Issue Date: May 13, 2005
Scholar Walter Brueggemann digs into the text but stays above the fray
Reviewed by DARRELL TURNER
Walter Brueggemann is one of the premier Old Testament scholars of our time, but his approach has implications beyond that field. As this collection of essays demonstrates, he finds advantages and limitations in taking any specific approach toward interpreting a text, including his own self-described postmodern perspective. And he also shows how its possible to disagree sharply with another scholar while acknowledging the writers contributions to the field as a whole and his own work in particular.
Virtually every time he writes about the Bible, Dr. Brueggemann stresses how the uniqueness of scripture and its divine inspiration transcend all categories of interpretation. A typical example is his statement on biblical authority: Nobody makes the final read; nobodys read is final or inerrant, precisely because the Key Character in the book who creates, redeems, and consummates is always beyond us in holy hiddenness.
For this reason, Dr. Brueggemann says, the problem for any church body, including his own United Church of Christ, is how to let all interpretations be taken seriously while submitting them to the judgment of the whole church. Another factor in his approach is that no single text has governing authority because ethical decision-making is always contextual, based on the intellectual, cultural and historical circumstances of the interpreting community.
Dr. Brueggemanns essay on the loss and recovery of the doctrine of creation as a theme of the Old Testament provides a case study. He shows how the German church struggle against the blood and soil ideology of National Socialism in the 1930s influenced Gerhard von Rads criticism of Canaanite Baal religion and his consequent marginalizing of the role of creation in the beliefs of ancient Israel. Building on this assertion, American scholar G. Ernest Wright asserted that Israel was little interested in nature in and of itself but only as God used it to reveal himself and to accomplish his purposes.
This model for Old Testament scholarship was normative in the mid-20th century until Claus Westermann, a colleague of Dr. von Rads in Heidelberg, wrote an essay that was published in 1971 asserting that creation was an integral aspect of the faith of ancient Israel. Gradually, creation was reintegrated into the work of biblical theology, which Dr. Brueggemann finds a boon in helping scholars to teach the larger community what scripture has to say about the ecological crisis.
In surveying contemporary approaches to Old Testament theology, Dr. Brueggemann examines modernist perspectives (for example, Robert Carroll) that view the text as an oppressive ideology of social control; premodern perspectives (for example, Brevard Childs) that try to conform the text to a rule of faith; and postmodern perspectives (for example, Wesley Kort) that view the text as lacking a single credible coherence because of its sheer, dread holiness. There is enough evidence to support the concerns of all three groups, he says, while maintaining that they arent mutually exclusive and urging scholars in each camp to listen to the readings of the others.
Defying his critics attempts to pin him down to a specific, unchangeable stance, Dr. Brueggemann responds to J. Richard Middleton, I have neither the interest nor the patience to spend my time defending or promoting a single theme, model or segment of textual material. And in responding to Dr. Childs review of his Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Dr. Brueggemann maintains that of course Dr. Childs has distorted his writing and made false assertions about it, even as he pays tribute to his fellow scholars passion, imagination, courage, and great learning and declares that Dr. Childs is the teacher of us all.
This generosity toward scholarly sparring partners reflects Dr. Brueggemanns core belief that scripture defies all our categories. It is urgent, even if difficult to remember that it is the word of the Lord and not our word, he says. If the Bible is indeed the book that breathes new life, perhaps Walter Brueggemann is the scholar who breathes new life into its study.
Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.
National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005
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