Archive for November, 2013

“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.

Stumbling Over the Supernatural

I find it most fascinating to trace the movements of culture through a human being’s conception of reality and how reality relates to the mind. What I learned in Education for Ministry, above all other things, was that the movements of culture are really more like a pendulum than a straight line (and I wonder if this view is the marker of a truly post-Enlightenment child – perhaps even a neo-Medieval child). The ancient Greeks argued over whether there were ideas that existed beyond and past our ability to perceive them, and really, we’re in the same argument now. Each age that passes seems to be more heavily weighted to one side or another. I believe right now we’re living in a liminal space between two extremes, with Fundamentalism on one side and New Atheism (super-rational-materialism?) on the other. To claim that there are things we cannot see that yet exist may not be so controversial, but to claim that they have their own wills, operating completely independently from ours, is a little too much for some of them.

The Holiness movements in modern North America, particularly in the United States, were only the first in a long line of rebellions against the naming of rationalism as the highest truth (and, Kant would argue, good). I’m really not sure how I feel about them! On the one hand, they galvanized a people to proclaim the authority of God by joyfully shouting that miracles did still occur! On the other, the third incarnation of this movement was, in a way, our fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. We believed we knew the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and our eyes were opened to the world around us in a new way. However, it led us into a terrible bondage – the sins we fed through colonization that we are still paying for in deserved but rather toxic guilt. Suffice to say that these movements threw old paradigms such as the predictability of the world and its unending service to unwritten and/or undiscovered laws of nature into question.

As I grow older I begin to look with more curiosity and – I’ll admit – not a little longing at movements like this, where everyone is sure that their everyday lives are touched by God, whereas I am always questioning. Although I am comfortable with uncertainty and am a meaning-maker out of necessity (as most humans are), it can be a great comfort and a sense of awe to be able to explain and fully consent intellectually to the notion that God intervenes explicitly and directly with humankind – however often it happens. I know, though, that I was never created to be such a person. I am a quiet doubter. My mind always mutters, “It can’t possibly be that simple.” I have found Marcus Borg sometimes to be helpful in the questioning of supernatural events. When asked to describe how Jesus healed, he writes that he does not know, but also that he does not think Jesus’ healings were fictional. Rather, he refers to them as “paranormal,” outside normal experience and difficult to explain. I always like to leave a little room for the Spirit to move and breathe. Do I believe God moves in these Holiness movements, which sometimes still occur on a smaller scale in the rapidly growing Pentecostal communities of the world? Absolutely – God moves in all things, and that’s what I mean when I call something a “movement.” Do I think that God intervenes supernaturally in some instances (but, as no-one can deny, not others?) I’m not sure. “Oh Lord, you know.”

Be Like an Icon



Hildegard of Bingen is one of my favourite mystics. I first learned about her on my hiatus from the church and listened to her music when I was a Wiccan – I actually blessed my harp one night alone at home, listening to her music and dancing about the room!

One of my favourite things about her is her incarnational theology. In Physica she speaks of the rivers of the world being like the veins inside a human being, carrying blood about the body. I found I delighted in her description of “red earth” – red earth “brings forth many fruits that, because of their abundance, are unable to come to completion.” (103) This sounds like me!

I have always been profoundly affected by Hildegard’s art – both her music and visual art in particular. Her music is unusual in that she wrote melodies that often went beyond the normal range for religious music at the time. This is part of what makes it so special for me. I think my favourite piece is her “Columba Aspexit,” written in honour of St. Maximilian, which appropriately soars like the dove it is named for. She writes rhapsodic lines reminiscent of the Song of Songs:

The dove peered in through the lattices of the windows,

                Where, before its face, a balm exuded from incandescent Maximilian.

Art has been a huge part of my healing process. Although I am able to engage my left brain logical side, I am definitely a sensitive sensual right brain person most of the time. Symbols and creative expression are far more likely to nourish me. Music specifically has had a huge role to play in my healing journey. Having been bullied into the desire for constant invisibility for much of my childhood, I found I could come home to myself when I learned to play the Celtic harp. Writing had always been a solace for me, but since it is a solitary activity I could hide in it and express my feelings without any repercussions. It was very different to play an instrument and be good at it – this, I felt, let me not only express who I felt I really was, but let other people see it and, usually, love it.

For a long time the harp was something I pursued for its own sake and its role in my own healing, but eventually I began to discover that, through no “fault” of my own, it was working its own healing in others. I had the great joy and honour of bringing it into a few palliative care wards, and into the Dr. Peter AIDS Centre when my mum worked there. I had never liked hospitals as a child, but I felt very different once I had the harp with me. I felt as though I had a role there and it suddenly became a very holy exercise – even in the Dr. Peter Centre, sitting with addicts cackling as I played “Stairway to Heaven” and “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica. I was humbled by the people I met who were dying or in pain, and felt (and still feel) that the beauty they encountered through me has very little to do with me personally, and everything to do with the Holy Spirit moving through me. When I began composing, this sense only deepened, as I found myself writing songs about God that I could barely remember writing – I seemed to pull them fully formed out of the air. Eventually I expanded my healing ministry to Healing Touch and became more hands-on, but still had no sense that it was me that was “special” in some way – rather God or the Spirit gifted me with her presence and was thereby able to visit or help someone in a special way through me.

I think this is why I find that the most important part of healing – the part that I most want to develop, because it is not really something you can adequately learn from a book – is presence. I want to be a healing presence for people in pain and suffering. If I were to try and articulate this to my big sister Hildegard, I would perhaps say that I wanted to be like an icon: beautiful, not intrinsically holy but a window that reveals something much bigger than herself.

Update and Gender Piece

Hi, everybody!

I do DO apologize for being away so long! My writing time has been taken up with laziness, writing papers, and tweaking old pieces to submit to my friend Mathew’s blog here. It’s been a really fun thing to get started, and we’re hoping to have some other submitters post stuff soon!

In the meantime, I did meet with the Examining Chaplains on Halloween. I really have no idea how to answer the question I keep getting: “How did it go?” None of them gave me any clue as to how they were reacting to my answers, so I really won’t know until I get their go-ahead or stay-behind, which might not come until the end of the year. I am glad that it’s over and done, and my anxiety level about the process is way down now that it’s over. ACPO isn’t until May, so there’s plenty of time to prepare myself either way. I just really pray that if I do go to ACPO it’s to ACPO 2014 because I want to go with my friend Lucy.

I hope to add some more pieces, but in the meantime, here are some of the ones I submitted to Mathew’s blog. I’m not going to post all of them so if you’re interested in the others go and check out his blog. Also check it out for his work too, because it’s great!


On the Outside, Looking In: Gender from the margins

I’m in a strange space right now with regards to gender. The news coming out of the United States during 2012’s “war on women” galvanized me in a way that nothing had ever done before. Suddenly, I could count myself as an armchair feminist: someone who knows some of the lingo but is only vaguely familiar with broad strokes of the movement as it has evolved over time. I am learning more every day. Now, I probably classify as a third-wave feminist who has begun to explore the trappings of patriarchy (especially in regard to rape culture and misogyny) very critically.

All that being said, I am also an outsider. I am neither straight nor gay and I do not explicitly identify as solely female. The closest term I can think of to describe the state of my gender would be “two-spirited”, and yet I am hesitant to co-opt such a term because it is from a culture that is not my own. I have no problems with my biological self as I am, yet there is clearly an inner part of me that is male. I recognize that this part of me is not at all new. It is something I can trace back to very early memories, right around the time I began to really notice the difference between boys and girls.

I write all of this because it informed the work in my major exegesis, which was about the gender-fluid Christ in the Gospel of John, highlighted not only in actions but even down to the very words of the Prologue. This, in turn, inspired me to further my research in order to take my understanding of ancient ideas of gender to the next level. The more research I do, the more I begin to think that today’s increasingly fluid ideas of gender are not the innovation that many people think they are. I do believe that it is a reaction against the binarism of the Enlightenment, but less of a new development and more a swinging back of the pendulum. I would like to explore this idea further because it has given me some amazing insights into the many different facets of Divinity.

One of the most beautiful revelations I have had regarding this multi-faceted view was first born out of my discovery of St. John of the Cross and his beautiful poem The Dark Night of the Soul, wherein the soul is characterized as female and stealing away to lie in bliss with the Godhead. It was amazing to encounter this portrait of God—one which I certainly had not come into contact with in Sunday school! As I grew older, I encountered Jesus as the (male) Beloved in this way in several moving prayer experiences. As I began to explore the feminine aspects of Jesus as the Sophia figure, I suddenly realized that my male “spirit” could likewise be entranced by a Beloved that was female; the motivations that I have felt go along with that spirit—protection, masculine strength, and the desire to empower (rather than to enjoy empowerment)—can be directed toward this Beloved.