Virus as a Summons to Faith – Walter Brueggemann

Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty by Walter Brueggemann
Also by this author: Delivered out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus, Part One
Published by Cascade Books on April 30, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology
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"In Virus as a Summons to Faith, the summons that Professor Brueggemann hears in the devastation caused by the Covid-19 virus is the same summons that all prophets hear in the midst of calamity: the call into right relationship with Living Presence, a call into deeper, more caring, and mutually beneficial relationship with all that is. In the biblical language that has long been at the core of Brueggemann's thinking, the devastating effects of the virus summon us to renew our covenantal relationship with God and to renew our responsibilities within that relationship."

For those of you reading this in the distant future, somehow unaware of “these unprecedented times” (which, in truth, are very precedented, just not to this generation), the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the world. As of 5/8, the date of this review’s publication, there have been over 4 million cases and almost 280,000 deaths.

Pastors the world over have struggled to lead congregations through these difficult times, both in terms of administration and in terms of theology. In the West, the very concept of plague seems at odds with a loving God. In the West, the theology of celebration has overtaken any theology of lament. And so, many have been asking how they should respond in faith to these times.

Virus as a Summons to Faith is short, pastoral epistle that explores the precedent within Scripture to help us through these alleged unprecedented times. With a pastor’s heart and an academic’s intellect, Walter Brueggemann doesn’t offer pat answers or easy explanations. He really doesn’t offer any answers at all. Brueggemann seems to realize that answers aren’t the answer, but that rather the answer to this pandemic can be found in what we—in our partnership with YHWH through the Spirit—will make of it.

Brueggemann’s tone throughout the book is pastoral, grandfatherly, and refreshing. He writes “any serious crisis is a summons for us to reread the Bible afresh” and that he hopes that this work will be seen as “an attempt to stand in solidarity” with those currently in ministry, navigating this crisis. I must say that, at least for myself, he has had quite the success.

Virus as a Summons to Faith is a short volume—eighty-some pages—and is divided seven reflections on seven different Old Testament texts. Each chapter tackles some aspect of human response, whether toward God or toward others, or seeks to help us reconcile God’s sovereignty with the existence of natural evil.

As a pastor struggling to connect with my church in this time and lead them through a situation that is wholly unprecedented to our generation, Brueggemann’s gentle reminder that we have thousands of years of Scriptural precedent is reassuring. Virus as a Summons to Faith encourages believers to use this time to draw closer to God and examine our treatment of others.

Brueggemann encourages us to preach that God will not rest until he brings beauty from ashes and asks us to stand as witnesses of God’s tenacious solidarity as we craft a “new normal” out of this pandemic that bests the “old normal” by far. He returns continually to the good we’ve already seen come from this pandemic, particularly in our treatment of both our neighbors and our enemies. He sees this virus as an opportunity for humanity to escape the egocentrism and consumerism of the modern world and turn toward a greater realization of God’s Kingdom.

I particularly appreciated how Brueggemann upholds God’s majesty, mystery, and sovereignty within the coronavirus. There is always a tension to be held between God’s sovereignty and omnipotence and the existence of natural evil. Some would deny God’s knowledge or control, stating that he does not hold power over a virus. Others would uphold God’s knowledge and control, but to the extent to portray God as creator and enactor of the virus.

Brueggemann surveys the biblical data and returns with three possibilities:

  • It is possible to think about a transactional quid pro quo; we reap what we sow in a world governed by the creator God. Some practice and policies may evoke wrath. So Job and his friends!
  • It is possible to think about the purposeful mobilization of the negative forces of creation to perform the intention of the creator God, plagues that defy every “high tower” and every “fortified wall.”
  • It is possible to pause before God’s raw holiness in a world that is not tamed by our best knowledge. (p. 18)

Brueggemann merely offers all three options as precedent. He does not say much on which he believes it to be, nor do I think he wants to or need to. He does not offer an answer, but merely points us to the reality that our faith is not without answers. And that we must live in the tension of what that precedent means for us today. Which of these three, if any, may never be known. Now is the time for lament and action.

Virus as a Summons to Faith is a deeply pastoral and comforting. In a world where fingers are being pointed at all sides, where new conspiracies pop up daily, and where reasonable discussion is almost entirely absent, Brueggemann clears aside the clutter and encourages us to resist, persist, and assist amid this crisis.

On a technical note, the latter two chapters are adapted from previously published journal articles and, as such, do not always have the same tone or feel as the freshly-written chapters. They were originally written at different times for a different purpose to a different audience and, although their use in this volume is appropriate, they do come across as more formal and less conversational.

I’ve been a bit wary of this new genre I’m calling “coronabooks.” Many pastors and theologians have felt the need to respond publicly to the coronavirus and the result is…mixed…at best. Books take time to write and proof and publish. If you write on the specifics on the coronavirus or government response, you will find yourself obsolete the next week. If you focus on the precedent found in Scripture, you must still deal with the difficulty of addressing an audience in a vastly different situation than the one you wrote in. And all of this is aside the practical and technical necessities of editing, publishing, and printing a book in so little time. Virus as a Summons to Faith is not immune to those inherent difficulties and has already been revised for a second printing.

Of the “coronabooks” I’ve read thus far, Brueggemann’s is without a doubt the best in terms of quality, tone, and relevance past the crisis. Virus as a Summons to Faith, through focusing on Scriptural precedent, will have the staying power to remain instructive for both future crises and as a retrospective on the current crisis. It has been a tether holding me to the Rock amid this storm.