Dec 072015

In his book, A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel’s Communal Life, Walter Brueggemann explores three different stages in the life of Israel and asks questions about how they can inform different models of the church – arguing that it is important that the church continually needs to re-examine the models it bases itself on.

(For quotes and references see chapter 13 of his book)

The three different phases he refers to are:brueggemann social reading

  1. Monarchy (David to exile)
  2. Pre-monarchy (Moses to David)
  3. Exile / post-exile


Here Brueggemann identifies four things relevant to this phase in the life of God’s people:

  1. There were legitimate and well-financed religious structures with recognised, funded leadership with the temple and its priesthood playing a major role in society
  2. Civic leadership – through the kings – was publicly committed to the same theological bases
  3. The educated and the bureaucrats were part of this system
  4. It was in this context that the prophets were most vocal and prominent as they spoke out against deviation from God’s law. They were recognised as valid participants in conversations about life and state

He argues that this combination of religion, government, education and public scrutiny were tightly integrated and suggests that this is the ‘governing model of modern, established Christianity in the West’. And historically he is right. The question must be whether, in a society that is very different from this, does the church still see itself in this way? If so, is it seeking to engage in ways that are no longer appropriate as how it is perceived by society has fundamentally changed?


Brueggemann recognise that even though monarchy may be the dominant model we think of there was something before this – something that governed and informed the life of Israel after they entered the Land and before they had a king. He identifies five characteristics of this model:

  1. Life and faith were modelled around the events of the Exodus which involved disengaging from the prevailing power structures of the day
  2. The meeting with God at Sinai, and the ongoing reinterpreting of the law, to reflect different contexts, caused them to continue to rethink faith and practice in light of its liberation
  3. It had none of the structures described in the monarchic model – no temple, no king, no central teachers, no prophets. It had to “make up everything as it went along”
  4. It was not unified nor really connected – very much a tribal system with local authority (if that)
  5. it was living on the margins in terms of social and economic sustainability – and had to rely on God as opposed to its own resources

He suggests that this model is typical of what we might see in a new church as it is planted and grows – populated by people who are ready to risk everything and to centre themselves in what God has done for them.

Exile / Post-Exile

The third model Brueggemann recognises is that of exile and the return from exile. And he suggests another five things that characterise this model:

  1. The people of faith lived in a society where they had “little influence over public policy”. None of the great emperors of the day really worried about them or what they were doing as they had become politically insignificant
  2. There was a great temptation to conform with, and be absorbed by, the culture of the day
  3. In the face of these two realities the community had to work hard even to survive and it did this by reminding itself of its past, rooting itself in what it believed and ensuring they were connected together
  4. They engaged in “the intense practice of hope” – particularly in that which God had promised to do for them
  5. They became “an intensely textual community” with the text they had been given being a controlling and guiding influence on who they were

He concludes that:

circumstance required a shift from a temple-royal-prophetic community to a textual community that struggled with the text in all its truth and in all its dangerous subversiveness, continually witnessing to another mode of reality

Walter Brueggemann, A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel’s Communal Life (ed. Patrick D. Miller; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 272.

One of the questions Brueggemman raises is whether the church sees itself as existing in “monarchal times” (with associated models) whereas it is really existing in “exile / post-exile” and should be engaging as such. And it is difficult to deny that the first three points of his “exile / post-exile” model strike a chord with the church in the West today, and raises the question as to whether we are / are prepared to be “people of hope” and “people of the text”.


At the end of his chapter, Brueggemann suggests three things:

  1. With the collapse of “modernity” – and with our dominant models of church being based on modernity – some of our presuppositions around “being church” are no longer valid
  2. Conventional kinds of theological speech are no longer accepted as “public speech”
  3. Many of our young people have “only the vaguest idea of what we intend in our faith”

He argues that we may need to look at living in pre-monarchic or post-exilic models and that this may not be something we should, or God will, cringe at.

The context for us all will be different but Brueggemann’s analysis is worthy of consideration and reflection as we seek to re-imagine how we should live as communities of God’s people and as carriers of his blessing to the world.

Nov 232015

Yesterday one of our church members drew my attention to some articles in the press about what Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, was reported to have said in an interview on Songs of Praise on Sunday evening. And from the perspective of someone with a deep faith in God the reported comments were concerning:

The BBC has an article  with the headline:

Welby - Paris

Paris attacks caused archbishop to ‘doubt’ presence of God

In the article itself this is clarified that the Archbishop was asking God where He was in what had happened.

The article also has him saying that:

the killings had put a “chink in his armour”

But the video extract in the report itself shows this wasn’t something the Archbishop said but a question he was asked and to which he responded in a deeply personal and reflective way. Arguably the Archbishop’s mistake is answering “yes” to the question before the question was fully asked!

This is picked up in other reports such as in the Independent and the Daily Mail.

Listening to the actual interview (10 minutes in) reveals a much deeper insight into what the Archbishop was saying as he clearly and openly struggles with coming to terms with the tragedy in Paris.

He says:

Some people watching this program will be asking the question “Where is God, where is He in all this?” He’s alongside with that deep involvement in the suffering and pain of the world that took Him to the cross.welby - cross

Here he is recognising the reality of what many people will be asking and answering in a caring and deeply pastoral way as he acknowledges that God places himself in the midst of anguish and loss in so many different ways.

He was asked:

Do you ever doubt?

and says:

Oh, gosh, yes

The follow-up question was:

Does something like this happening ever put a chink in your armour?

He answers “yes” before the question is finished – about at “put a chink” and then goes on to reflect more fully:

Saturday morning  I was out and, as I was walking, I was praying and saying “God, why, where, why is this happening, where are you in all this?” And then engaging and talking to God. Yes, I doubt.”

The next question was:

What answers did He give you?

to which he responded:

“He said in the middle of it” and also an answer from the Psalms, Psalm 56, “He stores up our tears in a bottle”. None of our sufferings are lost.

Hi goes on to speak about the power of religion and how it can be used as a tool by the wicked to twist people into doing what they want them to do.

Here we have someone really feeling for those who had suffered so much and seeking to explain how much God cares for and suffers with them. Someone who is prepared to recognise the questions it raises and to seek to respond to them honestly. Someone who was prepared to share something of his own internal journey to get to a place where he could speak positively about God’s presence in the midst of pain and suffering.

He isn’t doubting the overall presence of God – rather, he speaks about engaging with God and conversing with Him as he seeks to understand where God was, specifically, in the Paris tragedy.

It is interesting that he refers to the Psalms when speaking about his doubts as they are full of people who cry out to God and ask Him what He is doing and why He isn’t acting. So he is drawing on a rich tradition of lament as people engage openly with God while (mainly) retaining complete confidence that God is there.

I think the Archbishop’s words are important but I think they have been mis-represented by some of the reports. Slightly ironic that he refers to Psalm 56 which also has:

All day long they twist my words; all their schemes are for my ruin. (Psalm 56:5)

Yes, it was possible to read things into what he was saying but its worth listening to the interview itself and hearing exactly what he did say.

And let’s pray for our leaders – both religious and government – as they seek to respond to these awful events in appropriate and compassionate ways.


Apr 052015

I am writing this blog on Easter Sunday having just celebrated the amazing truth that Jesus, who was crucified, died and was buried, has risen and is alive today. As Paul puts it:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3–4)

A wonderful statement that is at the heart of the Christian faith, summarising the importance of what Jesus Christ has done.

But I am aware that for many people it carries no meaning or relevance at all and I was reminded of this as I happened to see an Amazon advert on Facebook!

Amazon shopping

I use Amazon quite a lot and have purchased a number of things from their site but I was struck this morning by the question they were asking – with the implied promise that they could satisfy our needs.

What are you looking for?

One of the reasons it caught my attention was that I had just been reading the story in John’s Gospel (one of the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus found in the Bible) of the time when Jesus, after returning to life, met up with one of his friends – a lady called Mary. And he asks her a question:

Who is it you are looking for? (John 20:15)

Mary was looking for the bruised and battered and scarred body of the person who had rescued her, had restored her, had befriended her but who – just a few short hours earlier – had died a horrific and cruel death. She had no hope or expectation that he would be alive, she was looking for one last opportunity to say “good bye”. But instead she met a risen, living, breathing person who was demonstrating that he had beaten death and returned from the grave. One moment she was lost, she was broken, she was sad but her meeting with Jesus transformed her life forever. If he was alive then nothing could ever be the same again.

And after hearing him speak her name and recognising who he was she went and told more of his friends that her Lord, their Lord, was alive.

As I thought about the two questions – “What are you looking for?” & “Who is it you are looking for?” – I wondered how much we look in the wrong place for what we need. Amazon is somewhere we can buy things we want but if we are looking to them to satisfy the deep needs in our lives then we will be disappointed. And so much of our society is built around the premise that acquiring and having more things is the way to happiness and fulfilment.

But the message of the Christian faith, the message of Easter, is that the answers to the deep questions, the opportunity for peace, for hope, for joy are not found in things but found in a person – the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus had some things to say about this before he died as he laid before people choices as to what they were to pursue:

matt 6v25

Lk 12v15

I expect he would have something very similar, and maybe “more so”, to say about the consumer society we live in today.


And he went on to speak about what was possible – the opportunity for eternal life including the hope of resurrection

john 6v40

And his own resurrection, his own restoration to life, demonstrates the truth and the power and the certainty of his words.

This Easter Sunday is another great opportunity for each of us to think about where we are seeking to find fulfilment and satisfaction – in things or in a person, in what we can get or in what Jesus offers to give us.

Who are you looking for this Easter?