Living Under the Empire (1) What Stories Shape us?

Prompted into lurching back to the blogosphere for a series of short thoughts by a number of things... Recently reading Brueggemann's "Out of Babylon" with my church Book Group which looks at living with the reality of empire... reading a number of pieces on Martin Luther King Jr. last weekend... currently reading Tom Hartley's book on Belfast's City Cemetery "Written in Stone" which points up how intertwined the history of industrial Belfast was with British Imperial history... thinking about the J.G. Ballard book/film "Empire of the Sun" about a boy living under the Japanese occupation of China... talking with my lounger son about "Lord of the Flies..." the letter of the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to British imams asking them to explain how Muslim values fit within British values... preaching last weekend on the politically provocative proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom of God by Jesus at the beginning of Mark's Gospel... and a line in a Rend Collective song at the end of that service which called on God to help us "win this nation back..." It is out of that primaeval soup that these unevolved thoughts have crawled...
But let's begin at the beginning, and effectively that is with Walter Brueggemann's book "Out of Babylon." What follows is the review I wrote of it on Goodreads:
Brueggemann's writing has been hugely influential for me, particularly his seminal "Prophetic Imagination," which is why I suggested that my church book group might like to read this book with me, and why I had a deep sinking feeling as I waded my way through the first few chapters of it. It is inspired by an Emmylou Harris song "In Babylon" which uses the metaphor of Babylon to reflect on contemporary America, but whilst the lyrics of the song are printed at the beginning of the book he doesn't refer to them again until chapter 7, two thirds of the way through the book. In the preceding chapters he effectively reprises/précis his earlier work/theses on the dynamic of Israel and Empire and the exile/return metaphor in the Old Testament prophets. But he does so in an unnecessarily repetitive and overly detailed fashion with large numbers of piecemeal quotes from different passages. This alienated some of my book-group who were not particularly theologically literate, and actually, if truth be told, caused me to lose interest too. It was not devoid of interest or new information, but this section could easily have been reduced to a chapter or two by a courageous editor, with interested readers directed to Brueggemann's earlier works if they wanted more detail. However, when he returned to the song and the interface of the Old Testament prophets with contemporary America the book regained its passion and power, particularly when he moved from the metaphor of "Doin' time in Babylon", to the less romantic metaphor of "Doin' time in Persia", and the subtleties of accommodation/resistance to that enduring and pervasive empire. Had the book only consisted of those last couple of chapters I would have rated it much more highly...
I will come back to the last couple of chapters in future posts, but briefly I want to reflect on one of the things that struck me anew from the earlier, somewhat more turgid chapters. I am sure it isn't the first time I have heard this... I am actually sure that Brueggemann himself has stated it in earlier books, but what struck me with new clarity this time was that not all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went into exile in Babylon, and not all of those who did go returned. Yet despite that the experience of exile and return became one of the defining metaphors of Jewish faith... and indeed perhaps reshaped (if not generated) the key liturgical understanding of the earlier Exodus, ie. the domestic rehearsal of the Passover Meal.
And it left me wondering what are the stories that shape our spiritual and cultural lives? They may be stories that only affected a relatively few people but which have subsequently been appropriated and mythologised by wider groups of people... Indeed some of the stories may have little basis in reality at all, but still serve to shape us...
In Northern Ireland stories like the Battle of the Boyne, the Potato Famine, the Titanic, the Battle of the Somme, Bloody Sunday, the Hunger Strikes, the Enniskillen Bombing are all woven into the certain people's self-understanding, whether or not they or anyone know to them were directly affected by those events...
In global terms 9/11 has and will continue to shape the lives of people who never came within the physical shadow of the twin towers... and government policy across the western world is still being driven by the acts of a relatively few investment bankers in the run-up to 2008.
Are we as Christians and churches predominantly shaped by the stories that dominate the wider world, or do we rehearse different, revolutionary stories in our songs, sermons and liturgy? 
It was only a few men and women crowded into an upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, who heard Jesus completely transform the story of Passover in the light of what was yet to happen to him... But although only a few experienced that first/last supper, the liturgy it inspired has been a source of comfort/challenge/sustenance for millions of disciples living under many different empires, some ruthlessly oppressive, and others much more subtle in their resistance to the coming Kingdom...
What stories are we sharing to shape a new generation of followers of Christ for living under the empire in which we find ourselves?



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