On my list of things to do, I plan to compile a list of definitions of the Bible, and now, eminent professor Walter Brueggemann weighs in, and when Walter speaks, church folks listen. In a post in Theolog, the blog of Christian Century Magazine, Brueggemann suggests that Scripture is “Remembering an Imagined Past.” Hmm.
All too much Biblical interpretation is about the historicity, or lack thereof, of the Biblical accounts, opines Brueggemann, and what is lost is the “confessional passion—not the passion of religious ideologues, but the passion of those whose risky, faithful obedience attests to their memory.” Even when the memory is imagined and mythological. Hmm.
Brueggemann favorably mentions Karl Barth, the German pastor of a century ago, who penned the monumental Commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, that remains a classic of Pauline studies. Barth’s epic work is a probing theological enterprise that asked no historical questions, which were irrelevant for him … perhaps even a distraction. “I felt myself bound to the actual words of the text,” wrote Barth: not the historical context, not the cultural assumptions of Paul, not the contingent circumstances addressed by the letter.
Brueggemann didn’t mention Julius Wellhausen, the preeminent scholar of 19th century historical criticism, but he could have. Late in his career, Wellhausen ceased teaching the historical critical method, not because he no longer believed in its accuracy but in its utility to uplift the hearts of the faithful.
What is the Bible? It is certainly not an accurate historical account of either the Hebrew people or of Jesus of Nazareth, and Brueggemann would not disagree. Brueggemann answers with a metaphor: a memory of an imagined past.
Brueggemann attempts to find his way between unthinking literalism on one side and what he sees as sterile scholarship that strips the Bible of meaning on the other (I think he’s more than a little harsh on the Jesus seminar types). It is a precipitous path, to be sure. As Brueggemann suggests, “serious remembering—in a community of self-awareness, moral passion, knowing discipline and generous hope—is thick, elusive and multidimensional.”
Yes, but Walter, what do we say to the folks in the pews who don’t understand the nuance of metaphor and who aren’t disposed to deal with “thick, elusive and multidimensional”? As the article acknowledges, “In some quarters, there is the hope that ‘church people’ will simply fail to notice the shaky grounds of historicity on which so much is based.” What happens when they do notice, or ask hard questions?
It would seem that a necessary starting point must be an honest appraisal of what the Bible is — and what it is not — and that is where the answers of historical criticism must be offered. And this is the profound difficulty of Biblical preaching. Honest appraisal will often jar the innocent views in the pews.
Thanks again, Walter, you always make us think.