My review of Walter Brueggemann’s forthcoming title, Materiality as Resistance: Five Elements of Moral Action in the Real World.
What does this book offer the Church?
In the 6th century, the future of the Church would forever change, according to Brueggemann, as Constantine started to influence the Church and her spirituality. Part of that spirituality was that the Church started to create too sharp a divide between the material and spiritual world, and the Church began to neglect her ideals of serving the poor, the outcast, the disadvantaged, and the widow.
The Church in the 21st century, he argues, has fallen victim to the same sharp dichotomy, and, in fact, perpetuates it even further than the Church has in the past. Part of this is the way that we teach the Bible, but part of it spins out of the 21st century context we live in. It’s easy for us to neglect our neighbor when we live in an entirely over-connected world through social media. We ignore our communities when Amazon promises us two-day shipping and low prices, while local bookstore owners suffer as their traffic is going to the web rather than their store.
In response to the Church’s neglect of the physical world, he suggests a return to materiality. This is not a return to materialism, something that the veteran pastor has spoken against before. He notes five areas where the Church needs to be more attentive to the physicality of the world around us: money, food, the body, time, and place.
How well does this book accomplish its goals?
A book like this can become really preachy in a really bad way really quickly. Thankfully, Brueggemann is careful to maintain a pastoral tone, yet still provide incisive and probing critiques of the unhealthy ways in which we interact with money, food, our bodies, time, and place. For example, we are called to think about harmful farming practices which hurt our farms, and we’re also called to be mindful of how our obsessions with fashion can cause us to hurt those who exploited to make our clothing.
One thing that I am thankful for with this volume is Brueggemann’s careful practice of helping us think deeply about these issues without telling us *how* to act in response about these issues. As an example, he talks about bookstores and Amazon, which I have already brought up above. He notes that we choose the convenience of online shopping over against the “work” of staying within our local communities and buying from a local bookstore. Sure, we have to do more work to purchase from a local bookstore: they might charge sticker, compared to the allure of cheaper books from Amazon, and you do have to drive there, but you are keeping the money local. The alternative is sending your money to a corporation, which doesn’t give any money to your neighbors, nor does it benefit you where you live. Rather than telling his readers to forego Amazon entirely, Brueggemann paints a vivid of portrait of the biblical idea of being local and supporting your community.
What this all boils down to is a helpful biblical theology of the material world and the way Christians must interact with it. The material world and material needs are not always bad, despite the gnostic patterns we as Christians can fall into sometimes. The material world and material needs are also not the most important issues facing Christians, as materialist Hegelians might try to suggest. Instead, Brueggemann suggests a biblical way to view the Christian duty to meet material needs and interact with a material world.
If you would like more information, you can read the publisher’s comments on Westminster John Knox Press’s website. You can pre-order the book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book, or talk to your local bookstore about placing an order for you.