Virus as a Summons to Faith: biblical reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety
‘Only Walter Brueggemann could have written this book’ states Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev at the start of his introduction to this slim work. In six weeks ‘Professor Brueggemann has written a profound, insightful, and actional book, bringing forth deep biblical wisdom to provide real support and guidance to face the present crisis.’ Not every chapter is new material, as Brueggemann acknowledges in his introduction. It was, I think, the first book off the printing presses related directly to the coronavirus pandemic and owes much to Brueggemann’s years of study and contemplation of the Bible.
In the opening chapters, Brueggemann portrays a merciful God who provides a firm basis for faith in the face of pandemic; and prayer as a means of recontextualising disaster. We come then to a mediation on Psalm 77. Brueggemann calls us to turn from narrow pre-occupation with self to focus on the larger Self we find in God; to turn to the mysterious and unknowable divine who liberates us to create a community of care. The newness toward which God calls us is not pain free. Rather, God groans like a woman in labour as new life is called forth. God’s people are called to acknowledge that the old has failed.
Finally, Brueggemann identifies and challenges two habits: the habit of denial and the habit of despair. Denial, he says, refuses to groan in acknowledgement that creation has failed. Despair groans but acknowledges no possibility of a new hope. Creation groans in bringing forth new life, and the ones who have caused most damage, humankind, must do most of the groaning, he contends. The pandemic is the beginning of our birth pangs, according to Brueggemann. We must give groaning full sound, rather than expect to accept the current trials with serenity.
The book consists of just seven chapters, each based on a reading from the Old Testament. It is relevant, contemporary, and well-written, as might be expected from Brueggemann. It offers very useful and faith inspiring reading for the individual but would also provide a firm basis for a sermon series.
The argument of the book offers a valuable contribution to any debate about Church and the virus. Perhaps most significantly it provides a theological counterpoint to the kind of hope based on getting back to normal and casts the pandemic itself as having a role in Christian hope. The challenge to preachers is to inspire wonder. ‘We preachers are not mandated to live within the confines of modern rationality.’
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