• Introduction to Walter Brueggemann

Christianity Now Guide to Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann’s approach to theology in the 21st century is perhaps best summarized by one of his favorite jokes. A cat was taking a stroll down an alley but became frightened when it heard something approaching. As the footsteps go closer, the cat believed the sound came from a fellow cat. The cat continued only to be confronted by a dog! The cat said to the dog, “You sounded like a cat!” The dog replied, “In this town, you have to be bilingual.” Brueggemann, who is bilingual in a sense, is compelling not only because of his expertise, but because he is conversant in the language of theology and the language of the modern world.

Who He Is

Walter BrueggemannIf Nebraskans believe their only source of pride begins and ends with the Cornhuskers, they can take comfort knowing that Walter Brueggemann was born in Nebraska in 1933. As a pastor’s kid, Brueggemann began to trace connections between advocacy and theology. On one hand, he watched his father advocate for the marginalized while on the other, he saw the abuse and belittlement his father endured from the congregation. This instilled a spirit of advocacy in Brueggemann that continues to appear in his work today. Perhaps this is why Brueggemann naturally gravitated towards the Hebrew Bible (i.e. The Old Testament) and completed his Th.D at Union Theological Seminary under the guidance of influential rhetorical critic, James Muilenburg. Brueggemann went on to serve on the faculty of two institutions: Eden Theological Seminary, where he taught from 1961-1986, and Columbia Seminary, where he taught from 1986-2003 before retiring as William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament. Apart from Brueggemann’s academic credentials, he is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC). Brueggemann is best known for his insistence that the Old Testament promotes an alternative imagination, challenging and confounding the ideology of both Pharoah’s Egypt and America’s imperial hegemony. Moreover, Brueggemann is a legendary homiletician, a purveyor of all things political and a part time comedian (well, not exactly, but he does have a ripe sense of humor).

Why He Matters

Walter BrueggemannThe easy explanation can be discerned by simply referring to Brueggemann’s gargantuan bibliography. But more importantly, Brueggemann makes no apologies for his theology being informed by the Biblical text, and he consistently exemplifies how the social sciences, postmodernity, political theory, and the arts are also indispensable to his theological imagination. Thus, Brueggemann’s theology creates a space for generative dialogue between spheres of study that understand theology to be aloof from the material concerns of humanity. Aware of this tendency, Brueggemann insists theology, at its best, mobilizes faith communities to work with marginalized people for the sake of liberation. Brueggemann’s theology is Barthian insofar as he imagines God to be a real agent involved in the world. This God is known to humanity through rhetorical artistry which leads to acts of liberation carried out by “human agents.” Brueggemann understands the Bible as a script that invites readers to creatively perform its narrative in new and daring ways. In fact, the whole of Brueggemann’s theology is dedicated to explicating this very idea.

Major Ideas

Royal Consciousness:

Brueggemann argues there is a deep “contestation” between two voices in Israel’s narrative about God and how to best order society. First, there is the stagnant, memo-like rhetoric of Pharaoh where production and profit take priority over people (Ex.5:7-9). This “Royal Consciousness” infiltrates Israel’s imagination through King Solomon. The Royal Consciousness continues with the “urban elite’s” attempts to domesticate Israel’s God by silencing the poor (I Kgs. 4; 6; 10). Here Brueggemann’s “royal consciousness” resembles Karl Marx’s “false consciousness,” as both ideologies are blinded to the injustices that create and sustain the stratification of society. Brueggemann’s contemporary analogue for the Royal Consciousness is the ideology of U.S. consumer-capitalism, baptized in the waters of American exceptionalism.

The Alternative Community of Moses:

The opposing voice that stands to make claims against royal ideology finds its origins in the Exodus narrative and the character of Moses. Brueggemann’s liberationist hermeneutic develops out of his insistence that the Exodus is God’s “primal revelation.” The narrative of Exodus reveals God’s preferential option for the poor and God’s (violent!) disdain for oppressive regimes. Moses and the liberated slaves imagine God to be a free-agent, capable of forming a community out of things that do not yet exist in order to nullify the things that are (Rom. 4:17). While Pharaoh’s commandments orbit around increasing production (make more bricks) and silencing the cries of laborers, Moses’s alternative community is organized around worshiping the God of liberation who elects slaves to cast down the powerful. Acts of justice like this call for prophetic celebrations of singing and dancing. It is Miriam,the older sister of Moses, says Brueggemann, who leads the Exodus movement with her daring poetry, inviting the people to celebrate their liberation from Pharaoh’s ruthlessness. It is songs like Miriam’s that invite the faith community, and society, to imagine an alternative which confronts the royal consciousness.

Prophecy as Poetry:

A cornerstone of Brueggemann’s theology is his claim that prophetic utterance is poetic utterance. The prophets are not predictors, nor are they good liberals. Rather, the prophetic vocation, and the act of prophecy, is dependant upon poetry that artistically pits God’s shalom against the false peace of the powerbrokers (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). The poetry of the prophet finds its locus in the prophet’s solidarity with the “uncredentialed nobodies” and her attentiveness to the voice from “elsewhere.” Brueggemann’s Christian leanings push him to suggest this voice emanates from YHWH. Yet, it is critical to note Brueggemann is not dogmatic about this position, as he is open to non-Christians and even “secularists” receiving a “prophetic word.” Brueggemann’s main criteria for a prophet is they speak truth to power in artistic yet daring ways. So for Brueggemann, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith is perhaps the preeminent example of a modern prophet in the vein of Miriam.

Consumer-Militarism & “The Other” (Totalism vs. Infinity):

Brueggemann surmises prophets like Smith are needed as the global political scene is held hostage by U.S. imperialism. Poets speak into this context hoping to break this imperialism advanced by technology, pseudo-therapeutic advertising, rapacious consumerism, and brutal militarism (including the presence of, and violence from, the police). Brueggemann frames this imperialism within Emmanuel Levinas’ competing terms of “totality” and “infinity.” The “totalizing” ideology of the American Empire is dedicated to excluding “others,” such as LGBTQ persons, Muslims, immigrants, Blacks, etc., for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Brueggemann offers a variation on Levinas’s term of “totality,” opting instead for the term “totalism.” Brueggemann offers this variation to signal the inherent exclusionary bent present in consumerism. The antidote to this totalism is a posture of infinite embrace, wherein society embraces “the other” with scandalous hospitality.

The Prophetic Imagination:
Easily Brueggemann’s most popular book, The Prophetic Imagination is an ideal introduction to his work. This is where Brueggemann’s scholar and activist voices most fully coalesce. Influenced by liberation theologians like José Miranda and Jewish Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Brueggemann reveals how the prophetic imagination prioritizes God’s freedom and God’s solidarity with the poor, offering a departure from the Royal Consciousness and a movement towards Moses’ and Jesus’ Alternative Community. Throughout, Brueggemann combines Biblical exegesis with a relentless assault against the American Empire.

The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word:
As a sort of follow up, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination offers practical examples of the prophetic imagination in action. The most urgent task for the prophet in our time is to confront U.S. consumer-militarism by using the Biblical text as an alternative script. To note one example, in an act of imagination, poet-prophets today might connect the economic crash of 2008 to a betrayal of the Ten Commandments’ imperative to structure society around the common good instead of plutocratic greed.

Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks:
This title completes what I want to call “The Prophetic Trilogy.” Here Brueggemann provocatively asserts the terror of 9/11 is analogous to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. It is analogous insofar as Israel, like America, believed they were a nation blessed and protected by God despite their ruthless abuse of the poor and the environment. This ideology of exceptionalism is ultimately a denial of reality. The only thing that can break this denial is a visceral recognition of how “chosenness” inevitably leads to violence. Hope emerges out of despair only when the faith community and society as a whole make a concerted effort to structure doctrine and policy around neighborliness.

Next Steps

Ice Axes for Frozen Seas: A Biblical Theology of Provocation:
Reading this series of Brueggemann’s essays is the quickest way to become saturated in his way of thinking. Brueggemann’s essays within this book repeat terms and ideas central to Brueggemann’s theological project and this repetition is helpful for those wanting to plunge into his work. Two essays stand out in particular. The first is the introduction written by Davis Hankins as he offers the most exhaustive and interdisciplinary examination of Brueggemann’s work to-date. The second essay is from Brueggemann and shows him drawing a comparison between Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr. While this comparison isn’t new, it is rarely fleshed out in a theologically rigorous manner. Brueggemann’s treatment of King is also revealing because it shows just how influential he has been in Brueggemann’s own theological work.

Money and Possessions:
This book is for anyone interested in Brueggemann’s perspective on economics, political theology, Biblical interpretation, and the Year of Jubilee. Brueggemann’s main interest is in offering a fresh and radical appraisal of what the Bible says about money and possessions. By examining every book of the Bible, Brueggemann’s Money and Possessions is a unique and hard won contribution to the theological world.

Where Not to Start

Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy:
Even though Brueggemann’s prose and style is always engaging and accessible, this 777 page tome is rather daunting. This is partly because the first 100+ pages are dedicated to an overview of hermeneutics from the Reformation to the present. The rest of the book is innovative and contemporary, but for the theological neophyte this title may be intimidating due to its rigor and scope. But for those wanting to become “Brueggemannian,” this is a necessary and exciting book–written written by a theologian who knows how to speak both cat and dog.

Josiah Daniels

Josiah Daniels

Contributor at Christianity Now
Josiah Daniels is a freelance writer interested in politics, race and theological studies. He lives and works in the Chicago area. When he's not writing, he is playing video games, watching sports or explaining to people why Michael Jordan will always be the best basketball player to ever exist.
Josiah Daniels

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