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Journey to the Common Good
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98 of 100 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
[ This review was featured in the 5 March 2010 issue
of THE ENGLEWOOD REVIEW OF BOOKS ]

One of the things that we have worked really hard to do as Englewood Christian Church over the past two decades is to gather our neighbors for conversation on imagining what the common good for our neighborhood might look like. So when the city of Indianapolis declared our neighborhood and the surrounding ones as a "redevelopment zone" several years ago, we played a key role in gathering neighbors to craft - over the course of a year - a specific plan for how we wanted to see our neighborhood improved in a way that would minimize gentrification and not drive out the neighbors who presently live here. We work with our neighbors in this way because we believe that God is at work, redeeming creation, and that this work of redemption unfolds primarily through the faithfulness of church communities who imagine and discern God's redemptive work in their specific places. With these convictions and the experiences of our church community at the forefront of my mind, I was very eager to read Walter Brueggemann's ideas in his newest book Journey to the Common Good.

I have read a number of Brueggemann's previous works and have resonated with the basic points of his theological vision as expressed in these books. In particular, I have a deep appreciation for his emphasis on the people of God (as a community) in God's redemptive work, on the conversational relationships between God and the people of God (see his recent book An Unsettling God), on the importance of imagination in discerning God's leading (see The Prophetic Imagination), and finally, on the significance that he places on land and place in the mission of God (see The Land). All of these convictions are ones that are essential to our life together at Englewood Christian Church.

At the beginning of Journey to the Common Good, Brueggemann observes: "We face a crisis about the common good [today] because there are powerful forces at work among us to resist the common good, to violate community solidarity, and to deny a common destiny. Mature people, at their best, are people who are committed to the common good that reaches beyond private interest, transcends sectarian commitments, and offers human solidarity" (1). From these initial convictions onward, I knew that this was going to be an important book. Brueggemann structures the book around three Old Testament stories that he believes are essential to discerning our way forward as churches today toward the common good of God's redemption. These stories are that of the Exodus, of Jeremiah (and of Solomon and the Jerusalem establishment that Jeremiah would prophetically decry) and finally of Isaiah.

The first two chapters of the book - based on the first two of the Old Testament stories listed above - were compelling and delightful to read; Brueggemann moves seamlessly back and forth from Old Testament narrative to present day ethics. In the first chapter, Brueggemann recounts the Exodus story - including, along the way, a fresh revisioning of the significance of the ten commandments as the basis of an alternative social ethic that is not rooted in scarcity, fear or oppression. He summarizes his retelling of this biblical story with three strikingly relevant points for today:

1. Persons living in a system of anxiety and fear - and consequently greed - (as the Israelites did under Pharoah) have no time for the common good. Defining anxiety focuses total attention on the self at the expense of the common good.
2. An immense act of generosity is required in order to break the death grip of the system of fear, anxiety and greed. (God delivers the Israelites and sustains them abundantly in the wilderness).
3. Those who are immersed in such immense gifts of generosity are able to get their minds off themselves and can be about the work of the neighborhood. (28-29, parenthetical statements added to clarify the connection to the OT story).

Brueggemann further elaborates on the relevance of these points for today, observing that in Western culture the power of scarcity is experienced primarily through "entitled consumerism...in which we imagine that something more will make us more comfortable, safer and happier" (29-30). The Church, Brueggemann argues, is at its best the people who are freed to work for the common good: "When the church only echoes the world's kingdom of scarcity, then it has failed in its vocation. But the faithful church keeps at the task of living out a journey that points to the common good." (32).

In the book's second chapter Brueggemann recounts how Solomon perverted God's mission for Israel and established in Jerusalem a kingdom built up on the essential elements of wealth, might and worldly wisdom. As Israel's story progresses, the task falls to Jeremiah to make sense of the destruction of this Jerusalem establishment in 587 BCE (a sort of "9/11 crisis" for the people of Israel). In Jeremiah's poem (Jeremiah 9:23-26), Brueggemann observes the prophet specifically countering the wealth, might and wisdom of Jerusalem with the action of God that is rooted in:

* hesed ("steadfast covenantal solidarity")
* mispat ("justice that gives access & viability to the weak") and
* sedaqah ("righteousness as intervention for social well-being")

These three virtues of God's character form a called cadence, "a minority voice of subversion and alternative" Brueggemann observes, to which we are to march as God's people.

The book's third and final chapter is more technical in its biblical scholarship and additionally the lessons that Brueggemann draws here are more general. As such this chapter is a more challenging read than the previous two. Brueggemann here tells the story of Isaiah as a call for the people of God toward:

* Justice
* Membership (who is covenantly committed?)
* Worship
* Economics
* Vision of the reconciling mission of God
(through which the previous 4 practices are understood)

The book concludes with an afterword that reflects on the themes of the book in the context of the immediate present (the Obama presidency, post-economic collapse). Brueggemann offers some keen insights here, including: "Richard Dqwkins's atheism notwithstanding, the truly toxic atheism is the assumption that neighborliness is an elective in a world of acquisitiveness." (120) He concludes on a reflective note:

These three chapters together bear witness to the urgent contemporaneity of the biblical tradition. I believe that this exposition, insofar as it is faithful, attests that a biblical perception of reality is urgent for the imagination of the public community, especially if that public imagination has been enthralled for a very long time in the claims of Enlightenment rationality. While there are huge gifts given in that rationality, what we cannot derive from the account of Enlightenment rationality is demanding, generous neighborliness grounded in God's own passion for the neighborhood. (121)

Brueggemann's work here is itself a work of prophecy, helping us to imagine the way forward toward "the common good" that is the ultimate redemption of God. Journey to the Common Good is essential for churches who dare to resist the ubiquitous temptations of wealth, might and worldly wisdom, and who seek God's transformation of their specific neighborhoods. Brueggemann offers a scriptural call for all churches to move in this direction, and his words come as sweet encouragement to churches who already caught a glimpse of this redemptive vision and are starting to take baby steps in this direction. Although sometimes a bit challenging in its form as well as its content, Journey to the Common Good is one book that all churches cannot afford NOT to read!
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2010
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Brueggemann has done it again. This little volume speaks potently about the call to neighborliness as an antidote to consumerism, productionism, and anxiety in our world today. Brueggemann weaves together a number of biblical texts in a faithful way that will challenge the reader to think about how the claims of the Gospel impact the social realities which many of us take for granted. Who else could come up with such pithy aphorisms like: "scarcity robs the neighborhood", "you in covenant can brag on this: that you have been given the secret of God's primal impulse; justice that gives access and visibility to the weak and righteousness as intervention for social well-being", and "the rendezvous of God's holiness and human pain"? This book is not practical for the preacher but it will fill the preacher's soul and stretch and challenge the mind. Brueggemann is a true gift and a well of insight.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2011
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Disclaimer: What follows is one of my blog entries and is not necessarily a book review per se. However, the entire blog entry was a direct result of Brueggemann's book.

A little less than a year ago, several months removed from the earthquake that devastated Haiti, a team from National Community Church that included both myself and my soon-to-be wife sat in a Miami airport waiting for their connecting flight to Haiti. Last night I was vividly brought back to this moment as I was reading through Walter Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good. While waiting for that connecting flight I happened to be reading through the 58th chapter of Isaiah. I remember reading verses 11 and 12 with amazement. "The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame...your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." My thought as I read these words were, "This is exactly what we are going to do." In retrospect, I believe this was a grandiose dream. How much can a dozen people lacking carpentry skills accomplish in a week's time? In fact we did not "raise up the age-old foundations." We were not called "Repairer of Broken Walls" nor "Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." We did help protect a school from erosion and helped some villages have access to clean drinking water. However, what I walked away with or had reinforced from the trip was that people living in incredibly poor and dire circumstances tend to have more love and joy than what I experience in my homeland: the United States.

I don't believe it was coincidence that Brueggemann's book brought me back to this chapter in Isaiah. Frankly, I really struggle reading the prophets or any poetry really. Journey to the Common Good has brought the prophet Isaiah to life for me. While my reading of Isaiah 58 sitting in that Miami airport was appropriate for the circumstances I believe another reading of the chapter as a whole provides insights and concepts that are paramount to my reading in the Miami airport.

I want to give an analysis of the 58th chapter of Isaiah, which of course mostly relies on ideas and commentary found in Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good. I wanted to give a quick overview of the book before proceeding. The main theme of Journey to the Common Good is neighborliness. Brueggemann uses the Pharaoh story from Exodus and the prophet Jeremiah to juxtapose two opposing triadic ideologies/narratives for society. The first triad is wisdom, wealth, and might. The second: steadfast love, justice, and righteousness. Brueggeman writes that "One is a triad of death because it violates neighborliness. The other is a triad of life because it coheres with YHWH's best intention for all of creation" (p. 65). Brueggemann argues that the triad of wisdom, wealth and might produces a narrative of scarcity while the triad of steadfast love, justice and righteousness produces a narrative of abundance. The Pharaohic regime found in Exodus is one based on scarcity. And our current regime in the U.S. is also based on scarcity. The time is now to move toward a narrative of abundance.

The entire 58th chapter of Isaiah is devoted to the act of fasting and what true fasting really is and/or should be. The chapter opens with God declaring to "shout" the rebellion of his people; let them know their short comings.

"Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them." (vs. 1-2)

The word "seem" in verses one and two indicate a pretense on the part of Israel. In other words their fasting is an outward display. God then moves on to quote his people's complaint.

"`Why have we fasted,' they say, `and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?'" (vs. 3)

Verse three continues with God's response demonstrating how Israel's fasting uses a wealth and might narrative.

"`Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?'" (vs 3-6)

God then reframes the fast into the narrative of steadfast love, justice and righteousness.

"`Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer shelter--when you see the naked to clothe him and not turn away from your own flesh and blood?'" (vs. 6-7)

What are the results if one fasts with this new narrative that God has proclaimed?

" `Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.'" (vs. 8-9)

In other words, if we live in the narrative of steadfast love, justice and righteousness we will draw near to God and God will draw near to us.

God then uses an "if then" statement demonstrating that the use of might is not called for but the use of justice is.

"`If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing fingers and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.'"

We are now back at the verses that I pondered in amazement while waiting for the connecting flight to Port Au Prince, Haiti. Looking back it is apparent that I was approaching my trip to Haiti from the wrong narrative. Living in the U.S., it is easy to live in the narrative of wisdom, wealth, and might which is where I was a year ago. If I am completely honest I am still living within that much-maligned narrative, but reading the first ten versus of Isaiah 58 rather than just verses 11 and 12 has showed me the error of my ways and I am prayerfully pursuing a transformation to a narrative of steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2012
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I got a lot from this book. I've been studying the Bible with Jews and with Christians for a number of years. To read a book written by one who is both a Hebrew Bible scholar AND a Christian Bible scholar helps me to see the common ground as well as the differences. When we can see the view points of both faiths, we have a chance of better understanding and respecting the hurdles between us and together find ways over them.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2011
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Walter Brueggman writes in a style that is so easy to read. This is an excellent book to use for a small or study group. Or buy copies and read and pass on. At a time when the middle class seems to be disappearing his message is timely. Making some changes in our personal life paths could change others lives for the better.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2014
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Once again I finished another Walter Brueggemann book with pure gratitude for him, his faith, his scholarship and his prophetic wisdom. He plumbs the depths of the scriptures, the Old Testament he reveres and knows like a dear old friend, and finds us there---our contemporary culture, our political systems, our counterfeit substitutes for happiness. Then he builds up new hope within us that our steadfast God will bring us through our crises and into the truth of who we are, TOGETHER, living in neighborliness and justice. My advice, read this book, then read it again, then have a book study group to discuss it, and then live it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2011
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I found this book by Walter Brueggemann to be a fascinating read. He so skillfully meshed the events of today with the books of the Old Testament and vice versa . As I was reading, I couldn't help think of the old saying "What goes around, comes around and does "history really repeat itself?" At any rate, if nothing else this book really makes you think what may be in store for humankind if we continue on the path were currently on..............
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2014
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I've returned to Brueggemann as one must from time to time. And with him comes the old testament and its characters. And IN him, Brueggemann is a kind of stern teacher, not strict or mean, but coalesced and crystal clear. There is no running away from his scalpel. And there is destination other than God's freedom. This is a must, must, must read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2013
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Brueggemann makes some good points and invites his readers to look at familiar Bible passages from different angles and different meanings. It makes no sense for one to have to check the definitions of so many words or to be forced to read a passage many times to figure out what it means. Our Bible study group became frustrated.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2012
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I have to admit, I'm not entirely unbiased about this book. I had Prof. Brueggemann at Eden Theological Seminary back in 1975. This is really a great work and example of his theology. "Journey to the Common Good" is well worth your time if you are interested in theology, activism, or just plain wanting to improve yourself as a Christian.
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