Sunday with Walter Brueggemann: An Artistic Rendering of Life

Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges. Van Gogh

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.

First and Second Samuel: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, pp. 5-6

16 thoughts on “Sunday with Walter Brueggemann: An Artistic Rendering of Life

  1. Well, I agree with Mule that it was less than clear what Bruggeman actually wants us to do and how he wants us to do it.

    I think what Bruggeman might be sensing but may be unable to bring to the surface to articulate is the symbolism and symbolic patterns inherent in many of the stories of Scripture. Go to Jonathan Pageau’s channel “The Symbolic World” on YouTube and listen to any of his videos, and be amazed. Jonathan is a Canadian artist specializing in icon carving, who didn’t carve until he was introduced to it by a Kenyan carver when Jonathan and his family lived in Africa for 7 years. One of his carvings adorns the space above the porch of the old original church of my parish. Try “Sacred Art in Secular Terms” for an intro to what Jonathan’s about, and “Divine Patterns in ‘The Life of Moses'” for a terrific analysis of the symbolic in some of the OT account, with insights from St Gregory of Nyssa. I think these are more helpful than the mishmash of today’s Bruggeman quote. (Maybe more context is what’s needed, I don’t know… )

    Also more useful is Fr Stephen’s response to a question about about reading and interpreting Scripture, particularly the OT, which he wrote on Saturday. Forgive the length of the quote, but all of it really is important; he says what I try to say around here every so often, but way better.

    “When I say that the historicity of something is uncertain – it’s because there’s some fuzziness in various accounts – they are theological accounts rather than careful, historically-based writings. There is, for me, no doubt that we are speaking of historical personages such as Abraham, David, etc. But, when, in our modern world, we speak of ‘historicity,’ we do not really mean something that is known or discovered theologically. It is meant just the same as the question would be asked of Homer’s Odyssey. Everybody, including secular scholars, can take a crack at such questions. That was the original point of the invention of this kind of “historicity” within Protestant scholarship. It was an intent to create a basis of authority that was outside the Pope – and, more or less, independent of the observer. Of course, it didn’t work.

    “Whether a particular father viewed something as historical or not is often a moot point. Is the passage in which they cite something specifically about its historicity, or is that father only citing the story in a manner that sounds like he has a very historical view of the passage? What I think is that this question is a modern question – and, largely, a Protestant question. I do not resist it in order to argue that something or other is not ‘historical.’ I just think it’s the wrong question, built on wrong assumptions about the nature of the Scriptures and how we read them.

    “For example, when the Fathers spoke about a ‘literal’ reading of a text – they had nothing about its historical nature in mind. ‘Literal’ means – what the actual letter says. If it says, ‘Bush,’ it means, ‘Bush,’ not ‘envy,’ or ‘pride,’ or some such thing – examples of the worst abuses of allegory. However, consistently, the Fathers taught that there is a meaning and reality *beneath* the letters and that this is what they most sought.

    “You can ask someone to ‘take the historicity of the OT’ on faith – but, that is not done in the Creeds or any dogmatic proclamation of the Church. Again, I think it’s a modern question, and largely a Protestant question.

    “I might read a passage – let’s pick Genesis 18, with the visit of the angels to Abraham. That story has some historical-sounding components. It also has accounts of God speaking to Himself that Abraham would not have heard. What is the status of that dialog? The answer is, for me, in terms of ‘historicity’: I not only have no idea, but I cannot have an idea. It’s impossible to determine it. I can assert that ‘by faith I believe this is pure history.’ That’s nice, but it only has use if I’m talking to a believer who agrees with me. Are people supposed to take it on faith because my faith asserts it? Frankly, I think it’s asking something of the text that is not there.

    “Now, in 1Cor. 15, St. Paul gives a very careful account of the resurrection, so factual that it numbers specific eyewitnesses. The Bible knows how to be quite ‘historical’ when it wants to. Of course, St. Paul said that Mt. Sinai is Hagar and Sarah is Jerusalem, and makes not even the slightest apology for a sudden assertion of a doctrinal point based on an allegorical reading.

    “”For myself (back to Gen. 18), I read the text as it stands. I see what it says, and I accept it. I also see more than the text says. The three angels prefigure the Trinity, the Eucharist is prefigured, etc. If I wring my hands and ask questions that I cannot answer, what good will that do? I just don’t do it. I don’t know the answer – and I’ve long since given up making fideistic proclamations about things that are not required of me. That’s just the stuff of arguments.

    “Is the story authoritative? That, for me, is the question. Yes, it’s authoritative, because its the Scriptures. The Scriptures, all of them, are authoritative for the life of the Church – the plain sense, as well as the moral and allegorical senses. I read them in the context of the Church’s readings. I do not import secular speculations, even if I’m interested in them from time to time. They are not part of my hermeneutic – or that of the Orthodox Church.

    “What happens to those who assert ‘accept them as historical by faith’ is that there is a need to defend that ‘by faith’ position against all comers – and the slightest waver is likely to make the whole house of cards fall down. I want something greater than a House of Cards – it’s why I’m Orthodox. The Church is the ‘pillar and ground of truth.’ Ask a Protestant Evangelical what is the pillar and ground of truth – and he’ll likely say ‘Scripture,’ because he has ignored the verse (they don’t notice ‘church’ verses). They are shocked to find out what the Scripture actually says.

    “What many converts seek to do, is use the Orthodox Church, and her Fathers, as an outside source of verifying their Protestant historicism, and then think that they are reading the Scriptures in a Orthodox manner. They’re not. They’re just trying to turn the inner life of Orthodoxy into something it is not – a guarantee for ‘the facts’ so that, on the basis of ‘independent facts’ an individual can pursue their independent reading.

    “I get hammered about this from time to time. I’ve given it a lot of thought. I think that there are many who simply cannot imagine anything other than the modern literalism/historicism of a Protestant reading. They insist on asking modern questions of an ancient text.

    “An individual Orthodox Christian is free, of course, to think what they want about this matter. However, I do not think that anyone should assert this as the ‘Orthodox view.’ Of course, I’ve seen long lists trotted out by some to make precisely this point. It is highly selective, usually taken out of context, and assembled by people whose knowledge of the Fathers doesn’t go beyond reading bad English translations of a tiny bit of material that is extant. The same folks will sometimes blast actual Orthodox scholars who disagree with them. It’s quite frustrating.

    “‘Why would we need to independently verify the facts?’ Well, I speak and write with lots on non-believers. Telling them, ‘The Bible says,’ is pretty darned useless. If I’m speaking with another believer, I don’t mind saying ‘the Bible teaches, or says, etc.’ because we have agreed that the Scriptures are authoritative. But if I say to another believer ‘x or y’ about a Scripture as a ‘fact’ like any other ‘fact’ – that is, removed from its place within the Scriptural narrative – I’m requiring of them an assent that is simply arguable. I cannot require that of them. I cannot say, ‘Every detail of Gen. 18 is historical fact.’ I can say, ‘Gen. 18 is Scripture,’ and on that basis teach doctrine, discipline and reproof, etc.

    “I do not think history is unimportant. Obviously, the history of Israel was real. What we have are the stories they told about that history – and those stories are Scripture. That the history was real is utterly necessary – that is undeniable as a Christian. But, still, what we have are the stories. I am comfortable with that because I accept the authority of the Scriptures in the life of the Church. It is how we think and read and believe.

    “The ‘historically-minded’ actually only accept Scripture because they think, for one reason or another, that these things are factually true in every instance. What is authoritative for them are ‘facts’ and ‘history.’ That is modernism. I do not want to think that way because I think it leads to a dead end (actually, several dead ends).

    “When it comes to the secular academy – they can be trusted in no way whatsoever. They have always been governed by fashion and opinion – not by the Church or the believing community. The most bizarre departments in any university these days are their Religion departments (where they exist). I have no use for them.

    “Just a few thoughts…”



  2. I have to admit after reading this passage several times that I have no idea what Bruggeman wants us to do with the books of Samuel, or any other part of the Bible, for that matter. “Artistic” readings? What could he possibly mean by this other than “fanciful”?

    Jumping over all the temporal, cultural, and narrative barriers that separate us from David and his milieu, what can we say other than that David was a warlord? A man whose authority over others proceeded from his military prowess; as a later warlord would express it, “the barrel of a gun”, yet at the same time he was definitely a man after Yahweh’s own heart. His name is forever linked with the most exalted religious poetry ever penned by the hand of men. I hope that what Bruggeman is calling for is not a re-imagining of David as Mr. Rogers and Yahweh as Tenderheart Bear.

    Don’t get me wrong. As David’s wiser son implied, there is a time and a place for Mr. Rogers and there is a time and a place for David the slayer of his ten thousands. There is a time for Tenderheart Bear and a time for YHWH ish-milchamah.

    I just wish it wasn’t so damned hard to tell when.


  3. Every generation rewrites the past. We need to know what kind of frim ground , other men before us, have found to stand on. Humans are by nature in need of story telling, fables, myths and literature/art to make our life better and live up to the potential. Due to technology we are losing that quest in our society. Fact, figures and basic knowledge do not sustain people well without the “story” of not only how but why things happens and what we should believe “the heard voice perishes but the written letter remains. That is why , it is important to know why it is important for me to know, that Jews and Christians have been people of the Book, now our society is becoming the people of the screen, tied to the ever changing , ever fluid, ever malleable presentation of the past made possible by the nature of digital tech.


  4. the arts, great literature, poetry, music all have the power to change our perspectives in ways unforeseen . . . that makes the arts something to be feared by ‘authorities’ who must ‘control’ how people perceive what they are told

    from another troubled age comes this prescient advice from Walt Whitman:

    ““re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book,
    and dismiss whatever insults your own soul ”

    the sacred Scriptures, notably the Holy Gospels of Our Lord are called ‘dunamis’ . . . . a word that is related to the word ‘dynamite’, meaning ‘explosive’,

    so, yeah, there is no ‘controlling’ the impact of the sacred Scriptures on people who encounter them at moments where the impact can change EVERYTHING for them . . . the Holy Spirit goes where He wills



    there are insights in the OT of how stories were told to great rulers in a way that helped the rulers to ‘get it’ that they had done wrong and had been unjust in wounding innocents . . . .

    I believe that Brueggemann’s statement is vital to our own time: ” 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 post by Willamson asks important questions of evangelical supporters of Donald Trump, and IF they comprehend that someone among them must take the role of being a ‘Nathan’ to tell ‘the story’ to Trump in a way that can ‘get through’ to him; then maybe that evangelical leader will have done some good. (?)

    strange how a story in sacred Scripture as old as King David and his Nathan finds meaning thousands of years later in a place far away at a time where in an American border prison cell, an exhausted distraught father hung himself out of grief because the ‘authorities’ had taken his only son away from him. . . . . . when I read about this incident, I myself thought about Nathan’s story of the poor man and his beloved ewe lamb that was taken from him by the rich man who slaughtered the lamb for a meal for his guest


  6. As you say, art can be dangerous, in good and bad ways. That makes the last sentence in today’s post, “The next generation of teachers and interpreters may be weaned away from “facticity” and “truth” to a more dangerous conversation,” ominously true in a way that Brueggemann may or may not have intended.


  7. I want to be clear. I’m not disputing that many texts in the Bible, like those in First and Second Samuel, should be appropriated for theological purposes imaginatively rather than as history or fact; if that’s all Brueggemann is saying, I agree. But questions of history, fact, and truth will have to settle somewhere for the theological project to be meaningful, whether we are cognizant of it or not. For Christians, that settling should mostly (mostly!) be in and around matters centered in the New Testament: the resurrection of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, the character of God as expressed in the life and teachings of Jesus, trust in the veracity of the apostolic community’s witness to Jesus, etc.


  8. Art can be just as much a tool of power as history and theology can. See propaganda posters of whatever political stripe for example.


  9. 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.

    This approach doesn’t get rid of the problem of readings that tend to “end in a monopoly of certitude”; instead, it kicks the can down the road from certitudes about the written text to certitudes about the text of contemporary experience with regard to dehumanization and destruction. The problem with this is that the interpretation of these matters are as hotly contested and disputed in public discourse. Unhooking theology from “facticity” and “truth” will not result in certitude or agreement about what dehumanization and destruction really are; and there is the very real danger that it will play into the hands of those who in the pursuit of social power contend and promote the idea that there are “alternative facts”.


  10. “Jeremiah:

    Listening to Jeremiah is one hell of a way to get your blood
    going in the morning; it puts caffeine to shame.

    The monastic discipline of listening aims to still body and soul
    so that the words of a reading may sink in. Such silence tends
    to open a person.

    Some days I became angry or was reduced to tears, perhaps a
    promising sign that something had broken through my defenses.

    “Break up your fallow ground” Jeremiah 4:3
    A life of prayer must “work the earth of the heart.”
    And as I take my spade in hand, as far as I can see, great
    clods of earth are waiting, heavy and dark, a hopeless task.
    First weeks will come, then whatever it is I’ve planted.
    I feel the struggle in my knees and back.

    Listening to the Bible read aloud allows us to hear with fresh ears.
    The words of Scripture seek us out, personally engage us, and draw
    our hearts into a dialogue. ” (Kathleen Norris)


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