Walter Brueggemann, Take Two

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The following long quote that opens a recent essay by Brueggemann reminds me of why I have loved his writings over the years:

“As the Holy One of Israel, [YHWH] consecrates his people to obedience and service and separateness from the ways of the nations; as King, he rules the world with justice and the peoples with his truth; as Father, he exercises his power and authority, yet with compassion and love; as leader on the way, he guides his people on its way through history; as teacher, he grasps the pupil by the hand and instructs him, and subjects him to his firm but merciful discipline.  It is this God to whomIsraelis urged to listen, the God who granted the inspiration and motivation to obedience in the glad good news of liberation from slavery and who provided the basis for allegiance and fidelity in the covenant at Sinai.

“Amidst all the feverish preoccupation with riches and power and comfort; all the bustling commercial activity and the ever-rising prices; the building of fortifications for defense and of fine houses for the privileged; the elaboration of cultic observances with their sumptuous festivals and celebrations, their pilgrimages and rites, their music and choirs, and, withal, the syncretism with the cults of nature and prosperity—amidst all there was one voice that was stifled and repressed.  It was the voice ofIsrael’s covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.  But was it stilled?  Not quite!  For there were prophets in the land to sound the cry of protest and outrage, repeating with the urgency born of faith and memory and holy awe, God’s categorical and insistent ‘thou shalt not.’”

(James Muilenburg, Brueggemann’s former teacher, quoted in “”Vision for a New Church and a New Century: Part I: Homework Against Scarcity, “ in The Word That Redesribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship by Walter Brueggemann, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 157.)

This wonderful, theologically rich quote points more than anything else to God—the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And yet, knowing that this God is in a covenantal relationship with Israel, Muilenburg (and thus Brueggemann quoting him) also names the faithfulness required of those in covenant with this God.  (However, Brueggemann’s essay that supposedly unfolds from the quote is both less rich theologically and less holistic in its claims.)

Reiterating what I said in my last set of reflections, I want to continue to point Christians, including preachers, to Brueggemann’s writings, especially his commentaries.

However, in recent years I have been less taken with Brueggemann than in the past.  Perhaps this is in part simply because I have read a lot of his writings; he is often repeating himself these days.  But I think it is more than that.  I have become clearer about some of my criticisms, a few of which I will name.  All of them are interrelated.

First, I think Brueggemann has always had an inadequate doctrine of the church, which relates to how he deals with ethics.  When he spoke at our seminary a couple of weeks ago, when he discussed money and power, he almost always seemed to be referencing Wall Street and Washington, D.C., not what it means to be the people of God in relation to the teachings of Scripture.  For someone who wants to be Anabaptist (certainly in a Yoderian or Hauerwasian way or, I would argue, in a biblical way), this is quite significant.

Second, related to this, I think Brueggemann in recent years has aligned himself more fully with the progressive wing of the church, with progressive politics.  Before the last decade or so, I saw him somewhat unwilling to do this.  That is to say, I thought he generally attempted to avoid ideologies of the left and right.  I noticed this especially in his commentaries, where he worked hard to get us (the readers and hearers of the biblical text) to submit ourselves to the claims of the text—often acknowledging that he knew the claims were tough to hear in our present contexts.  Influenced by Barth, he believed that we needed to hear the Word that God would speak to us through Scripture.  Brueggemann would do this even when the Word challenged his own (or his perceived readerships’) sensibilities; for after all this is the Word of God!

Let me give two examples of what I used to expect from Brueggemann.  In the opening paragraph of his essay, “Duty as Delight and Desire: Preaching Obedience That Is Not Legalism,” he says: “We may as well concede at the outset that we live, all of us, in a promiscuous, self-indulgent society that prizes autonomy.  As a consequence, ‘obedience’ is a tough notion, which we settle mostly either by the vaguest of generalizations, or by confining subject matter to those areas already agreed upon.”  (The Covenanted Self, Fortress Press, 1999, p. 35)

Or take a glance at the first chapter of his book on evangelism: Evangelism, he says, inherently includes proclaiming the gospel in word, “a verbal, out-loud assertion of something decisive not known until this moment of utterance.  There is no way that anyone, including the most embarrassed liberal, can avoid this lean, decisive assertion which is at the core of evangelism.” (p. 14)  On the other hand, “no reductionist conservative can faithfully treat evangelism as though it were only ‘naming the name.’ . . . [For] after the proclamation comes the difficult, demanding work of reordering all of life according to the claim of the proclaimed verdict [of the gospel].”  (p. 15)  (Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism, Abingdon Press, 1993)

See, I believe that each of these examples, like the quote from Muilenburg, gives us a lot to work with—and doesn’t easily slot into a right or left agenda.  I see this to be less true in his more recent writings (though he always had something of a tilt toward the left).

Third, he seems presently to be embracing what I call the ideology of inclusiveness, a dominant trend today.  This is apparent in many of his recent essays and was present in at least one of his lectures here at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.  This fits with his inadequate ecclesiology and his embracing of progressive politics.  The statement that he made here that was the strongest in this regard was his comment during our discussion time that he is on the edge of believing that the notion of “chosen people” is an inherently destructive concept.  (I reflect on this ideology in my co-authored book, Reasoning Together, pp. 167-174, 179-182; I draw from Christine Pohl, Making Room, Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality, and Philip Turner, The Fate of Communion, ch. 10)

This leads me to my fourth and final point.  My sense is that in his earlier writings Brueggemann might struggle with a concept like chosenness/election, which is so central in the Scriptures.  But he would never straightforwardly indicate that he was leaning toward rejection of such a centrally defining biblical teaching.  That he is now willing to entertain the rejection of a teaching that is so central within Scripture reflects a shift in his commitment to what he has referred to as a “post-critical” approach to reading Scripture.  (See esp. the first essay in: Walter Brueggemann, The Book That Breathes New Life, Fortress 2005.  I have come to see that I basically resonate with the views of N. T. Wright in his Scripture and the Authority of God, (HarperOne, 2011), while living with the questions posed by Brueggemann in several essays in The Book That Breathes Life.)

I have been aware for most of the thirty-plus years that I’ve been reading Brueggemann that I did not always agree with him; sometimes I had substantive disagreements.  Then, I was aware of two or three things.  First, he seemed deeply committed to the authority of the Scriptures.  Second, he knew the Scriptures and scholarship on them very well.  And third, I needed to be engaged by his incredibly fertile imagination as I lived with the Scriptures.  I am incredibly grateful for the life-giving way Brueggemann has enriched  my reading of the Old Testament, including my preaching from OT texts.  I’ve always had some questions about his writings.  I believe he has changed, especially in the last decade or so.  Or have I changed. . . ?  Or both?

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One Response to “Walter Brueggemann, Take Two”

  1. Linda Matheny

    It’s a lot easier to discern someone else’s power, or the nation’s power, or a group’s power, than one’s own, (with its problematic accompanying responsibility) be it from position or birthright or whatever. I’ve just finished reading “Power, Authority and the Anabaptist Tradition” co- edited by Benjamin W. Redekop and Calvin W. Redekop. “Although Anabaptist/Mennonites have theologically eschewed the use of worldly power, in actual experience power and control matters have been an inescapable part of life within the community of faith.” (“Power” Chapter One pp. 1-13 by J. Lawrence Burkholder). It is especially horrifying to contemplate examples of misuse of power within familial relationships. Calvin mentions in Chapter Nine, “Power in the Anabaptist Community,” that rules for Mennonite theology and ethics were not developed as regards family, congregation, and the business life of members. It is in these areas that the church needs to work heroically to develop and nurture structures of accountability.”