Truth Speaks to Power" (Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (176 pages).

This book essentially focuses on this main theme. Truth speaks. Not power. Truth must show any use of power the way. Power must not subvert truth or be used to manipulate people for its own purposes. In an age where political agendas are high and personal vendettas are prevalent, even truth can become a means to an end. Whether one tries to justify it on the greater good or something more beneficial for society, when truth is not allowed to speak or manifest its entirety, we will become impoverished in every possible way. In other words, God cannot be reduced to human agenda. Neither can anyone use the Word of God and reduce it for their own purposes. According to Brueggemann, power used in society tends to be wielded by people in influential positions, the elites, and those who have massive resources at their disposal. The danger is when these people use their power and influence to control and manipulate truth. Brueggemann makes an observation of the "cartesian kind" of knowledge and over-knowledge that can be used to impose their power and exert control over others. Interestingly, Brueggemann affirms the "common opposition" of the three masters of suspicions of seemingly "established truth." All three, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche contest the "primacy of the object," where the ends justify the means. Learning from Marx, there is a need to connect ideal with reality. Learning from Nietzsche, truth needs to be interpreted and continually understood. Learning from Freud, we learn to question the status quo. Learning from Michael Foucault, we notice how truth and power can so easily become enmeshed with each other. Brueggemann believes that the Bible speaks to counter the culture and is often subversive of the world. There are many ways to voice truth. There are also many ways to manipulate truth. What is necessary is to let truth be truth and all other ways be subject to the Truth Giver through the Bible. The rest of the book shows the way how.

Beginning with Jesus' engagement with Pontius Pilate on their various understanding of power and authority, Brueggemann highlights the story of Moses and Pharaoh  where the latter wields power of food and control over the helpless Israelite slaves. Readers get to understand how the power of Pharaoh is forced to deal with the mighty Truth of God's Hand and Purpose. The narrative for the Church is to recognize the cries of the world, fight for an alternative worldview, live out the alternative, and lead people to freedom.

The second narrative is about Solomon's reign and power. Is Solomon a bearer of truth simply because of the riches and power he holds? Maybe, the story of Solomon is one of irony rather than affirmation of his power or use of power. Quickly, Solomon rises to the glorious heights, and quickly he falls to devastating humiliation. Brueggemann even alludes to Solomon being another form of Pharaoh, through his taxation, his boastfulness, his excesses, and his womanizing lifestyle.  Positive piety in the building of the temple does not negate the requirement to keep on being faithful like his father David. The irony of Solomon's reign is that we learn NOT to compromise on steadfast faithfulness, justice, and righteousness. The way the narrative of Solomon's life is written shows us in the modern world, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. More importantly, truth stands forever.

With the continuing fall of Israelite kings and princes, the Lord raises up prophets. One of them is Elisha that the Lord raises in the midst of a terrible Ahab reign. Continuing the work of the prophet Elijah, we read about how the power of the kings are countered by the truth telling by the prophets. It is a classic truth subverting the power of the land at that time. Truth speaks out for the needy, while power hangs on without appropriate regard for the poor. Truth gives life, while power takes life. Truth is true power. Worldly control is impending doom. Brueggemann makes a sharp observation that "established power specializes in explanations. But Gospel truth does not wait for that. It rushes on to new life."

Fortunately, in Josiah, we have hope of a good king. Primary to this truth and power at work is in the obedience to the Scriptures. The great reform is focused on the Deuteronomic teachings. Indeed, the book of Deuteronomy is about "social responsibility and public policy." It reminds us of the blessings, the curses, and the proper use of power. Lest we, together with the very power we hold, get cut off.

The final chapter consolidates and highlights the role of the Church and disciples. It encourages believers that God's truth will rise up from humble grounds. We cannot let modern ideologies dictate or direct our view of truth. We need to let God's Word guide and lead us in letting the biblical worldview shape everything else. We need to be ready to tell the truth in love, to stand up for the truth, and to speak out for truth. In conclusion, we need to obey God rather than earthly powers.

My Thoughts

Brueggemann's writings have always been inspiring and thought provoking. He is well read and very perceptive of the world reality. At the same time, he is steep in the tradition of Scriptures, in particular, the Old Testament, and sense how God has moved in the hearts of the kings, the prophets, the priests, the people, and even showing us that truth subverts everything. Whether it is in the Old or the New Testament, God is sovereign. Whether it is through evil powers held by Pharaoh or ungodly kings, or whether it is through temporary success and power in Solomon, truth will stand firm to the end. I like the way Brueggemann integrates Old Testament narratives, the New Testament teachings, and his observations of the political powers in different eras, to drive home this single point: It is truth that speaks to power, and not vice versa. The essence of truth is in obedience to God more than man. It is to grow gradually from the richness and fertility of God's Word, rather than the temporal deceitfulness of the world. It is to stand up for truth, regardless of power or powerlessness, riches or poverty, fame or unknown. Truth subverts simply because the world that we know, will always want to protect and to consolidate their power and authority at all costs, even subverting truth.  Eventually, truth wins.

Rating: 5 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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