Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press USA, 1993 rep 2001, ISBN 0 8006 2736 9). £8.99.
Walter Brueggemann, McPheeder Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Georgia, is without doubt one of the most creative biblical theologians in the Western world. In this important book, first published in 1993, he examines how central biblical themes – God, world, community, self – can be interpreted and imagined fruitfully in a time of flux and change.
Drawing substantially, but not uncritically, on narrative thinking and George Lindbeck’s post-liberal, cultural-linguistic school of interpretation (which sees the biblical texts as articulating a characteristic ‘grammar of faith’), the writer suggests that the task of theology today is to nourish a Gospel-derived counter-imagination of the world.
Brueggemann affirms Stephen Toumlin’s insight that whereas modernism sees ‘real knowledge’ as written, universal, general and timeless, in the condition of postmodernity such solidities are undermined by a growing emphasis on orality, particularity, locality and time-specificity. Image, spectacle, commerce and technology interpenetrate the distinct worlds (‘life cultures’) we now inhabit, but a sense of fragmentation is still palpable.
Rather than perpetuating the modern mistake of welding Christian experience to yet another dominant paradigm, however, Brueggemann suggests a twofold interpretative strategy in relation to the Bible: making critical use of the tools around us, certainly, but above all allowing ourselves and our world to be challenged by the ‘counter-drama’ of the text itself. This is how we can ‘fund’ post-modern imagination with the fragments of a Gospel which bursts open new possibilities – instead of merely buying into a new ideology, or trying to create another citadel within which everyone is supposed to submit.
In this ‘re-reading’ process, imagination – the capacity to portray, receive and practice the world in ways different from the ‘common sense’ view generated by dominant orthodoxies – is the vital ingredient. For Brueggemann what lies behind the text is a God who both reveals the basis of life and invites us to join in the redemption (re-construal) of the world. In the final third of the book he helps us to re-enter the biblical counter-drama by sketching, with the aid of specific biblical passages, the shape of a ‘Gospel infrastructure’ for living – in direct contrast to ‘the infrastructure of commodity consumerism’.
There is immense insight in this book. Brueggemann declares with boldness that his approach requires us, in a knowing way, to ‘take’ the Bible, in all its problematic character, ‘as’ the Word of God. He is not unaware of the enormous difficulty of this ‘taking as’, both for biblical traditionalists and revisionists, but he believes that it is unavoidable for good scriptural performance in the present.
For this reason he accepts, and does not argue, that “the stuff of evangelical [Gospel] infrastructure is the text of the Bible.” The proof of the pudding, he suggests, is in the eating. But that leaves unanswered the challenge to the privilege accorded to this text in a multi-textual world. It ignores the texts of other world faiths. It sidesteps the syncretism of living inter-textually (which is the dominant experience for most in the West, including Christians). And it makes insufficient allowance for the huge variety of ‘imaginative construals’ that Christian interpretation has generated.
In other words, Brueggemann’s thesis, vital as it is, is articulated within limited terms of engagement. Somehow a further missionary encounter of both learning and contending is needed between those who live by different texts (or the same texts differently) – people who draw, in Brueggemann’s words, on both new materials and old materials freshly voiced.
Similarly, we may need to acknowledge not just the God behind the text, but the God beyond or ahead of it. Interestingly enough (as much of Brueggemenn’s exegetical work over the years seems to bear out), God as disclosed in Jesus Christ turns out to be much bigger than the existing religious framework can allow, and in its original context challenges the nascent Christian movement too – as the arguments and struggles recorded in Acts and the Epistles demonstrate.
There is therefore a tradition-conveyed case for moving forward the tradition. The question for the community that is shaped by its encounter with these texts – as the church must necessarily be – is ‘what authorises us to change or go beyond the received text?’ Here the theological case must be made for a creative interaction between the fruits of the living tradition, the excesses of language, the constraints of reason, and the uncontainable God who lies behind and beyond the world in which it is set.
This is the only way to avoid imagination shrinking back into mere assertion, and to maintain a relationship between fidelity to what we have received and openness to what we may yet receive.