Nov 14 | “What Are We Waiting For?” (Book Review)

A Review of Walter Brueggemann’s Texts Under Negotiation

Walter Brueggemann’s book Texts Under Negotiation seeks to liberate the Bible for a new era of the Church. He hopes to do this by exploring new hermeneutics beyond the historical-critical paradigm, which, while useful, is a product of modern thinking and its focus on written text (as opposed to oral), the universal (rather than the particular), the general (rather than the local), and the timeless (rather than the timely). Bruggemann suggests that the rise of modern scientific thought came about through a great anxiety caused by the breakdown of Medieval synthesis, “in which a coherent, unified system of meaning and power was everywhere pervasive.” (2) This movement has since lost the ability to function well in today’s world. Bruggemann illustrates four facets of this disconnect as identified by Langdon Gilkey: a) the ambiguity of technology (having failed to deliver the unambiguous “good life”, b) the failure of the political promise of the Enlightenment to bring peace and harmony (bringing instead tyranny), c) the failure of the concept of progress and its inevitable positivity, d) the inability to deal with the challenges of pluralism. Thomas Kuhn’s conclusions on the inability of science to remain objective are also cited. The new intellectual environment in which we find ourselves is described by Brueggemann as highly contextual, local, and pluralistic. This environment has profound impacts on not simply biblical hermeneutics, but ministerial praxis such as pastoral care as well. Bruggemann is aware that the world is still very largely shaped by the older modern worldview and it is the job of pastors to care for congregations as they make the transition. He sees the shift as a very positive opportunity for Christian ministry, for the old ways were particularly effective at silencing subversive forms of communication.

Bruggemann sees imagination and the concrete text itself as the tools of this new paradigm. He defines imagination as “the human capacity to picture, portray, receive, and practice the world in ways other than it appears to be at first glance when seen through a dominant, habitual, unexamined lens.” (13) He explores the efficacy of imagination in Garrett Green’s Imagining God, finding the perfect template in Scripture’s continual references toward living in the “as if” (especially trumpeted by Paul in 2 Corinthians but also illustrated beautifully by Green in Luke 13:10-17), which not only rejects the previous template of living (say, as slaves or as bent over) but replaces it with a new template (as free people or as healed daughters of Abraham). The use of imagination can also greatly enrich current modes of ethics and education, and shows that reality as we know it is continually under negotiation, which makes the world a far more creative and hospitable place. While many (particularly white Western men) may fear the loss of the previous culture’s imagination (the objectivist, scientific worldview), it has failed, and Bruggemann calls ministers to embrace the new context of ministry in the failure of modern imagination. Rather than replacing the old paradigm with a new one (say, postmodernism) however, Bruggemann seeks an era that is funded by postmodern imagination, not replaced. It is really more of a “counterimagination” (20) that Bruggemann proposes. This counterimagination can come to life most vividly in text presentation in worship, particularly because so many of the texts have become archaic or even forgotten and can then be presented in new and creative ways. This, then, challenges the dominant framework that the world is still adopting. The minister/preacher becomes one part in a series of postmodern-funded movements toward a new understanding. Bruggemann really puts it best: “The purpose of preaching and worship is transformation. We undertake theatre that is potentially life-changing. This is the meeting. This is where the transformative act takes place.”

For Bruggemann, this imagination must be funded by the Scriptural texts for the work to be truly evangelical.[1] He hopes that this work will contribute to an “evangelical infrastructure”, which he defines as a sort of social interaction paradigm that heals, redeems, and transforms. (27) This must be done, for the Church risks being informed by a paradigm of consumerism, an infrastructure which contains very little good news (27). The postmodern mindset provides very good framework for this. The infrastructure he proposes has several facets. First, it considers not simply the present but the past and future (thought to be missing from the modernist mindset as irrelevant and unfathomable, respectively), remembering the awesome power of God in creation and the hope of God in consummation (eschaton), as well as the formation of community as one of God’s great acts, a “foretaste of what is coming.” Bruggemann draws extensively on biblical examples such as Genesis, the Psalms, Isaiah, and Revelation. These texts show us that the true character of human life “consists in communion!” (44) Bruggemann has tremendous hope in this infrastructure and the community it would create. “Imagine a self,” he writes, “no longer the self of consumer advertising, no longer a self caught up in endless efforts of self-security, but a self rooted in the inscrutable miracle of God’s love, a self no longer confined to the rat race, but one oriented to full communion with God – which is its true destiny and rightful home.” (49) The texts Bruggemann cites proclaim a deep trust and assurance – something that we in the modern world are lacking and unable to furnish on our own (resulting, Bruggemann says, in the commoditization of everything). “In that diseased present tense, the church utters its word about an alternative.” (54) It offers us covenant in place of fear. Bruggemann hopes to practice this re-proclamation through an honouring of the “little stories” of the Bible, resisting our urges to domesticate them and valuing instead the Jewish reverence for disjointedness and oddity in texts. What must be included, Bruggemann urges, are the texts that embarrassed our modernist sensibilities and have been suppressed. He makes use of three metaphors in this process: the Bible as compost pile, where new life can grow; the interpreter’s zone of imagination, which is influenced by various voices but cannot be fully coerced into certain outcomes by anyone; and exile, which is the context that gave Scripture its “odd” authority (64) and which is a context that we in this era understand very well indeed. All of these metaphors actively work against domesticating the text for the old hegemony. With these in mind, Bruggemann suggests that reality be seen as a drama, and Scripture as the script for the drama. Drama acknowledges the presence of other voices (actors), and process (character development), but also acknowledges that there are other realities of which we cannot speak (we only see what happens on stage) and while there is only one script it can and will be performed differently by different companies. This too has great significance for pastoral care: instead of being protector and transmitter of the magisterium, the pastor becomes a re-enactment of the text and invites others to join her in the drama. The focus on drama likewise leaves the questions of God’s existence or the possibility of the situation offstage (where they would remain if one were watching a play and where they should remain at the risk of losing the Bible to irrelevancy). This drama need not be simplified to the “drama of salvation”, but upheld in its oddity with its “thousand little dramas.” Bruggemann illustrates this with story examples, including the Tenth Plague (Exodus 11:1-9), the laws governing behaviour toward the poor, particularly the cancellation of their debts in the seventh year (Deut. 15:1-11), the anointing of David (1 Samuel 16:1-13), the poetry of Jeremiah and Isaiah, and Proverbs. He details the challenges each text poses to today’s world (and yesterday’s). He concludes that this work must be done one text at a time, should not require training in extensive biblical hermeneutics, and can be practiced by preacher and pew-sitter (and should be). The preacher indeed needs to recognize the power of liminality and provide it to those who come to worship, because they will likely not receive it elsewhere and may still be clinging to old modes of certitude. Liminality, Bruggemann believes, is where the Spirit truly breaks in among us.

Bruggemann lays out a paradigm for a truly world-changing mode of biblical interpretation. It is a very welcome departure from the liberal and scientific dryness and inaccessibility of academia, which, in its attempts to challenge old worldviews and authorities in fact created a whole new structure of authority that scorns the company of those who do not co-opt the highly elite language and Westernized worldview scholars espouse. It was also refreshing to find in this work a call to a more artistic form of biblical interpretation such as drama, rather than the scientific paradigm or indeed the linguistics and literary paradigm, which is more accommodating than the scientific paradigm but can suffer from the same elitism and inaccessibility in communication. This new paradigm of drama appeals not only to people from cultures that may not privilege written literature over oral, but to pastors from a wide array of educational backgrounds. Indeed, this paradigm would probably even transcend political and denominational divides at its best. This sort of interpretation is most exciting to me because of its ability to partner with other cultural factors (as Bruggemann said it should in order to fund imagination instead of replacing it) and also the opportunities it affords laypeople. Christians are empowered from the pulpit to the pew with this kind of work, and it can be attempted in both large and small settings. My only question for Bruggemann is, “What are we waiting for?”

[1] Bruggemann is clear here that his use of the term is as an adjectival form of gospel.

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