Reviewed by Andrew Abernethy
Prophetic Lament is a difficult book to classify. Though based upon Lamentation, it is not purely an exercise in biblical exegesis. Although it challenges believers with the implications of lament, it is not simply a work on Christian living. Although it repeatedly challenges white evangelical Americans, it is not merely a prophetic critique of American society. Though confronting unhealthy approaches to urban ministry and offering paths forward, it is not only a guide to urban church planting. Prophetic Lament is an eclectic work where Rah brings insights from Lamentations to bear on the Christian life, American culture, and approaches to urban ministry.
In the “Introduction,” Rah pits the “triumph-and-success orientation” of most American Christians, which has no place for suffering and lament, against a vision of the Christian life rooted in suffering, where there is room for lament. Since lament is both the means of expressing suffering and of critiquing the dominant culture, Rah uses Lamentations as a “prophetic corrective necessary to embrace the next phase of Christianity” (26) which moves beyond triumphalist mentalities.
Chapters 1–3 engage with different facets of Lamentations 1. Rah begins by reflecting on how God’s people were tempted to respond to Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BC. In light of Jeremiah 29:4–9, Rah suggests that the great temptation of God’s people after Jerusalem’s fall was to disengage from the world; Jeremiah’s word to the exiles was that they must continue on with life [note, however, that Jeremiah 29:4–9 addresses a community taken into exile prior to Jerusalem’s fall, though this does not undermine Rah’s point]. Rah sees a parallel in American history, as conservative evangelical Christians have retreated from cities and society when their ideals for a Christian America were not realized. Instead of withdrawing, God’s people are to lament.
Opening Lamentations with a funeral dirge forces God’s people to “make[s] room for the stories of suffering” (48) that are often suppressed by dominant culture. One of those untold stories in America is the story of race, where Africans became expendable commodities under the umbrella of “Christianizing” the heathen. The use of feminine imagery in the personification of Jerusalem enables Jeremiah to express a wide range of shame, such as having been promiscuous and also victimized. Although the American church tends to prioritize male voices and successful pastors, Lamentations 1 creates space for voices from the non-dominant streams of society, such as women and minorities, to express experiences of shame.
Chapters 4–7 draw upon Lamentations 2. Since Lamentations 2 opens by identifying God as the cause of their suffering, lament acknowledges God’s right to judge injustice; God “is faithful to his covenant” (78) even if that involves executing justice. This faithfulness of God must be embraced today, for though the Western church is in decline, lament enables us to rejoice in God’s faithfulness in the advance of his church in the non-Western world.
Additionally, as a “city lament,” Lamentations 2 forces us to quit idealizing the city and making it our quest to fix it; there needs to be an authentic engagement within the city where the realities of suffering can be lamented by those experiencing the suffering. Moreover, there is lament over the loss of Jerusalem’s privileged status in Lamentations 2. This undermines the American church’s assumptions of exceptionalism and that it can conquer any problem.
Instead, lament forces God’s people to have a posture of humility and dependence upon God. What is more, the use of many voices and experiences of suffering in Lamentations 2 calls for there to be room for the stories of minorities. For example, though Adoniram Judson is often presented as the first North American missionary, the slave George Liele actually was. Liele’s story does not fit into the triumphalist narrative of white figures rescuing wicked societies, so it has been suppressed.
Chapters 8–10 interact with Lamentations 3. Its formal structure as an acrostic, also found in Lamentations 1–4, provides order for expressing grief. Churches too must offer formal structures for the suffering to express their grief. Lamentations 3 is also a personal lament where the individual identifies with both the suffering and the sin of the community, so this challenges the American church to not hide from the suffering of others and to acknowledge personal responsibility in corporate sin.
Furthermore, Lamentations 3 indicates that suffering is not the final word, for there is hope in God’s mercy. Though American Christians want to emphasize praise, Lamentations 3 reminds us that lament and praise belong together, for it is through casting ourselves on God’s mercy in lament that hope and praise emerge.
Chapters 11–12 focus on Lamentations 4. Lamentations 4 mourns the loss of Jerusalem’s great wealth in judgment, which serves as a critique of how “the American church craves luxury and security” (149). What is more, there is lament over how Jerusalem’s esteemed leaders have fallen, which again warns the American church over its unwitting trust of super-hero pastors and authors. Lamentations 4 calls for God’s people to recognize the futility of prioritizing prestige and to create space for valuing unheralded servants of God and for depending upon him.
Chapters 13–14 reflect upon Lamentations 5. As a communal lament, the sufferers themselves join in the dialogue with God over their situation in Lamentations 5. It is vital for the American church to allow sufferers to express their own suffering to God. The book of Lamentations ends with God’s people affirming that God rules, though they still await restoration. Christ’s incarnation reminds us that the narrative of triumph is not the simple solution to ministry in the city; instead, ministry is to unfold hand-in-hand with those who are suffering as we turn to God for his mercy.
The book finishes with several concluding reflections and a provocative epilogue that integrates Lamentations with suffering stemming from tensions revolving around violence and race in Ferguson.
There are numerous apparent strengths in this book. For one, Rah rightly notes the social function of lament, which establishes a basis for seeing both how Lamentations helps God’s people to express themselves to God and also to critique dominant cultures which want to ignore the devastation all around them. Additionally, one should appreciate the attempt to anchor what is primarily Rah’s own prophetic critique of the church today in Scripture itself. Finally, the book’s eclectic nature certainly will accomplish its aim of forcing God’s people to examine why lament is not a part of the American church today.
There are a few cautions to keep in mind with Prophetic Lament. For one, those with an interest in exegesis and hermeneutics will find themselves repeatedly evaluating whether Rah’s moves from the text and context in Lamentations to confronting white evangelical Americans are justifiable. How does lament over the unique city of Jerusalem lend itself to generalized appropriation for suffering in urban cities today? Could the same points raised in the book come from any chapter in Lamentations or from an eighth-century prophet?
One must remember, however, that Prophetic Lament is not meant to be a commentary, so we should appreciate Rah’s attempt at the extremely challenging task of bringing an Old Testament text to bear on a contemporary situation. Another caution relates to my fear that some will misunderstand Rah’s repeated critique of dominant culture. His constant use of dichotomies between whites and minorities, prosperity and suffering, males and females, and suburban and urban can leave an impression that these all fit into the larger schema of bad and good. This would be an unfortunate response to this book because I do not think Rah is trying to demonize white male American evangelicals.
Using a model of the prophet as one who critiques dominant society at times through lament, Rah is trying to expose the blind spots among evangelicals who have unwittingly settled into ways of being in the world that do not align with God’s ways. His hope, in my estimation, in these critiques would certainly be to inspire more authentic Christian witness and ministry (semper reformanda) from all of us who live amidst this world of suffering as we await the New Jerusalem.
Thus, two tracks run through this book — reflections on Lamentations and critiques of American evangelicalism. Though it is not always clear how the two coincide, I recommend Prophetic Lament for both pastors and laity as it effectively challenges the church to create space for lament and as its prophetic critiques of dominant evangelical culture will certainly provoke needed self-assessment.
Andrew Abernethy is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (IL).
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