Sunday, 11 January 2009

A great critique of Brueggemann!

There was a time when I was a passionate Brueggemannian. I never had quite the epiphany Chris Tilling describes, but I had come out of a Cultural Anthropology degree course frustrated with certain elements of conservative Evangelicalism, particularly the philosophical. In the context of friendships with post-modern and N.T. Wright fanatics in Paris, I started reading Brueggemann. Stanly Grenz provided the theological buffer, so that when I was ill off work for a week, I devoured his Old Testament Theology in almost one bite (I was teaching business English at the time and would also read such tomes on the train journies between companies. Spiritually, the French have never really gotten over the Revolution and at heart think that anything to do with God is nothing more than "witchcraft" or "superstition." It was great sitting in a conference room teaching "negotiating English" having one of these huge tomes placed on the side of the table for all to see. My students would cast nervous glances at the things, while politely restraining from making comments. The difference in Germany is fascinating, but I digress ...). I've since read a number of his works and now make a very different evaluation of his work. I've had posted a number of rants, collected here, so I'll refrain from repeating myself here, suffice to say that the turning point for me was a mixture of unanswered yet central questions, personal experience of attempting to live out Brueggemann's approach, his utter misrepresentation and failure to grasp Childs' work, and Childs' far superior work itself.

Which brings me to a brilliant critique of Brueggemann's Old Testament Theology, written by Ellen Davis, published in 1999 and kindly posted by Stephen Cook on his blog Biblische Ausbildung. I agree with every word and hope, given Brueggemann's wide popularity, that this review gets the reading it deserves. Here's a taster paragraph:

Yet it is in the interest of promoting openness in the interpretive conversation that the most troublesome aspect of Brueggemann’s argument arises. He radicalizes the notion of the Old Testament as witness to the extent of asserting that speech, Israel’s religious rhetoric, is the only determinate reality in the Old Testament. “Speech constitutes reality, and who God turns out to be in Israel depends on the utterance of the Israelites or, derivatively, the utterance of the text” (65). In giving rhetoric primacy, Brueggemann repudiates the “essentialist tradition” of Christian theology. Among contemporary scholars, he identifies Brevard Childs as the major proponent of this position, which takes as its basis the church’s doctrinal inheritance and therefore “imports” theological claims not present in the Old Testament. In response to Childs’ reference to “the reality of God” behind the biblical text, Brueggemann responds, “In terms of Old Testament theology, however, one must ask, What reality? Where behind?” Thus Brueggemann states his own emphatically non-essentialist argument: “I shall insist . . . that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way” (66). In what follows, I hope to show that the non-essentialist argument as Brueggemann presents it here is deeply flawed in both its genesis and its consequence, and that in both respects it runs counter to the fundamental aims that are evident in the larger body of Brueggemann’s work.
“I shall insist . . . that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way” (66). I shudder when I read that.

Another great critique is Jon Levenson's "Is Brueggemann Really a Pluralist?", Harvard Theological Review 93/3 (2000), pp. 265-294, especially concerning Brueggemann and Childs' claims to respect Jewish exegesis.

I should add that Childs also reviewed Brueggemann's book, to which Brueggemann responded, in the Scottish Theological Review. I have elucidated Childs' critique and Brueggemann's misunderstanding of it my post Ecclesial Context: Brueggemann vs Childs.

[HT: John Hobbins]


Esteban Vázquez said...

There was a time when I was a passionate Brueggemannian.

I think this is a requisite for students of our generation, no? :-) My experience is much like yours as you describe it here. I took his Theology of the Old Testament with me to Puerto Rico (sadly, I had to leave it behind in my recent move); I re-read a couple of years ago and assessed it much differently then than I had originally done. Unpacking my books over the past couple of months, I have found, to my amazement, a large stack of Brueggemann's books--many more than I thought I had. I have decided to re-read them all in the coming months and years, and see what, if anything,I make of them now.

Phil Sumpter said...

I think it's probably healthy to go through a Brueggemann phase. He's so iconic of what is going on culturally in at least the Anglo-Saxon sphere (it seems to me) that he is loved because he speaks to a felt need. Many are experiencing the disintegration of which he speaks and are looking for a way out. His way out is eloquent, exciting, and new. I just think it's theologically thin and so, though helpful for his many insights, cannot offer anything of real substance to the churhc.

I hope you post your thoughts on him in the coming months ...

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