The Common Good
May 2013

Relearning to Read

by Jung Pyo Hong | May 2013

Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture. Westminster John Knox

DREAMS CAN serve a powerful purpose. Jacob dreamed a ladder and was renamed Israel. Joseph dreamed the sun and moon and stars and was sold into slavery. The magi dreamed a warning and returned home by way of another road.

Years ago I had a dream. I sat, a child, on a dirt floor. Around me paced a horse, saddled, ready. In front stood an immense door, cathedral-tall and brooding. And though open, the space within was dark. I was holding a light. And in the dream, I knew we were to bring light into that darkness. And the darkness—the darkness was the church.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, bears light to the exegetical (seminary lingo for interpretive) work and examination of the interplay between truth and power found in both familiar and less familiar narratives of Old Testament scripture. Rigorous in content, the read is nevertheless accessible to scholar and novice alike.

Brueggemann's concern with the interplay of truth and power rests on the observation that far too often truth, even biblical truth, is found colluding with and legitimizing the self-serving and self-preserving agenda of totalistic and monopolizing authorities. To use biblical imagery, truth sides with the Pharaohs and the Solomons of the world and not with those on its margins and periphery.

The first two chapters draw on Brueggemann's impressive scholarship of Old Testament text and narrative to paint a disconcerting picture where not only are the bad guys truly bad, the good guys aren't any better. Take Joseph, the Technicolor-dreamer-slave become all-powerful-vizier (think prime minister) of Egypt. It is Joseph's land acquisition scheme, strategically implemented amid drought and famine, that results in Pharaoh controlling most of Egypt's wealth. It is Joseph who creates a permanent peasant underclass—the very class that will cry out for liberation from the injustice of having to bake bricks with no straw. And Solomon—well, you know something's gone terribly amiss when your empire accumulates "six hundred sixty-six talents of gold" (1 Kings 10:14) each year. If you don't see the editorial subtext, write it out numerically. Ouch!

God, however, writes Brueggemann, is in the habit of listening to the cries of those on the margins and periphery of controlling and dominating power. Especially when the cries arise from the biblical chorus of widows, orphans, and strangers—those who represent the truly poor and disenfranchised, the voiceless. For them, God's holy intention demands the calling forth of human agency (a Moses, an Elisha, a Josiah) to serve notification that "thus says the Lord." And just what does the Lord say? That power can and should serve God's greater truth, or else.

Brueggemann devotes the second half of the book to the biblical conviction that God's truth can and does challenge, critique, and even transform coercive and self-serving power—from the feisty and even bewildering figure of Elisha (whose name means "my God saves"), who routinely dismisses human authority and power, to the religious and social reforms of Josiah, shaped by the rediscovery of Deuteronomic law (love of God and neighbor, with particular attention to the least of these). God's truth, says Brueggemann, has a way of calling to account power that adheres to that other golden rule: The ones with the gold make the rules.

Brueggemann's conclusion comes as a challenge. Yes, power co-opts and manipulates truth for its own purpose. But truth can also speak to power, transforming its imaginings back to the public and common good, back to love of neighbor, even to Jubilee and redistributive and restorative justice. Our challenge is to become better acquainted with the stories of faith, to become better "readers" of biblical text and subtext. Otherwise, the threat is that in place of God's truth speaking to and transforming power, it will be power dictating its own version of truth for the church to disseminate and validate.

Poll after poll, we're told that fewer and fewer people know their Bibles. Maybe the version we read and hear has been co-opted, leaving very little truth with which to guide, much less convict us, toward meaningful change. At the height of the housing bubble crash following the onset of the 2008 recession, Dave, a Sunday school teacher, asked the junior high group at my church what they thought would be a biblical response to the growing number of homeless men and women sleeping on the stoop of the church entrance. They responded that empty houses should be opened up for them to sleep in. These houses were, after all, just sitting there unused and foreclosed. A bit naïve, to be sure. But a candle in the darkness nevertheless.

Jung Pyo "J.P." Hong is an ordained elder with the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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