There are figures in every field of endeavor who seem larger than life. They seem to stand apart and above the rest. It’s not that they’re celebrities, but they have left their mark on life, and has a result they've influenced and impacted many people. When you have the opportunity to meet and even enter conversation with them, they become more human and accessible, but in the end you know you have been blessed to have shared in the conversation.
This past summer I had the privilege of participating in a conversation with Walter Brueggemann, one of the foremost and influential biblical scholars of our day. His books line the shelves of many a preacher, including my own. He is a preacher’s scholar, a person able to push through the minutiae to the heart of issues. He sees in the text of the Hebrew Bible words that speak not only to an earlier day, but to our day as well. Scripture isn't merely an ancient word, it is a word that continues to make itself felt in the lives of those who heed it to the present day.
My opportunity to enter into conversation with Dr. Brueggemann came at a preacher’s conference. I led a panel that engaged our presenter in conversation about his book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word, (Fortress, 2012). The presentations that led up to that conversation had roiled the emotions and the imaginations of many in the room. You see, this was a more conservative gathering, and Brueggemann offered challenging, indeed prophetic, statements about the current state of affairs in our world. It was my responsibility to help soothe the nerves so that the people gathered could hear the voice of this master of biblical as well as political interpretation. We did okay. Nerves were settled, but imaginations were set afire.
In Living Countertestimony, the reader is drawn into a series of conversations with Dr. Brueggemann. These conversations occur over a period of four years, beginning with a conversation at an SBL dinner between colleagues in 2008 and ends with a dialog with Brueggemann’s long time friend and colleague in the study of the Old Testament Terence Fretheim. Included in this collection is a sermon preached by Brueggemann at Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston on March 20, 2011. A majority of the conversations run between Brueggemann and Carolyn Sharp, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School.
In the course of these conversations we come to see how well-respected Brueggemann is among his colleagues, but also the humility and sense of inadequacy of Brueggemann himself. Although considered among the leading scholars of the Old Testament alive today, he confesses to having considerable struggles with the biblical languages. They didn’t come easily for him, and he doesn’t feel as competent in them as he would like. We who read his works would not expect such feelings, but here they are confessed. What is true of his adeptness with language, he confesses a certain feeling of inadequacy in his academic preparation. He holds at Th.D. from Union Theological Seminary. As holder of a Ph.D. from a seminary, I have a sense of what he might feel. There is a certain hierarchy of graduate programs in America, and a Th.D. from Union, while it might be an excellent education will rank below a Ph.D. from Harvard, Yale, or Chicago – in the eyes of many. It’s this sense of inadequacy that led him later in life to earn a Ph.D. in education. He also confesses that this sense of not measuring up may have spurred on some of his prodigious writing efforts. And to know how prodigious he has been (and he’s not finished yet), one need only look at the bibliography at the end of this book, covering thirty-four pages.
There are the scholarly aspects of the conversation, but there are also the spiritual and the human dimensions. As one who struggles with prayer myself, it was helpful to hear this writer of beautiful prayers confess his own struggle with sustaining a disciplined practice of daily prayer.
As you read the transcripts of these conversations you come to know this scholar, teacher, preacher, human being, in a new way. He may still sit high on your shelves, but he becomes more human, more accessible. You discover that he believes that the biblical text has value for the modern Christian, and that we need to pay attention to its theology. He confesses frustration with some progressive co-religionists who walk away from the text, or at least begin and end with the historical critical dimensions rather than struggle with its meaning and implications. Consider this word concerning the guild.
Biblical scholars, in my view, need to be players in the interdisciplinary work of contesting for a viable social world. To the extent that our work is preoccupied with critical matters, to the extent we have in many ways said that the big issues are to be left to others who can work from our criticism. I think this is a cop-out, and a down-playing of the deeply revolutionary, problematic text with which we work. This is not a plea for “relevance” or “contemporaneity” as much as it is a bid to recognize what it is that has been entrusted to us in this text. This entrustment requires a push beyond the expectations of graduate school over which we may linger too long. (pp. 81-82).
And that is what we have received from this scholar.
If you wish to know the heart of a scholar committed not only to the welfare of the church but of the creation itself, then this is a book worth considering. If you’re a preacher and you have benefited from Walter Brueggemann’s many works, you’ll want to spend some time with this book so you can know the heart of the man. Many thanks go to Carolyn Sharp for drawing together these conversations so that we might enjoy the fruit.