Walter Brueggemann

Brueggemann is a prominent Old Testament theologian. I don’t know about this academic prominence but I can say that he has some very pertinent things to say that directly affect the way we read the OT and then the application of it to today. As with a number of authors, I encountered his books through Bob Ekblad, who describes his outlook as ‘from the historical-critical perspective’; there is a broadness of outlook to his writing which is quite different from some rather narrow ways of reading the Bible. I have  reservations, in particular because of  Brueggemann’s apparent understanding when it comes to  the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ salvation from sin; to give a specific example he seems to think that, rather than being a sinful lifestyle from which Jesus offers salvation, homosexuality is an acceptable behaviour to be (perhaps even) embraced. To me this means he needs to be read with care.

Firstly, Brueggemann is a voluminous author as well as very scholarly. There are numerous books of the nature of commentaries; I have Genesis, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Isaiah as well as 1st and 2nd Samuel. There are also books in a series of preaching notes on 1 and 2 Kings. Then there are more thematic books, among them one on David called David’s Truth, of which more shortly. Finally there are heavy tomes on theology; I have Theology of the Old Testament. It is the thoughtful and very sensitive reading of the texts, particularly the narratives, which I have found helpful.

The response I am giving here is very limited; but the elements I have found profitable are useful. Firstly, to the theology. I tried reading the book just mentioned, but am not able to; it is a specialist book belonging to academia, but there are points I gleaned about the theological outlook which will become clear.

An example would be two alternative ways of looking at the calling of Jeremiah. In Daniel Bourguet, there is a lengthy investigation of Jer 1.9 –The Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; Bourguet takes this very literally and talks about the great degree of intimacy that existed between Jeremiah and the Lord for this to have taken place; the interest is entirely in the ‘mystical’, ie lived, experience, what might be termed the spiritual aspect. Brueggemann takes a diametrically opposite view; he considers the account of Jeremiah’s calling to be a formalized traditional cultic initiation to the prophetic ministry. They can’t both be right, and clearly I find the Bourguet view of much greater interest, but neither is it possible to discount the Brueggemann view. (Perhaps the two can be reconciled.) The Brueggemann outlook is deeply informed by historical research, by 200 years of textual criticism investigating the sources…and he seems to approach the OT substantially not as revelation from God (which is an outlook I think he terms fideism) but rather as Israel’s account of it’s faith. Brueggemann therefore approaches the OT as Israel writing about, recording, discussing its history and faith. The reading is therefore very fluid; the great strength of the books that help me is a tremendous literary sensitivity, which seems to me, as a trained literary critic myself, to be because the author is unclouded by either excessive piety or unbelief; he takes it very much at face value. The immediate weakness one feels is that it discounts the accounts as God engaging inrevelation — one can suspect that God is not being taken as seriously as one might wish; but the whole point is that the OT is Israel investigating its faith in the real God and his actions – which remain mysterious, often being no more than grasped at. This outlook does not conform to the narrow evangelical protestant view with which I grew up, and I will try to detail how Brueggemann expresses this; the attraction is that he makes the OT very real and immediate as we too grapple with God’s activities in a confusing world.

My first read was of Brueggemann’s account of David. He is not very keen on the sort of pietistic background from which I come – ‘yes, we know about David’s adultery but this was a severe slip up in this godly man’s life and we see the fruit of it in his repentance; Jesus is the Son of David, and here we find David’s true significance, as a type of Jesus’; and indeed the truth of this outlook is seen in the Messianic psalms. Brueggemann, however, is purely interested in the text,not the evangelical interpretation! There are at least 2 different accounts of David’s life blended together in the various scriptures; one of these is uncritical, and indeed somewhat hagiographic in the pietistic style; the other is much more nuanced, much more investigative of David and his motives. There are certainly these two strands, perhaps by different authors, perhaps different traditions. The literary teasing out greatly helps the reading; the confusion between the two serves to highlight what Brueggemann sees as Israel’s ‘endless fascination’ with the person, the figure of David; by contrast, there is, for example, little interest in the person of Solomon, though much interest in the consequences of his reign and policies. In David there meet so many currents of thought and action; there is his evident rather wonderful attitude towards/ relationship with God; there is his position at the crossroads of Israel’s political development; in him the prophetic and the kingly aspects meet for really the only time; then there is, simply, his character, deeply flawed and deeply attractive. As I say, B. looks at all this as it comes up in the text most sensitively; he has almost no interest in the typological ; very occasionally he refers forward to Jesus, but fundamentally he is just taking the text at face value. As commentary goes, he is as readable as the wonderful narratives themselves.

So this was my introduction to reading B., and I went ahead on the strength of that to order a number of his books. It is in the Introduction to the commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel that I found the best place to get hold of the general outlook.

First up, ‘the books of Samuel present the radical transformation that occurred in the life of ancient Israel when Israel ceased to be a marginal company of tribes and became a centralized state’. That is, I would point out, ‘salvation history’ is just not in view; however, I would also add that it is very hard to dispute that what Brueggemann says the book is about is in fact exactly what it is about. B. sees three ‘factors at work in this social transformation’; firstly there are the historical processes – social, economic, political, military, technological – these are all clearly present in the text; then there is the character of David, and ‘Israel can scarcely find words for David’; thirdly there is the central role in the transition of Yahweh. ‘The neglect of any one of these [3 factors] will diminish our reading…’ B. warns against two excesses in reading, the pietistic which overlooks the elements of brutality, seduction, ignobility, that this is ‘unlaundered history’; and ‘rational reductionism’, the ‘elimination of the “Yahweh factor”’.

He likes to return to the anti-pietistic view. ‘The transformation of Israel as understood in the Samuel narrative will not be properly rendered in an excessively ‘theological’ idiom, one preoccupied with religious questions. Such a theological portrayal would give disproportionate attention to the role of God, the faith of Israel, and the piety of David. It would preoccupy us with religious matters that lead us away from the intent of the text.’ I am inclined to respond that this is exactly right, but perhaps it is better to say cautiously that this to me is a breath of fresh air; it is a sort of incarnational view of things, God at work in human history, and in so far as we live in human history this is frankly of great concern to us! The text is therefore an ‘artistic idiom’ of investigation; again I find this a sympathetic point of view. He goes on ‘….an artistic rendering of life is now an urgent responsibility, not only because of the character of the text but because of our social-cultural-moral circumstance. The community gathered around this text…is one of the few places left in contemporary society where an artistic rendering of life may be pursued. Ours is a society beset by excessive certitude [the theological reading] and reductive truth [the historical]….an artistic reading is peculiarly required in our cultural situation of brute power and monopolistic certitude…. What strikes one …in the Samuel narratives… is the power of speech in these stories. People talk to one another and their talking matters…People listen and are changed by such speech, and God is drawn deeply into the conversation.’

I think this says most of what needs to be said about B.’s outlook. I note two things of great interest. Firstly, the concept of a community ‘gathered around [a]text’; this is something that seems to be lost from the churches I attend – it is many years since I heard expository preaching, and brings a sense of the centrality of the Bible in church life. Secondly, the cautious approach which amounts to something like realism which finds humanness an ever present and ‘holiness…strangely present’. However, being gathered around a text does not seem to leave much space for the Holy Spirit, for the actual Presence of God, and the element of ‘strangely present holiness’ is not pursued. The approach seems to fit better with what I would in an untutored way refer to as liberalism rather than the robust pentecostal faith of the book of Acts. In one place he refers almost scathingly to fideism which seems to mean a simplistic acceptance of the Bible as the ‘Word of God’; well, I am inclined to think that a simplistic acceptance may not be  right, but  B. goes  too far in seeing the Bible as man’s presentation of relationship with God; I think God has more to do with it than he says!

I think that is a fair introduction to the way Brueggemann proceeds. I would stress again that it provides a framework for a very sensitive and frequently surprising account of the texts.