And now we find Babylon redux today in Western society. Consumer capitalism, a never-ending cycle of working and buying, a sea of choices produced with little regard to life or resources, societal violence, marginalized and excluded people, a world headed toward climactic calamity. Where are the prophets—the Jeremiahs—to lead the way out of the gated communities of overindulgence, the high rises of environmental disaster, and the darkness at the core of an apostate consumer society?
Walter Brueggemann—a scholar, a preacher, a prophetic voice in our own time—challenges us again to examine our culture, turn from the idols of abundance and abuse, and turn to lives of meaning and substance.
Reviewed by Shane Raynor, a certified United Methodist lay speaker and the publisher of FaithExperience.com
Is it conceivable that a well-known Old Testament scholar and theologian could listen to a country song and then be prompted to pen a book rooted in biblical history that includes contemporary political and social commentary? I probably wouldn’t have seen it coming, but former Columbia Theological Seminary professor Walter Brueggemann has managed to do it, and quite effectively. The song is “Time in Babylon” from the 2003 album Stumble Into Grace by Emmylou Harris. Dr. Brueggemann uses the song’s lyrics as a launching pad to take readers through a treatise comparing ancient Babylon with the modern-day United States and the deported Jews of Babylonian Captivity with contemporary American Christians.
Brueggemann picks up the story as the exile begins in the 6th Century B.C., and he examines Jewish anticipation and reaction to the captivity through the eyes of its poets and prophets. He shifts from past to present, back and forth, as he makes his case for the American empire, an empire which seems much more organized, disciplined, and deliberate in Dr. Brueggemann’s book than I suspect is actually the case. Certainly no one can argue that America isn’t a major political, cultural, and economic influence for the rest of the world. But the author risks jumping the gun with his view of American empire. Like its conservative “America is the world’s greatest hope” counterpart, the “American empire” view could simply be too Americocentric. Time will tell us if that’s the case.
Comparing ancient Babylon to modern America has its challenges—Brueggemann himself admits that the parallels from then to now are inexact. And he’s careful not to oversimplify things:
... certainly in our own time, while we may discerningly critique U.S. imperial power, it is obvious that in many parts of the world—notably in Eastern Europe—the presence of U.S. assertive power is received affirmatively. Thus any critique of empire (Babylon, Rome, and the United States) must reckon with such affirmation.
One hurdle an author must overcome when going down this road is the fact that the “America as empire” angle has been explored extensively in mainline religious thought, so overexposure of the topic itself becomes a danger. On the other hand, a name-brand scholar like Brueggemann gives credibility to an idea when he writes a book about it, so his take is obviously going to trump those by lesser known authors. At the very least, the entry of Out of Babylon into the literary mix guarantees a front burner for the empire discussion.
There are minor missteps in the book. When he suggests a list of modern-day American poets and prophets, Brueggemann seems to be intimating that the road to becoming a prophet must out of necessity pass through political activism. Frankly, putting Jim Wallis and Daniel Berrigan on the same list with Dr. Martin Luther King seems like a stretch to me. But politics aside, Brueggemann’s thorough comparisons of the different styles, points-of-view, and approaches of the Old Testament prophets are fascinating and they make Out of Babylon well worth reading. Brueggemann is clearly in his element.
For the academic audience, this book will be quite engaging, even controversial—and it will likely find its way onto seminary textbook lists next year. For church groups and laypeople, class leaders will probably be more successful using it as supplemental reading for a topical discussion or lecture-driven course rather than as a primary text. There’s a lot here to digest and even those who are used to Brueggemann’s style of writing may find themselves rereading portions of the book for the sake of comprehension.
“This book drips with prophetic flavor and imagination. For decades, Brueggemann has been a gentle, steadfast voice in the wilderness --inviting cultural refugees, political misfits, and religious burnouts to set up camp and build a new world. In an age that is growing tired of militarism and materialism, here is a book that dares you, not only to say NO to the empire, but to say YES to another world. Let this book inspire you to look from a distance at Babylon as she falls and Wall Street as she falters and sing songs of deliverance and freedom, songs about the God who lifts up the lowly and casts the mighty from their thrones; these are the songs of Zion.”
Shane Claiborne, author, activist, and freelance troublemaker