Musings on Brueggemann’s 19 theses

I sent them to a friend, and replied by saying, amongst other things, that he found them “deliberately and negatively provocative”. So what follows is my reply to him.

First, I’m completely fascinated that you found them “deliberately and negatively provocative”. It just sounded like reality to me! And hopeful reality at that. There IS a counter-narrative! What could be more hopeful?

Perhaps it’s some of the experiences I’ve had in the last year or two, but it certainly reflected much of my (very hopeful, deeply meaningful!) reality. Like you, I’m particularly interested in the script/counterscript idea. Much of my theological upbringing lacked such an idea. In fact, mostly it went along with the dominant script, diverging only at the point of after death. That is, we are saved now so we can go to heaven when we die; in the meantime we wait around a bit, maybe doing some good deeds here and there but because we can’t be perfect we might as well not strive to be, and if we do we’re in danger of thinking we’re saved by works! So you might as well just wait around to die, and spend your time trying to get as many individual souls ‘saved’ as possible. There is no challenge to the dominant script there; no politicisation or even socialisation.

So what I like about the theses is firstly the focus on narrative, or scripting, itself. What we are invited into is not abstract, disembodied concepts but a living story, here and now. We are, in fact, invited to live Jesus’ story – as Daniel Berrigan puts it, “To make your life fit into Jesus’ life.”

Secondly, we’re invited to a particular counter-narrative – one that has been building since the creation of the world, and features such luminaries as Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, and was ultimately revealed and embodied in Jesus. Describing the dominant script as “technological , therapeutic consumer militarism” gives some shape to our counter-narrative, but also helps us to see what we are socialised into. So, for example, we’re socialised into might makes right – redemptive violence (including the use of coercive power over). We’re socialised into technology = good. We’re socialised into consuming = good.

And so my experience of trying to live the counter-script is precisely as Brueggemann describes – that I frequently find myself profoundly ambiguous about it. I see Jesus clearly saying “this way to true, abundant life” (“blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers”, etc) and yet I am so socialised into the dominant script it makes it incredibly difficult to believe. It’s only by living the alternative script that I recognise its truth, and the lie of the dominant script. It’s only by consuming (profoundly) less, and living the counter-script of abundance that I understand its truth. It’s only by trusting in the God of peace in the face of militarism that I understand that peace does not come through war. It’s only by singing in a police holding cell that I understand that power has nothing to do with governments, police, or the ‘legal system’.

Four of my Christian friends are going to prison soon for their nonviolent citizen’s inspection of the Pine Gap military facility. The dominant script says they should be afraid, that this will deter them from acting in such a way again. Yet they live by a different script. They are not afraid: they are rejoicing to be worthy of suffering for acting in the name of Christ. And by doing so they demonstrate that it’s possible not to go along with the dominant script. I may well follow them to prison later this year. And my prayer is that I will be able, by the grace of God, to do the same.

But many of my colleagues, no less faithful servants of God, will disagree with such a characterisation of the counterscript (if they agree that there even IS a counterscript). Of which, once again, Brueggemann is aware. The script, he says, is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. To me this is an acknowledgment that it is not always clear; that we do see “through a glass darkly” and can only be faithful to what we know; and that this is based in the mystery that is God. Then, like Vincent Donovan, we can say, “Never accept and be content with unanalyzed assumptions, assumptions about the work, about the people, about the church or Christianity… The day we are completely satisfied with what we have been doing; the day we have found the perfect, unchangeable system of work, the perfect answer, never in need of being corrected again, on that day we will know that we are wrong, that we have made the greatest mistake of all.”

So the 19 theses (or my posting of them) probably tells you a lot more about me and where I’m at than it tells you about Walter Brueggemann. That’s ok. I don’t agree with everything he says either. But that’s the magic of the counterscript. So long as we “quarrel among ourselves” about the main focus of the script (without detracting from it), hopefully we’re just provoking each other on to love and good deeds.

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