Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why I Am A Christian

The Fretheim lecture given by Walter Brueggemann at the Luther Seminary which I linked to the other day was one of the most radical and practical political visions I've heard presented in this past year of my undisciplined but constant reading of what Brueggemann wrote, consulting the texts he sites and listening to the enormous number of his lectures, discussions interviews and sermons available online.  As I said at the beginning of last year I had intended to do something like that with what Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, and I might get around to doing that but I am far from done with Brueggemann's view of the Hebrew scriptures, revealing how entirely relevant they are to our present world, how they raise the same questions and the same issues and present variable ways of addressing the horrific and wonderful world and give advice and warning about the various ways people propose of addressing our world, today as much as their worlds when the many texts were written.

The often mentioned anger of alleged many Christians whenever other people point out the political issues and consequences that flow from taking the radical egalitarian content and the consequent moral obligations is, pretty shockingly, often found in those who pretend to take the Bible most seriously.   If they hold that politics is to be kept out of it, they couldn't more obviously demonstrate that either they don't know it or they choose to not see what it is all about.

The text of the Bible is saturated with the clash between human politics and the consequences of managing our lives and socieities as if economic and social justice don't matter. Every single book in it, including Genesis, is saturated with the political critique of the societies the poets and prophets lived in.   Even while the authors are held back by the social conventions that provide them their stock of references and images and metaphors there is always the radicalism that forces people who read those texts to face that truth even while they can do what the authors so often can't, transcend of disregard or stay in ignorance of those references, images and metaphors.  More often than not, that transcendence of those requires understanding what those are, why they came about and why the truth being pressed requires that those be left behind.  Walter Brueggemann points out, though, that to turn everything into a metaphor carries the danger of dissolving the thing that made that truth the reality behind the text.  These aren't easy books to read, outside of the general requirement of radical equal justice and other tests of truth, they can lead to misunderstanding and abuse to promote the opposite of that truth.

In the lecture and in the answer to questions after, this stands out as both a summary of what Brueggemann is saying and an idea that is as striking disturbing and productive as anything I've heard in the past year. NOTE:  The transcription is by me, including any errors or elisions.  The first questioner asked:

Q - Can you talk about the nexus between so many Old Testament texts that are about purifying, dividing you know no two kinds of of fabrics no two kinds cheese and meat have to be apart  everything has to be separate… purity including don't take any hostages don't intermarry the dialogue of all of that kind of holiness talk … with what you've just been explaining about dialogue, meaning, coming together, loving the other.     How do those things, how do those two channels work in interpretation.

Brueggemann – Which is why I said that I think a contestation  about neighborliness runs through the Bible.  It's not an unequivocal testimony to neighborliness,   it is an argument about neighborliness it ...its an argument in which we as the Christian congregation have to participate.   So there are many texts that want to fence out would be neighbors by labeling them as threats.   

There is a book by a scholar named Beck, I think it's called Unclean.  He lists all the things that disgust conservatives and then he has a shorter list of things that disgust liberals.  But he wants to argue that all these purity laws and so on grow out of what disgusts people who imagine that what disgusts me must surely disgust God.  

There is a book by Martha Nussbaum it's called The Clash Within.  I recommend it to you, it's an analysis of Hindus and Muslims in India and Nussbaum concluded that the clash in India is not between Muslims and Hindus,  it's between people who can allow the other and people who must eliminate the other.  And the title of the book is to indicate she believes that all of us carry this clash in ourselves of openness and exclusion and what counts is how we manage that clash. 

Now I think that one of the implications of your question is that we have to help church people see that the Bible is essentially an ongoing interpretive dispute.  We have allowed people to think that the Bible is all a seamless theological package to which everyone has agreed but the only people who could think that are people who have never opened it. 

And when I am a public persona as I am tonight I want you to think that I practice purity of heart which is one thing.  But I am like you, I am a conundrum of contradictions and what I wanted to argue is that the Bible says that God's struggles with these realities in God's own life that we are in the Image of that God.  Does that make sense?

So what I think the church has to do is to surface the contest that is going on everywhere in our society but we want to pretend that it's not going on.  I don't know if you have it in Minnesota but you see these church signs all welcome what they mean is all who are like me.   And you know that's the reality of our life.  But the Bible is a script for processing that reality.   That's my thesis.

That could lead to a month's worth of posts.

First, it is the opposite to what atheists and other anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-Islamic people present religion as being, a monolithic and rigid set of dogmas and doctrines whose blind allegiance is forced by violence.  And that view isn't unknown among those who claim to believe.  A lot of them like that violent dictatorship, and I think they have to be opposed.

But as Brueggemann said, it's an idea that can only be held by people who haven't ever read the Bible which contains within it a more exigent and brutal self-criticism than almost any other large collection of texts I'm aware of.  As has been pointed out, every sin of the ancient Hebrews which we know about, we know due to their telling on themselves, in many cases presenting the claims of divine approval and the rejection of those claims.  The questioner mentioning the exclusions against the other as a means of maintaining a distinct identity is the heart of the Trump campaign, the most exigent opponents of which include even some conservative churches.

The thing that I found the most striking in it was when he said,

But I am like you, I am a conundrum of contradictions and what I wanted to argue is that the Bible says that God's struggles with these realities in God's own life that we are in the image of that God.  Does that make sense?

Which presented me with a way of thinking about God which I'd never had before.  God as a person who struggles with these issues in God's own life.  A God who contains what we experience as contradictions and uncertainties and that God cares about those.   And that our own struggles are a real part of being made in the image of that God.  To answer his question, yes, that does FINALLY make sense.  That God is one I can really love, or, more honestly, that understanding of God is open to my heart and more immediate than the Great and Powerful Oz in the sky.  I think I can finally get that picture of God touching Adam on the famous ceiling at the Vatican.  Like the people who wrote the Bible, it was one of my folks who painted that.

I haven't transcribed it but at one point Brueggemann points out to the necessity of and the enormous opportunity that having so many different, often clashing ideas about God in the Bible, how even given the necessity of those views of God clashing makes that God superior to other, narrower, statements about divinity.  I agree with that, too.


  1. I learned, in seminary, to read the Scriptures as a conversation, not as a set of decrees which can only be followed as written. Because even deciding how to follow them is an act of interpretation (as the midrash of Judaism has known, and shown, for millennia).

    If there is anything new under the sun, it is the post-Enlightenment idea that truth is singular and unipolar, an idea basic to fundamentalism, too. Indeed, they are two sides of the same coin, a coin that can be used to give Caesar what is Caesar's, while we still give God what is God's.

  2. "I think I can finally get that picture of God touching Adam on the famous ceiling at the Vatican. Like the people who wrote the Bible, it was one of my folks who painted that."

    Gay Irishmen wrote the Bible? Who knew?