Fortress Press’ new venture, the Fortress Forum, has seemingly christened this new venture by posting an interview with Walter Brueggemann on his new book, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. The original interview can be seen HERE, though I have reproduced it in its entirety below. Do, though, go to the Fortress Forum and leave comments!
Fortress Press: Everyone talks about the death of biblical theology, but in your work, specifically An Unsettling God, how do you make the case for that discipline?
Walter Brueggemann: Obviously, the discipline of biblical theology needs no “case” to be made for it, and certainly not by me. There is deep and wide ferment in the field, indicating that scholars and interpreters across the theological spectrum are ready to be engaged in work that is fresh and suggestive. It is possible that such an interpretive enterprise may be primarily historical, that is, reading old texts to see what they “meant.”
My own interest is much more “confessional,” as I am a church person who reads for the sake of the faith and life of my community. I suppose, without great intentionality, that I read according to Ricoeur’s nice pairing of “suspicion and retrieval.” The “suspicion” is an awareness that every text and every reading, including my own, is laden with ideological interest. This is true of skeptics, minimalists, and fideists of all kinds. The “retrieval” is to see what may be said after one has done rigorous criticism. What one finds, after criticism, is that there is still this character “God,” who continues to haunt and evoke and summon and address. No sort of criticism, so it seems to me, finally disposes of that character. Now it may be that the character is an act of literary imagination; or it may be that the character is indeed an agent who is in, with, and under the text. Either way, one cannot dispose of that character. I find myself moving back and forth between a literary character and an active agent. Either way, that character haunts and causes everything to be redefined.
But being haunted by this character is not just a confessional act for “believers.” I believe the best exposition of this testimony for “non-believers” is by Terry Eagleton in his Terry Lectures at Yale. Eagleton is not a “believer,” but he takes seriously the claims of this text that are more than “literary.” Eagleton shows that the claims are not merely cognitive and so readily dismissed by “silly atheists.” Rather, Eagleton sees that the claims of the tradition are that this holy character is linked to the valuing of “the scum” of the earth. The point is a practical one, not an intellectual one.
Given the current frailty of the capitalist system and the fact that the “big money” continues to grow while ordinary people increasingly become poor and homeless, I suspect that this character, embedded in this tradition, is a wake-up call for contemporary social-political thought. It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting.
FP: Your work espouses the implications of biblical theology for social justice. How do Christians formulate that for the public square, or can they?
WB: This is an ongoing and difficult task. I believe that there is no ready and obvious “connect” between the claims of the Bible and matters of the contemporary public square. And we should be suspicious of any who treat those connections as direct and obvious. At best, there is an articulation of broad principles, the kind that Eagleton has so well explicated. But the “connect” requires a leap of imagination in order to see how the ancient imperative in one social context can be credible in a contemporary context that is in every regard quite unlike the old one. There are of course thick mediating traditions of theological and ethical interpretation among the great intellectuals and in the faith traditions of Jews and Christians, so that the imaginative leap is never de novo or in a vacuum. But clearly the biblical tradition, since the exodus and the commands of Sinai, has focused attention on the common good and on the socio-economic policies and practices that work for or against the common good. It takes no great imagination to see that such a claim for the common good is in profound tension with the modern narratives of collectivism or individualism. As Michael Walzer has seen, the Exodus and the consequent covenant at Sinai constitute a revolutionary breakthrough in the history of thought and practice. There is no doubt that biblical interpretation must continue to explore the interface that is crucial for any authentic contemporary reading.
FP: Sometimes it seems that the Bible is used in a simplistic or biblicist way by conservatives to address the public sphere. On the other hand, the historical-critical method seems too arcane to address pressing public conversations (such as gay marriage or abortion or immigration). What’s your approach?
WB: The capacity to find an alternative to biblicism or historical criticism requires skillful hermeneutical moves, whether made intentionally or intuitively. If one begins with the assumption of neighborly covenant—the outcome of Sinai—then neighborliness becomes the test for policy and practice. Such a focus does not resolve all of the complexities of real-life decisions, but it does preclude from consideration some possibilities that are anti-neighborly and anti-covenantal. Such an approach does not just find a specific text, as is so often done, but participates, as we are able, in the “world” that is constructed by the text. It is odd and disappointing that some of the loudest citers of texts love to refer to specific texts but have no interest in or awareness of the broad claims of the text or the way in which the dots are connected to provide an alternative vision of social reality and derivatively, an alternative mandate about social reality. Thus I believe that the clue to fruitful connections is a practice of imagination that is self-aware and well-informed about the complexity of the issues. There is no reason for biblical interpreters to be simplistic or to imagine that easy or ready connections can be made.
FP: How have you changed your attitude toward and approach to the future of the church, especially in its biblical appropriation? Where do your hopes lie?
WB: As I have gotten older and as our social scene has become more dysfunctional, I have become more aware of the ways in which the central claims of the Bible contradict the practices of our culture. This means, in my judgment, that now as never in my lifetime the full and bold articulation of biblical claims is urgent as a serious offer in our pluralistic society. There are no easy accommodations between those claims and the dominant modes of our culture, even though the old model in which I was nurtured—“Christ transforming culture”—mostly imagined an easier connect. My practical hope is not very great. I do think that the younger generation in our society is not so boxed in on the hard questions as are many older people. I think, moreover, that the growing diversity in our society may offer openness for genuinely human options, as I do not think that our diverse and younger population will settle easily for the old answers of the privileged. After all of that, of course, our hope is not a pragmatic one; it is an evangelical one, that God is faithful and that God’s purposes will out. The wonder of the Biblical tradition is that the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible that the convergence of holy purpose and vulnerable pain may “change the wind,” as Jim Wallis voices it. Since the old resolutions of our problems are clearly now failed, there may be an openness to initiatives that are more humane. That of course depends on courageous, sustained testimony… and it is a fearful time.