Ice Axes for Frozen Seas: A Biblical Theology of Provocation
Walter Brueggemann, Ice Axes for Frozen Seas: A Biblical Theology of Provocation, ed. Davis Hankins. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014, pp. 439. $59.95 (hardback).
Reviewed by Marcus A. Hong
The main title of this collection of Walter Brueggemann’s recent writings draws the attention, while the subtitle gives an idea of the content. In line with the prolific agitator’s oeuvre, these pieces—edited by his former student and current collaborator Davis Hankins—aim to crack open hearts, minds and communities made numb by our society’s unrelenting anxiety. Brueggemann does so through sharp-edged and clear-eyed examination of biblical texts, avoiding the closure of fundamentalism on one hand and the aimlessness of progressivism on the other by wrestling with the God of the texts as an active agent. The essays are liberally peppered with references to the time in which they were written, between 2008 and 2012, in the midst of economic crisis, but before the social movements that emerged in the last four years.
Hankins greets readers with an engaging, though philosophically dense introduction that frames the current work in light of Brueggemann’s career. For those familiar with his writings, the introduction hints at unrecognized motifs and surprising interlocutors—such as the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Ernesto Laclau—who resonate with Brueggemann, but whose names never appear in his bibliographies. For the lay reader or new reader, these insights will hit with less force, though the shape that Hankins brings to the collection remains most welcome.
As a collection, the book resists simple summary, which is just as well, since Brueggemann consistently pushes for poetry’s generative ambiguity over the anaesthetizing calculations of lists, summaries and memos. Nevertheless, an exploration of the themes under which Hankins gathers these occasional pieces will hopefully inspire interest. In Part I, Brueggemann explores the dynamics of hope, the complexities of divine and human action, and the provocative, poetic nature of biblical rhetoric. One senses him wrestling with what it means that the United States elected President Obama, a candidate of hope and change. What does it mean to hope? How do we change? Can we govern or even protest in poetry instead of prose?
Part II moves to thoughtful examination of biblical narratives, mostly the Exodus and the reign of King Solomon. Where Part I illuminated ideologies, these essays highlight economics; Pharaoh and Solomon’s consumptive anxiety contrasted with God’s gracious abundance. In these selections, Brueggemann engages the ways of being and thinking that led to the Great Recession and emphasizes the importance of intentional remembering and lively engagement with tradition.
From there, the collection considers how these ways of being are concretely performed. In performance there is interpretation; each Hamlet wonders “To be or not to be” differently. How do these ideologies and economics play out in practice? The central quote for Part III comes from Deuteronomy 5:3, “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” (256) Though still primarily working with textual analysis, Brueggemann here references more contemporary events, even though he can only do so “by analogy.” (268)
The final part transitions most fully to the present. Brueggemann dives into the current moment, referencing the earlier textual work while talking about Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Walzer, Donald Rumsfeld, and Walmart. The essays are not ordered chronologically, so, while recurring phrases and preoccupations lend coherence to the whole, it might also be instructive to check the footnotes, matching these final pieces with the more removed essays earlier in the book.
Brueggemann prods and points toward greater faithfulness—to the text, to the moment, and to the God who leaps disruptively from the text into the now. These essays’ power stems from their ability to hold a mirror to recent events. We see our tattered state, but we also find a piece of glass in need of serious dusting. We discover our rough edges and our inability to read clearly—both a blessing and curse. Scripture provokes us, discomfits us, forces us to look more closely.
This leads one to wonder how these essays would have changed if written a few years later. Economics dominated the post-collapse discussion, matching Brueggemann’s long-standing preoccupations with things like the Occupy Wall Street Movement. (319) But President Obama’s tenure has also reminded us that we are not yet done with racism, sexism or heteronormativity. While race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and class are deeply interrelated, certain voices rise up in certain moments. From 2008 to 2012, this voice belonged to Occupy Wall Street. Reflecting this, in the essay, “Obedience,” Brueggemann employs Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy through the lens of Pharaoh’s empire of discrimination, fear and violence. He writes, “the force of such discrimination is powerful among us. It takes the form of racial and ethnic exclusion. But as Martin saw clearly, the deeper discrimination is economic; the rich have more and more advantages and the poor are consigned to hopelessness.” (347) In the four years since the last essay was composed, Black Lives Matter has replaced Occupy Wall Street. In light of the testimony of black bodies and black communities who have “a story to tell” and “bodily scars that bespeak both pain and hope,” one wonders if Brueggemann would have allowed his economic narrative to be disrupted. (328) One wonders if the disproportionate psychological and economic burden laid upon black communities, as well as the violence against black people who hold advanced degrees, black women, and black transgender persons would have prompted Brueggemann to read the situation differently.
These ponderings come not in spite of, but because of the excellent work on display here. Ice Axes for Frozen Seas demonstrates that, decades into a prophetic vocation, Walter Brueggemann remains no less challenging for the Western Church and no less essential a voice. Though some of the essays will be difficult or nearly inaccessible for lay readers or pastors without specific academic training, the clarity and forcefulness of the writing often pushes through to reach the dedicated reader. May we all have hope that, faced with a world of anxiety and acquisition, “it can be otherwise in a practice of ‘Thou,’ in a world of subversive testimony, in a culture of the poetry of possibility that refuses the memos of certitude” (385).
Marcus A. Hong, PhD Student, Princeton Theological Seminary