The church leader looking for books on stewardship faces a rich supply of options. Recent publications tend to emphasize themes of year-round stewardship, embracing the virtue of generosity, and issuing calls to re-examine our relationship with money. With only a few exceptions, though, the field often lacks much sophistical biblical study. Late last year, scholar Walter Brueggemann filled the gap with a new book, Money and Possessions (WJK, 2016). Today’s post features my review of this fine new book.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
New Stewardship Book by Walter Brueggemann
Adam J. Copeland
Part of the respected “Interpretation Series” from Westminster John Knox Press, Money and Possessions does not immediately strike one as a stewardship book. And, indeed, it does not fit the contemporary genre. Like Douglas John Hall’s classic, The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age (1990, revised 2004), by refusing to adhere to the usual stewardship book style, I predict Money and Possessions will long serve as a foundational text in the field.
Brueggemann himself needs no extended introduction. He has authored over 100 books and is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Money and Possessions is written in his usual, inimitable style: authoritative, perceptive, unyielding, and willing to connect the ancient words of scripture to the unjust situations of our modern age. Unique to this book, however, Brueggemann extends his usual scope to include the New Testament.
It will not surprise the reader familiar with Brueggemann that his argument includes significant reframing of how the contemporary church interprets scripture: “it is simply astonishing that the church has willingly engaged in a misreading of the biblical text in order to avoid the centrality of money and possessions in its testimony” (xxi). Reporting that he did not set out to “advocate,” Brueggemann eventually finds the texts will not allow him to avoid it. While noting their significant diversity, he argues in the Preface that a worthy summation of scripture is that, “the biblical texts on money and possessions pivot on ‘God and mammon’ as a decisive either-or,” all the while critiquing a predatory economy of extraction countered by a sought-after economy of restoration (xx).
Each of the 15 chapters covers a book or set of books from which Brueggemann draws out themes related to money and possessions. The chapter subtitles tell the story: “Deuteronomy: The Great Either-or of Neighborliness”; “Proverbs and Job: Wise Beyond Smart”; “The Five Scrolls: Scripts of Loss and Hope, Commodity and Agency.” In five chapters, Brueggemann covers the New Testament, splitting out the gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, the pastorals, James, and finally, “The Book of Revelation: The Ultimate Alternative.”
This section by section approach is quite effective and works to emphasize both the disconnects and common themes in scripture. The Bible takes on new meanings when read with money and possessions as a chief concern. For example, Deuteronomy’s context has much to do with economic realities of the day. As Brueggemann puts it: “Israel’s new habitat is to be amid a predatory economy” (35). Moses’ warnings include that the land to be entered will be a seductive one, but also transformable, by which Brueggemann stresses how covenantal practices present the possibility of transforming the economy into one of neighborliness.
With Brueggemann as guide, Deuteronomy becomes a book concerned with the centrality of debt forgiveness, the danger of exploitative loans, and the redemptive practice of sharing. Brueggemann writes, “justice is the maintenance of neighborliness that permits all members of the community to flourish without the distortion or subversion of economic leverage” (51). Preachers, particularly, will appreciate the bounty of homiletical approaches opened-up by Brueggemann’s reading. Sermons on stewardship — even narrowly defined as the management of money and material possessions — may find their home far beyond the usual texts. Thankfully, ample topical and scriptural indexes will aid pastors who, each fall, return to the book seeking quotes for stewardship season.
While the lasting value of the book is the methodical way Brueggemann develops the deep, and sometimes unexpected biblical themes of money and possessions, stewardship leaders may at times become frustrated with Brueggemann’s findings, and, to some extent, his necessary selectivity. Tithing, for instance, barely makes an appearance. Perhaps surprisingly, the theme Brueggemann made famous — that of God’s liturgy of abundance amidst our culture’s narrative of scarcity — is fairly quiet. Instead, Sabbath becomes a “refusal of the rat race of commodity acquisition” (23). Jesus’ teaching is not about humdrum kindness, but “an alternative economy that is not preoccupied with wealth” (190). Over and again, Brueggemann refuses to accept interpretative traditions leading to more individualist, heaven-minded, spiritual readings. Instead, Brueggemann is about systemic interpretation and communal callings.
To end at the beginning, the book’s Introduction alone is worth the price of the whole, for it describes Brueggemann’s six theses on the Bible and money. While some of the theses may seem old hat, they all pack a fresh punch. Even the opening thesis claiming, “Money and possessions are gifts from God,” in Brueggemann’s hands becomes a notion that upends any misconceptions of individual earning. God’s gifts, when misconstrued, misused, or misjudged, become distorted in ways destructive to all of society. Money and Possessions deserves a prime location in any stewardship library, but reader beware, Brueggemann’s conclusions will spice up staid stewardship sermons — to extra hot!
A version of this review was published in Word & World, 37(1), Winter 2017. It is used here by permission.
Adam J. Copeland is the Director for the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary.
Purchase Money and Possessions by Walter Brueggemann here.
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