Since his so-called retirement from Columbia Theological Seminary, Walter Brueggemann has been releasing books in rapid succession, with seven in 2014 alone. His recent tome, Ice Axes for Frozen Seas, is a collection of essays from 2008-2012 that captures a broad swath of his thought in numerous areas but fails to live up to its subtitle, A Biblical Theology of Provocation.
In distinction from the majority of Brueggemann's edited collections, Ice Axes features a lengthy introduction from the editor, which attempts to treat the scope of Brueggemann's work. Davis Hankins, who is professor of philosophy and religion at Appalachian State University, uses the introduction to systematize the theoretical elements of Brueggemann's thought (e.g., the relationship between text and world) perhaps more than anyone else to date. The result, however, is strikingly different from the liveliness and faithfulness to which Brueggemann aspires.
For example, Hankins concludes that Brueggemann's refusal to speculate about the God beyond the text is due to the conviction that "there is no hidden, true substance or inner kernel of a God operating behind the scenes." Rather, says Hankins, there is nothing behind the biblical testimony except "various social, political, economic, and other interests" in contention with one another (p. 19). Thankfully, though, the articles within Ice Ages suggest alternative conclusions about Brueggemann's God.
The volume's eighteen essays are arranged in four categories: poetry, narrative, social policy, and concrete contemporary matters. Realistically, though, it is nearly impossible for Brueggemann to write anything without heavy doses of all four of these emphases, so most of the essays spill over into neighboring categories. This review will thus focus on individual essays without reference to their category.
One of the first essays, "Biblical Language" (ch. 5), will be among the most jarring to any reader, as well as problematic for Hankins' assessments in the introduction. Here, Brueggemann contrasts what he calls the "covenantal-dialogical rhetoric of the Bible" with the "Cartesian-modernist rhetoric" in which we are steeped (p. 115, italics original). He argues that all rationalist theological projects run up against the explosive language of God's active agency as found everywhere in the Scriptures. Tracing the emergence of historical relativism, and the reactionary development of "absolutist propositional language" (p. 127, italics original), Brueggemann asserts that rationalist theologians mistakenly wound up fighting fire with fire. He suggests that both approaches represent an affront to the God of the Bible, whom they have unwittingly "transposed from an active subject to a harmless object that is no more than an image, or an icon, or an idol that is completely without capacity for agency" (p. 127).
In an essay aptly titled "Food Fight" (ch. 6), Brueggemann recounts the scriptural theme of food monopolies, as epitomized in the policies of the great royal figures of the Bible. He demonstrates the mixed portrayal of Solomon, who ironically becomes both the exemplar of God's favor on Israel, and the Israelite counterpart to Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, whose drive for accumulation ravages the country and drives the people into slavery. Brueggemann concludes by offering what he calls "The Other Way," which is the way of contentment, as an antidote to the way of constant consumption through the enslavement of others (p. 162).
The essays in Ice Ages do grow progressively more oriented toward recent history and the present. For example, in a later essay titled "Obedience" (ch. 15), Brueggemann challenges readers to dream along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and he charts a prophetic inheritance from Moses and Jesus and finally to King. In ch. 17, intriguingly entitled "Bail Out," Brueggemann contrasts our constructed world of autonomy, anxiety, and greed with the Bible's offer of "covenantal existence," "divine abundance," and "generosity" (pp. 377-78). In his final essay, "Jubilee" (ch. 18), Brueggemann suggests that Walmart seize upon their fifty-year anniversary to enact the ancient Levitical prescription of the jubilee year for the people and places that have been diminished by its stores.
Without question, Ice Axes for Frozen Seas offers a scintillating array of essays from the perennially engaging mind of Walter Brueggemann. The expositions and challenges presented here will make any Bible student rethink a wide range of assumed interpretations. The book is thus well-suited to the needs of pastors and theological students, and really anyone who seeks to approach the Bible thoughtfully. However, it is not a "biblical theology" in any conventional sense of the word, and thus the subtitle is misleading. A more realistic (although much less marketable) subtitle would be "A Provocative Collection of Recent Essays," or something along those lines.
While some of the essays in the volume are explosive, others, such as "Poems vs. Memos" (ch. 4), seem like a rehashing of themes that Brueggemann treats much better elsewhere. The unhelpful introduction, the variable quality of the essays, and the price tag make this book difficult to recommend to anyone on a budget. Those looking for an introduction to Brueggemann would do better with his classic titles like The Prophetic Imagination (2nd ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) and Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress 1997), or the more recent An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).