Thursday, April 9, 2015

Encountering Walter Brueggemann

In addition to his profound understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann’s strengths lay in his knowledge of post-reformation theology and his powerful exegesis, as exemplified in his various collections of essays.  Also extremely provocative is his tapping into the imagination as the most potent means of linking the biblical text to the ethos of the contemporary setting.  In this respect he may be viewed as the apostle to the postmodern secularists.  In this capacity he would play a formidable role in the UCC God is still speaking campaign

 For those on the margins of faith and doubt, WB offers an extremely powerful way of re-entering the strange new world within the Bible that for many, more dogmatic approaches would not have been convincing.  The seeming irrelevance of the Bible is a phenomenon that shapes the thinking of more than a few who attend mainline (or perhaps even evangelical) congregations, who at some level are still seeking a Word where one has not been found for a long time.  The deep influence of secularization, even in the midst of our congregations, is a factor that cannot be lightly dismissed, in which the pastoral call very well may be, in WB’s terms, that “funding” of the Word of God, one verse, one miracle, one revelation at a time, in which to attempt more could very well turn into sterile bibliolatry.  I hope it is clear that I am speaking at the level of reception and I am speaking for some and not for all. 

Brueggemann played a similar role within me that Jurgen Moltmann's, The Crucified God, did some years earlier in opening up the hermeneutical possibility that God could speak a vital Word through his text.  I spent a good part of two years pouring over everything I could get my hands on by WB. In the process of following the trajectory of his imaginative biblical construals, as he would put it, I also read substantial portions of the OT.  I encountered the Bible, once again, as the vital Word of God.

In my reading of Brueggemann, I also experienced some limitations, such as his privileging of some texts over the others, which I interpret as at least partially contradicting the spirit of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”  While WB might have viewed it as ironic, my re-encountering the Bible through his theology pushed me toward an evangelical faith retrieval of some enduring stability, which I needed to reclaim if the Christian faith were going to prevail in my life in a compellingly vital way.  This retrieval— illuminated, as far as I could discern by the Holy Spirit—has depended, in no small measure, on the capacity to embrace the Bible full without privileging certain texts over others, as the very source of my ultimate vocabulary. 

The second, and related limitation I find in WB, is, notwithstanding the “existential” power of his “funding” of postmodernity one text, one miracle, one revelation at a time, I simply could not fathom how one could construct a stable religious life from that basis, or how a congregation could establish an ecclesiology which could mediate the religious needs and passions of a congregation from week to week.

In theory, I could imagine a postmodern/post-Christian congregation, which gathered week-to-week from their travails within the secular city.  This ideal congregation would encounter the Word once again through the imaginative dynamic of the charismatic preacher who would reach those in the pews through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, where the Word would come alive, once again, in WB’s evocative imagery, one verse, one miracle one revelation at a time.  I do believe this is a place where many people, and perhaps congregations in such denominations like the United Church of Christ are, and in this respect, the voice coming out of the theology of WB may very well be the authentic Word of God that such a congregation may need to hear.  Interpreted from this vantage point, WB represents an authentic UCC voice that needs to be thoroughly heard and respected within the denomination’s Confessing Christ network, at least as a viable kairotic option for a certain sector of the faith community in our secular era of postmodernity/post-Christendom era, within the suburban congregations of cosmopolitan America.

Yet, if taken as the gospel itself, or as THE authoritative theology of our times, WB’s vision could also be viewed as extremely repressive and oppressive to boot.  The possibility for a thoroughly biblically-based evangelical encounter through the likes of Bloesch, Vanhoozer, Barth, Henry, Fackre, Lints, and others is also a critical need which has been profoundly repressed within the mainline denominations going back to the struggles with fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th century.  In order to get at the root of these issues, the historical dynamics that lent them their intensity would need to be imaginatively re-encountered and reconstructed. 

 I would recommend a thorough and respectful encounter between Walter Brueggemann and Donald Bloesch where some of these critical issues could be aired out. For this is one of the crucial encounters I believe that needs to take place between the confessional communities within the United Church of Christ and the denomination's Cleveland leadership and progressive ministry throughout, as exemplified, particularly, in its bi-coastal conferences.  Let us assume that both brothers deserve a respectful place at the UCC table, and then establish the places where they could mutually sit and where we could respectfully engage them.

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