Walter Brueggemann is one of the most prolific and influential Bible scholars of the modern era. He has earned two doctorates, has been awarded half a dozen more honorary ones, and is the author of many commentaries and books including, Journey to the Common Good, Sabbath as Resistance, and The Prophetic Imagination, a modern Christian classic. Today, Brueggemann is retired from teaching and rarely accepts interviews, but I’m grateful he made an exception to share wisdom with RNS’ readers.
Here, we discusses his book Truth Speaks to Power and how Christians can live these concepts today.
RNS: You believe the Bible has a message for us about the nature of power and how we should relate to it. Summarize that message.
WB: Legitimate power always includes attentiveness to justice, When power is not attentive to justice it cannot endure. This is a summons to us to keep the agenda of justice for the vulnerable alive and front and center to maintain a kind of subversive stance toward power.
RNS: Describe the relationship between truth and power as we find them in the Bible.
WB: Power is the capacity to organize and administer social goods and social access. Truth is the structure of reality that is in the nature of things that cannot be violated by our capacity to administer it. Power can sometimes be administered in harmony with such truthfulness, but very often power is seduced so that it runs contradictory to truth. [tweetable]Truth is not a set of propositions in the Bible, but a cluster of relationships.[/tweetable] Those are relationships of dignity, well-being, security and respect. When power violates those, then those who administer such power learn is that they cannot finally withstand the force of truth. So, the truthfulness of God’s commitment to neighborliness does not give in in the long run.
RNS: How does truth relate to power in the Exodus story?
Pastor Matt Chandler wants Christians to take a breather. Many believers get burnt out on faith, exhausted by efforts to “work harder” to be holy. But Chandler says this is neither necessary nor possible. Instead of straining towards holiness, he encourages the faithful to simply fix their eyes on Jesus.
Chandler has been leading The Village Church in Dallas/Fort Worth since 2002, during which time the congregation grew from 160 people to over 11,000 with campuses across the city. He also serves as president of Acts 29, a church planting network with more than 500 congregations around the world. Here, we discuss his view of redemption and how it applies to contemporary issues such as substance abuse and serial failure.
RNS: In my experience, redemption for evangelicals means “work harder,” do more good stuff, and stave off bad behavior. But this isn’t your message, is it?
MC: No, because redemption isn’t you working harder. Redemption is you having been saved from your error by someone else. In fact, you don’t possess the ability to redeem yourself in any way. This is the great lie of moralistic deism, that you can be good enough. Men from the Bible–from the prophet Isaiah to Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount–teach that you cannot be righteous enough to save yourself. One of the more terrifying verses in the Bible is when Jesus said to a crowd, “Unless your righteousness supersedes the Pharisees, you have no part of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The Pharisees were tithing their mint and dill and were more righteous, externally speaking, than anyone reading this has even tried to be. Jesus is exposing the truth that you and I will never be good enough, that all of our righteous deeds are worthless. So, this can’t be the message of redemption because the Scriptures are clear that redemption doesn’t work that way.
RNS: Your book is built on the idea that the gospel is the great “unless” of life. What do you mean by this?
From Chick-fil-A to Hobby Lobby to In-N-Out Burger, some of America’s best brands are also widely considered to be “Christian.” As it turns out, this label can be good for business.
According to a 2011 Barna Research survey, one-third of all U.S. adults said they would be more likely to purchase from a company that “embraces and promotes the Christian faith.” Active participants in Protestant churches were the most attracted to such businesses. Only 3 percent said a Christian connection would make them less likely to support an organization, resulting in a favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of 12 to 1.
This data undermines many conservative evangelicals’ claims that “Christian businesses” are placing their companies at risk for proclaiming their values. But should this faithful faction even use such a moniker?
Conservative evangelicals’ politics often lead them to accept “corporate personhood,” a belief increasingly prominent in capitalistic societies stating that corporations should be granted the same rights as individual human beings. The concept of a “Christian business” springs from this belief. But the term runs into conflict with the group’s theological commitments.
In order to understand the term “Christian,” we must first ask what the word means. Conservative evangelicals’ view of salvation is understood purely in individual terms. Only a person can become a Christian and only by repenting of their sins and believing on Christ. Can an organization or corporation be “born again?” The answer is no.
Today at The Week, I published a column titled, “Stop calling Hobby Lobby a Christian business” in which I discuss the ethical implications of their business dealings with China.
“Every time you buy a decorative platter from Hobby Lobby with a Bible verse stamped across it, you have funded the company’s fight against the HHS contraception mandate,” I wrote. “But you’re also sending a chunk of change to a country that forces people to abort their children, flouts basic standards of workplace dignity, and denies more than a billion people the right to worship.”
Setting aside whether a business can be accurately called “Christian” (only individuals are given the title in the Bible), we should all agree that an organization who takes the title should be held to high standards. The same is true for Christian individuals. [tweetable]The decision to follow Jesus is not a call to perfection, but a call to a moral posture.[/tweetable]
Sometimes consumers don’t have much choice with their purchases. But when given the choice, Christians should always opt for the most ethical option. I never buy coffee unless it is certified fair trade, for example. It may cost me more money, but I don’t want my purchases to keep 12-year-old Costa Rican children in poverty. Hobby Lobby has a choice in where they purchase the goods they sell, but in my opinion, they are not opting for a more ethical choice. Because they’ve chosen to label their business as “Christian,” I think it is wholly fair to raise this issue.
But as my dad used to say to me growing up, “It’s a mighty thin pancake that has only one side.” Others do not view Hobby Lobby’s business practices the same way I do. One such person is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and a vocal supporter of Hobby Lobby’s fight against the HHS contraception mandate. He is a first-rate thinker whose opinions I respect even when we disagree. I invited Dr. Moore to provide his perspective on the matter, and I’ve published his comments in full. I encourage readers to consider both my column and his response below…
As such, those shiny stickers littering every Hobby Lobby from sea to shining sea are more than a statement about a product’s geographical origin; they are also a stinging indictment against the way the retailer has sought to label itself.
Imagine for a moment a nation with nightmarish labor conditions, inadequate workplace regulation, and rampant child labor. You’ve just imagined 21st century China. Seventy thousand Chinese employees die every year in workplace accidents — that’s roughly 200 humans snuffed out of existence every day.
Some provinces in China are raising their minimum wage standards. But don’t rush to praise them. Starting this year in Shanghai, minimum wage is rising to only $293 per month — a paltry figure that is still the highest amount paid in all of mainland China. That’s about $9.77 per day. If you were wondering how Hobby Lobby can sell wicker baskets for next to nothing, now you know.
The Bible is replete with calls for economic justice. Can you call yourself a “Christian business” when you leverage your profits to support an economic system that blatantly perpetuates injustice?
In the early 2000s, Erwin McManus penned several bestselling books, saturated the Christian conference speaking circuit, and grew a vibrant church outside of Los Angeles called Mosaic. He became known as a leading voice among Christian creatives and religious innovators. But in 2008, at the height of his popularity, Erwin McManus slipped back into the shadows as quickly as he had sprung from them. No more books, fewer speaking engagements, and far less public interaction.
Six years later, McManus has decided to reenter the fray with the release of a new book, “The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art.” His message is simple: you were created to be creative. Here, we discuss this idea, how it applies to those who aren’t naturally artistic, and why he retreated from public life in 2008.
RNS: You wrote a whole slew of books between 2002 and 2008, but then you sort of disappeared from the publishing world. Why have you decided to write again now and why come back with this book?
EM: Yes, I made a shift in my life due to many variables and factors. A huge part was the toll on my family and my spirit to be the target of so many mean-spirited people. It really hurt my kids. I didn’t want them to turn from Jesus because of the people of Jesus. But they have both come to me and called me to be a voice for the moment of Christ again. My family is all in and has a deep passion for God and the church.
I also wanted to affect the world outside of the church and be a voice to an unbelieving world. We so often focus on Sunday and hope we are changing the world. I felt compelled to tell great art and tell great stories and allow beauty to point to truth.
Pastor Danny Cortez of New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, California created a media frenzy when he announced that he no longer believes homosexual behavior is sinful. The decision came on the heels of Cortez’s son’s announcement that he was gay. The church decided not to remove Cortez from leadership even though it is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a denomination that condemns homosexual behavior.
Sources within the SBC say they do not expect the denomination to respond to, reprimand, or remove New Heart from fellowship during their annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland this week.
Fermin Whittaker, Executive Director of the California Southern Baptist Convention, told me that media outlets haven’t accurately reported all the facts on the matter. New Heart is a Pilipino church, not a Spanish one. They are not actively involved in the SBC and, according to Whittaker, have only given $80 per month to the denomination’s Cooperative Program. But more significantly, he does not consider it a traditional congregation.
“This is a mission church, we think,” Whittaker said. “It is not an organized congregation, and the parent church had no knowledge of the changes happening there.”
He says that Baptist polity does not allow him or the California arm of the SBC he leads to revoke a congregation’s membership. Unless the denomination acts at their national gathering this week, New Heart will remain a participating Southern Baptist congregation until at least next Summer.
When the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) gathers in Baltimore tomorrow for its annual meeting, they are expected to discuss their declining numbers as well as cultural hot buttons such as homosexuality and transgender issues. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like deja vu all over again.” Membership and baptisms within the denomination have been declining for years and the SBC never misses an opportunity to publicly weigh in on the political and cultural issues du jour.
But the larger question hovering over the Convention this year seems to be whether the nation’s largest Protestant denomination can thrive in the 21st Century. American culture is morphing at light speed on matters such as secularism, sexuality, and spirituality. Can the Convention remain relevant in such a moment?
To address this question, I talked with Dr. David Dockery, the newly elected president of Trinity International University and author of “Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal.” Here, we discuss the denomination’s decline, sexuality, and racial reconciliation.
RNS: The Southern Baptist Convention has reported an annual decline in baptisms since the late 1990s with another decline and membership has declined for the past seven years. Some have called this “a spiritual problem” while others speculate that it is “a cultural problem” brought on by an increasingly post-Christian, pluralistic society. In your opinion, what’s driving this decline?