This is my first interview in what I hope will be an official (yet sporadic) series of scholarly interviews. Dr. Brueggemann was kind enough to devote some of his time and answer some questions. I hope you will find it to be an enlightening and engaging discussion. Here we go . . . .
First off, thank you Dr. Brueggemann for agreeing to take part in this interview! Many of my readers will know how appreciative I am of your work. What led you to biblical studies, the Hebrew Bible in particular, as your chosen vocation?
“I had two most remarkable Old Testament teachers in seminary, neither of whom published much at all. Allen Wehrli taught me about imagination in interpretation, and introduced me to the form critical work of Herman Gunkel. Lionel Whiston introduced me to the work of Gerhard von Rad, work that was only beginning to be translated into English. I concluded that Old Testament study was where the action is. That was confirmed for me by my graduate teacher, James Muilenburg. I still think so.”
You have written prolifically on the Psalms, Jeremiah, Old Testament theology, among countless other topics. What, if you had to choose, has been your favorite book you have written, and why?
“I fall back al the time on Prophetic Imagination because it provides the basic narrative for all of my interpretive work. I most enjoyed, with due anguish, Finally Comes the Poet, because it made connections for me with the artistic dimensions of interpretation that are so crucial for faith and life.”
Bridging the gap between the Old Testament and the Church is a vital aspect of your scholarship. How do you suggest the OT/HB is best employed in Christian worship? What does it contribute that is missing in many contemporary Christian communities of faith?
“The Old Testament invites the church to a narrative reality that is open, pluralistic, and beyond all codifications. The God to whom it witnesses continues to break open our best ideologies. In worship the church needs to hear and think through much, much more text, especially the parts we find implausible and unacceptable. But that depends upon interpretation that takes seriously the complex refusal of the text to be ‘explained.'”
You have a very particular, though ‘paradoxical’ understanding of God in the Hebrew Bible. In an interview I once heard you call the God of the OT a “recovering agent of violence.” And anyone who has read your massive tome, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy will be well aware of your take on the Bible’s conception of God. Of what contemporary relevance or import is such a ‘problematic’ image?
“This ‘problematic’ presentation of God testifies against all of our ‘cozy’ notions of faith, liturgy, piety, doctrine, and morality. The Old Testament and its God is to be received only in dispute and contestation. It constitutes a wake-up call against complacency, easy conclusions, and dumbing down in faith.”
Your Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy is perhaps the first truly postmodern OT theology. Now over ten years removed from its initial publication, how do you see the field of OT theology as having progressed, both in relationship to your volume and in rleationship to our postmodern context?
“Old Testament theology has become much more pluralistic and diverse. I believe my book is important in breaking away from the old models of concept and abstract ideas and themes. My accent has been on the passionate dynamic of the text itself, and refusal to arrive at abstract closure. I believe this has been important in opening the way for many ‘postmodern’ efforts that refuse the old synthesis.”
What are some of the best places, in your estimation, to study the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament today? Why?
“Everyone has about the same list: alongside Baylor that list likely includes Yale, Harvard, Princeton Seminary, Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, Chicago, Claremont, and Union NY. These programs have a long tradition of research and offer leading, generative scholars as teachers.”
What one scholar has most influenced your thought, and how?
“Von Rad comes first for me. But I mention Norman Gottwald who gave shape and authorization to my own impulse to connect the text to social reality. I have learned so much from Gottwald that I keep reprocessing. He taught us that the text, like our own interpretations, is embedded in a social system that is laden with ideological freight.”
I know you are currently writing (or have finished writing your part) of the NCBC on the Psalms with my teacher, Bill Bellinger. What other projects can we expect to be forthcoming from you?
“I have in prospect a collection of sermons and a collection of lectures and essays. I am working on a manuscript on the prophets and one on the metaphor of “Babylon.” I do not know if I will finish those, but those are likely the last longer manuscripts I will attempt.”
Thank you, Dr. Brueggemann!