Many bloggers have series that they run each week. This marks my attempt to begin such a series (and to utilize some alliteration!), where each week I will offer a particularly interesting, significant, or thought-provoking comment on the nature of Old Testament theology. This inaugural edition comes from (surprise, surprise) Walter Brueggemann:
“I shall insist, as consistently as I can, that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way. This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel” (Theology of the Old Testament, 66)
As many of you know, Walter Brueggemann is reading my dissertation along the way. He was at Baylor last week, and this gave me the opportunity to give him chapters 2 and 3. This morning I received an email with his response. It was resoundingly positive. I will not here quote the entire thing, but two points of special interest.
“I have read these two chapters with great interest and respond positively to what you are doing . . . The overall direction is, in my judgment, just right.”
AND . . .
“Most important, I believe that your use of all the trickster motifs in the interest of theology is the major point. The scholars who focus on trickster etc have little interest in theology and vice versa. For you to bring those two points together is a major contribution.”
Pretty cool in my view. I am so thankful for his reading and comments. I smell book blurb! Ha!
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.
In 1998 a volume was written with a veritable who’s who of Hebrew Bible studies taking part, all to honor Walter Brueggemann. This volume, God in the Fray (Fortress Press, read my review HERE), concludes with a brief essay by Brueggemann himself as he reflects upon what he has tried to do in his OT theology. I found this part particularly interesting:
“I have increasingly found thematic approaches to biblical theology wanting, not only because they are inescapably reductionist, but because they are characteristically boring and fail to communicate the open-ended vitality of the text. It is for that reason that I decided, early on, to focus not on substantive themes but on verbal processes that allow for dynamism, contradiction, tension, ambiguity, and incongruity–all those habits that belong peculiarly to interactionism. What I hope I have offered is an interactionist model of theological e xposition congruent with this believing community that is endlessly engaged with God, a God who is available for the extremities of praise and complaint, which are Israel’s characteristic modes of speech in this conflictual engagement. The importance of this move from theme(s) to processes cannot be overstated for me, because the interactive process seems crucial both to the Subject of Old Testament theology and to the pluralistic, deprivileged context of our own work” (310).
“The gains that I suggest are commensurate with what will surely emerge as points of contention and continued dispute. I do not imagine that I have been able to see things convincingly through to the end. So I am glad to acknowledge at least four points where the argument is vulnerable, though other such points will surface in our discussion. I regard these as vulnerable points because they propose fresh perspectives for which we lack adequate categories. I incline to think that the vulnerability is only because things are not carried thorugh, not because they are wrongheaded. It remains to be seen, of course, whether that judgment turns out to be acceptable to my colleagues” (313-314).
AND LASTLY, (almost as though he were anticipating Waltke) . . .
“There is now an important insistence . . . that Old Testament theology must be deeply and exclusively linked to the New Testament because, in Childs’s terms, the two testaments are ‘two witnesses to Jesus Christ.’ . . . A student of the Old Testament, however, cannot help but notice the disjucntion and disconnection from one testament to the other, so that the theological claims of the Old Testament do not obviously or readily or smoothly or without problem move to the New Testament. Indeed, if we are to claim some kind of continuity–as any Christian reading surely must–it is a continuity that is deeply hidden and endlessly problematic. For that reason, and given the intensely and consistently iconoclastic propensity of the Old Testament text, it may be suggested that the Old Testament stands as a critical principle over against any easy claims of New Testament faith, so that the God of Israel is not easily reduced to or encompassed by Christian claims. After all of the adjustments from the faith of Israel to the faith of the church there is yet a deep ‘otherwise,’ which is uncontained and undomesticated, that must be acknolwedged” (317-318).
Today I received two volumes from Zondervan (thanks Andrew Rogers!); one was Bruce Waltke’s 2007 An Old Testament Theology. I still remember hearing at SBL 2008 in Boston that Waltke really pressed and challenged Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament. And ever since SBL , when I sat in on a panel discussion on Waltke’s volume of which Brueggemann was a respondent (and a hilarious one at that!) I have been quite anxious to see what it is Waltke says about Brueggemann.
Here are some of the more interesting and thought-provoking quotations from Waltke; I would love for Brueggemann to respond in print:
“The Theology of the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann has many strengths, not least of which is his magisterial survey of the discipline, demonstrating his profound scholarship. his style is eloquent with flashes of brilliance, but he hinders his communication by unnecessary abstractions and neologisms. His theology is salted with insights into the importance of rhetoric and with applications of the biblical faith to current social issues, but he spoils his applications by his flawed epistemology . . . ” (69)
“With regard to epistemology . . . Brueggemann embraces what he calls a ‘post-liberal, non-foundational approach.’ By this he means that he rejects both historical criticism and the orthodox confessions of the church. He complains that the ‘practical effect of this [historical criticism] enterprise was to relativize the revelatory claims of the text and treat it like any other book.’ By defeault, however, Brueggemann’s own reasoning, unaided by the Spirit, becomes his final frame of reference for knowing. Without recognizing the work of the Spirit in his epistemology: ‘the authority of the [biblical] witness is grounded in nothing more and nothing less than the willingness of the text community to credit, believe, trust, and take seriously this testimony.’ In other words, he relativizes the authority of Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament and of Jesus Christ and his apostles in the New Testament solely to the reader’s response” (69).
“In addition to shifting the authority of the text away from a Spirit-empowered testimony to the willingness of the community, Brueggemann also shifts it away to the interpreter. Since there is no interest-free interpretation, whether canonical or critical, he argues, the interpreter must ‘stay engaged in an adjudicating process.’ However, by that deft move he shifts authority away from the text to the interpreter” (70).
“Brueggemann’s conceptualization o fthe biblical theologian’s task is rooted in his conviction that the biblical testimonies about I AM contradict each other. . . . In Brueggemann’s view the task of the theologian is to expose and reflect theologically upon competing claims that God is good and that God is not good. . . . Brueggemann draws the heretical conclusion from these contradictory witnesses that there is an internal contradiction in God himself. Is it too harsh to recall that the Serpent also denied that God is good and that Cain could not affirm that God was just? (71).”
AND LASTLY . . .
“Brueggemann draws his heretical theology from his flawed exegesis: he bases his understanding of the core testimony on adjectives and verbs, not on the accredited method of determining the meaning of words in their literary and historical contexts. In his method of interpretation, the reader’s response always trumps the author’s intention. . . . Brueggemann’s reading does not take account of the a priori rights of the canonical writer and lacks sympathy with I AM’s repugnance of unbelief and sin. In short, his theology fails because his exegesis is inadequate” (72).
Harsh critique, indeed. I tend to agree with Brueggemann, still, that God is far more complex and indeed conflicted. I would say Waltke’s exegesis is inadequate, not Brueggemann’s, in this regard. Those who have read my work will be well aware of why I think this to be the case. Yet I also agree strongly with Waltke that biblical scholarship–here, theology–should have some relevance and import for the church (see HERE and HERE). I disagree with Waltke, however, because I see this as exactly what Brueggemann is doing. Brueggemann is, rightly, all about pressing communities of faith to wrestle with the complexities of the text, and especially, of God.
So, your thoughts?
In Walter Brueggemann’s most recent volume, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2009), he discusses God as a dialogic character. I found the following paragraph particularly interesting . . . regular readers of this blog will likely hear hints of my own thought here as well . . .
“Given these several dimensions of mutation, we may judge that the distinctiveness of ‘God’ in Old Testament tradition concerns YHWH’s deep resolve to be a God in relation–in relation to Israel, in relation to creation, in relation to members of Israelite society and of the human community more generally. The power and sovereignty of YHWH is a given in the Old Testament that is rarely called into question. What is readily and often called into question in the text is the character of this God in relation, a defining mark of YHWH that requires a radical revision of our notion of God. The overriding indicator of God in relationship is covenant, which sometimes is understood as a unilateral imosition on the part of YHWH and at other times as a bilateral agreement. It is precisely because the covenant is articulated in so many variations that we are able to conclude that covenantal relatedness makes it impossible for this God to be settled, static, or fixed. This God is always emerging in new ways in response to the requirements of the relationship at hand. This God is fully engaged in interaction with several partners and is variously impinged upon and evoked to new responses and–we may believe–to new dimensions of awareness and resolve. Because so much of the faith of Israel is ‘talking faith’ in liturgy, oracle, and narrative we may say that YHWH is a party to a dialogic exchange that never reaches closure. Rather, like any good dialogue, YHWH is engaged in an interaction with YHWH’s partners that always pushes to a new possibility, that makes demands upon both parties, and that opens up fresh possibilities for the relationship. To be sure, in any particular utterance from YHWH’s side, there may be an accent of finalit. The wonder, however, is that after any such cadence of finality, there is always another text, another utterance, and another engagement” (4-5)
Reflecting upon my recent post interacting with Eric Seibert’s recent volume Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, as well as a recurring theme on this blog (see HERE, HERE, and HERE), I was thinking . . . how would I describe God with one word? One adjective.
To be certain, ancient Israel has offered a host of adjectives to describe God. In Walter Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, he focuses upon the rhetoric of Israel’s utterance. For Brueggemann, these adjectives arise out of Israel’s verbal utterance of YHWH, and thus move from specificity to generality. So if “God delivers Judah from exile” (my example), then God is deliverer. But God is surely much more than that. God is . . . well, that depends on whom you ask.
So, do I suppose one word, one adjective can encompass all attributes (biblical ones, mind you) of God. Hardly. But I think it is an interesting question . . . in essence, boiled down to its bare basics, what is God?
My one word? In one of the posts to which I link above I used the word “paradox.” I think that is fitting, yet I remain unhappy with it in response to this question. I do, however, strongly feel it is on the mark. Other words obviously come to mind . . . deliverer, trickster, lover, destroyer . . .
If pressed (and if allowed to use a Hebrew word), I would say hesed. What one adjective do I think best describes God . . . covenantally-faithful. God is, if anything, concerned ultimately with the covenant, the promise, and this description I think rolls into it all the grace, judgment,trickery, love, blessing, etc. that I see typifying the paradoxical divine character in the biblical text.
So, what ONE WORD (in English is fine, or you can cheat like I did and do a Hebrew word that has a two-word English translation!), what single adjective do you think best describes God? Why?
Unofficially. He won’t be a committee member (he is retired, and insanely busy to boot), but he has kindly agreed to read the dissertation along the way and make comments and suggestions. I am tremendously grateful to Dr. Brueggemann for his willingness to do so. He has already read my article (“Jacob, Laban, and a Divine Trickster? The Covenantal Framework of God’s Deception in the Theology of the Jacob Cycle,” PRSt 36 : 3-23) and responded very favorably. It will be great to have him serving as another set of eyes for the piece. I am very excited, and very thankful! Pretty cool, huh?
Dr. Brueggemann and I will also be getting together at SBL. I am very much looking forward to it. Should be some stimulating conversation indeed!
I often find myself looking over my books and reflecting on how influential (or non-influential) a given volume has been for me. There are a handful to which I continually return (see the list on Genesis volumes HERE and HERE). But, if pressed, what single volume has most influenced my reading and perspective on biblical studies? I have it narrowed down to two, for various reasons, yet since I have asked for ONE book (and I’m not about to break my own rules . . . . mn genoito!), I will go with . . . . . .
Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.
Many won’t be surprised of this choice. Yes, I admire Brueggemann’s work very much for its honestyin approaching the text and its tensions. I also have a deep respect for Brueggemann’s desire to connect the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to the Christian faith and make it relevant for contemporary life. No small task! But this wasn’t about what I admire or respect, it’s about what has shaped my perspective on the biblical text.
To say Brueggemann has been formative for me would be dishonest. I did not read the volume in full until a few years ago, and I recently re-read it. But he has given articulation and precision to how I approach the biblical text as a literary and, above all, theological text with God as the central, not an ancillary, character. Methodologically Brueggemann and I are quite close, though my focus is more of the Robert Alter literary persuasion (and, not incidentally, Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative was the other volume I was leaning towards . . . . ) and less the metaphorical/testimony model of Brueggemann.
So, what’s your one book, and why?
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!