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The Not-So-Dangerous Theology of Walter Brueggemann

I’ve read and deeply enjoyed Walter Brueggemann’s works on the Old Testament for quite some time now. Brueggemann is nothing if not a rigorous and creative reader of biblical texts. Indeed, his early book, The Prophetic Imagination will always continue to be one of my favorite books. Central to Brueggemann’s whole attempt to read Scripture is his insistence that the text not be allowed to be domesticated, flattened out, or synthesized in a way that would blunt its cutting and decisive edge.

Now, this claim is clearly right and good and should be affirmed. However, one of my problems with the way this all plays out in Brueggemann relates to his skittishness to see anything other than cacophony in the Scriptures. He is so intent that in allowing the texts to “explode” and “linger” in all of their otherness that he never gets about the business of allowing various texts otherness to confront or inform one another. In short, by opting for a sort hermeneutic of disintegration, Brueggemann appears to be allowing texts to speak with their own voice, but this ultimately happens at the expense of the texts really ever entering into conversation with each other at all.

Brueggemann’s main hermeneutical goal often seems to be that of preserving rather than ironing out tensions, discontinuities, and disequilibration in our encounter with the biblical text. However, his overarching hermeneutic of disintegration actually has the opposite effect. In allowing the distinctness of texts to just sit there on their own, as discrete integers, his attempt to preserve the tensions in Scripture actually becomes a way of dissolving all tension by hermetically closing them off from one another in the name of avoiding a totalizing or flattening hermeneutic.

In other words, while to be sure it is wrong to simply try to harmonize the Bible in a facile manner, Bruggemann’s allegedly pluralistic approach does essentially the same thing. It allows the differences to stand, so long as we don’t try to actually struggle with the differences and attempt to bring them into conversation. As such, the truly daring, truly dangerous mode of engagement with the Bible is neither one that offers an integrative hermeneutic for everything, not a disintegrative hermeneutic that hermetically seals texts off from encountering one another for the sake of preserving their distinctness. A truly daring and dangerous hermeneutic is one that actually enters into the hard work of dealing with text as a whole, and yet does so in such a way that it does not assume, in advance the sort of whole that the Bible is and what that will mean for how we read and how we live.

21 Comments

  1. Mike Ivaska wrote:

    Thank you for the insights on Brueggeman. I have had some approach avoidance with him, not being sure what I would be getting into.

    Your conclusion is that we should find a hermeneutic that does not carry biblical unity as a presupposition, if I understand correctly. What about the fact that the biblical authors, or the big players at least, were aware to some degree of each other and of previous and (possibly in the case of Peter’s mention of Paul in 2 Peter) contemporary texts.

    I know you just speak of OT, but Daniel knew Jeremiah’s texts and everybody knew Moses.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Actually, Mike I think we should assume biblical unity, I just don’t think we should have it settled in advance exactly what the unity is. In other words, we discover the unity of the Bible in our enterprise of really dealing with the various texts of the Bible. Brueggemann’s problem is that he doesn’t think we can find any unity without domesticated the partiulars. The problem of many other readings is that predetermined concept of the Bible’s unity does tend to do violence to the particular texts of the Bible itself.

    I suppose the real point is we need to do the hard work of reading the Bible, and reading all of it, before and while we figure how the Bible speaks as a unified witness.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  3. Geoff wrote:

    Old Testament Theology by Brueggemann is one of my text books this semester. I noticed the exact same thing. I had to write a critique and appropriation of the the first two and last four chapters. Those last four made it evident that the otherness of the text was key, rather than any evident unity [or any at all] in the person of Jesus Christ.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Rev. Mike wrote:

    Halden, I had two or three courses with Brueggemann about twenty years ago at Columbia, and while your reading of him is probably correct based on what he’s written, I don’t think I ever came away from his classes thinking I was supposed to just let the disparate voices in the texts just sit there in a bubble. My impression was that at the time, again, twenty years ago, he had a hard enough time convincing his readers and students, people like me in particular, that it was OK for there to BE conflicting voices in the scriptures. His focus was thus in waging that particular argument rather than taking it to the next step, which is, OK, now what?

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  5. bobby grow wrote:

    Dare I say that the analogy of trinity is playing a role in how you are approaching this, Halden?

    That there is indeed an organic unity, and this unity finds its “shape” through the distinct — disparate — parts as they each intra and interact with eachother through their various roles and agendas in the process of “Witness-bearing” to Christ. So then we have true distinctness, “otherness,” and it is in the “space of otherness” that the unity coinheres as a dynamic whole.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  6. CTN wrote:

    This biblical theological posting series is really slammin’ Halden. Keep it up!

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
  7. Chris Donato wrote:

    Are you suggesting, Halden, that Brueggemann’s approach truncates his (or ours, if we adopt it) ability to reflect theologically upon a given text—because he’s simply disallowing intertextuality?

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink
  8. poserorprophet wrote:

    I disagree with you on this point, Halden. In fact, I then to think that this is a popular misconception about Brueggemann. However, having also studied his work in some detail, I’ve come to different conclusions.

    While you are correct that Brueggemann does stress tensions, and differences, and all that, I think he does a great deal of integrative work — both between the various biblical texts, and between the biblical texts and our lives. I just think that his stress on tensions and discontinuities is the one that jumps out and smacks us in the face — given our particular background (you know, the bible must be a coherent whole, blah, blah, blah), causing us to overlook the other side of Brueggemann’s work. Brueggemann himself was stressing this point when he was visiting my school last term — he understands his task to be both deconstructive, and reconstructive (I believe those were the exact words he used).

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  9. Mike Ivaska wrote:

    Halden,

    I appreciate what you say about assuming unity without laying out for ourselves what that unity HAS TO BE beforehand. That makes sense. An obvious and overbeaten drum would be the dispensationalists’ efforts at “rightly dividing” the Scriptures.

    Luther’s effort to see Christ under every leaf is probably pushing things too far as well, though it is more true to the spirit of the Scriptures themselves when placed into the hands of the NT authors.

    Thanks, brother.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    I thoroughly agree with this: his attempt to preserve the tensions in Scripture actually becomes a way of dissolving all tension . He aestheticizes diversity in order to protect himself from it.

    However, I wonder about this: A truly daring and dangerous hermeneutic … does not assume, in advance the sort of whole that the Bible is

    In a sense this is true, of course. The Bible stands over against us and critiques us. Yet what about the hermeneutical significance of the so-called rule of faith, or even more audatiously for a post-modernist, the rule-of-truth? As Hägglund has argued (and I have translated), this rule preserves the salvific substance of the gospel which is the ground of our being, our hope, and the very reason that we bother with a book like the Bible in the first place. If, as I believe you assume, the unity of Scripture consists not at the level of the literal sense of the text but at the level of the reality it witnesses to (its “kerygmatic substance”), then is there not a need to read the Bible dialectially with finished (albeit provisional) conclusions about what the Bible is really all about, i.e. dogmatics? Is it not helpful to read the Old Testament in light of a thorough knowledge of the intricacies of the Trinity, the nature of the incarnation, the achievement of the cross, the telos of the cosmos? I like Daniel Treier’s way of putting this: Baggage in interpretation is not always a negative thing because “baggage usually carries with us that which is essential, not that which we need to get rid of. What if presuppositions are not a threat to objectivity but an aid in preserving it?” (take from here).

    Brueggemann’s approach, by denying any kind of role for Christology or dogma or the theological reality witnessed to by the New Testament, flies in the face of it and in my opinoin eviscerates his exegesis theologically. I have an extend Childs quote in this in my post The relationship between exegesis and dogma. I have an even more extend Childs quote of this significance of the “dogma” question for a number of theological approaches in my post What is the reality of the Bible? (sorry for the constant links to myself, but they may be of interest!).

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  11. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Phil-
    I think you should continue to link yourself. I don’t think it is self-serving, but instead nuances and substantiates an argument. I wish more people who blogentate would link us up with some academic cred. It’s hard to know who to take seriously and who to catcall.

    (iMyself excluded as I am the {self appointed} George Carlin of the neo-theo-blogosphere. My ‘stuff ‘comes freeze-dried, deep-fried, on-the-side, satisfied.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  12. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Phil, I think you’re asking Brueggemann to do work he isn’t cut out to do. Nor am I really comfortable with the type of stuff you’re suggesting. First of all, Brueggemann is not really a theologian, he’s a biblical scholar. I’d say the same is true for Brevard Childs. I’m not the one drawing the line here-the line was drawn long ago. And certainly this is a real problem.

    What would it look like for Brueggemann to give a role to Christology and dogma in his reading of the OT? I mean rarely do you even see Childs doing this type of work.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  13. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Hi Flyer,

    I’m not sure Childs thought that he was cut out to do what he was calling for either! “Theological exegesis” is a project very much in progress, rather than a praxis based on firmly established principles. At the end of his Isaiah commentary, Childs expressed frustration about his commentary. It didn’t get him to where he wanted, so he went on to write his fascinating Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Even at the end of that work he closed with pointers and suggestions about where we should go. His entire career is marked by a ceaseless drive to keep pushing the boundaries. The comments I made above are based on my conclusions concerning the overall thrust of his aims, rather than on his concrete exegesis. So perhaps I should take back what I said about Brueggemann’s exegesis. My main critique is with Brueggemann’s theory.

    However, the theory shines through in the practice and I still find plenty in Childs’ work which signals ways forward, especially in his Isaiah commentary. In fact, recently, someone commented on my blog that he was disappointed with the Isaiah commentary because it still focussed so heavily on historical critical issues, rarely ever getting to the substance. My response is here, where I also have the quote on his frustrations). I agree, to a degree. Childs’ problem is that in his desire for thoroughness and respect of the literal sense, he pushes only very slowly and carefully through the text. One often feels like he’s still standing on the boarder of the promised land, yearning to dive into the “mystery of Christ” yet wanting to give the path there its full due. As such, his exegesis still has the function of a Wegweiser, a signpost for us, the later “generation of the faithful,” to follow. His canonical approach is a challenge to keep going and to continue the “struggle” (a favourite word of his).

    That’s what I wish to do in my doctorate. Having spent the last year and a half reading Childs, I’m now attempting a theological exegesis of Psalm 24, one that goes beyond anything Childs himself actually did, though an exegesis which, I’d like to think, he himself was pushing towards.

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  14. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    To back up my comments to Halden above, along with other comments about the danger of granting the New Testament too much space in our defintion of God over against the Old, I thought I’d share the following quote from Jean Luc Marion in a brilliant article, “On the Eucharistic Site of Theology”:

    “Hence a first principle for the theologian: to be sure, he proceeds to a hermeneutic of the biblical text that does not aim at the text but, through the text, at the event, the referent. The text does not offer the original of faith because it does not constitute its origin. Only the Word can give an authorized interpretation of the words (written or spoken) “concerning him.” Hence the human theologian begins to merit his name only if he imitates “the theologian superior to him, our Savior,” in transgressing the text by the text, as far as the Word. Otherwise, the text becomes an obstacle to the comprehension of the Word: just as the Old Testament for the disciples, so, for us, the New. ” (149)

    Very Childsian (or Barthian, or whatever). Not Brueggemannian.

    Monday, February 9, 2009 at 5:31 am | Permalink
  15. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Sorry, there’s more. Please forgive my enthusiasm!:

    “In developing a letter indefinitely commented on by itself, the text silences the Word—kills it. … Even and especially in the hermeneutic of the biblical text, one must rely “less on the literality of the letter, than on the powers of the Lord and his justice alone.” We should be understood: it is precisely not a matter here of any prise of fundamentalism (which sticks to the letter) or of a falsely “spiritual” fantasy, but of this principle: the texts results, in our words that consign it, from the primordial event of the Word among us; the simple comprehension of the text—the function of the theologian—requires infinitely more than its reading, as informed as one would like; it requires access to the Word through the text. To read the text from the point of view of its writing: from the point of view of the Word. This requirement, as untenable as it may appear (and remains), cannot be avoided. … The theologian must go beyond the text to the Word, interpreting it from the point of view of the Word.” (148-149).

    Monday, February 9, 2009 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  16. adamsteward wrote:

    Like multiculturalism.

    Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  17. michael rudzena wrote:

    I love your observations. From your description (I haven’t read enough Brueggemann to know) it seems he assumes or presupposes a disunity. It seems like this is an over reaction to the flat attempts to unify apparently disparate texts. In short while this sounds humble and inclusive it is a pretty audacious claim to say if each text is taken in its own right the tensions between the respective texts cannot be resolved because there is no unity.

    Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  18. hmmmm…i am quite convinced that Brueggeman is right to interrogate the older historical and grammatical critical attempts to homogenize the text into a smooth extended treatise on God. It is true that this can lead to an ironic anti-synthesis posture but isnt this what biblical interpretation needs?
    I think B. is grappling with the kind of postmodern concerns that repudiates these flat, homogenous and boring attempts at synthesis in order to demonstrate that we readers, like the text, are constantly negotiating ourselves in this world.
    Certainly, there are commonalities within the text but the fact is that people grapple with one another and their religious interpretations all the time. To say that we all sing in harmony, all the time, is wrong headed.
    I like the tension he brings to our attention and indeed believe that as a human and divine text that different biblical writers will encode different and conflicting ideologies within the text.

    Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  19. Alan wrote:

    Brueggemann does point to, even highlight differences and dissonances among the various writings that make up the OT, but he does draw attention to connections when appropriate. In his commentary on Jeremiah, for example, he draws ample connections between Jeremiah and Deuteronomy, for example, and he acknowledges coherence within the major OT source traditions. In that same commentary, for example, he notes that in response to the Babylonian Exile, the major prophets represent the three major traditions: Isaiah, concerned with the Davidic line (J), Ezekial with the Temple and cult (P) and Jeremiah with Torah (D).

    I think that his Old Testament Theology is the most extreme example of his attempt to move the field away from grand narratives and thus focuses on irreconcilable differences.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  20. Alan wrote:

    If Brueggemann finds coherence anywhere, it is not in the Book, but in the People of the Book (and even then…). One people with many voices. For a “big tent” Roman Catholic guy like me, that seems just about right.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  21. I think that Brueggemann simply is working with a hermeneutic that refuses to simply see different texts as “the same thing” but in a different way. The identity of texts just like the identity of individuals are nuanced. And, ideological debate even within one religious group is inevitable and often healthy. That does not mean their is no unity but that their are also tensions and paradoxes within the unity. The generative power in the text is found when the reader allows for both the apparent unities and dis-unities to lie side by side. Brueggemann in his work is often working to confront the false unities and the repression of certain voices in the text. He wants everyone to have their say. This represents the democratic impulse and also postmodern concern for the other.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

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