Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Brueggemann's swing and a miss

For the second time this summer Walter Brueggemann has an online piece dealing with the challenges of biblical historical criticism in the life of moderate Christianity. (Brueggemann, a United Church of Christ minister, is a popular author, exegete and retired Old Testament professor.) Early last month posted a short video by him, which I commented on. At the end of July he posted an essay on the Christian Century sponsored site Theolog, provocatively titled “Remembering an imagined past.”

Brueggemann is certainly right that historical criticism has created enormous problems for the moderate and liberal churches which have embraced it—much greater than they usually acknowledge. Depriving the Bible of virtually any historical credibility has sucked much of the life and energy out these church’s preaching and proclamation, or as Brueggemann calls it, “confessional passion.”

According to Brueggemann, the problem with historical criticism as it has been applied is that it deprives the church of its “textual memory.” He writes, “It remains for the church and the synagogue, in their thick practicality, to keep opting for memory over historicity.” He then goes on to acknowledge, however, that “to be sure, much of the textual memory is ‘imagined’"—hence the essay’s title.

Yet, as everyone knows, memory is hardly a reliable source, whether individual or collective. Just as we see what we want to see, so too we remember what we want to remember, and we often remember things we would be better off forgetting. So Brueggemann admits that “the biblical text can and often does lead to destructive ideology” along with “risky, faithful, generous obedience.” But when and why does it lead to one rather than the other? And how can it be recognized at the time and what can be used to sort and judge one from the other?

On these questions Brueggemann is silent. His remedy seems to be an idealized view of the gathered believers. “Serious remembering—in a community of self-awareness, moral passion, knowing discipline and generous hope—is thick, elusive and multidimensional.” Well perhaps, but it remains unclear where such communities exist or whether they are typical or exceptional. Certainly such a description isn’t simply synonymous with the church, at least not in my experience.

Obviously a large part of the problem with Brueggemann’s essay is the vagueness of much of his language. “Imagined past”? What keeps that from being simple fantasy? What happens when one person’s or one group’s “imagined past” conflicts with that of another? How does one judge among “imaginations”? What is “confessional passion” as opposed to passion that is misguided and even destructive? Given the “passion” of fundamentalism it would seem that its absence in moderate religious groups isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Brueggemann admits that “no doubt we must keep asking questions about historicity” but doesn’t say why or ever give a clear statement of what, in his view, is the value of historical criticism. What he describes here is all negative. Indeed, for him historical criticism is primarily about depriving the church of biblical texts: “’modernizing’ that seeks generally to get rid of stuff is misguided.”

This, however, is where Brueggemann goes off track. He accuses Old Testament historical critical scholars of concluding that most OT “texts are largely quite late theological constructs designed to serve nefarious ideological purposes.” Late yes, but nefarious? I’m somewhat familiar with their work and that is hardly the conclusion I have drawn. This seems like distortion bordering on slander. Indeed, one of my favorite books in this genre, The Mythic Past by Thomas Thompson, actually restored my awareness of the Hebrew Bible’s value even as it removed it from the category of “history.”

Similarly, Brueggemann accuses the Jesus Seminar of having “voted out much of the memory of the church” by determining what of the gospels genuinely goes back to Jesus and what is the creation of the early church. But how so? He admits much of this “textual memory” is “imagined.” The Jesus Seminar, well or poorly, simply tried to separate the imagined from the real. I’m not aware they concluded that anything not red (the color code for “the real Jesus”) ought to be discarded or ignored.

In assessing the red texts of the Jesus Seminar’s New Testament, Brueggemann says, “Not surprisingly, what is left has turned out to be a Jesus who looks and sounds a lot like the voters.” True, and totally unsurprising. This is what a century ago Albert Schweitzer figured out has been the story of Jesus interpreters all along: Jesus always bears a striking resemblance to whoever is telling us about him. We find in Jesus what we need and what we want to see. That’s the Jesus we proclaim. Jesus may not be Everyman but he is Everyman’s Savior.

In his video presentation, Brueggemann says that historical criticism has stifled preachers’ imagination. While I agree imaginative preaching has taken a hit I think it is flat out wrong to blame this on historical criticism. On the contrary, had the church genuinely embraced it, historical criticism could have provided the sanction for a dramatic revival of creative and imaginative preaching.

It’s pretty evident that down through the centuries, preachers have intuitively known or suspected that much of the biblical material at their disposal fell more into the creative writing category than that of eyewitness reporting. The church’s hang-up with this didn’t come until the Enlightenment.

At that time and since the church has felt its authority challenged by science’s use of objective and observational truth. Attempting, fruitlessly, to compete on that field led to shoving the Bible into such categories through ideas of scriptural inerrancy and literalism. Of course, the very scientific methods the church was trying to keep up with led to the discoveries that undermined any claim for the Bible’s scientific or historical accuracy.

Even while rejecting fundamentalism, liberal and moderate churches still live with a sense of inferiority in relation to the scientific and technological world. Theology still pines to be, once again, the “queen of the sciences.” Even these churches want to be able to proclaim what the late evangelical Francis Schaeffer called “true truth.”

Trying to corral historical criticism is a losing battle, and one that doesn’t even need to be fought. Rather, by abandoning notions of “scriptural authority” the church can at last let the Bible be what it is and drop any need to defend it. Where it is objectionable or simply wrong, acknowledge it. Where it is irrelevant (as any two thousand year-old document must be sometimes), just move on. And where it provides the materials and the impetus for creative reflection on life and the world, go for it.

Freed from any concern over whether this or that really was said or happened, preachers can take biblical characters and images in an infinite number of directions—as great story tellers have always done. Indeed, one of the key discoveries of historical criticism is that this is exactly what biblical writers themselves did with the literary material they found at hand. Rarely, if ever, did they create ex nihilo.

So what’s stopping us? I suspect this is largely a fear that the emperor has no clothes. What is the Bible without any claim to objective and/or divine authority? Most in the church suspect it will become just another book. And they may be right. Yet surely the past century has shown that giving the Bible some special status doesn’t accomplish anything. Its words either move, inspire and teach—or they don’t. Labeling the Bible “holy” or “God’s word” doesn’t change that.

Putting the Bible in some kind of protective glass case will only lead to it becoming a dusty air loom. Indeed, given the rising levels of biblical illiteracy that’s a status it is rapidly approaching. To save the Bible we need to kill it, at least as it has been viewed and used in the past. It needs to be set free from any and all doctrinal and theological straightjackets. Use its stories and images however necessary to be challenging, shocking, inspiring, and enlightening. If we can’t use it to do those things, then it’s time to get new material.


Doug said...

David I removed your comment(s) (not sure if the second was yours or not) because they didn't have anything to do with this post. Maybe you meant it to go somewhere else. Also, my name isn't Steve. ;)

Anonymous said...

okay Doug, it looks cleaner this way. Anyway, I think I pointed out that Aesop found truth in fiction and that animals seem to have more intellegence and morals than the Bible even ever mentions, I think.

The Bible even quotes Aesop. I read on and find his history isn't chipped in stone either.

You can remove this too. I'll try to stay more on point.

David Mc

Doug said...

Sorry if I was too abtuse to follow your thinking, David. My brain may still be on vacation. :) Please continue to comment away.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's my turn to vacate.
Traveling to Portland to see my daughter. David Mc

Anonymous said...

I'll leave you with this. Just close your eyes and listen to the song. I didn't pick all the pics;) David Mc

Doug said...

I hadn't heard of the musician before so i googled him--obviously pretty popular with the kids and parents set. I appreciate the song's sentiment but it seemed kind of banal. And I actually thought the pictures helped counter that a bit, giving the song a little more "grit".

Anonymous said...

ah, and I was going to give you the legit source. yeah it sappy-

David Mc

Pete M said...

Walter Brueggemann is the most respected Old Testament scholar active today, so his comments carry great weight, but his ambivalent crusade against historical criticism of the Bible gives the appearance of floundering: He writes that historical criticism undermines the church’s “textual memory.” However, it’s not going away, even if we bury our heads in the sand. The question is how should the church deal with historical criticism?
The presence of historical criticism in the life of the church has long been a preoccupation of Brueggemann’s. I was particularly struck by this in an otherwise magisterial review of Jon D. Levenson’s, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life” in the February 6, 2007, issue of “Christian Century.” In the review, Brueggemann writes that Levenson makes three main points. The first is “…faith in resurrection, when we have the courage to overcome the intrusiveness of Enlightenment rationality, is vigorous and central to both Jews and Christians.” I was so struck by this idea of overcoming the Enlightenment that I wrote a letter (unpublished) to the “Christian Century” about it. In it I ask, “How do we overcome the intrusive Enlightenment?” I go on to assert that, “Surely, we won’t by going down the dead-end road of fundamentalism.” I then offer a method by which moderns can embrace the frankly supernatural resurrection without abandoning rationality. This is the idea suggested by Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutic circle” in “The Symbolism of Evil.” He suggests that we moderns have lost our immediacy of belief, but we can aim at a second, post-critical naïveté in and through critical thinking. By interpreting, we can hear again. In hermeneutics, the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together. In the circle: “We must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand.”
Another idea may amplify this. Don Cupitt, the English theologian, has written in “Radicals and the Future of the Church” that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” In the theater we usually naturally and easily suspend disbelief to enter into the world of the actors who by speech and action on stage in turn evoke in us actions, feelings, experiences and thoughts. So, likewise, during a religious service we may also suspend disbelief, and have religious feelings and experiences. In fact, following Schleiermacher, it is via our feelings aroused by worship that the Holy Spirit comes to us and guides our actions. This is in keeping with the classic Christian idea that Word and Sacraments are objective. We have the promise that if we attend to them, God is present to us through them. So, those worshipping should be intentional about entering the realm in which the Spirit is promised to be available to us. In worship we should seek the Spirit’s presence to strengthen us in our lives. So the questions to ask about the Biblical narratives are not about their historicity, albeit these questions are fascinating, but rather about whether these narratives are vehicles for the Holy Spirit to enlighten and enable good works in our lives. Of course, the Holy Spirit is Other. When we enter into worship, we are following the Spirit’s lead; we cannot control what happens. It is this very lack of human control that permits us to glimpse fleetingly and incompletely something of God. Thus we trust the promise of God’s resurrection knowing full well that it cannot be accommodated within rational thought. Like everything important in life, we trust the promise often with only the dimmest comprehension or certainty.
You may read more of my thoughts at my blog, "Worshipping at the Church of Non-Realism " (
Pete McNamara

Michael_SC said...

Thank you for this post. I am a layman, and these questions are at the forefront of my interest now. Given the findings of historical-critical scholarship, which I've recently learned, just how _does_ the average Christian (and the preacher) deal with this? I find Brueggeman's comments a little too hand-wavey (but then, I'm an engineer, I can't think that way). The proposal by the blog host seems good -- simply use the stories to guide each person to holy living and good works, without getting hung up on historicity or ideologies of 'inerrancy' etc. Anything more anyone can say about this is welcome, I am keenly interested in this subject.

Doug said...

Thanks for your thoughts Michael. Unfortunately you have asked the $64,000 question: how do Christians and preachers deal with the findings of historical criticism? In this post I fault Brueggemann for dancing around that question and try to give some of my own ideas. Moderate and liberal churches generally have reacted by saying "That's very interesting" but then trying to keep on as if nothing has changed as a result of these scholars' discoveries. HC DOES change things--a lot--but most leaders of these churches are too afraid to face this squarely. The result has been floundering and mixed messages, leaving everyone confused. I see no prospect of this changing anytime soon. On the contrary, moderate churches keep turning to evangelical strategies to try to stem their deteriorization but to no avail. The implosion of mainline churches is stunning and nothing is being done about it. It's a mess.

Michael_SC said...

Doug: I just saw your response to my post; thank you, I appreciate it. I now see that the problem I've stumbled upon has been previous discovered by many, many people. I was raised PC(USA) and don't remember ever hearing a forthright presentation of this, even as the church took quite progressive stances on all the familiar contemporary issues. Having no tools or knowledge to understand this apparent disconnect, I took a conservative detour for the last 15 years, from which I am only now emerging, now that I have found out that the earth is not flat, so to speak. I agree, if the mainline churches would simply teach what they understand, there would be a lot less confusion. Once again, if any institutions or denominations are now forthrightly dealing with this, I'd like to know. The Westar Institute seems to be one such. Thanks again.