Issaquah professor wins literary award
August 9, 2011
By Emily Baer
Wes Howard-Brook, an Issaquah resident and professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University, has been awarded first place in Scripture by the Catholic Press Association for his book “Come Out, My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond.”
Before you toss Howard-Brook’s book out of your realm of thought, along with every other religious book you’ve ever come across, know that it caters more to the critical reader than you might assume.
The previous sentence may seem like a blasphemous overgeneralization — you may give every book a fighting chance. You may even seek books in the religious genre. If so, “Come Out, My People!” will be a happy addition to your summer reading list.
By the same token, it won’t alienate atheists and agnostics. It may even appeal to them.
Howard-Brook asks his readers to redefine the word “religion” in light of its Latin root, “religio,” meaning “to bind again.” To him, religion is “the attitudes, beliefs and/or practices that bind individuals together as a ‘people.’” In that sense of the word, Christianity is indeed a religion, but so is a common interest in baseball.
By defining religion as such, he separates the word from its coercive and violent associations.
He said he recognizes that countless young adults perceive Christianity and religion to “refer to the endless, violent and hate-filled battle between people who are sure that they are ‘right’ and their opponents are ‘wrong.” And he understands why.
So many fighting people, groups, factions and countries claim “God is on their side,” which obviously, logically, cannot be true, he said. What those people lack is an analytical comprehension — one that Howard-Brook can provide them with in 474 pages — of the Bible and the time in which it was written.
“Even if you are not a Christian, you ought to be concerned with how people use the name of God to justify things,” Howard-Brook said. “It’s not enough just to say ‘That’s stupid.’”
Readers may be surprised to discover (on the first page of the first chapter) that “Come Out, My People!” reads more like a cross between a narrative history book and analytic essay than anything else. In the beginning chapters, Howard-Brook’s style is reminiscent of Jared Diamond, New York Times best-selling author of “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”
Howard-Brook places each scripture in its cultural context and explores the various authors’ motivations and biases. He pinpoints two conflicting stories running throughout the Bible — not of Judaism and Christianity, nor the Old Testament and the New Testament — but rather one of creation and the other of empire.
“At its simplest contrast, religion of empire involves the establishment of a social order in the name of God that’s socially hierarchical, exclusive, can maintain that order with violence and that is primarily experienced through urban institutions,” he said in an interview. “It primarily sees the Earth as something that can be controlled and used.”
Religion of creation is the opposite.
What to know
‘Come Out, My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond’
Wes Howard-Brook’s book can be purchased at Amazon.com.
“It’s primarily experienced in creation and interpersonal encounter,” he said. “All people are made in God’s image equally. Violence and exclusion are not tolerated and people respect and care for the Earth.”
Frankly, (and frank Howard-Brook is), “Come Out, My People!” claims that to understand the Bible as a proponent of religion of empire is to not understand it — at least in its truest sense.
“I think we have in us a deep yearning to be connected to truth,” Howard-Brook said. “What I’m hoping is that the book will help clarify to people how the Bible is part of the truth. What will be very controversial for some people is that not all of the Bible is true. Some of it is propaganda.”
But how does he distinguish between what is true and what is propaganda?
Well, if you don’t acquire a practiced sense or ability to filter out the truth by the end of the book, Howard-Brook provided a few pointers during the interview. As with any other historical text or quote, scripture must be put in context in order to detect bias, he advised. True parts of the Old Testament are repeated and emphasized in the New Testament, while others are not, which Howard-Brook illustrates throughout his book. But this is where the aforementioned sense comes in:
“Ultimately, the religion of creation is validated by personal experience,” he said. “Not because your mother, teacher, priest or government said so. It’s ultimately because at the depth of who you are, it rings true.”
Howard-Brook is intelligent, passionate, logical and straightforward.
“It’s so obvious that the authors did not mean for the Bible to be taken literally, otherwise they would have explained things like where Cain’s wife came from,” he said. “So it was meant to be symbolic, but the way to get to that conclusion is you have to dig deeply into the ways people wrote in that time period.”
Howard-Brook hasn’t applied himself to religious studies forever, though.
“I went into law 30 years ago with the sense of making a difference in the world,” he said.
In 1983, he began working in the state attorney general’s office. Later, he became a counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I was working directly at the heart of the system,” he said. “The single lesson I learned was there’s one rule to the game: Whoever has the most money wins.”
When he “got out” of working in government, he had no idea what his next move would be. He soon found his voice — getting involved with the Catholic Church in social justice and anti-war movements.
He has been a professor at Seattle University for 15 years and leads a ministry, Abide In Me, with his wife Sue Ferguson Johnson.
For those searching for a scholarly, perceptive, step-by-step guide through the Bible — one that discovers a religion of creation rather than empire — “Come Out, My People!” is an obvious choice.
Emily Baer: 392-6434 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.