Walter Brueggemann is a German Evangelical minister ordained in the United Church of Christ, and is the author of 58 books, hundreds of articles, and several biblical commentaries. His works include "Prayers for a Privileged People," "Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church," and "The Prophetic Imagination," a classic of contemporary biblical theology that is regarded by many as essential reading for people of Judeo-Christian background engaged in transformational social change. He is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, and continues to write and lecture widely. Dr. Brueggemann will give two lectures at University Congregational Church on April 9 and 10. Advance tickets are available until April 2 by contacting (206) 524-6255, extension 3447 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why don't we start with the titles of your upcoming Seattle lectures: "The Descent into Truth" and "The Ascent Into Hope." Can you unpack those a bit?
Well, I have worked out a little taxonomy of the Book of Psalms. The way I line it out is that the lament psalms, which we mostly neglect, are the descent into truth. They articulate for God exactly the trouble, the loss and anger present among us. And then the hymns of praise and the doxologies [formulaic phrases of worship] invert the movement and rise to hope. It all depends on the first move, which we tend not to want to do. We're sort of stuck, because we really do not want to go there as a society, and consequently as a church we don't want to go there either.
Of the books you've written, "The Prophetic Imagination" is probably your best known?
I think that's right. I still get a lot of engagement around the themes of that book. I think people find it congenial to what they're experiencing in their own life.
Can you give me an example of that?
Well, I think it's an easy case now to critique the illusion of consumerism in which we are all now enmeshed. When people find ways to step outside of consumer ideology, they find new energy for the human tasks. I think it's known to be true even when we can't quite explain it all. We find it happening. To remain enmeshed in consumer ideology is a kind of a narcotic, and robs us of energy for the human tendencies. It's immediately contemporary.
You talk about neighborliness, and how the loss of that also robs us of humanizing energy.
I think that's right. If one tries to live one's life engaged with commodities rather than with human persons, that is not energy giving. It may create that illusion for a while, but the mystery of personhood is that we are made for other persons, and that's what gives validity and valorization to our living. There is no substitute for that.
I think, in the Old Testament, that gets articulated in the worship of the Ba'als. They really represent the practice of commoditization, and so the faith in Israel is an attempt to provide an alternative to that kind of commoditization.
And Ba'al never goes away, does he?
Nope. Even though he has non-being, he's still has a certain seductive power for us all. Yup.
Herbert Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man" expresses some of the same ideas as "Prophetic Imagination," in more secular terms. You talk about the Royal Consciousness and he talks about the Happy Consciousness, which I think he defines as "the real is rational and the system will continue to deliver the goods."
It's been a long time, but no doubt it influenced me greatly. I spent a lot of time on that book when I first came upon it. I do think it's an attempt to talk about the same stuff.
You also share the notion of our enmeshment within an all-encompassing ideological system, and that being very hard to recognize.
That's right. We get so inured that we cannot see or imagine or think outside of its edges.
You talk about the power of song. I recently read an Industrial Workers of the World biography called "Break Their Haughty Power" that describes the early days of the Wobblies, and these guys were busting into song every 10 minutes--
And King understood that you had no Civil Rights Movement without singing.
Nor could there have been an IWW without singing. So, what is that about?
Well, I don't know, but I think it is bringing poetic expression that in and of itself speaks freedom and energy that is not given any other way. I don't understand that, but I do think that singing and poetic expression keep one elusive in ways that can't be caught by the authorities. That kind of singing is inherently subversive, I think.
And offers the kind of hope that can trump fear.
That's exactly right. The most obvious example is "We Shall Overcome," and there they were, singing it in the face of the sheriffs. No doubt they were terribly afraid when they did that, but in that moment, hope beat their fear.
You say that our ability to imagine begins with the capacity for grief.
I think it's honesty about loss, and it's so pertinent because we now live in a society that is experiencing huge loss. Partly it's signaled by 9/11 and partly it's experienced in the collapse of the economy, and we are going through a huge loss of the way it used to be. President Obama was just unlucky enough to come along exactly at that moment of loss, and it has become almost unmanageable. We are prone to huge denial about the depths of the loss that we now face. I think until that's acknowledged and grieved in a kind of a public way, we're never going to be able to move on. The antithesis of grief is denial, and we do that very well.
It would take some very extraordinary leadership to pull that off.
I think that's right. With the lament psalms, the church and the synagogue have the script to do that, but by and large the church is too busy practicing the same denial as a culture that we all do. Therefore, we don't really address the task in any sustained or imaginative way.
Do you think consumerism is the official state religion?
I would want to add some things to it, but yes, I do think that. I think it's all about the market and about participation in the market, trusting the market, and serving the market, and I think we are mesmerized by it.
I think we are. And I think it takes more courage and imagination than most of us can muster to entertain a life outside of that ideology and that practice.
And the church is not outside that.
Sure, including pastors. Including all of us. If you do get some leadership that works at that, then you discover you don't have many followers and it's hard to sustain. You find out that it resonates with a certain population in the congregation, but often it's a minority population. There are people everywhere who really understand this or are in touch with it, but it would be helpful if there were more.
The conservative evangelical movement has been more successful than progressive congregations in creating counter-cultural community for their members. Thomas Frank, in his book "What's The Matter With Kansas," for example, talks about people being willing to mortgage their homes to finance Operation Rescue.
Well, I think that's right, but I also think that much of the mobilization on the right is more motivated by fear than by hope, and when it is motivated by fear it tends to live at the edge of violence, as we've seen now in Kansas. It's tricky and delicate to commit to an alternative way in the world, that doesn't make the assumption that we are absolutely right and everyone that disagrees with us is absolutely wrong--
--with that assumption, I think, often fueled by fear.
That's exactly right. I think a healthy way to do it is to say we believe this passionately, and we're going to act on it, but that doesn't mean that everybody who disagrees with us is wrong. That takes a kind of buoyancy that a lot of the zealots on the right don't have.
That buoyancy. How do we create the conditions for that? Fear is very powerful and deep rooted. Hope, I believe, is much more fragile.
I don't think I know, but it requires living in contexts that are honest and that are generous. I believe that generosity is a transformative reality, and when that sort of passion comes without generosity, it so easily becomes mean-spirited and destructive. So how we sustain communities of generosity finally comes back to the generous grace of God, but how that theological conviction gets translated into communal practice is not very obvious.
Lots of congregations do some of that. Running soup kitchens and street ministries are fundamentally acts of generosity. But a lot of congregations sort of run it out of a side pocket rather than understanding how that's the most authentic expression of what life in this community really is about.
It's people in any community discovering that when you share more of what you have, it is a transformative gift that keeps on giving. It happens in lots of places, but it doesn't happen systemically enough. Churches are really institutional expressions of self-giving generosity that isn't as self-giving or as generous as we might wish they were, but they still are more so than anybody else in town.
Here in Seattle, there are several homeless tent cities that have existed for a number of years, and they're hosted by a different church every several months or so. The experience always seems to follow a very similar path. A church will begin exploring the possibility of hosting. There will be a NIMBY neighborhood reaction that they will work through, and then the congregation gets involved. The neighborhood finds that none of their fears have been realized, and the church experiences a powerful community-building and transformational journey that they're often eager to repeat.
Extraordinary, isn't it?
It really is. It's very powerful.
Really very ordinary, but it's extraordinary. That's a marvelous tale. I was in Waco, Texas about a month ago and they told me about a church that's called The Church Under The Bridge.
They meet under a bridge whenever they meet and they just gather all the homeless people. Well, who would have thought in a place like Waco that that kind of generous sensibility would take on such a visible expression?
There's been a social gospel in the United States since Walter Rauschenbusch in the early 1900s. What made the difference for the Civil Rights Movement?
I think King brought to it an intensity of moral power that went beyond the usual kind of liberal social gospel. That moral dimension has always been there, but I think he brought to it a kind of intensity that couldn't be avoided.
There was also a kind of a clear-eyed embrace of the human condition