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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Living Countertestimony" (Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: Living Countertestimony: Conversations With Walter Brueggemann
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann and Carolyn J. Sharp
PUBLISHER: Lousville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (176 pages).

People often read the works of authors but few authors are personally read by people. In a manner that imitates the title of the book, this work offers an intimate look at one of evangelical world's most popular preachers and teachers, especially in all things Old Testament. Call it counterculture, or against the flow, or simply being himself, Brueggemann offers readers an inner glimpse of how he thinks, and his struggles with fellow scholars, and how he defends the way he does things. While the provocative questions are made by Carolyn Sharp, the book is essentially Brueggemann's. He shares with readers his deep convictions about the Old Testament texts, and how he prays through each day, to be faithful in teaching the texts according to his gifts. Designed in a more conversational style, Brueggemann responds to Sharp's questions with frankness, and at times with a measured disappointment with those who disagree with them. Using 8 of Brueggemann's talks between 2008 and 2011, Sharp brings together a wide range of conversations covering from biblical interpretations, to his interactions with scholars who disagree with Brueggemann's approach.

In "Arguing with the Text," Sharp introduces the beginning of the project with a group of scholars and past students of Brueggemann, many of whom are admirers of Brueggemann's works. He admits to having Brevard Childs as his greatest influence in his biblical theology. He offers his view as a scholar as well as a pastor. He reveals why he sees a need to transition away from historical criticism, toward something that the current generation will "get it." He even answers questions about praying before each lesson, as well as how the celebrity status of Brueggemann has impacted his life and his relationships with students and faculty. Admitting that he cannot handle the book of Job, he even tells of how he flunk his German despite studying four years in it.

"Redescribing the World" traces the beginnings of Brueggemann's foray into biblical theology, and how struggles with certain subjects. It also reveals a lot of Brueggemann's entry into the academic world, his doctoral pursuits, setting the educational curriculums, and of course, a very interesting form of 8 statements of personal habits and preferences for him to fill in.  The most interesting part of the chapter is how Brueggemann deals with the criticisms by Dr Bruce Waltke.

"Disrupting the Cynicism of Despair" touches on one of Brueggemann's most famous piece of work on prophetic imagination. It uncovers more of the three ways in which cynicism and despair can be broken. The first is to use symbols to disrupt hopelessness. The second is to bring hope in public expression. The third is to relate a newness for the world to receive. 

"Practicing Gratitude" is more pastoral as it deals with practicing faith in the biblical studies environment. The challenge is to connect biblical studies with what is going on in the world. Pastoral formation is key. It is something that is not simply getting over some challenges, but dealing with it on a daily basis, without even an eventual resolution. Brueggemann shares his thoughts on postcritical hermeneutics, his theological disagreements with some theological institutions, as well as his series of speeches at Regent College. He lament about the state of the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature), where people tend to gravitate toward people of similar persuasion instead of honest engagement of differing views.

"Where is the Scribe?" touches on critical scholarship of the Bible. Brueggemann breaks down the disputes into three groups, the orthodox, the rationalists, and his own tradition, the pietists. The first is most dogmatic, the second being more open to "autonomous reason," and the third trying to strike a balance between the first two. Brueggemann argues for "patience and imagination," using the whole idea of the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) to invite painful reflection with critical analysis. He shows readers how and why he moves from precritical to critical, and from critical to postcritical hermeneutics. He goes into detail of how the contexts of the ancient scribes look like, and imagines the perspectives they see.

"Hungry for This Word" represents the heart of Bruggemann's passion in teaching and preaching. Here, Brueggemann talks with Roger S. Greene on preaching. It gives insights on how to approach the text both as a pastor as well as a scholar, how the academic part can be linked to the practical life of the Christian. It is not simply engaging the text, but how to help congregants engage it for themselves. 

"On the Road Again" is a published sermon of Brueggemann, that traces a Christian's spiritual journey on where they are going, how, and who they are traveling with. He refers to Abraham's journey and contrasts it with Paul's journey. He highlights themes of shalom, neighborliness, assurance, and faith for the journey.

"Biblical Theology in Dialog" is a reflection by Terence E. Fretheim, how he agrees and disagrees with the biblical theology of Brueggemann. He calls some of Brueggemann's work as "unsettling" and also appreciates the support given by the esteemed theologian. He also observes how Brueggemann is skeptical of the established traditions, listing eight observations of how he differs from Brueggemann's theology.  In turn, Brueggemann acknowledges Fretheim as his "closest and most important conversation partner" in Old Testament studies. He explains why he is critical of the 16th Century interpretive tradition, arguing for a "both/and" perspective, ending with a declaration that the texts in the Bible do not always speak with one voice. Brueggemann says that the texts offer a variety of voices, and for that reason, it is important to let the texts speak for themselves.

My Thoughts

This book is fascinating as it offers deep glimpses of how the popular preacher and scholar thinks and speaks. I admire his conviction and boldness to go beyond the boundaries set by various traditions. At the risk of being labeled a heretic by some conservative scholars, Brueggemann justifies his hermeneutics by proclaiming that God needs to be allowed to speak for Himself, and that the theological community needs to engage different perspectives more, instead of huddling like-minded people together. There is value in openness and friendly conversations. I appreciate the honesty and the many revelations of Brueggemann's personal life. It is comforting to know that despite the highly regarded position Brueggemann holds, he has a very humble beginning, that like many people, also struggles with getting the grades we all want. I read that Brueggemann tries to be gracious with the people that he disagrees with. Yet, sometimes I feel like he is more frustrated rather than gracious. Perhaps, the "acrimonious exchange" can be seen in a more positive light, to see the dissent as a way to keep Brueggemann's "prophetic imagination" in check. It is natural to be upset about people criticizing his works. It is also understandable that in an environment of theological diversity, the best of each perspective can only come about through challenges and rigorous engagement. It is one thing to justify and to explain one's views. It is yet another to seek to challenge and to push the other person to be better proponents of their hermeneutic. I remember years ago, my professors telling me the three biggest criteria for theological studies: Humility, humility, and humility. In the field of biblical studies, that is most true.

This book offers me a greater appreciation of Brueggemann's theological bent. It is also a book in which I learn to be more measured with regards to his way of reading Scripture, that whatever imaginative work I want to do with the biblical text, I need a strong foundation of conservative scholarship. In other words, the creativity of Brueggemann and the rigorous conservatism of Waltke makes for a solid biblical offering.

I can see that Brueggemann is visibly upset about some of the negative remarks said by people about his works. At one point he even asks for these people NOT to be invited for his talks. Whether it is said jokingly or not, is subject to interpretation. That said, I am still intrigued by the influence of this biblical theologian. For all the criticisms of him and his works, the way he is able to connect academic work with pastoral formation of the laity, makes his works required reading for anyone desiring to connect more from pulpit to parish.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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