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Interview

Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus of Old Testament studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where he taught from 1986 to 2003. He has authored hundreds of articles and over sixty books, including Genesis (Westminster John Knox, 1982), The Message of the Psalms (Fortress, 1984), Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Fortress, 1986), Hope within History (Westminster John Knox, 1987), Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Fortress, 1989), Cadences of Home: On the Art of Preaching (Westminster John Knox, 1997), The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 2001), and most recently, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word (Fortress, 2008). An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, Brueggemann says he was “bound to the Book” at age fourteen, when his father chose as his confirmation verse “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” His life has been defined by his commitment to study the Old Testament with intellectual vigor and eager humility. Considered a practitioner of “rhetorical criticism,” Brueggemann focuses on the way the stories of the Old Testament maintain their potency in the modern imagination. He was interviewed by Bradford Winters.

 

Image: Many of your book titles attest to the vital role of the imagination in biblical faith. How would you describe that role?

Walter Brueggemann: I was educated in historical criticism, as everyone was, to keep the text in the past and to presume that it had one recoverable meaning intended by the author. It became clear to me that I had to find a way, while taking historical criticism seriously, to move beyond it. By accident, I started reading about the theory of the imagination with particular reference to Paul Ricoeur. That led me to see that what we always do with the biblical text, if we want it to be pertinent or compelling or contemporary, is commit mostly unrecognized acts of imagination by which we stretch and pull and extend the implications of the text far beyond its words.

I have come to the rather simplistic notion that imagination is the capacity to image a world beyond what is obviously given. That’s the work of poets and novelists and artists—and that’s what biblical writers mostly do. I think that’s why people show up at church. They want to know whether there is any other world available than the one that we can see, which we can hardly bear. I have subsumed a lot of those ideas under the rubric of “imagination” for my own work.

Image: Was there a particular book or essay of Ricoeur’s that was seminal?

WB: There were two. He’s written more rigorous programmatic essays, but the journal Semeia, volume four, was all devoted to Ricoeur, and in it he had incredible things to say about Jesus’s parables as acts of imagination. There’s also an early collection called Essays on Biblical Interpretation in which he talks about five modes of testimony in the different genres of Old Testament literature. Those were seminal. Then, he also had a couple of incidental pieces where he developed the idea that symbols give rise to concepts. That has turned out to be enormously important for me, because the church has spent too much energy on concepts, which have no generative power.

Image: In a recent lecture entitled “Countering Pharaoh’s Production-consumption Society Today,” you opened by saying that the Bible itself is not “a package of certitudes” but an “act of faithful imagination.” Does this claim for the imagination conflict with orthodox views that the scriptures are the infallible word of God, essentially written by the Holy Spirit through his apostles and prophets?

WB: Well, yes, it contradicts them. The intrusion of the word “infallible” is misleading and unfortunate. The endless temptation of orthodoxy in its many forms is to receive a glimpse of gospel truth and then try to freeze it as an absolute formulation. I think the creeds of the church and the catechisms are important, until we start treating them as absolutes. Then we cover over all the generative force of the biblical testimony and make it a package that we transmit to each other and use as a club on each other.

Now, I am not finally a relativist: I don’t think that any idea is as good as any other idea. I believe that there are truthful statements, but the truthful statements have to be continually restated in order to stay truthful. I see orthodoxy as an on-going interpretative process; we never reach an end point in it. I would not want to say that imagination contradicts orthodoxy, rather that it contradicts certain temptations of orthodoxy to freeze and absolutize. If these texts bear witness to the living God, then we cannot freeze and absolutize the good word of the living God.

Image: What are the implications for today’s Christian in a society like ours where pharaonic structures of oppression might thrive under the banner of liberty and democracy?

WB: As I see it, gospel faith always has two roles in the face of any totalizing truth. On the one hand, it has to criticize and expose totalizing truth as an idolatry that cannot keep its promise. That means that I believe that the church’s task is to expose what I call “military consumerism” that can never make us safe and never make us happy, and we have to stay at that, because people’s lives are being devoured.

The other task of the church in the face of a totalizing ideology is to invite people to an alternative. That’s very much what Jesus did in the totalizing world in which he lived, and his call to “come follow me” was a call to embrace an alternative way of life. The church has to invite people to think about and experiment with the fact that neighborly relations, and not the pursuit of commodity, are the goal of our life. That’s an impossible alternative for people in our society to choose, but then, the summons to gospel faith has always been an impossible alternative. There never was a time when it was easy and obvious. When the church is in the midst of this totalizing military consumerism, it’s in a scary place to articulate an alternative, but that’s what’s been entrusted to us in the Bible and in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Image: You have written that the concept of “triangling” as it applies to family therapy, in which all domestic relations comprise a series of triangles, can be applied to those conflicts where theological or ethical disputes between a pastor and congregation often leave out the scriptures as an active third party in the conversation. Widening our focus from the local parish to the family of the American church as a whole, how might this notion of triangling help the opposing camps of liberal and conservative Christianity engage the scriptures as a live partner in dialogue rather than as a tool for mutual attack and self-defense?

WB: My long-term teaching has been devoted to making the case that the Bible is a strange, emancipatory voice among us, that cannot be domesticated according to any of our ideologies. Karl Barth coined the phrase: “This strange new world of the Bible.” What we want to do in the church and in our culture is to get rid of the strangeness and the newness in order to accommodate our ideologies. Conservatives want to empty the Bible of its power by reducing it to theological clichés, and liberals empty it by historical criticism that makes the Bible non-contemporary and allows us to do whatever we want to it. The primary teachings of the Bible—the judgment of God and the hope of God—are distinct from and over against all of our liberal and conservative ideologies. Unity and purity in the church can happen when liberals and conservatives together remember that we are called to repentance, because we’ve made a mockery of God’s truth. Nobody has high moral ground when we’re confronted with that.

Image: Your work is heavily concerned with the Old Testament prophets, a role that spanned, canonically speaking, only a handful of centuries in the millennia of that tradition. But in the book of Numbers, when Moses is told that two men outside the official circle of elders are prophesying in the Israelites’ camp in the wilderness, he responds: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.” What, in your mind, are the qualities of a prophetic calling today, and are there figures in or out of the church who seem to manifest it?

WB: Prophets are people who, because of their roots in the theological tradition and because of some emancipatory experience in their own life, refuse to accept the definitions of reality that are imposed upon us by the socio-economic political power structure. In ancient Israel, the prophets refused to accept the royal-priestly ideology of the Jerusalem establishment, and they kept saying that the radicality of the Torah was more definitive than what was going on in Jerusalem.

Now, mutatis mutandis, it seems to me that the parallel task, in the capitalist superpower empire of the United States which in the rhetoric of civil religion claims God’s legitimization, is to say that that operation is not really a carrier of God’s future and is more likely to be idolatrous and lethal than not. That’s a huge generalization and needs a lot of nuance, but I think that’s where we are located.

Any number of people can be cited as carrying on that prophetic tradition—the most obvious being Martin Luther King Jr. I can remember when King came out against the Vietnam War. I thought then that it was a huge mistake, that he should stick to race, but now I understand, as he understood a long time ago, that these are all dimensions of the same issue, and one has to work on all those fronts.

Recently I was asked to give a talk about prophetic preaching at the Festival of Homiletics. I talked about the difference between celebrity prophets, who come to town, deliver a message, and then leave, and pastors, who are also responsible for prophetic talk, but who start in a place and have to stay there, which is much more hazardous. We are at a time and place in our society where local churches have to keep at this task of offering criticism and alternatives in all ways possible. I get the impression that among younger people there’s some openness and some readiness about this. I hope so.

Image: The sixth anniversary of 9/11 is soon upon us. The knee-jerk comments of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson notwithstanding, is it even thinkable in our day to consider the possibility of divine wrath in the form of 9/11?

WB: In the Old Testament, the argument that the prophets consistently make is that internal social disobedience towards the poor evokes external threat. The incredible thing that the prophets did was to imagine a connection between the internal state of society and the external reality of geopolitics. To say that straight out is a kind of supernaturalism that nobody wants to talk about, but the prophets have to insist that things are connected. If you believe in the rule of God and that everything is connected, then the abuse of marginated persons and marginated communities in our society is going to evoke the hostility of marginated communities in other parts of the world; there is a kind of cunning solidarity between marginated peoples.

In the Old Testament, the key figure in all of this is Nebuchadnezzar, who is said to be Yahweh’s servant. I have in some lectures whimsically suggested that it doesn’t take much imagination to see Osama Bin Laden as exactly such a Nebuchadnezzar, evoked by our way of being in the world. But I want to keep this as an act of poetic imagination and not reduce it to a formula or a calculus, because that’s an overstatement and we cannot say that much.

If the churches actually taught the prophetic texts so that people understood their dynamism, it would make possible categories of imagination through which we could make different kinds of connections. I don’t have any problem considering the possibility you raise; the problem is how to find a way to say it that is not heard as excessively conclusive.

Image: On the one hand it seems we should welcome the challenge presented by a bestselling book like Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. On the other hand, his title itself strikes me as something of a cheap shot: the failures of religion are proof-positive that God does not exist. What, in your view, are grounds for the argument that God does exist despite the horrors committed in his name?

WB: I’m not much prone to trying to persuade other people that God exists. People like Hitchens want to turn it all into a head-trip and factor it out logically, but the embrace of God is essentially a practical matter. If anybody wants to know whether God exists, they should get involved for a sustained period in a congregation of practice and see how we live our lives differently. But I don’t think that would persuade anybody who wants to go down the route Hitchens is taking.

Good theology recognizes that our articulations of the mystery of God are always saturated with ideology. One does not have to believe in the doctrine of original sin to know that our attraction to the holiness of God always brings with it incredible distortions. It’s an easy case to make that the church or any religious community—temple, synagogue, mosque—is a great practitioner of distortion. That’s not new. Everybody except Hitchens who’s serious about theology has known that forever. My teasing comment would be: if Hitchens’ argument is correct, what’s he so exercised about? He doesn’t need to make the case, if it’s so obvious; but even people on his side of the debate are still haunted by the question that doesn’t go away. So then the issue is not how shall we answer the question, but how will we live together with the question?

As a teacher of the Old Testament, I can’t get away from the fact that the text shows God as being saturated with violence. The religious communities that serve this God have taken up the violence of God and continued to act it out. But it doesn’t take someone like Hitchens to point out the problem—we know the problem in the text, we know the problem in our common life, we know the problem everywhere. But to pretend that you can walk away from it isn’t really a persuasive strategy.

Image: A word like “hermeneutics” has a somewhat unfortunate ring that tends to suggest that interpretation is the domain of scholars alone. If anything, your work insists on the unmediated power of the scriptures as they speak to us in the muck and madness of daily life. Is what keeps the Bible so endlessly relevant the fact that any effective encounter with the Word is invariably an interpretive act as we apply it to our lives?

WB: I think that’s right. I subscribe to the view that the Bible simply requires interpretation and everybody who engages scripture at all is committing interpretation. The task of teaching like I do is to try to make the act of interpretation more self-conscious and self-aware and responsible and disciplined, because obviously there are foolish, distorting, and ideological acts of interpretation. Robert Alter once wrote that Judaism is essentially a culture of interpretation, by which I take it he meant that we are most Jewish when we are engaged in interpretation. The rabbis are famous for never arriving at the last interpretation; there is always another interpretation. It is a great Christian temptation to think that we can arrive at the final interpretation.

There is something definitionally human about being an interpreter. We do it all the time, everywhere, and all of our interpretations are saturated with vested interests and ideological propensity. The problem with the Bible is that we have such a high view of scripture that we bootleg a high view of biblical interpretation: we imagine that it’s not ideological or done with a vested interest. To adequately discern what the interpretative process is like is an important task for us to work at.

In contemporary American religion, it’s the right wing that always imagines that it’s not interpreting, when in fact everything the right wing does, like everything that everybody else does, is hugely interpretive. If you deny that you’re interpreting, then you can’t have a conversation about what makes for good interpretation.

Image: With hundreds of articles and over fifty books to your name—and no sign of a let-up despite your recent retirement—your output is extraordinary, not to mention the input of all the theological, political, and socioeconomic reading that informs your work. If not for a book of yours like Inscribing the Text, a collection of sermons and original prayers, one might wonder if you ever have time to pray. What gives, in the truest sense of that phrase, in a career like yours?

WB: It helps to be a compulsive workaholic. That’s the down side. I understand now, through long psychotherapy, that my workaholism is compensation for what I have long felt to be the deficiency of my cultural background. The other, positive side is that I find these texts energy-giving, so that for the most part my work does not take energy from me; it gives me energy to do more. I haven’t got that all sorted out—the extent to which this is a gift to me and the extent to which this is simply a working out of my compulsion.

My spiritual life in some ways is at the tip of my pen. My writing leads my thinking and my praying, so I don’t separate my sense of study and prayer. I don’t commend my way of doing it to anyone else; that’s just how I’ve found it turning out in my life. If I understand prayer as presenting myself to be available for the presence of God, then I think of my work as doing that.

You mentioned the input from a variety of disciplines. I don’t want to overstate this, but I do work with a cloud of witnesses. I am held accountable by them; I am cheered on by them; I am reprimanded by them. That’s quite real for me. I am not a spiritual person in any conventional sense, so I don’t have a practice that is much separated from what I do. I’ve pretty much committed my life to this process that causes me to be generative, but that also continues to generate me into newness.

I mentioned my long-term work in psychotherapy. I have an extraordinary therapist who is theologically grounded and can move in and out of that discipline with me, but who never allows me to substitute theological talk for the realities of life.

Image: If you had a second go at your career, what, if anything, would you do differently?

WB: For fourteen years I was the dean of a theological faculty, and though I did a pretty good job of it, I probably wouldn’t do that again. I decided eventually that my work was in the church rather than in the academy. For a long time I tried to keep both those things going, and I probably would have made my path easier had I made that decision earlier. But you make those decisions when you’re able to make them. Over this weekend, I threw away forty years of files. Now I see that I wasted so much energy on so many things that were related to my research. I didn’t learn intentionality very early, probably because I was insecure and ambitious and I tried to operate on too many fronts. But you can’t undo that. I said to my therapist last week, “My life is filled with so many regrets. Every once in a while I hear of people retiring from public life saying, ‘I have no regrets.’” He replied, “Plato said an unexamined life is not worth living.”

Image: When you say you wasted so much energy, do you mean in terms of how you went about research?

WB: Yes, or deciding what to research, or whom to relate to. What I find now is that though I have good friends in Old Testament studies, the most interesting interactions I have are with people in other disciplines. Maybe that couldn’t have happened earlier—you have to get established and become known in order to have those contacts. But I wish I had been more aware of that bigger world earlier on.

Image: Your last book was called Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church. If, as you suggest, the church is at risk of perilous assimilation into mainstream culture, what can it do to remain effectively in, but not of, that culture?

WB: The most important thing we have to do in the church is to tell people that’s the issue. Most church people haven’t thought at all about the urgency of the church or the risk that the church is facing, and therefore we don’t (for the most part) have our preaching or teaching categories straight. We have merged the promise of the gospel with the American dream, and the big task is to pull those two things apart, which of course people resist. I don’t think it’s quite the same as the church in Germany under Hitler, where many German Christians saw no conflict between Hitler and the church, but we are very close. People see no contradiction between the surge of empire and the gospel. That contradiction has to be named.

Then, we have to think better about disciplines that will sustain the church’s distinctive identity. I’ve been doing a lot of work lately on the Sabbath. If Sabbath is a cessation of our participation in the commodity enterprise, then the Sabbath could be a very important discipline. We have to work at being able to say, “We are the kind of people who do not do that and are not defined by that.” Also, serious engagement with the biblical text keeps inviting us to be alert.

Image: Can you be specific when you say you’ve been doing a lot of work on the Sabbath? Do you mean personally or academically?

WB: Both. I just did a four-piece study document for Westminster Press on the Sabbath. They asked me to examine a practice of Sabbath as an act of resistance, so that’s what I tried to unfold exegetically. I’ve also been thinking about that a great deal personally. It’s not an easy thing for me, as a workaholic. I think that to keep the Sabbath would begin to siphon off some of the rage that’s in our society. I saw an article a couple years ago in which a guy was arguing that democracy depends on the practice of idleness, because if you are idle, you have a chance to think about alternatives, and democracy depends upon thinking about alternatives.

Image: A church parking lot full of sports cars and SUVs hardly squares with the kind of modest Christian community sharing its goods equally as advocated by Paul and the book of Acts. Is this a problem, and if so, how do we reconcile our lives of relative wealth and material ease with the astounding poverty that abounds from Atlanta to Bangladesh?

WB: It’s the overriding issue among us. Those cars are a measure of the way we have all been encapsulated in the narrative of commodity. It doesn’t do any good to scold people; the work, which isn’t easy, is to help people see that if we ever really practiced good relational life, commodities would lose their attraction for us. But that’s so upstream. The church, without being angry about it, has got to name the contradiction, because if the contradiction is named, then we can make some decisions, but as long as people drive up to church in those kind of cars and are not even aware that this ought to be an act of uneasiness, they really can’t decide anything. So the pastoral problem is: how do you help people get that question into their lives without creating so much hostility that you can’t have a conversation? That’s a hard thing.

Robert Wuthnow wrote a book on stewardship sermons, and his conclusion was that pastors preach terrific stewardship sermons, but nobody hears. Nobody hears because we are so ensconced in the narrative of commodity. I think often of that exchange between Jesus and Peter after the conversation with the rich young ruler. Jesus says that it’s as difficult for a rich man to enter heaven as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Peter says something like, “Well, then, it’s impossible for us to be saved,” and Jesus says, “Yep, it’s impossible for you, but with God, anything’s possible.” It’s important that we hold onto that.

Image: When you look to the future of American culture and the church, is there a prophetic impulse in you that tends to sense the direction in which we’re headed?

WB: Our society is committed to forgetting what it means to be human. It’s the church’s task to continue to bear witness to what we know about being human in Jesus of Nazareth. There are ominous currents among us. This is a great time for the church, if we have some courage. I do a lot of work with clergy, and clergy wouldn’t say it the way I say it, but they all know it, they all sense it, but they’re scared to death—scared of losing their jobs. My teaching with clergy is basically to invite people to have courage. Most clergy do not need any more information; they could benefit from it, but they already know. They will tell you, “Yeah, I know, but I don’t dare say any of that.”

Martin Niemöller was one of the great evangelical pastors who stood up against Hitler. He was in prison a long time. I heard a story about him, after the war in Germany. Someone was waiting outside a grand hotel, and saw a lot of buses and suitcases and trunks and a lot of old people—women and men in black—and one young guy scurrying around with their luggage. The visitor asked, “Who are these people?” He was told, “That’s the German clergy and their wives.” “And who’s that young man?” “Oh that’s Martin Niemöller—he’s eighty. But he has stayed young because he is unafraid.” Martin Niemöller was very young when Hitler first came to power; he had no stature, but he got invited as a very junior member of the clergy to an audience with Hitler. The story is that he came home after the meeting, and when his wife asked him what he learned, he said, “I learned that Herr Hitler is very frightened.”

In Sicko, Michael Moore has an interview with Tony Benn—this old, radical British socialist who has been in the House of Commons for a thousand years. He says that those in power want to keep people frightened and demoralized, because frightened and demoralized people are no political threat. And then he went on to say that the United States feeds that fear more than any other economy.

I think a case can be made that the heart of the gospel is “do not fear.” This formula is the quintessential world-changing assurance in the Bible. Fear is the great pathology of our society. It is the task of the church to say “do not fear,” but that assurance must be grounded in a God who is trusted to be present in effective ways. And God is not present apart from the imagination of the poets. Thus the church, in its poetic vocation with grounding in the holy assurance of God, is entrusted with an antidote to the pathology of our time and place. It is not an easy assurance, but it is one that opens space for different actions and different social relationships, and so for different futures. This is an amazing trust to the church, and one about which the church is most often too timid.


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