Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Write-Up: Prophetic Lament, by Soong-Chan Rah

Soong-Chan Rah.  Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times.  Downers Grove, IVP Books, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Soong-Chan Rah helped plant a church in inner-city Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his first sermon series was about the biblical Book of Lamentations.  As Rah jokes, “Church growth books would not advocate for six weeks of lamenting as a way to spark interest in a new church” (page 20).  But Rah believes that the Book of Lamentations and the concept of lamenting are relevant to today, especially in the time of Ferguson and the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law-enforcement officers.  Rah stresses the importance of lamenting with the victims of societal injustice.

Rah’s application of the Book of Lamentations to modern justice issues is artful and faithful to the text, particularly in terms of Lamentations’ themes about God not respecting the “important” of society, the futility of materialism, giving voice to the suffering, the sovereignty of God, and how sin is not always individual but can be collective.  From the standpoint of biblical scholarship, I appreciated Rah’s comparison and contrast of the Book of Lamentations with ancient Mesopotamian hymns of lament about fallen cities.  In terms of Rah’s larger agenda in the book, Rah does well to challenge attitudes that are pervasive within Western white evangelicalism: attitudes that celebrate fame and prosperity rather than faithfulness in the midst of suffering, that are patronizing towards victims of injustice, and that expect applause for reaching out to the poor.  Rah’s discussion was convicting to me, as a white liberal.

On first sight, the book does not appear to talk much about practical solutions.  This may be disappointing to privileged people who feel morally obligated to do something about the problems that Rah discusses, yet may not know how to do so, and may even get the impression from Rah’s book that what they are doing is inadequate, even counterproductive.  There is one part of the book in which Rah mentions an inner-city church that served as a mediator between the police and the community, but, as far as I could see, the book did not have too many other positive stories.  Perhaps, however, Rah believes that having a proper attitude is a significant part of the solution: lamenting with people in their pain rather than ignoring it, downplaying it, trying to make oneself feel better about it, or condescendingly trying to solve it.  I particularly appreciated Rah’s story about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a privileged German who was abstract about his theology, yet had a life-changing transition through his experience in the African-American church.

I had the privilege of visiting Pastor Rah’s church a couple of times when I lived in Massachusetts.  I consider this book, Prophetic Lament, to be powerful, well-written from a stylistic viewpoint, and important for people to read.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Intervarsity Press in exchange for an honest review.

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