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:
- Monarchy (David to exile)
- Pre-monarchy (Moses to David)
- Exile / post-exile
Here Brueggemann identifies four things relevant to this phase in the life of God’s people:
- There were legitimate and well-financed religious structures with recognised, funded leadership with the temple and its priesthood playing a major role in society
- Civic leadership – through the kings – was publicly committed to the same theological bases
- The educated and the bureaucrats were part of this system
- 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:
- Life and faith were modelled around the events of the Exodus which involved disengaging from the prevailing power structures of the day
- 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
- 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”
- It was not unified nor really connected – very much a tribal system with local authority (if that)
- 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:
- 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
- There was a great temptation to conform with, and be absorbed by, the culture of the day
- 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
- They engaged in “the intense practice of hope” – particularly in that which God had promised to do for them
- 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:
- 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
- Conventional kinds of theological speech are no longer accepted as “public speech”
- 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.