We live in world that never stops moving. There are more options than ever for activities to spend our time. We have access to seemingly unlimited activities, many of which are harmless or even in some way good. Our jobs seem to claim more and more of our lives each week. The special effort for a big project begins to be the every week demand because we, and our employer, has realized if we can make the sacrifice sometimes we can make it all the time. The endless stream of entertainments and opportunities has led many cultural critics to describe Westerners as exhausted, bored, and overworked.
With that motif in the background, Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, has an interesting appeal. As an Old Testament scholar, an interpretation of the 4th Commandment would seem to be exactly in his realm of expertise.
The book is a brief 90 pages or so, which makes reading it a sort of Sabbath in itself. This volume actually began its existence as a Bible study series that is available as a download from www.thoughtfulchristian.com for a higher price than this book. However, the original format of the volume explains the construction of the book and some of its characteristics.
Sabbath as Resistance has a brief preface followed by six studies on different aspects of the Sabbath. Brueggemann considers the Sabbath in relation to the first Commandment, and the Sabbath as resistance to a series of modern vices, namely anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking. The book concludes with a discussion of Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment. Each of these topics is important and potentially helpful to Christians in a frantic world.
Brueggemann, interacting positively with Michael Fishbane’s work, argues the Sabbath “concerns the maintenance of a distinct faith identity in the midst of a culture that is inhospitable to all distinct identities in its impatient reduction of all human life to the requirements of the market.” He goes on to say that the celebration of Sabbath is “resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”
For Brueggemann, Sabbath is much less doxological and much more economic. He certainly has a point here. When the original practice of Sabbath is considered, it largely differentiated Israel from the surrounding nations on an economic basis. It is easy to find support in Scripture for the argument that resting from economic activity on the Sabbath reflects a trust in God which has a doxological element.
Unfortunately, this book never really makes such an argument. Sabbath as Resistance is much more a diatribe against market economics than it is a theological argument for worshipful rest. The rhetorical rejection of a market economy is an undercurrent that runs just beneath the surface of the entire volume, occasionally bubbling to the top. Through all this, Brueggemann does not appear to consider the possibility that consumerism is an abuse of market economics.
I tend to agree with Brueggemann that Christians need to practice a form of Sabbath. The 10 Commandments are a part of the moral law, and as such, still in play since they reflect God’s very nature. The fact that God himself practiced Sabbath after creating the world demonstrates that resting and enjoying the fruit of one’s labor is a part of the proper cycle of the created order. The reality that a failure to constrain our desires often leads us to overwork and under-worship is another argument for restoring a healthy practice of the Sabbath that resonates with Brueggemann’s book.
However, Brueggemann’s simplistic view of a market economy––that it “mandates that one must sink or swim by one’s own effort, and it is never enough simply to tread water”––reflects a confusion of an unhealthy attitude that has cropped up in our current consumerist economy rather than a cry for a rejection of the system out of hand. The problem may not be the system as much as it is the sinful people living and working within the system. Therefore, I agree with much of Brueggeman’s application, but not with his motivation.
A weakness in this volume is that it never deals with some important questions: 1) How is Sabbath to be practiced? 2) How did the Sabbath transfer to the Lord’s Day in the NT fellowships? 3) What do we do with Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath? Brueggemann appears to be so interested in presenting opposition to a free market economy that he misses obvious biblical data and practical questions that would make this a more helpful volume.
In the end, I appreciate some of what Brueggemann is doing here, but he has an axe to grind and does not support some of his conclusions well enough in this context. This is worth reading as one perspective on the contemporary practice of Sabbath in Christianity, but it has too many flaws to be helpful as a Bible study resource.
Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The opinions above are entirely my own.