Walter Brueggemann

I know a few of you will be jealous, but you should know it really, really was a very hard set up—got into the loading dock, swiveled the blasted carts of books through the too narrow kitchen doors, upa coupla elevators and into the well-appointed ballroom of a swanky regional hotel where we shoved tables and crawled on our knees on the carpet til our hands were brush-burned, looking for just the right arrangement of space, bookselling space.
We had a bit of help for a bit (thanks, again, to Derek and Pierce) but then even Beth had to leave—still settling the “estate” (which means cleaning out her girlhood home of a lifetime of memories after her father’s death last summer)–so I set up books by myself from late afternoon til well after 3:00 am. An hour’s drive home, picking more titles (like we had room for any more on the umpteen tables we already had jammed with books) and then hurried back the next morning, putting on my tie in the rear-view mirror during rush hour traffic. I say all this–conjuring up images of me sweating, back-hurting, emotionally-drained and fretting everthing there is to fret when setting up a large book display for a pack of pastors with high expectations and diverse reading habits–to try to get your sympathy. Bookselling Hearts & Minds style is very labor intensive and I am too often nearly brain-dead by the end of the set up, when the crowds show.
( And where do the books on black feminist liturgy go, anyway—with other books on women, or with liturgy, or with racial diversty? And those pesky books with dual topics—The OLd Testament and the Significance of Jesus, say, or the new Richard Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as the Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture: with Old Testament or New? And then there’s the Wendell Berry (with world hunger books and consumerism or with worldview and social ethics?) And where in the world do you even put G.K. Chesterton—not exactly theology, now, but almost… and how big of a stack of the new N.T. Wright should I build, knowing that some in this group think he is too fundamentalist. (Ha, just last week, in this blog, I was reminded that some find him too liberal!) Ahh, I fret at these working gigs. I fret a lot.)

I say all this, as I say, to garner sympathy. Because as we used the calculator and wrote up invoices and swiped credit cards, and re-set shuffled books back up on their little bookstands, and tried to serve the gathered participants well, showing this and fetching that, explaining why I trust John Stott and not John Spong, apologizing for bringing the wrong thing or why we ran out of the right thing, during all this, we got to hear Walt Brueggemann deliever five majestic lectures, and preach at two eucharistic services. Brueggeman on the Bible. (“I really don’t have any ideas as a teacher,” he modestly began, “all I’ve got are texts.“)
All he has are texts. Texts that speak volumes. Texts that, in his able hands, were well told. Prophets, laws, poems, subversive stories kept alive by Jewish folk who were scheming an alternative world, living counter-cultural lives, upsetting the Empire, trusting God, for crying out loud. He challenged us with the victory dance of Miriam–he invited us to pick up our tambourines!—and the post-exilic prophets upsetting the Torah interpretation that was bent on exclusion and judgement; he spent two lectures upon texts about the encoded Sabbath laws and Jubilee, calling for a work-stoppage, a routine time of saying no to the consumption rat-race, laws and codes and prophetic rejoinders all reminding us that the creation is built for beauty, for abundance, for sustainance, and that God–thank you very much–can take care of business without our frantic book lugging and sweating. We have good news to offer the poor, of course (well, maybe not of course in some churches) but we have good news for those in the upper class rat race, too, who are, in their quiet times, and surely in their night dreams, admit “I can’t keep this up much longer.” He preached and lectured and explained and hoped and dreamed with us all that God in Christ could, through us and the Holy Spirit of God, take steps in helping our churches live into these mighty stories, not in boring, wooden obedience, but in delightful and free imagination. To call people out of death and into life. To live in and share God’s fidelity.
It was an awesome, awesome couple of days.

I, of course, had to stand up and speak about a few of his books. I am glad I noted his very famous and often-cited The Prophetic Imagination and the lesser known but equally important, The Hopeful Imagination which are two of the most amazing of Brueggemann’s many works and books that I would list among my most treasured. (Pete Steen, a college mentor, threw a photocopied edition of The Land at me in about 1976 saying that with my interest in ecology and world hunger I should read it, so that is still a favorite.) Of course Professor Brueggemann has worked well with the psalms of lament, a theme I’ve posted about before and his Message of the Psalms is very useful. And he writes about preaching (the book Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles is one I should have highlighted more, since it fit his theme, and he was talking to pastors who have to preach; and his well-known homiletics book, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclaimationis classic.) He is a major, major scholar, and yet he preaches quite a lot, serving the church as much as the academy, so he has collections of sermons and of beautiful, evocative prayers( Insribing the Text may be the finest such collection although The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power & Weakness is a fabulous paperback, well worth pondering.) He continues to do anthologies and collections of scholarly articles and academic commentaries. His powerful, small introduction to Bible study is one of my favorites, simply called The Bible Makes Sense.
Brueggemann is not a typical theological liberal who distrusts the Bible, spends great energy explaining why it isn’t reliable and who deconstructs the truthfulness of it all, relativizing it’s role among us. Yet, he is not a typical evangelical, either. (As a theologically orthodox Protestant, I don’t even want to hear him expound on his understanding of how revelation happens and the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible.) But he preaches like no other; his books have meant more to me than any other books about the Bible and, although at times he troubles me, I find that when reading his work I must pay attention to it all (as I did this summer when I re-read Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Ideology and found myself underlining nearly every paragraph on almost every page. I came home from the coffee shop, some mornings, with tear stains on my glasses and ink on my hands.) I had been working through his construal of the ways in which authentic praise—at least praise of the true Biblical God, the one whose mighty deeds in history include setting the captives free, the One whose true story is rooted in the real accounts of slaves being liberated from Pharoah–is the sustainance for all faithful social reform and that any praise that isn’t rooted in that tradition of Moses, is essentially false. (Brueggemann didn’t get this from Marx, if you wondered, but in the texts of the Scriptures.) Some of the Psalms, he shows, functioned to authorize an on-going prophetic faithfulness, keeping the story alive, making room to host God’s own presence in the real messiness of human history and politics. (Interestingly, he speculates that some Psalms were extracted from that history of God’s covanantal dealings with His poor, and thereby became royal justification for David’s power and the hegemony of one power-hungry view. Sounds familiar, today, eh?)
All the fine-tuned conservative writers who have taught me (well) to have high, high regard for the authority of the Biblical text, simply do not preach like Brueggemann. He regularly admits to the ambiguities and interpretive differences, and is aware of postmodern thinking (see his brief but generative Texts Under Negotiation) but, again, he is not a relativist; he doesn’t think that no one is right and that it doesn’t really matter. He cares deeply for making legitimate claims upon these texts, interpreting them correctly. Or, I might say, allowing them to interpret us.

He will say, after pouring his heart for 10 minutes on a certain Hebrew phrase or the history of a certain turn of rhetoric in Isaiah: “Well, you know, it’s only a poem, for God’s sake.” And then he asks us to stake our lives upon it. There among the invoices and book lists in the back of the hall, I could hardly contain myself. He asked us to believe this stuff. I shake my head even now…
I count it a privelege to serve the pastors gathered to hear brother Walter, and thank them. I pray for him, that he might grow in his own fidelity, and I pray for them, as leaders in the Episcopal church, that they, too, might take heed, shepherding well their flocks, into the radically-counter-cultural vision that these Spirited texts call us to. And I pray for us, glad and nervous, that we have such opportunity to sells books at such very important gatherings. I thank not only the Diocese leadership, but Dr. B for his kindness to Beth and I, and for his own prophetic imagination, that stirred so many.

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