The Church and Guerrilla Theatre

by Lloyd Pietersen

Ichabod Toward Home: The Journey of God’s Glory
Walter Brueggemann
Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002)
Pages ix + 150. Paperback ISBN 0 8028 3930 4. $19.00 (USA)

I must admit that Walter Brueggemann is my all time favourite Old Testament scholar. He is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, a prolific writer and an outstanding preacher. Brueggemann is a scholar who cares passionately about the church and Christian discipleship and this comes through in all his writings. I always pick up a new book of his with excitement and this book did not disappoint. The chapters of the book are taken from a series of five lectures given by him at Princeton Theological Seminary in February 2001. The first three chapters consist of a careful exposition of 1 Samuel 4-6 and the final two address the question as to what the church does and is to do when it stands before the biblical text.

The reading of 1 Samuel 4-6 contained in the first three chapters provides a stunning example of the close reading of biblical texts in the hands of an accomplished biblical scholar. In typical fashion he carefully delineates the three days implied in the narrative of chapters 4 and 5. Brueggemann insists that the full force of chapter 4 should be felt before moving on to chapter 5. Here God is defeated and there is a five-fold repetition of “the ark of God has been captured”. This allows the reading community to express the depths of real loss without denial. It simply is not the case that God is endlessly triumphant. However, in this text, as elsewhere, God does his mysterious work out of sight, in the darkness, and the second day demonstrates that God is not endlessly defeated either, delivering the reading community from despair. Finally, the third day reveals that this God cannot be domesticated – either by the Philistines or the Israelites. This insight invites the reading community to resist complacency by imagining that God’s victory can be treated as its own and that God can be handled like some pet.

The final two chapters are the most demanding. Here Brueggemann uses his reading of the text as a model to challenge the church, by its reading and use of biblical texts, to engage in, “guerrilla theatre”. By “theatre” he suggests that each reading of the text is to be a dramatic performance whereby an alternative reality is evoked which exposes the false ideologies of our time and enables the reading community to imagine a different world. This is a familiar theme for those who have read other works of Brueggemann. By “guerrilla” he means that these texts are profoundly subversive of the dominant culture and are “designed to undermine and finally to destroy the life-worlds that the gospel has judged to be wrong, unjust, false, unacceptable, and deathly” (p. 101).

I wholeheartedly commend this book to anyone who is interested in serious readings of biblical texts and who wants to reflect on the use of such texts to evoke and sustain an alternative view of reality to the dominant “texts” that surround us.