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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

"Rebuilding the Foundations" (John Brueggemann and Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: Rebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture
AUTHOR: John Brueggemann and Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (202 pages).

What do we do when the society we live in seems to be crumbling? It does not take much effort to find out about the growing rich-poor divide; the racial discrimination; the ethnic tensions; the financial scandals; the cry for justice in the midst of injustice; and so on. Many governments are corrupt or incompetent. People insist on their free choice without being equipped with how to choose. How did we ever get to this point? In the midst of choices and multiple options, what are the primary matters we should be focused on? What does it take to address the moral decays happening all around us? As the social structures of the world appear to go from bad to worse, people are in need of a return to the foundations that once make societies great. Instead of looking at the external solutions, the authors probe their own assumptions and human complacencies. Specifically, they use Jonathan Haidt's moral foundation theory that uncovers six moral foundations:
  • Care vs Harm;
  • Fairness vs Cheating;
  • Liberty vs Oppression;
  • Loyalty vs Betrayal;
  • Authority vs Subversion;
  • Sanctity vs Degradation.

A chapter is dedicated to each of the six foundations. John supplies mainly the sociological and cultural observation perspective while Walter brings in the biblical point of view. Beginning with care, we note our physiological needs being at the most essential, just like the famous Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Food, clothing, and shelter are all examples of such basic needs. The authors lament the problem of the rich world, in particular the uneven distribution of riches, with the top 1% of America owning 42% of the nation's wealth. In fact, both extreme affluence and extreme poverty are linked. One can be super rich without having to work hard. Walter redirects readers' attention back to the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Exodus, pointing out the way God tells Israel to link their social policies with loving their neighbour. On Fairness, the perennial question is about justice. The problem is not about fairness but the many different layers and ways about being fair. It is hard for one to grow up being schooled about equality and fairness only to encounter the very opposite when they venture into the world outside. This leads to cynicism, distrust, and breakdowns in relationships at every level. How fair is it for a company to lay off thousands of employees in order to please the shareholder expectations? Walter provides several guidelines on how to make sense of market ideology before citing three biblical texts to provide an alternative interpretation to the whole matter. Using the five poetic accents to communicate our dissent and dismay over faulty economic systems, we soon realize that an offence against people is essentially an offence against God. On Liberty, John mentions the freedom of speech, of religion, and the volatile relationship between private and public trust. An interesting part is the freedom of information, social media, the Internet, and the way these things are controlled. Many of these efforts to control others stem from a sense of personal indulgence and absolute power. We learn from the life of Solomon that self-indulgence arising out of control will collapse eventually.  On Loyalty, we are challenged to think about whether it is true that everything has a price. As long as institutional power and cultural superiority are allowed free reign, power and control will sway people. Based on the stories of Elijah and Elisha, we learn how we can still live abundantly without the need to curry favour from the powerful. Trusting God can lead to abundant living without being bogged down by economic bounty. On Authority, we learn about the many different forms from relational to legitimate positions. The troubling fact now is the decreasing level of confidence in the nation's institutions. This leads to all kinds of problems that lead to skepticism, distrust, sarcasm, and breaking down of perceptions of authority. Walter begins with a declaration of utter loss. We are all lost and we live in a broken world. Like the book of Job, we see how God leads Job from total loss to complete abundance; showing us that there is hope in God. On Sanctity, we look at the three kinds of 'normative motivations': material, medicinal, and symbolic. Whenever people want to run away from some broken part of society, where do they run to? What is the better alternative? Where is the sanctuary from such flawed cultural symbols?

So What?
One of the biggest questions Christians ask about their faith is this: How can I apply the teachings in the ancient Bible in our modern contexts? Each of the foundations are reflected upon and rebuilt with insight and intent. At the heart of this book is the conviction that if we can rebuild these six core fundamentals of society, we would have addressed the source and consequences of moral decay. Technological advances can only speed us up to a certain point. Ethical practices and wisdom will have to complete the rest of the human journey. John gives a very insightful survey of the modern quagmires and sociological challenges impacting many societies. Walter provides a refreshing biblical treatment, often bringing the relevance of the Old Testament to our New world. We are reminded of the gospel being countercultural in so many ways. We are called to be subversive to the world's values. The human race has the capacity to do better, but first there needs to be a good guide. Sociology is always about relating with people. The Bible is a powerful reminder of going beyond mere relationships to cultivating an environment of loving one's neighbours.

The single biggest takeaway for me in this book is that the Bible is deeply sociological. This comes about because the heart of God is always about how to relate to people and how people can be redeemed in a world that is spinning on broken wheels. There is no difference between sociology and biblical theology, just like we are not to split the sacred from the secular in all of life. This is the best way to integrate our faith into our daily living. The Bible is not only relevant, it is relational. It is not just an ancient text. It is a very practical guide for our daily living. The Old Testament represents the heart of God for transforming societies and cultures toward love and care. With wisdom and knowledge, readers have in one book a biblical treatment as well as a cultural analysis of the six major symbols of what's wrong with the world today. The hope is this. By beginning with the analytical breakdown of what's wrong in society, one can then let the Bible to be the redeeming synthesis of an alternative world based on earnest care; gracious equity; true liberty; honest loyalty; divine authority; and a life of sanctity anchored on God.

Walter Brueggemann is a renowned American Old Testament Professor who has written many books. His son, John Brueggemann is Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College.

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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