Response Online

Web Features Archive



The Alternative World of the Psalms

Visit to listen to Walter Brueggemann's keynote address.

Web Feature Posted June 28, 2013

A Conversation With Walter Brueggemann

Interview by Kathy Henning ( | Photo by Daniel Sheehan

Walter Bruegemann

When the Wesleyan Theological Society and Society for Pentecostal Studies held their joint meeting on Seattle Pacific University’s campus, renowned theologian Walter Brueggemann gave the keynote address: “The Alternative World of the Psalms,” March 21, 2013.

One of the world’s leading interpreters of the Old Testament, Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters professor of Old Testament emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 50 books, including The Prophetic Imagination; Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture; and Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes — as well as commentaries on several Old Testament books, including Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Brueggemann spoke with Response about prayer, imagination, and what Christians of different faith traditions can learn from one another.

What do you think is the usefulness of having a joint meeting of Pentecostals and Wesleyans?

Well, I think anytime different Christian traditions come in contact with each other, they impact each other. We have gifts to give each other, we have things to learn from each other, and I don't know exactly what the interface between those two groups might be, because I’m an outsider to those two traditions, but I just think, in principle, that’s always a potentially generative thing to do, to be with people who have a difference from us and to be engaged with them. So I would think it would be very much so for those traditions.

What would you consider yourself, Wesleyan, Calvinist?

My friend would say I’m a very soft Calvinist. The specific tradition that I come out of is German Pietism. German Pietism was an 18th-century movement in which people didn’t get all out of sorts over doctrinal issues, so we just didn’'t have quarrels about stuff like that, and that’s very much the kind of background in which I grew up. When I moved to Columbia Seminary mid-career, I was kind of taken aback by the very serious Calvinists who were ready to argue about everything.

How would you define holiness? You were saying that your heritage, and I think you were specifically talking about the United Church of Christ, can learn holiness from the Pentecostals, and the Pentecostals can learn social justice from the UCC folks.

I think holiness is an elusive notion. In biblical faith, I think it means singularly and distinctly devoted to God, which leads to a certain kind of ethic and a certain kind of piety, and so on. Obviously, the problem with holiness, then, is that it turns into a legalism, or something like that, and I think my tradition is more aware of the dangers of legalism than it is attentive to what’s important about that. But my pietistic tradition sort of taught that the way you live out holiness is by caring for the vulnerable neighbor, but there has to be behind that a kind of spirituality that is neglected in my tradition, I think.

What is your favorite book of the Bible?

Probably Jeremiah. I always tell my students that Jeremiah certainly reads like it was written yesterday about our crises. I’ve spent a lot of energy on the Book of Jeremiah, and my teacher, James Muilenburg at Union Seminary in New York, did before me. I suppose I inherited some of that.

What are you working on now for your next book?

I’m working on some texts in the Book of Exodus. I’ve picked out about 20 sort of strange texts, just individual verses, and I want to see whether I can interpret the whole Book of Exodus from just those texts.

You’ve written 60 books or more. Do you have a favorite among those?

Well, I suspect that the book I really like the most is titled Finally Comes the Poet. It’s an argument that biblical faith can only be communicated in artistic, poetic categories. It was my Beecher Lectures that I did at Yale, and that was kind of a stretch for me to move into those categories, so I like that.

How do you define imagination? Does it have anything to do with Jeremiah, except for his obedience in speaking the words the Lord gave him?

I think there is an inclination among interpreters now to relate imagination to the work of the Spirit. I think the old way of saying it is it’s the work of the spirit, and I think what many people are calling it now is imagination, so that's a little bit tricky. Any good poet or novelist might say, “It just came to me. It came to me in the night,” or, “I was on the receiving end of it.” Theologically, that’s got to mean something like the gift of the Spirit. So, I think that while I prefer to talk prophetic imagination, I think Jeremiah was a man haunted by God's presence, and so on. I think I prefer to talk about imagination because I don’t want to get into all kinds of problems about verbal inspiration, and direct communication from God, because I don’t know how to factor all that out. Imagination gives you a lot more wiggle room about that. But, as I understand imagination, it does mean it’s more than my invention, or Jeremiah’s invention; something else is going on.

What prompted you to write The Prophetic Imagination?

Well, I was invited to give some lectures at North Park Seminary. Of course, I had no idea they had any future then, because I’ve done many sets of lectures that had no future. I don’t think my book is scripture, but I think sometimes when Paul wrote some of these letters, he had no idea he was writing scripture. He thought he was just writing a letter. That book is now 35 years old, and it continues to be my fallback position. It was kind of early in setting the trajectory on which I was going to work, and so I’m kind of astonished that it has unfolded that way.

What would you say about SPU’s vision of “engaging the culture and changing the world?” What does it mean to you to engage culture? Some of your work on Solomon and empire would probably suggest that the response is to resist culture, but your work on imagination would probably encourage engaging artistic culture.

I do not think we engage artistic culture nearly enough. I think that good art is inherently subversive and, therefore, good art is a natural ally for the church.

I think it’s a mix of resisting culture and transforming culture. But I think the liberal church, of which I am a member, is so busy transforming culture that it doesn’t do the resistance, and what then happens is that you get co-opted by culture. You have to pay attention to the specifics in front of you.

I’ve done a lot of work lately on Sabbath, and I think that Sabbath really is an act of culture resistance. I think if there is not that kind of resistance, then you do not have much staying power for transformation. By and large, Christians — liberals and conservatives — we’re co-opted by culture and, therefore, much more intentional resistance is something we have to think about.

Some have characterized your work as the first thoroughly postmodern Old Testament theology. Do you view your work in this manner?

Well, I do, except that the phrase postmodern is tricky and fluid, so I never know what people mean when they say that. If modern means conforming to enlightenment rationality, then I want to be post that as much as I can, so I think that’s right.

What is it about modernism that you want to be so badly “post”?

Well, I think that when the gospel is voiced in enlightenment terms, it loses its raw edge and it becomes, to some extent, domesticated. I think an example of that now is the Jesus Seminar, which is thoroughly modern. The Jesus Seminar has voted that Jesus couldn’t have said anything apocalyptic. Well, all those people at the Jesus Seminar are tenured, so they don’t want the world to end, and neither do I, so he couldn’t have said it.

I just think that the force of enlightenment rationality is very powerful and constitutes a threat to hearing and responding to the gospel in all of its danger. I think it’s a hard question about whether any of us now can escape the force of enlightenment rationality. It’s everywhere and all around us, but I think we at least have to be self-aware about how we have gotten ourselves positioned.

What do you read?

I love to read biography. My son just gave me a 900-page book on Churchill that I’m wading through, and I love reading historical biography. I read pretty eclectically. I just keep a list of books, and I just peel them off as the library will get them for me.

How do you view the relationship between the Bible and the church?

I’m a Protestant, so I believe that the Bible created the church, but I also know the church created the Bible, and I think the matter of the Bible having freedom in the church and not being controlled by the church I think is always a hard matter. I think it’s clearer in Roman Catholicism, in which the Scripture scholars always fight the bishops. But the same fight goes on in every church tradition, about the vested interest of the institution and the community and the irascible nature of biblical text, and so we’re always negotiating that, I think. I think we've had two strategies for domesticating the Bible. One is fundamentalism, in which we get it all wrapped up in a package, and the other is historical criticism that just worked at the same problem in another way.

You write in Awed to Heaven, “Much public prayer in the church is careless and slovenly, and that’s what passes for spontaneity. What passes for spontaneity is, in fact, lack of preparation.” But is there a place for spontaneity in prayer? How do we find a balance between preparation and spontaneity?

Well, I think words are important, and my impression about extemporaneous prayer, and I do a lot of that, too, but I think when you do that you tend to fall back on the same clichés and the same cadences all the time. I think that preparation lets you think and venture some new ways of articulation. I’ve complained to my priest in my Episcopal church, we do bidding prayers all the time, you know, “Let us pray for,” and then you have silence, “Let us pray for,” and so I said, “We never pray. We always say, ‘Why don't we pray,’ but we never pray.” So, in the last six weeks, my priest has started writing prayers, and they’re wonderful. It’s kind of venturesome, and it opens up newness.

So I think public prayer is, to some extent, a performance. But you have to take great care that you don’t call attention to yourself in doing that. That is, if I’m going to lead a public prayer, I want to think ahead of time, “What does this body of people need to bring to God?” I don't know on the spot always.

Sometimes you do, but obviously I think preparation is not only all right; I think it’s important. I think we need to bring our best to the presence of God, and that includes our artistic best. It can be a game or it could be a contest to see who’s cleverest, and I understand all that, but those are risks that I think we have to run.

In your life, the intersection of personal and professional, scholarship and everyday life, how has each influenced the other?

I think that some of my writing has been by invitation from publishers, but most of my writing is quite autobiographical. Probably my professional learning feeds back on my life, so I think it’s a pretty engaged process for me. I have never had any interest in the life of the intellect for itself, and so, in that regard, I think I am a very practical guy, and, in my way, I’m trying to do practical theology. When I first got out of graduate school, I was very much preoccupied with academic questions. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve tried to reformulate that in terms of the life in front of me and the life in front of us, and I’ve always been in a kind of privileged place to get to do that. I’ve had great freedom about that.

You mentioned fear. Do you struggle with fear?

I think my main fear is being exposed as a fraud, or not getting it right. I think that’s the function of having come out of a background of poor education, so I’ve always felt like Ivm playing catch-up.

Who are the mentors who have influenced you most in print and in life?

Well, in print, probably Abraham Heschel and Karl Barth, over time. In person, my dad; my college sociology teacher; and my Old Testament teacher, James Muilenburg. One of the things that I’ve been aware of in my old age is how the intrusion into my life of new conversation partners has kept refreshing me. So, currently, I am in a conversation with Peter Block, who is a community advocate in Cincinnati, and he has in the last three years given me new categories for thinking, and so it’s been a kind of a series of people like that. The whole trajectory of liberation theologians has been, in print, terribly important to me.

What’s it like to speak so often, and what does it do to your personal spirituality and spiritual regimen?

Well, in some ways, it is my spiritual regimen, and I am stimulated and pressed in new directions by engagement with people. I believe that a big part of my spiritual regimen is preparation, having to think again and formulate again. I think my interpretation and writing, I think it’s right to say are a form of prayer, not always, but often for me, so all that is very much intertwined for me.
The other thing about my speaking is that I’m most often overextended, and jet lagged, so the Spirit says to me more often than I listen, “Don’t do that, don’t do that,” — the Spirit and my wife, both.