The Biblical Imagination and the Economy? Really?

“Nobody knows. Nobody knows. Nobody knows” — this was the answer, from a smart, savvy friend of mine, to the question of where the bottom is to this awful economic freefall that seems to drag us down so painfully. He said he was quoting lyrics from an old song out of his era. Not very comforting words.

“Nobody knows” — this was his final answer

Will the stimulus package help to resuscitate the economy? Will our credit resources stabilize soon to provide the life-blood for new growth once again? Do people have enough faith in American business to keep their retirement hopes in the stock market? If not, where else do we turn? How soon will jobs feel secure again? How soon will opportunities blossom again for the entrepreneurial, creative spirits among us? How long will it take? — maybe that’s the biggest question on everyone’s mind these days. Is it different this time around?

Nobody knows. What a humbling and frightening assessment.

As I have been thinking about all of this, I am reminded what the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says about being boxed in by “fixed conclusions,” those easy answers that are no longer working.

When we find ourselves in this place, just simply stuck, when we feel nobody knows the answers, this is just the kind of moment, Brueggemann says, when we must imagine new ways of living. And where do we turn? There are voices out of our ancient biblical tradition, says Brueggemann, who “not only discerned the new actions of God that others did not discern,” but actually “wrought the new actions of God by the power of their imagination, their tongues, their words. New poetic imagination evoked new realities in the community.”

But what would these “new realities in the community” actually look like? What we find here, says Brueggemann, is an “anticipation of the restoration of public life, safe cities, caring communities, and secure streets. . . . There is anticipation of the restoration of personal and interpersonal life, happy families, domestic well-being and joy, shared food and delighted relationships. Both public and interpersonal life depend on the self-giving action of God who makes newness possible.”

This is the kind of world, these new communities of human flourishing, we must propose to a world gripped by great uncertainty and fear about the future. What if we could equip the next generation of leaders for our world to build this kind of world — where the streets are safe, where people actually care for one another, where community matters, where families are healthy and happy, where we share food and joy and well-being? This will take a lot of work. A lot of savvy. It will take competencies that matter to our world.

I believe the biblical tradition calls us to imagine such a world — it is now our job to roll up our sleeves, to master the skills necessary, and set out to get the job done. Don’t you think?



Categories: Economy, Theology

6 replies

  1. I, too, hope for such ‘new realities’ as you imagine. I do think that it will take quite a bit of work to get there and we cannot expect the individual initiative of motivated citizens alone to do it. We need to recognize that part of the reason our streets aren’t safe and that public life has atrophied is that we’ve built our cities and neighborhoods more for the convenience of cars and less for the needs of people. We’ve built a lot of large surface parking lots over the past 50 years and not very many public squares and plazas. Our houses have become oriented to the back yard while the fronts are dominated by large garage doors. I think that if the next generation of leaders can learn to take seriously things like geography and the built environment in ways that eluded their predecessors we may very well be able to look forward to a new day of caring communities and civic health.

  2. In my office, a staff member recently reported on the “good news” web sites and news organizations that have sprung up around the country to deliver positive stories to Americans –– and I’m sure people around the world –– who are starved for some kind of silver lining in the dark clouds that have hung over us for so long. This staff member also brought with her some of these “good news” stories, and they were examples of exactly what you are describing: an employer paying his employees to fix up their hometown when there was no work at the factory, townspeople coming together to make storm repairs for their town and neighbors, foreclosed homes being used for the homeless. Maybe what you are describing is happening. Maybe we are –– albeit painfully –– rethinking our values and ways of living, and rediscovering what is truly important.

  3. Perhaps we will experience more human encounters. To take public transit is to literally rub shoulders with mothers and students and construction workers and those looking for work. To seek free events takes us back to the parks and promenades, and brings us face-to-face with community. If able, to eat out once a week at a neighborhood restaurant, often of another culture, is to mix, to mingle, to keep the place afloat and to encourage the owners to hang on. Bring back the potluck, the game night, the walk around the block, the Sunday drive. The local church as focal point, and lifter of hopes. Everyone can do a little.

  4. Wow, Eric, astute observation on the structure of space… you’re not a sociologist, are you? Because you sound like one. 🙂

    In my own peronsal crises, I am regularly convicted that the key to my personal well-being lies in seeking the well-being of others. The necessity of giving out of my need, like the widow and her penny, is a key conviction in my life. I think it applies to this economic downturn as well. When we focus outward and become more community-oriented people, giving as much as we can (and streching as often as possible our conception of “as much as we can”) to the community, the community can be trusted, I believe, to take care of us in return.

    Generalized reciprocity is characteristic of communities that have higher levels of trust in each other. It is easier to trust each other to take care of us after we have depleted ourselves for others’ sake if we trust God to take care of us. We were discussing moral responsibility towards the end of my Soc. Capstone this spring, and I said that I would like to be the kind of person who does not worry about how much I have to give or help others to check it off my “love thy neighbors” list, but instead seeks constantly to reevaluate how much I am giving or helping, and how I can do more. I think this is where Christian joy comes from anyway. I don’t judge Bill Gates as sufficiently generous for the great amount of money he gives to good causes, nor do I judge him stingy for the vast wealth he keeps for himself, I just acknowledge that he is creating some good in the world, and that he could probably do more if he wanted. The same is probably true for most of us.

  5. It is so true that when things are hard it is an opportunity to rethink and experience totally new things that reach down and touch emotions and ideas that have been dormant. We are in the process of selling our house. Unfortunately we are still in limbo after 11/2 years. We are lliving with half of our stuff. The house is mostly empty. I was somewhat depressed but my first reaction to the banks failing and many of our friends losing jobs or finding themselves with changes in their plans, was to make soup. Maybe it is the elementary teacher in me or the “mom” factor but I just felt God was saying make soup. We have a home fellowship Bible study in our home that has met for years. Some of those people were hurting from the crisis. I announced that we would be meeting 1 hour earlier for soup. That was 5 months ago. Our fellowship has changed immensely. As we sit at one big table and share, laugh, cry, and relax, we have found out what true brotherhood in Christ is. If God can transform a small group like ours how much more can he do if we extend that hospitality to our neighborhoods, our workplaces and our schools?

  6. I’ve been thinking lately that one of the reasons I and many Christians can be so hard hit by the uncertainty of these times is that without realizing it we have fashioned a God to worship that only lends Himself to certainty: If we have faith, then with certainty we will be saved. If we have faith then with certainty we will go to heaven; If we have the spirit then the conclusions we draw regarding what scripture says about abortion and other issues can be felt with certainty.

    These are only the tell-tale signs of a faith that often seeks to remove the mystery of God and the mystery of His saving grace and replace it with certainty. Are we saved by faith? Yes, but also Corinthians 4:1-5. Are allowed to interpret the scriptures by the spirit of God in us? Yes, but also Corith 8:2, which says “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.”

    If we remove the mystery from or vision of God and from our vision of life, replacing the mystery with the comforting illusion of certainty, we will not be at home when life tosses use times of uncertainty because our God will be too small for those times.

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