Mason Counsels Suicide Prevention

Review of Karen Mason, Suicide PreventionKaren Mason.[1] 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you are contemplating suicide, help is available.

Call: 1-800-273-TALK.[2]

Earlier this month with the death of two prominent celebrities, Kate Spade (June 6, 2018) and Anthony Bourdain (June 8, 2018), the epidemic of suicide in America has become more obvious to the public. The New York Times reported already in 2017 that suicide rates reached a thirty-year high (Tavernise). For those of us personally touched by suicide, the more surprising report is that, like Kate and Anthony, the fastest growing demographic affected by suicide is the fifty-plus age group, which is historically anomalous—we do not expect successful people to kill themselves.

What, if anything, can be done about it?

Introduction

In her book Preventing Suicide, professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Karen Mason, cites philosopher William James who“regarded religious faith as the most powerful safeguard against suicide.” (17) Her focus in writing is “on suicidal acts that include at least some intent to die.”(22) This definition is important because not all acts of self-harm are suicidal. For example, cutters, usually young people in deep emotional pain, normally use the pain of cutting themselves to distract their minds from their emotional trauma, but do not intent to kill themselves.

What Can Be Done?

Mason sees the pastors, chaplain, and pastoral care workers as able to reduce suicide rates by:

  1. “Teaching a theology of life and death, including moral objections to suicide.
  2. Teaching theodicy, or how to understand and manage suffering.
  3. Directly engaging the issue of suicide—stigma free—when people become suicidal, attempt suicide or die by suicide.
  4. Teaching how to build a life worth living with meaningful purpose and belongingness.
  5. Offering community where relationship skills are learned and practiced and where those who need support get it.
  6. Partnering with others in preventing suicide.”(18)

She sees the goals of suicide prevention as being realistically achievable, but those who attempt suicide must be taken care of. Those who attempt suicide but do not die are at much higher risk of succeeding on a second attempt—“A prior suicide attempt is the single strongest risk factor for death by suicide.”(114)

Personal Experiences

Suicide has been a part of my life experience since my youth.

The year before I came to Christ at age 13, my best friend’s father shot himself to death.

During my graduate program at Cornell University (1976-1979), I found myself in the midst of a cluster of suicides on campus. So many suicides occurred in my first fall on campus that students demonstrated to close the school until something was done. One student reportedly jumped off a bridge (Cornell is located on a mountain) and, after suffering only a broken leg, crawled up to the bridge a second time and jumped again, this time to his death. During that fall, one of my housemates attempted to overdose herself and within my circle of friends we knew of half-a-dozen suicides.

During my clinical pastoral education at Providence Hospital in 2011-12, I met with and counseled numerous patients who had attempted suicide, either through my work in the emergency department or psychiatrics. I also counseled a number of cutters. Being the first one to visit seriously with someone after an attempted suicide is a heavy, burdensome responsibility. After such visits, I often ended up in the chapel in prayer.

During the past twelve months, two fifty-plus age men in my family circle of friends killed themselves. One of those men was someone that I had attempted to reach out to and provide support, but he proved unwilling.

Organization of the Book

Mason writes in nine chapters preceded by acknowledgements and an introduction and followed by a conclusion and notes. The chapters are:

  1. “Who Dies by Suicide?
  2. Shattering Myths About Suicide.
  3. Suicide and Christian Theology.
  4. Theories of Suicide.
  5. Helping Someone in a Suicide Crisis.
  6. Helping a Survivor of Attempted Suicide.
  7. Helping the Helpers.
  8. Helping Suicide Survivors.
  9. Helping the Faith Community.” (vii)

What is interesting about these topics is the range of issues and people involved. Mason makes the point that suicide clusters—copycat suicides—can be dramatic.

Warning Signs

Mason cites a serious loss as triggering event, which can be a legal problem, financial difficulties, relational breakup, or unemployment. Other warning signs include:

  • “Talking about or writing about death, dying, or suicide.
  • Threatening to kill oneself.
  • A worsening mental health problem such as depression, especially when accompanied by agitation.
  • Dramatic brightening of mood after a period of depression.
  • Seeking access to means, such as hoarding pills.
  • Reckless behavior, such as increased substance abuse.
  • Decreased hygiene, such as not showering.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Preparatory behavior, such as giving away prized possessions.”(84).

Those contemplating suicide may talk to friends, family, and/or clergy before attempting suicide. “Based on large national surveys, it is estimated that for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.”(28)

Assessment

Karen Mason’s Preventing Suicideis an important resource for caregivers who assist those who think about, attempt, and commit suicide. I wish that I had read this book years ago because the guidance that Mason offers would have been helpful, particularly in dealing with those who survived an initial suicide attempt. Because suicide rates have reached crisis levels, this is a book that caregivers ought to read and discuss.

Reference

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High”New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Footnotes

[1]http://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=57862&grp_id=8948; @ivpbooks.

[2]Or text: CONNECT to 741741. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Mason Counsels Suicide Prevention

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Brueggemann’s Bible Follows the Money

Review of Walter Brueggemann's Money and PossessionsWalter Brueggemann. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In August 1991 as we prepared to close on our current house, my wife, Maryam, we had two tots in diapers that she never left in the care of anyone outside the family. I arranged for power of attorney, but the lender refused to allow its use. We appeared at closing with two squirming tots and I found myself reading loan documents with an impatient wife. As I read, I discovered that the documents neglected to include my down payment ($10k) and included an interest rate 50 basis points over what we had agreed to—heaven only knows how many of the fees charged exceeded market norms. I got my down payment listed but failed to secure the agreed interest rate. Under duress, I then held my nose and signed the agreement, knowing that I sat across the table from a bunch of cheats and should have simply walked away.

The Great Recession

We eventually paid off the loan through parsimonious living and committing more time and energy to my career than I ever felt prudent. In the years to follow I worked in financial regulation and observed banking interests lobbying to tighten up federal laws making it hard to declare bankruptcy while offering increasing amounts of credit to borrowers clearly not able to repay the loans. (The lobbyists also worked to prevent regulators from collecting the data necessary to observe how financially fragile banks had become). A subprime loan basically implies that the borrower can only repay the loan under favorable employment and economic assumptions.

For those with unstable income and/or an inability to live parsimoniously, these mortgages proved deadly during the Great Recession (2007-2008 plus the slow recovery until 2017) when millions of home buyers, particularly the poor, immigrants, and minorities lost their homes and life savings. In spite of massive, systemic fraud, no one in Washington or on Wall Street ever suffered indictment.

Introduction

In his book, Money and Possessions, Walter Brueggemann writes:

“The purpose of this book is to exhibit the rich, recurring, and diverse references to money and possessions that permeate the Bible…My task has been reportage about the texts. I have found, however, that the texts themselves pressed in the direction of advocacy…When that distinctive mantra [God and mammon] on the lips of Jesus is transposed into economic interpretation, the large sweep of the text suggests a critical exposé of an economy of extraction where by concentrated power serves to extract wealth from vulnerable people in order to transfer it to the more powerful. That extraction is accomplished by the predatory if legal means of tax arrangements, credit and loan stipulations, high interest rates, and cheap labor.”(xix-xx)

Brueggemann’s highlighting of the word, mammon, in Matthew 6:24 (KJV) is instructive. Mammon is a transliteration of the Aramaic word that Jesus uses in the Greek, transliterated also in the King James translation but more commonly translated as money (ESV, NIV) or wealth (NRSV). Normally, the New Testament uses Aramaic phrases only when the word is unique in usage and without an adequate translation in Greek, which suggests that Jesus actually coined the phrase himself. In English, mammon is best translated not as money but as the “god of money,” suggesting that money has an inherently idolatrous character. Mammon is therefore an edgy sort of indictment of money matters or, as Brueggemann suggests, an advocacy not always felt to be politically palatable in mixed company.

Overview

Brueggmann employs a systematic presentation of money and possessions throughout the biblical witness (Genesis to Revelation), which is a method sometimes referred to as biblical theology, that defies summary or synthesis. In his own synthesis, he offers six theses:

  1. Money and possessions (M&P) are gifts from God…
  2. M&P are received as reward for obedience…
  3. M&P belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community…stewardship…
  4. M&P are sources of social injustice…
  5. M&P are to be shared in a neighborly way…
  6. M&P are seductions that lead to idolatry.(1-9)

The Contradictions

He then goes on to list six contradictions that follow immediately from the above list:

  1. To view M&P as gifts from God contradicts market ideology in which there are no gifts, no free lunches…
  2. To view M&P as reward for obedience is too readily transposed into the reward system of the market…
  3. To view M&P as a trust from God contradicts the pretension of market ideology that imagines…that ‘my money is my own; I earned it and can do with it what I want.’
  4. To view M&P as a source of injustice is to contradict the easy assumptions of the market that autonomous wealth is not connected to the community…
  5. To view M&P as resources to be shared in a neighborly way contradicts the market assumption that there are no neighbors; there are only rivals, competitors, and threats…
  6. To view M&P as seductions that lead to idolatry contradicts the market view that M&P are inert and innocent neutral objects. (9-10)

Clearly, the task of engaging these theses and contradictions is formidable. For his part, Brueggemann sees this study as offering not only substantial “data of biblical teaching,” but also a critique of common thinking on money and possessions (10-11).

Assessment

Walter Brueggemann’s Money and Possessionsis a groundbreaking recitation and first interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on economic relations where tension exists between the faith community—first in Israel and later in the church—in its relationship with the wider political economy. How much tension should exist is also frequently a source of tension within the faith community itself, leaving the biblical interpreter with a difficult hermeneutical and expository task. As such, Brueggemann’s primary audience is the interpretative community interested in the role of money and possessions in defining an authorial and canonical read, which renders a reader interpretation premature.

In my own view as an economist and a pastor, I found Brueggemann’s exposition fascinating even when I might argue about particular points. Because Israel and the church have seldom been masters of their own economic fate, a theme deserving more investigation is the role that the practice of faith has played in helping believers navigate their economic environment. If Brueggemann is correct, faith and economics are inseparably linked and fundamentally inform one another.

If the results of the Marshmallow test are to be believed, for example, just teaching patience to our young people could dramatically impact their lives. Four-year olds, given a choice between having one marshmallow now or two later, who choose to wait for two are much more likely to graduate from college than their peers, a stunning result (Mischel). In today’s economy in the United States, where downward mobility has replaced upward mobility for about eighty percent of the population, offering godly guidance on money and possessions is a very practical concern.

Reference

Mischel, Walter. 2014. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Brueggemann’s Bible Follows the Money

Also see:

Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

Whelchel Sees Call in Work, not just Ministry 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Gwynne: Comanche Moon Brings Fear

Gwynne, Empire of the Summer MoonS.C. Gwynne.[1]2011. Empire of the Summer Moon. Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. New York: Scribner.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

History fascinates me. As a kid, I must have read 20-30 books out of Fran Striker’s series, The Lone Ranger, not entirely aware that she wrote fiction rather than history.  But history, especially military history, is better because the individuals chronicled faced real challenges and preserved in the face of enormous odds.

Introduction

In his book, Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne focuses our attention on a tribe of plains Indian that many people, myself included, know relatively little about. Writing about the year 1871, he reports:

“The hostiles were all residents of the Great Plains; all were mounted, well-armed, and driven now by a mixture of vengeance and political desperation. They were Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and Western Sioux. For [Colonel Ranald Slidell] Mackenzie on the southern plains, Comanches were the obvious target: No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.”(3)

Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie

Who was this Colonel Mackenzie? He was hand-picked by Army Chief William Tecumseh Sherman to restore order on the frontier after many failed attempts to make peace with the Indians. Mackenzie had graduated first in his class at West Point in 1862 and rose to the rank of brigadier general during the Civil War. Having been grievously wounded in the hand in the war, the Indians called him No-finger Chief or Bad Hand. He had never fought Indians previously, but he proved to be a quick study (2).

What was Special About the Comanches?

According to Gwynne:

“The Comanches adapted to the horse earlier and more completely than any other plains tribe. They are considered without much debate, the prototype horse tribe in North America. No one could outride them or outshoot them from the back of a horse. (Only in the movies did the Apaches attack riding on horses.) No tribe other than the Comanches ever learned to breed horses—an intensely demanding, knowledge-based skill that helped create enormous wealth for the tribe. They were always careful in the castration of the herd, almost all riding horses were geldings.”(32)

Until the manufacture of the Colt revolver in 1839 and the adoption of Comanche fighting techniques by a particular Texas Ranger captain, John Coffee Hays (138-145) a few years later, Comanches almost never lost a fight. Gwynne writes:

“…a Comanche warrior could loose twenty arrows in the time it took a soldier to load and fire one round from his musket; each of those arrows could kill a man at thirty yards.”(33)

Between the introduction of the horse by the Spanish in 1598 (29) and the beginning of settlement of white settlers in Texas in the 1830s, the Comanches drove the Apaches and many other Indian tribes out of the southern plains and halted the expansion of the Spanish north in Texas. Comanche warriors raided over a distance of four hundred miles, something unbelievable to observers at the time, and traveled at night under a full moon taking their adversaries by surprise, which led to term, “Comanche moon”.

Cynthia Ann Parker

Gwynne writes:

“The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward: All of the men were killed, and any men captured alive were tortured to death as a matter of course, some more slowly than others; the captive women were gangraped. Some were killed, some tortured. But a portion of them, particularly if they were young, would be spared (though vengeance could always be a motive for slaying hostages). Babies were invariably killed, while preadolescents were often adopted by Comanches or other tribes.”(19)

In 1836, Comanches raided a farm outpost in Texas, killed most of the family, and took nine-year old Cynthia Ann Parker and her seven-year old brother hostage. She later married a Comanche war chief and one of her sons, Quanah, became a famous war chief in his own right.

More generally, the Parker family became famous in Texas politics and helped start the Texas Rangers. Cynthia Ann became infamous on the frontier for having refused to be ransomed by her family. After being captured by soldiers, she spoke almost no English (but was fluent in Spanish) and resisted assimilation back into her Texas family.

Assessment

 Gwynne, Empire of the Summer MoonIn his book, Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne writes the history of the Comanche tribe following the life and experiences of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, one of the last Comanche chiefs to surrender to Mackenzie for resettlement on a reservation. In the course of the book, we learn the history of Spanish entry into North America, the settlement of Texas, the war with Mexico, the Texas Rangers, and much more. This book is a page turner that kept me up many nights. If you only read one book this summer, consider reading this one.

[1]www.SCGwynne.com.

Gwynne: Comanche Moon Brings Fear

Also see:

Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

Films, and Ministry

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Cuneo Examines Exorcism, Part 2

Michael Cuneo, American ExorcismMichael W. Cuneo. 2001. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: DoubleDay.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In 2012 as a chaplain intern, the social worker that I worked most closely with referred me to an eighty-year old resident in the retirement center who was bed-ridden. After several visits, the woman confided with me that her dead mother occasionally visited and warned her that she could not trust her siblings in dealing with the estate. Proud of these visits, she broke off contact with her siblings and found herself alone in this world.

Interns are normally expected to be little more a comforting presence and the woman was too old for a psychiatric referral so I decided on a pastoral approach. Because she professed to be a good Baptist, I asked if she was aware that the Bible teaches that the dead are not supposed to talk to the living and vice-versa.[1]Because of the obvious harm perpetrated by this lingering spirit, I advised her: “The next time that your mother visits, ask her—what are doing here?”

In part one of this review, I present an overview of Cuneo’s book. Here in part two, I will examine key issues that he raises about the practice of exorcism.

What is an Exorcism?

Cuneo writes:

“The rite of exorcism itself, according to [Malachi] Martin, is also a process consisting of several more or less distinct stages. At the outset the priest-exorcist is forced to contend with the pretense, a baffling (and sometimes protracted) state in which the demonic present attempts to disguise its true identity and intentions. The breakdown occurs when the demon abandons subterfuge and begins to speak in its own voice; and during the next stage—what Martin refers to as the clash—the exorcist and demon become locked in a harrowing contest of wills for the soul of the possessed. Finally, if everything goes according to plan, the process concludes with the expulsion of the demonic presence.”(20)

Martin was a “breakaway”Jesuit and the author of numerous books, especially Hostage to the Devil. The formal process of exorcism in the Catholic church is found in the Roman Ritual (259-260), which is a formal ceremony requiring the services of a priest and normally requires the approval of a bishop. Outside the Catholic church, exorcism can take a number of forms when performed by Pentecostals, Charismatics, and other Evangelicals as Cuneo chronicles. Muslims and Jews also practice exorcism, but Cuneo limits his research to practices among white American Christians (xiv).

The Issue of Transcendence

The strong influence of secular atheism on the institutional church in our time questions all references to transcendence in scripture and church life. If the physical world is all there is, then how can spiritual beings, such as angels and demons, even exist? Cuneo reports:

“The rite of exorcism, in fact, is the only Catholic rite in which the officiating priest is advised to take an initial stance of incredulity. Rather than assuming possession straightway and proceeding with an exorcism, the priest is supposed to rule out all other possibilities—from organic disorder to psychological pathology to outright fraud.”(12)

The level of skepticism after the Second Vatican Council that Cuneo reports that: “As recently as the mid-nineties here was only one officially appointed priest-exorcist in the entire country…”(257) Informally, however, some priests have always quietly performed exorcisms and some Evangelical groups treat demonic oppression (not formal possession) as a common problem. The most common response of liberal Protestants and Catholics, however, is to view a request for exorcism as akin to requesting a psychiatric referral.

Cuneo’s Experience

In Cuneo’s experience, having observed more than fifty exorcisms, he reports:

“Some of the people who showed up for exorcisms seemed deeply troubled, some mildly troubled, and some hardly troubled at all. The symptoms they complained of—the addictions and compulsions, the violent mood swings, the blurred self-identities, the disturbing visions and somatic sensations—all of this seemed to me fully explainable in social, cultural, medical, and psychological terms…The same with the antics I sometimes witnessed while the exorcisms were actually taking place, the flailing and slithering, the shrieking and moaning, the grimacing and growling—none of this, insofar as I could tell, suggested the presence of demons.”(275-276)

He suggested that exorcism may have a kind of placebo effect (277).

Assessment

Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism is a fascinating read. His story telling, literature review, and personal interviews surpass anything that I have read about exorcism practices. The more typical author writing in this genre focuses on their own methods and experiences, which leaves the reader wondering whether the author’s work is typical, reliable, authoritative. Practitioners may find helpful advice owning to the wide scope of Cuneo’s work. In any case, Cuneo writes from the perspective of a skeptical Jesuit with a background in sociology. And that’s okay.

References

Marin, Malachi. 1976. Hostage to the Devil. New York: Reader’s Digest Press.

Montenegro, Marcia. 2006. Spellbound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today’s Kids. Colorado Springs: Life Journey.

Footnotes

[1]Deut 18:10-12 (Montenegro 2006, 26). Also: 1 Sam 28.

Cuneo Examines Exorcism, Part 2

Also see:

A Place for Authoritative Prayer

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Cuneo Examines Exorcism, Part 1

Michael Cuneo, American ExorcismMichael W. Cuneo. 2001. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: DoubleDay.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Exorcist, a 1973 film by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin,[1] came out during my freshman year in college and I saw it by myself about a year later. I remember the profanity, the projectile vomitting, the crawling around on the ceiling, and the two priests sprinkling holy water and offering incantations. I also remember the ending and the staircase in Georgetown, which still gives me the creeps every time I drive down Canal Road. After the film, I shook with fear all night—I still do not enjoy going to the theater alone.

Introduction

In his book, American Exorcism, Michael Cuneo writes:

“American Exorcism is based on my personal interviews with exorcists and their clients, and my firsthand observation of more than fifty exorcisms…My primary concern is with exorcism as it’s practiced among mainstream, predominantly middle-class Christians—the white-bread sector of American society…I am concerned simply with assessing the cultural significance of exorcism-related beliefs and practices in the contemporary United States, not with passing judgment on their ultimate validity.” (xiv)

Cuneo teaches sociology and anthropology at Fordham University, a Jesuit college in New York.

The Backstory on The Exorcist

Cuneo begins his research on exorcism by summarizing the backstory on Blatty’s film. The exorcism recounted in the film took place, reported in a Washington Post article in August 1949 (Brinkely)  and involved an unidentified, fourteen-year-old boy from Mount Rainer tormented by bizarre phenomena:

“There were scratchings and rappings on his bedroom walls, pieces of fruit and other objects were sent flying in his presence, and his bed mysteriously gyrated across the floor while he tried to sleep.” (5-6)

The parents took the boy to a Protestant minister, but as things worsened they brought him to the Jesuits who had him medically and psychologically evaluated and placed under around-the-clock observation. After no natural causes found, a Jesuit priest was assigned who performed more than twenty exorcisms in Washington and St. Louis. In all but the last of these, the WP reported:

“The boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing, and voicing of Latin phrase—a language he had never studied—whenever the priest reached those climatic points of the 27-page [exorcism] ritual in which he commanded the demon to depart.” (6)

After a two-month ordeal, the symptoms disappeared and the boy’s health returned. (5-6) Blatty later sought instruction on the Catholic church’s teaching with respect to demons and tracked down a diary kept by the priest who assisted in these exorcisms, which became background for his film. (6-7)

The film itself raised awareness of the practice of exorcism within the Catholic church and, according to Cuneo, portrayed the priest in a new light as the hero-priest, who placed his own life on the line to rescue those trapped under the influence of Satan. After the reforms under the Second Vatican Council, the priesthood itself badly needed the status upgrade that exorcism provided. (4-5)

Organization

Cuneo writes in sixteen chapters, preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction and followed by conclusions, notes, and an index. These chapters are further divided into these six parts:

  1. The Exorcist as Hero
  2. Entrepreneurs of Exorcism
  3. Charismatic Deliverance Ministry
  4. The Rough-and-Ready School
  5. The Rise of Evangelical Deliverance
  6. Roman Catholic Exorcism (vii-viii)

What is interesting here is that Cuneo explores a wide-range of exorcism practices across different denominations and faith groups.To my knowledge, no one else has written this kind of comprehensive overview of exorcism practices in America through literature review, case studies, interviews, and eye-witness reporting of exorcisms.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I present an overview of Cuneo’s book. In part two, I will examine key issues that he raises about the practice of exorcism.

Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism is a fascinating read. His story telling, literature review, and personal interviews surpass anything that I have read about exorcism practices. The more typical author writing in this genre focuses on their own methods and experiences, which leaves the reader wondering whether the author’s work is typical, reliable, authoritative. Practitioners may find helpful advice owning to the wide scope of Cuneo’s work. In any case, Cuneo writes from the perspective of a skeptical Jesuit with a background in sociology. And that’s okay.

References

Blatty, William Peter. 1974. William Peter Blatty on ‘The Exorcist’ from Novel to Film. New York: Bantam Books.

Brinkley, Bill. 1949. “Priest Frees Mt. Rainers Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Washington Post, August 20. (Cited in Blatty 1974).

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Exorcist_(film).

Cuneo Examines Exorcism, Part 1

Also see:

A Place for Authoritative Prayer

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Tebow Encourages Those Shaken

Tim Tebow, ShakenTim Tebow[1]with A.J. Gregory. 2018. Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms. New York: Waterbrook.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Life can be a pill. The darkest twelve months of my life arose during 1992/93 when I experienced a layoff, my son was born with one kidney that quickly became blocked, and my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. My wife and I came through these events with the support of our church. In the midst of stress that tore apart other families that we know, I turned to God and later responded to a call to ministry.[2]Stress has a way of clarifying priorities.

Introduction

In his spiritual memoir, Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms, Tim Tebow writes:

“It’s tempting to define ourselves or measure our with by the external: by how much money we have, by how we look, by the applause of others. The list is long. It’s also tempting to determine our identity by our life circumstances…My identity is tied into whose I am.”(4)

The book’s title is taken from Psalm 16:8—I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”

Who is Tim Tebow?

Tebow is not only a Christian; he is the son of missionaries, born in Manilla, Philippines (1987). Tebow currently plays professional baseball with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies,[3]but is also a former NFL quarterback (Broncos, Jets, Patriots) and Heisman trophy winner (2007). It is probably safe to say that he is most proud of his charitable work with the Tim Tebow Foundation that reaches out to encourage children with life-threatening issues.

Because I do not follow sports, Tebow is one of the few living football players that I know by name and it is because of his willingness to pray publicly during athletic competition. As a consequence of the publicity that is associated with his open prayer, Google defines the word, Tebowing, “as the act of getting down on one knee to pray, regardless of what others around you are doing.”I suspect that no other living 30-year old has contributed a new word to the dictionary in this manner.

Organization

Tebow writes in ten chapters proceeded by an introduction and followed by acknowledgments and notes. The chapters are:

  1. Cut
  2. Who Am I?
  3. Facing the Giants
  4. The Voices of Negativity
  5. God’s Got It
  6. The Others
  7. Who Said Normal is the Goal?
  8. Stand Up
  9. The Power of Doing Something
  10. What Matters Most(vii)

This is a book about encouragement and it starts by walking the reader through some of Tebow’s darkest days, when he lost his status as a professional quarterback in the NFL. These dark days framed his title: shaken.

Encouragement

Tebow summarizes:

“While this book doesn’t offer cookie-cutter answers or a concrete plan about what to do when you stand on shaky ground, it does offer you truth. One thing can change every: knowing who you are in God can give you purpose and reshape your destiny in incredible ways.”(6)

An old saw that pastors use sounds very similar: “I do not know a solution to your problem, but I know someone who does.” Spiritual advisors likewise specialize in pointing out God’s work in your life, something that is frequently not obvious when one is in pain or when we are not paying attention.

An example of God’s quiet work showed up when the world started to notice Tebow’s faith when he began using his eye-black to display Bible verses at University of Florida. He started with Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” During the National Championship game in 2009, Tebow changed his eye-black to read, John 3:16—“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”Ninety-four million people Googled the verse during the course of the game. Three years later after the NFL passed a rule forbidding personalized eye-black messages, the Broncos public-relations guy reported:

“Do you know that it was exactly three years since you wrote’ John 3:16’? And during this game, you threw for 316 yards. Your yards per completion were 31.6. The time of possession was 31:06. The ratings for the night were 31.6 million. And during the game ninety million Googled ‘John 3:16’!”(154-156)

Do you think God noticed? For his part, Tebow focused on winning the game that night.

Assessment

Tim Tebow’s Shaken is an encouraging book. He tells lots of stories about his own experiences, particularly from his sport’s career, and relates them directly to his faith, which is why I would describe the book as a spiritual memoir. I read this book as part of a men’s group discussion and the accompanying videos have been most helpful in generating discussion.

Footnotes

[1]www.TimTebowFoundation.org. @TimTebow. @TebowFoundation.

[2]For those interested, I wrote about these events in my memoir, Called Along the Way(Centreville, VA: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC, 2017).

[3]“Tim Tebow Is Kinda Good at Baseball: The ex-football star keeps plugging away in the minor leagues on the idea that he can one day get to the majors.” By Matthew Gutierrez, Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2018 (https://www.wsj.com/articles/tim-tebow-is-kinda-good-at-baseball-1526932242).

Tebow Encourages Those Shaken

Also see:

Jackson Shines Light on Football Dreams

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Wicks Honors the Image of God

Review of Robert Wicks, Touching the HolyRobert J. Wicks.[1] 2007. Touching the Holy: Ordinariness, Self-Esteem, and Friendship (Orig pub 1992). Notre Dame: Sorin Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One lesson that I learned in seminary revealed itself in a change in my Myers Briggs classification. Early in seminary I tested out as an ENTJ (extraverted, intuitive, thinking, judgmental), often referred to as the field-marshal. Later in seminary as I became more self-aware, my T became an F (feeling), often referred to as the counselor. While some people disputed my T to F transition, I realized that out of fear of failure I had been role-playing during my career as an economist, something that as an aspiring pastor was no longer necessary or appropriate.[2]What do you do when you discover yourself playing masquerades and it is not a game?

Introduction

In his book,Touching the Holy, Robert Wicks (16-17) writes:

“Due to our lack of complete trust in God’s revelation that we are made in the divine image and likeness, most of us get caught up in trying to be extraordinary…The Spirit of ordinariness invites each of us to follow the will of God by trying to find out what our inner motivations and talents are and then to express them without reserve or self-consciousness.”

Accepting our limits (or just being ourselves) and receiving God’s love, according to Wicks, are keys to deep spiritual discernment, because until we do we cannot move forward with God or with other people (18-32).

The Wilderness

After the people of Israel left Egypt, they entered the wilderness, learned to depend on God, and could not enter Canaan until they did. Speaking of the desert fathers, Wicks writes:

“The desert provided a place where it was difficult to hide from the most basic realities of ordinary Christian life.”(37)

He sees three threats to our own spiritual growth as being:

  1. Projecting our blame onto others;
  2. Being deaf to God’s presence; and
  3. Unconsciously yielding to secular values. (38)

The wilderness provides an environment fertile for spiritual growth because in the desert we are not surrounded by the usual idols (wealth, people, work, distractions) that we are attached to and we are forced to focus on the basics of life. (62) According to Wicks, clerical workers (priests, pastors, and the like) usually suffers burnout, a kind of self-imposed wilderness, after they have let go of their prayer life. (66)

Who is Robert Wicks?

Robert Wicks received his doctorate in Psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital, is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University Maryland, and has published over 50 books. His particular interest is secondary trauma and as a pastoral care worker has helped to serve care givers during a number of high-profile crises, such as the civil war in Rwanda and in Cambodia. In 1996, Pope John Paul II awarded him with a papal medal for his service to the Catholic Church.

Assessment

Robert Wicks’ Touching the Holyis written in six chapters, proceeded by an introduction and followed by notes:

  1. Embracing Ordinariness
  2. Lessons from the Desert
  3. What is my True Face?
  4. Friends
  5. A Simple Caring Presence(vii)

It is short (188 5”x7” pages) and accessible, a good read for a quiet day.

References

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2017. Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir.Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Keirsey, David. 1998. Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, and Intelligence. Del Mar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company.

Footnotes

[1]http://www.RobertJWicks.com.https://www.loyola.edu/academics/pastoral-counseling/faculty/robert-wicks.

[2]In my memoir, Called Along the Way(2017), my role playing took the form of dressing more formally than I had previously (“Dress for Success”,185-187) and, later, finding the need to shed the “Doctor Hiemstra” image (“Looking the Part”,312-314).

Wicks Honors the Image of God

Also see:

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 2

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging WitnessDonald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The key theological challenge of our age is the lost sense of the transcendence of God. If God’s transcendence is no longer a lived reality, then Jesus was not raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:14) and he becomes a great teacher whose views on the authority of scripture (Matt 5:17-19) are downgraded to the status of nice to know, not a commandment. The moral teaching of the church is thereby easily waived off in favor the double-love commandment—love God; love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40)—and the first half of the commandment is held lightly. Soon, questions like—who are you to tell me who to love—make it clear that power politics, not scripture, has the last word in the church. Reading this line of reasoning backwards, the attack on orthodox faith (and its motivation) becomes transparent.

In part one of this review, I summarized arguments in Unchanging Witness by Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams. In this second part, I will delve more deeply into their arguments.

Introduction

Fortson and Grams make it clear that questions about sexuality have influenced both biblical teaching and church practice throughout history. They write:

“…Jews saw the issue [of homosexuality] straightforwardly. Jews and Christians consistently taught that homosexuality acts were sinful, and they supported their views with the Scriptures. Both the Old and New Testaments, Judaism and early church, taught a consistent view on sexuality in general and on homosexuality in particular, clearly differing from the surrounding cultures. Debate over this matter in recent times is not due to fresh illumination of biblical texts that our predecessors misread; rather, it stems from our culture’s unwillingness to accept what the text clearly says.” (191)

Why Does the Book of the Law Highlight Sex?

For my part, I have always assumed that the clarity of scripture on the sexual behavior arose from the Hebrew experience of slavery in Egypt. Is it accidental, for example, that the very first Hebrew slave, Joseph, experienced sexual abuse? We read:

“So he [Potiphar—Joseph’s master] left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, lie with me.” (Gen 39:6-7 ESV)

Was Joseph a stand-in for a generation of sexually abused, former Egyptian slaves? The Genesis account chronicles all manner of sexual perversion, raising the possibility that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis to help the former Egyptian slaves overcome their own experience of abuse. Most likely they accepted Moses’ sexual ethic that differed radically from surrounding Canaanite cultures because they knew that accepting perverse sexual relations gave a green light to the rich and powerful in their abuse of those that were less fortunate. Former slaves apparently wanted normal family relations—marriage of one man and one woman—because it was something denied them for four hundred years.

The Sexual Ethic

Most commentators on the primacy of monogamous marriage (one partner in marriage) in the Book of Genesis cite two passages:

 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

 “And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:22-24)

Fortson and Grams then point out that the ideas about marriage presented in these two passages are then repeated in Genesis 5:1-1:

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” 

This repetition implies emphasis and the context is interesting because it almost immediately follows the account of Lamech, who murders out of revenge and is reported to be the first polygamist (Gen 4:34-35). In other words, Moses is reminding us that monogamous marriage is the standard and polygamists are known to be sketchy individuals.

Other sexual relationships that are prohibited later in Leviticus 18, including incest and homosexuality, need not have been be specifically itemized (although many are) because they deviate from the sexual ethic given in the creation accounts. The fact that the homosexual act is explicitly mentioned, prohibited, and treated as a capital offense for both participants (Lev 18:22) implies emphasis. The context placing it between a prohibition of child sacrifice (Lev 18:21) and of bestiality (Lev 18:23) underscores the unambiguous attitude towards homosexuality.

In Leviticus 18:25 these acts will make “the land became unclean, so that I [God] punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev 18:25), a clear allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God himself (not Abraham and his private army) in Genesis 18. The example of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction has historically motivated cities to take a dim view of homosexual practices within their jurisdictions (69).

Early Church and Reformation Understanding of Scripture

These are starkly clear references. Fortson and Grams cite voluminous (three chapters, pages 27 to 91) early church reference and references all the way to the reformation that underscore how the church understood scriptural prohibitions of homosexual behavior in all of its manifestations. For example, Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John who was later martyred, wrote:

“Knowing, therefore, that ‘God is not mocked,’[1] we ought to live in a manner that is worthy of his commandment and glory… For it is a good thing to be cut off from the sinful desires of the world, because every ‘sinful desire wages war against the spirit,’ and ‘neither fornicators nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God,’ nor those who do perverse things. Therefore we must keep away from all these things.” (31)

If homosexuality were unknown to the early church, as some homosexual advocates  have argued, then why would there be a need even to comment on it?

Likewise, the sin list in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) repeats the prohibition of “homosexual perversion” (82) in question 87, a reference now translated as “unchaste person” in the official, PCUSA translation  (PCUSA, 2016).

Assessment

Please refer to part one of this review for a general overview of the book and a discussion of my personal connections with this issue.

Fortson and Grams provide an important resource to the church and academy on the history of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. This book is of special interest to those new to the debate about the role of homosexuality in the church and those who take scripture as the sole authority for answering questions of faith and Christian living. Fortson and Grams focus on truth-telling. In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state (John 8).[2]

References

Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). 2016. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part 1 of the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly.

Polycarp. 1989. “Letter to the Philippians,” pages 125-126 in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translation J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. Michael Holmes (orig pub 1891) Grand Rapids: Baker.

Footnotes

[1] Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7)

[2]Campbell (2010) sees Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery as our template for ministry (John 8).

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 2

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In 2010 as a seminary student, a pastor formerly associated with my home church wrote a book on his personal ministry to people trapped in a homosexual lifestyle and wanting out. He is a longtime friend and, because his publisher wanted reviewers, I volunteered to write a review. When I later inquired as to whether to publish this review in our presbytery newsletter, I got an icy response. Now eight years later, my friend’s church has long since left the denomination and my home church is in the final stages of leaving. The church’s attitude about homosexuality remains the most important theological question facing our generation and, yet, most Christians, myself included, flinch at bringing up the topic.[1]

In their book, Unchanging Witness, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams write:

“…our chief concern is with those who identify themselves as Christians. Many contemporary discussions of homosexuality are based on broad assertion lacking substantial grounding in the texts of the Christian tradition. Our book is intended as a resource for those who hold the historical Christian position on homosexuality. What we offer is the combined perspective of a New Testament scholar and a church historian…”(xi).

Rollin is a personal friend and former New Testament (NT) professor of mine who remains on the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC with a lifelong commitment to reading ancient texts carefully.[2]Dr. Fortson is a professor of church history at the Reformed Theological Seminary, also in Charlotte.[3]

The task of reading church texts carefully is probably easier today than at any point in the past two thousand years. Ancient texts from libraries and churches around the world are now available online to virtually anyone who looks. However, in spite of technological advances and the scholarly horsepower to understand them, ironically biblical illiteracy plagues the church and careful scholarship does not always inform church preaching, teaching, and decisions.

Crisis of Authority

The real crisis, Fortson and Grams argue, is whether the church continues to view the Bible as authoritative. (168, 366) Why? They write:

“Our overview of texts has revealed that the Fathers, Reformers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox church are unanimous in their condemnation of homoerotic behavior among those who profess Christ as Lord.”(376)

And each of these church groups base their position of homosexuality on the authority of scripture. In particular, their sexual ethic, drawn from both Old and New Testament texts, is summed up succinctly: “The place for sex was understood to be within marriage between a man and a woman.”(189) No other sexual activity, including heterosexual and homosexual sex, was permitted for the Christian, in spite of alternative cultural contexts, desires, and motives. The detailed documentation of this unusual unity of opinion among Jews and Christians in Fortson and Grams book is lengthy (385 pages) and repetitious because little disagreement existed (or exists) among orthodox believers.

In the Reformation, Protestant groups broke away from the Catholic Church over the authority of scripture arguing that the Bible was the sole of authority over matters of faith and salvation. In arguing from cultural experience and mores, liberal Protestant groups have ironically separated themselves from their own reformed tradition and reopened behaviors in the church that first led to the reformation. As Fortson and Grams observe, immoral behavior among clergy, including homosexuality, and the influence of humanism figured prominently in the decision of the Protestant churches to break away. (77-86)

Did God Really Say…

A key argument among homosexual advocates is that biblical authors and early church writers were unaware of consensual homosexual relationships as we see today and, as a consequence, biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were limited in scope to particular concerns, like pederastry (sex between an older man and a boy). Thus, consensual homosexual relationships were not in view, hence not proscribed. For example, Fortson and Grams (18) cite John McNeill (1993, xx) who writes:

“…You [traditional Catholic writers] continue to claim that a loving homosexual act is condemned in Scripture, when competent scholars are nearly unanimous in admitting that nowhere in Scripture is there a clear condemnation of sexual acts between two gay men or lesbians who love each other.” 

Implicit in these arguments is that the Bible did not limit sex to one man and one woman in the context of marriage, which would render such arguments moot by forbidding all other sexual relations. Homosexual advocates therefore start by denying the existence of a Christian sexual ethic and then move on to limit the scope of biblical passages mentioning homosexuality, recognizing that most pastors and Christians will not be able to follow the historical arguments or exegete the Greek and Hebrew on their own. This is the context—reviewing original historical documents and scripture—where Fortson and Grams’ analysis proves most beneficial.

Importance of the Debate

The silence of most Christians on the question of homosexuality comes at a cost. Since ancient times, a homosexual lifestyle has been known to shorten the lifespan of those who practice it. The CDC reports that AIDS has claimed over half a million lives in recent years[4]and AIDS is only one of the diseases (think hepatitis, social diseases …) transmitted by homosexual sex.[5]Homosexuality also raises the probability of suicide dramatically.

This problem has touched me personally. The pastor who recruited me in graduate school into youth ministry later contracted AIDS and died. If he had kept his marriage vows, he would probably still be with us. The idea that someone in the church recruited him into this lifestyle or inferred that yielding to his desires was okay robbed us of a much-loved pastor.

Assessment

Part one of this review gives an overview of Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams’ Unchanging Witness. Part two will examine their arguments in more depth.

Fortson and Grams provide an important resource to the church and academy on the history of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. This book is of special interest to those new to the debate about the role of homosexuality in the church and those who take scripture as the sole authority for answering questions of faith and Christian living. Fortson and Grams focus on truth-telling. In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state (John 8).[6]

References

Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Gagnon, Robert A. J.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Review, part 1)

McNeill, John. 1993. The Church and the Homosexual, 4th ed. Boston: Beacon.

Footnotes

[1]I bought my copy of Unchanging Witnessin 2016 when it was published. It is timely to review it now two years later because of the travails of my home church with this issue and my research needs in writing.

[2]http://www.GordonConwell.edu/online/Faculty.cfm. https://BibleAndMission.blogspot.com.

[3]https://www.rts.edu/seminary/faculty/bio.aspx?id=91. @sdfortson

[4]http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

[5]Gagnon (2001, 473) provides a long list of serious health problems associated with homosexual practice.

[6] Campbell (2010) sees Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery as our template for ministry (John 8).

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Brueggeman’s Prophet Imagines What Might Be

Review of Walter Brueggemann's Prophetic ImaginationWalter Brueggemann. 2001. The Prophetic Imagination (Orig Pub 1978).Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The defining characteristic of Christian groups lies in their hermeneutic method—how they read and interpret scripture. The rampant scholarly innovation in hermeneutical methods in our time accordingly represents not only a search for truth, but also, as a deconstructionist might observe, also represents a power-play, both a rejection of past verities and a diversion of consciousness. The nature of this competition and its implication for the church appear veiled to most Christians because such cultural influences operate at the presuppositional level of our thinking—it’s just the air we breathe.

Introduction

In his book, Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann enters this field of inquiry from the unlikely perspective of an Old Testament (OT) scholar. Most hermeneutic innovations today start with defining a new Jesus and discount much of what came before—that was then; this is now—is the common refrain. Brueggemann breaks the norm by developing an important OT theme, the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, and demonstrates how this theme has continuing relevance in the role and voice of the prophet both in the OT and NT, even now.

Moses and Pharaoh

Brueggemann sees the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh as a paradigm for interpreting much of the human conflict in scripture and conflict in the church today. Moses stands out from other historical figures because he engages Pharaoh in an ideological struggle. Pharaoh rules over the people of Israel with numbing work and unpreceded prosperity, masking the reality of Hebrew slavery.

People today forget that Egypt, like the United States today, surpassed other nations with its abundant food supply, a product of innovative irrigation unknown in most of the ancient near east. Remember the temptation of the Israelites in the desert:

“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”(Num 11:5-6 ESV)

Remember also that Jacob brought his family to Egypt originally because of drought in Israel (Gen 42:1-2; 46:4). Pharaoh offered the people food and security as slaves; Moses offered them an alternative reality that included freedom from slavery. Corporate America, the government, and, all too frequently, the established church all try to offer much the same thing today.

Solomon

Ultimately, Brueggemann argues, Moses’ theology proved too radical for the Israelite people. Over the course of time, worship left the Moses’ tabernacle, a tent where access to God was freely open to all, and entered Solomon’s temple, a house devised to regulate access to God. The sovereign God worshipped in the tabernacle became a domesticated God managed by priests. And Solomon taxed and enslaved the people as much or more than Pharaoh, his father in law. Solomon’s taxes so burdened the people that when he died, the kingdom split when his heir threatened to raise taxes even more (1Kgs 12).

The Prophet

Freedom from slavery starts with a transcendent God, who hears the cries of His people. But how can people know to cry out to God when they have been satiated with the food and wine of kings? Brueggemann sees:

“The task of prophetic ministry [as] to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture…”(3)

The prophet must teach agnosticized people how to cry again. The problem is not unlike teaching a co-dependent person how to stand on their own two feet or convincing a drug addict to go straight.

The prophetic voice, according to Brueggemann:

“…is not carping and denouncing. It is asserting that false claims to authority and power cannot keep their promises, which they could not in the face of the free God.”(11)

This is the prophetic model of Moses as he confronts Pharaoh during the ten plagues, but “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.”(11)

Where is God?

Although Brueggemann cites Jeremiah, known as the Crying Prophet, extensively, the model of people crying to God and God providing them a deliverer is a central theme in the Book of Judges. For Brueggemann, God is a transcendent, listening God who hears the cry of his people and acts. He is also a God who is not bashful in putting his thumb on the scale for the poor in their conflict with the rich. If Brueggemann’s insight seems far-fetched, then consider the second Beatitude:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”(Matt 5:4 ESV)

Who feels blessed in grief? In the context of the conflict between rich and poor, comfort in grief appears subversive—comfort that only God can provide. Hearing such words from Jesus, which echo Isaiah 61:1-3, suggests that Brueggemann’s Jesus both plays the role of an OT prophet and uses words that speak at a presuppositional level to undermine the dominant culture, most remarkably the Roman empire.

Assessment

Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imaginationis perhaps his best-known book, one of over a hundred published works.[1]He is a retired seminary professor and much-sought-after speaker. Although a darling of liberal Protestants, his analysis could easily be recast in more covenantal terms and appeal to Evangelicals.

The role of a covenant lawsuit prophet, for example, is to remind OT kings of their obligations under the Mosaic covenant—no Marxist dialectic need be evoked—as Brueggemann’s prophet. And his focus on the conflict between prophet and king does not interfere with the usual paradigm of salvation history—creation, fall, and redemption. Rather, it points to the failure of the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7) and the need for Christ.

I enjoyed reading The Prophetic Imaginationbefore seminary, but only understood it some years later on a second read. For anyone up to the challenge, I recommend it highly.

[1]http://www.WalterBrueggemann.com/about.

Brueggeman’s Prophet Imagines What Might Be

Also see:

Sabbath Rest as Cultural Firewall by Brueggemann 

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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