Sunday with Walter Brueggemann
An Artistic Rendering of Life
For the work of teachers, preachers, and interpreters, an artistic rendering of life is now an urgent responsibility, not only because of the character of the text but because of our social-cultural-moral circumstance. The community gathered around this text (in church, in synagogue, in religion department) is one of the few places left in contemporary society where an artistic rendering of life may be pursued. Ours is a society beset by excessive certitude and reductive truth, in which we uncritically manage our small perceptual fields. Our propensity to a “historical” reading of life runs the risk of reducing the life process to power, arms, force, and violence, because what really matters is muscle, in personal and in public life. Conversely, our attention to a “theological” reading of the life process seduces us into certitudes that quickly become too convinced and end in a monopoly that is authoritarian, coercive, and occasionally totalitarian. Our historical approach tends to end in Realpolitik (reducing social relations to the operation of sheer power), and our theological reading tends to end in a monopoly of certitude. Both are dangerous in a social situation where power to dehumanize and destroy is so readily available.
I submit that an artistic reading that follows the contours of the narrative is not only faithful to the intended convergences of the text concerning realism, David, and Yahweh but is peculiarly required in our cultural situation of brute power and monopolistic certitude. This artistic rendering lets us be open to the surprises, ambiguities, incongruities, surpluses, and gifts present in Israel’s life, wrought by God, through which humaneness sometimes emerges and where holiness is strangely present. What strikes one about this artistic reading of Israel’s transformation in the Samuel narratives is the power of speech in these stories. People talk to one another, and their talking matters. The playful possibility of speech is at work in the public process of Israel. People listen and are changed by such speech, and God is drawn deeply into the conversation. That is how Israel discerns what has happened in its memory and in its life.
I believe, moreover, that the shapers of the Samuel text intended that each return to the text would evoke a fresh discernment of life as a place where the power of speaking and listening matters to God and to us. My hoped-for outcome in this commentary is that sustained interpretation of the Samuel text may aid in evoking and convening communities of artistic discourse where conversations about power, personality, and providence can be enacted and where these factors are all noticed, honored, and celebrated as constitutive of life. Against the conventional pious reading of the church and against the conventional historical-rational readings of the guild, we have pursued another way of interpreting. I believe we are at an important and urgent threshold of finding a way of taking the text more nearly on its own terms. If this judgment is right, we have important work to do. The next generation of teachers and interpreters may be weaned away from “facticity” and “truth” to a more dangerous conversation.