Last week, I took part in a day-long conversation about the Bible with 20 or so biblical and theological scholars. And by “took part,” I mean I was there to listen, observe, and soak it all in. The conversation revolved around two main questions: what is the Bible? and what should we do with it? Because our gathering included participants from evangelical, mainline, and Catholic traditions, we didn’t all come (or leave) with the same answers. But the conversation was good, really good.
Walter Brueggemann was supposed to discuss the importance of genre in the Hebrew Scriptures. But as we had the good sense to hold our event in the Midwest in January, adverse weather in Chicago kept him on a tarmac in Cincinnati (thus leaving my plan for getting a selfie with Brueggemann in tatters).
It’s just as well. I’ve been told that Brueggemann does not suffer fools, and more than a few of us (scholars included) would have been in full-blown geek-out mode if he’d been there.
Still, we had Brueggemann’s paper. And his blessing to read it in his absence. So for 20 minutes, I got to pretend I was Walter Brueggemann.
I can’t share his paper with you, but I will share a couple of key points I took from my experience impersonating one of the world’s most admired Old Testament scholars:
1. Neither fundamentalism nor rationalism are equipped to deal with the Bible.
For Brueggemann, reading the Bible well requires navigating between two extremes: the literalist impulse of fundamentalism and the historicist impulse of rationalism. One treats everything as literal, historical fact, imposing modern expectations of “accuracy” and “precision” on ancient texts. The other denies any meaningful connection between the text and reality.
Both reflect a reductionist approach to the Bible. Both fail to consider the importance of genre when reading scripture—the codes, if you will, through which the authors described (and critiqued) reality for their audience. We all use codes to explain reality to members of our respective communities. Learning these codes is part of the initiation process into a new community. These codes shape the way parents speak to their children (in the stories they tell), the way churches speak to parishioners (in their liturgies), the way businesses speak to their target audiences (through advertising).
If this didn’t make things challenging enough, we also have to recognize our anachronistic habit of importing our genres into the Bible, when ancient literature had its own unique genres—something Gregory Mobley, author of Return of the Chaos Monsters, noted in his response to me… er, Brueggemann.
One thing we can draw from this without getting too deep into the weeds of genre analysis is that the biblical writers were not mere reporters or scribes taking dictation from God on high. Nor were they simply making stuff up. They were poets and artists, skillfully crafting a story. They weren’t giving a dry report of who did what, where, and when so much as they were envisioning a new, God-soaked reality.
2. We must rediscover the artistry of the Bible so we can read with our imaginations.
Artistry was one of the recurring themes of Brueggemann’s paper. It’s not a word you’ll find in many commentaries or Bible studies. It’s not one I heard often in seminary. The text was something to be parsed, analyzed, and systematized into concrete theological propositions.
But how do you dissect a work of art without robbing it of its power? According to Brueggeman, this is exactly what we’ve done with the Bible. In a 2013 interview with Krista Tippett, he said:
What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition is flatten out all the images and metaphors [of scripture] to make them fit into a nice little formulation, and it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people: if you want a God who is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become part of your prayer life and vocabulary and conceptual frame—which again, is why the poetry is so important. The poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you are left with nothing that has any transformative power.
Acknowledging the artistry of scripture is essential to understanding its impulse toward justice. The “prophetic imagination,” a phrase that might as well be synonymous with Brueggemann’s name, is the creative envisioning (or perhaps summoning) of a new, more just reality—long before one exists, when the existence of one seems impossible.
Prophets, Brueggeman says:
…are moved the way every good poet is moved to describe the world differently. Those who control the power structures do not know what to make of them, so they try to silence them. And what the powers finally discover is that you cannot silence poets.
It never occurred to me to think of prophets primarily as poets, even though most of what we label “prophecy” is poetic in form. As Brueggemann reminds us, we pay a heavy price for neglecting the artistry of scripture.
If we read everything literally—flattening the Bible, as Brueggemann says…
Or if we read everything skeptically…
If we dismiss everything as ahistorical fabrication…
Or if we treat prophets like sanctified fortune tellers, divorcing their message from its original context so we can look for signs of “fulfilled prophecy” in our day…
…then all we’re really doing is reading the Bible on our terms, rather than its own.
By reading the Bible this way, we’ve managed to do what the ancient powers could not do: silence the prophets and poets of the Bible.
Reversing this trend will take a mighty act of imagination. That’s what I learned when I spent 20 minutes being Walter Brueggemann.
Well, that and one other thing: if you should ever be called upon to present one of Brueggemann’s papers for him, give it a read beforehand. He’s got one heck of a vocabulary.
Photo by Westminster John Knox Press