Friday, February 17, 2017

Rebuilding the Foundations, by John Brueggemann and Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann has long been known as a leading Old Testament scholar.  His son John Brueggemann is a rising scholar in the field of sociology. Together they have written Rebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture.  In a call and response style, the Brueggemanns discuss the decline of the moral tradition of the United States. They write, "The problems of our time are not simply the result of some elemental evil force, but rather reflect a complicated historical moment in which the structural arrangements and cultural circumstances have been aligned to disastrous effects."  

The Brueggemanns base their book on Jonathan Haidt's moral foundation theory. Haidt identified six moral foundations: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation.  

Each chapter includes John's reflections from a sociological perspective and Walter's biblical analysis of some Old Testament passages. (Forgive my familiarity using their first names; I'm just trying to be efficient.)  I enjoyed the way they linked their perspectives.  For example, they talk about the reality of poverty in the United States, while describing the prophetic tradition as equating "knowledge of God with care for the poor and needy."  They talk about the inequality of wealth, and compare the current situation to King Solomon whose "enterprise is the process of making some rich at the expense of many others."

Unsurprisingly, the Brueggemanns' perspective is decidedly on the left.  Their left-leaning perspective only bothered me a few times, like when their anti-market perspective shined through ("Market fundamentalism provides the foundation. Profit is the goal.") or when the unnecessarily and rudely called President Trump "the great defiler."  (Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to criticism or mocking of politicians.  But in this book it seemed out of place.)

The bigger problem with their liberal perspective came when they tried to bring biblical ideals into a real-world scenario.  They make an argument against the commodification of food, emphasizing "the abundance of food assured by the Creator" and the "triangle of the God who gives, the producer-distributor-consumer who enjoys food, and the neighbor with whom the abundance is shared."  That is a compelling perspective, but it completely ignores the necessity of price signals, supply and demand, and consumer choice.  Parts of their work illustrate the dangers and shortcomings that are inevitable when a sociologist and an Old Testament scholar venture into the world economics and policy.

The strongest parts of Rebuilding the Foundations are Walter's forays into Old Testament passages. Overall, the book isn't particularly insightful or inspiring, and their perspective on society is rather bleak: "Everyone can see that our current sociopolitical, economic culture is on its way to a death in which humanness shrivels."  This book must have been a joy for the father son team to write; that interaction and interplay of their ideas makes it worth reading.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

No comments:

Post a Comment