Denise M. Ackermann. After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2003. xviii + 180 pp. $21.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8028-1019-9.
Reviewed by Joel Tishken (History Department, Columbus State University)
Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2004)
The Nations Judged: Forgetting Malevolent Images of God
After the Locusts is an engaging memoir rather than a standard academic monograph. It consists of six "letters" ostensibly written to important people, living and dead, in the author's life. At times, this format descends into a somewhat hermetic dialogue between the author and her loved one, distancing the reader. Fortunately, though, such moments are rare. Most of the time, the "letter" format adds a personal, almost conversational, character that lets the author reveal more of her thoughts and feelings than would otherwise be possible. The broad topics addressed (in rough order) include: identity, apartheid, faith, conversion, the essence of theology, gender and the "body," power, feminism, AIDS, the problem of evil, the role of lamentation, spirituality, prayer, and ritual.
This diverse array of topics underscores Ackermann's importance to the discipline of theology. Normally, a press would not give such scope to an author. However, Denise Ackermann's academic reputation as a former professor of theology at the University of South Africa, University of Stellenbosch, and University of the Western Cape, gained her the space needed to experiment with convention. At first glance, the list of topics might appear to be disparate and disjointed. But the memoir proves very readable indeed.
A clever literary device provides an essential narrative thread holding together otherwise disconnected topics. Ackermann uses verses from chapters 1 and 2 of the Old Testament prophet Joel. Chapter 1 and the first part of 2 (through verse 17) of Joel discuss an invasion of locusts and the destruction they are bringing to the land, and consequently to the people. Ackermann draws connections between the locusts of Joel and the evil that surrounds her world. Just as the locusts have created a "desert waste" (Joel 2:3) so too does sexism, racism, and AIDS mar our landscape. Repeatedly, Ackermann insists that these problems must be addressed by human agency (pp. 35-38, 142), or what she calls praxis, the combination of reflection and action (p. 35).
As the locusts create this desert waste, Joel commands the people to rend their hearts and return to the gracious and compassionate love of God (Joel 2:13). The remainder of Joel's chapter 2 (verses 18-32) is what Ackermann truly celebrates throughout her work. These verses contain the response of God to the destruction of the locusts. Despite the ruin, God promises that the people of Zion will enjoy a time of plenty provided by Him. Ackermann continually returns to this theme throughout her memoir. She uses it as a reminder that even though there is evil in the world, when the dust clouds settle, God will still love and reward the faithful. The title, After the Locusts, refers to this time of plenty that will begin when the locusts are finally gone. Thus, for example, Ackermann argues that suffering from patriarchy will be alleviated by both human action (praxis) and in trusting that God will eventually bring the time of plenty that creates more equitable gender roles (pp. 18, 29, 35-38, 56). Though women (from this example) may suffer, Ackermann asserts that the story of Joel illustrates that one can always count on the love of God in the end. Ackermann levels similar arguments related to racism (p. 19), doubt (pp. 45, 55), suffering/evil (pp. 77, 104-107, 124, 146, 155) and AIDS (pp. 82, 88, 92-93).
For Ackermann, faith in God and Jesus will permit one to weather adversity (even the wasteland created by a locust plague) because God will still love and reward His chosen people (those of faith). The idea that loving God is good and beneficial to the faithful is surely not a revolutionary one. What makes Ackermann's memoir so readable is that she discusses this basic truth of Christianity with a raw honesty. Ackermann freely admits her own doubts and weaknesses regarding her faith (pp. 42-45, 49, 102, 107, 135, 146). She also confesses all the wrongs and evils that have been committed in the name of Christianity (pp. 27-28, 37, 47, 117-118). This fairness is to her credit and provides a sense of balance to many of the topics she discusses. Ackermann's Christianity is not one viewed from "rose-colored glasses."
But despite this fairness, one huge issue remains in Ackermann's work that plagues (pun intended) nearly all theological scholarship. This issue is the selectivity of the evidence. As is the habit of theologians, Ackermann employs Biblical verses that are in congruence with her thinking about God, but fails to mention those that do not. In the case of Ackermann's metaphor of the locust plague, one need not look far to find an image of God contradictory to her recurrent image of the loving God who will bring the time of plenty after the time of troubles. Chapter 3 of Joel contains a malevolent, vengeful, and in fact genocidal, God. The chapter begins with a listing of the injustices that have been done to God's chosen people (Joel 3: 1-8). The enemy nations will then be judged in the valley of Jehosh'aphat (Joel 3:12). A great slaughter of the enemy nations will ensue (Joel 13-21) and the flow of blood is likened to wine flowing from a wine press with overflowing vats (Joel 3:13). But when the genocides have finished, clear light will fall upon Judah and Jerusalem, the land will be restored, and everyone will know that God dwells in Zion (Joel 3: 20-21)! Is this image of God in accordance to the loving God who wishes to assist with the healing of the land and people after a notable locust plague? The bloodthirsty and vengeful God of Joel 3 is, in this reviewer's opinion, quite a distasteful character who is willing to engage in genocides across the region in order to exact revenge for a select group of people. One must assume that this God is also distasteful to the author because the only mention of Joel 3 comes in the epigraph to chapter 2. (Here she quotes Joel 3:16, that calls God a refuge and stronghold to the people of Israel.) If one wishes to embrace the God depicted by the prophet Joel, in this reviewer's opinion, that means taking the malevolent with the benevolent. Joel's God is a God of genocide as well as promise and renewal. If one wishes to place credence in the Scriptures, then they must be taken in their entirety, not as a buffet that suits one's theological fancy. In short, this reviewer finds Ackermann's use of Joel brilliant as a literary device, but suspect in its selective analysis and application.
Who might enjoy reading After the Locusts? In this reviewer's opinion anyone with an interest in South Africa might. The work contains a vast array of topics that is sure to appeal to all, regardless of one's religious preferences. The book is honest, well-written, and very readable. Obviously Christians will find it the most enjoyable as it principally serves as an affirmation of faith. If you do not believe in God, be prepared for an undertone of hostility to those who choose not to believe. The text does contain occasional barbs against those who are "blind" to the "truth" of Christianity (pp. 79, 82, 101, 104, 108, 165). While Ackermann's Christianity is not viewed from "rose-colored glasses," there is no mistaking the fervor for her faith that she wishes others to share. Ackermann is convinced that though there will be locusts, God will not forget her (and other faithful) after the destruction has been wrought. But the question remains, will the nations be judged after the locusts have passed?
. With the exception of the review title, all Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.
. Biblical scholars have debated three different interpretations of the locusts. The first is a literal one saying that Joel lived at the time of an invasion by the desert locust (schistocerca americana gregaria). The second argues that his discussion of locusts is an allegorical one based on Israelite history where the locusts are the hoards of foreigners who have done ill to Judah. The third perspective claims that the locusts symbolize the future, where the locusts represent the apocalyptic creatures that God will unleash. For an outline of the debate see David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 876-877.
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Joel Tishken. Review of Ackermann, Denise M., After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith.
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