I was ten minutes late for my breakfast interview with Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. I was late because I’d forgotten my phone, which I rely on for directions to new places, and because the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet was not preprogrammed into my backup GPS device.
Just like that, the two gadgets I depend on to get me around failed me utterly, so when I finally arrived, breathless and apologetic, I felt I needed to explain my tardiness and blame it on 21st-century tech.
Walter immediately told me I should get rid of my phone altogether. He doesn’t have one (“I can’t think of anyone to call, and I don’t want anyone calling me”), and he says being tech-free keeps his life very simple.
I was charmed. I’m not in a position in life where I can feasibly ditch my cell phone, but I liked the matter-of-fact way in which he dismissed our culture’s “need” for people to be on call 24/7.
I was there to interview Walter for an upcoming issue of Publishers Weekly, so I won’t recap here the portions of our conversation that are being used for the magazine. The gist of that discussion was the new collection Living Countertestimony, a book by and about Walter’s recent work on the Bible and prophetic theology. It’s a cool book and I’m grateful that Walter keeps speaking and publishing new work (four books just this year, by my count – yowza!).
But there was more to our conversation than just that one book, so here are some highlights.
JKR: So, you are allegedly “retired,” but you’re busier than almost anyone around.
Walter Brueggemann: What I’ve discovered is that I’m like a migrant worker. I work during seasons. I get very busy during October and during Lent. That’s how it balances out. October this year is very busy, but then during Advent I do almost nothing because churches are not bringing in outsiders in the pre-Christmas season.
JKR: It’s such a gift to have you living right here in Cincinnati. Why did you choose to move here?
WB: We wanted to get back to the Midwest, so we just got out a map and looked for a place. We had no ties here. It has turned out really well. Cincinnati is a wonderful place to live. It’s too bad that the airport has dried up, though.
JKR: That’s for sure. CVG is like a ghost town these days. Now, you are ordained in the United Church of Christ, but you attend an Episcopal Church here in Cincinnati. Why is that?
WB: I am in the Episcopal Church because I did seven sabbaticals in Cambridge, England. I went to King’s College evensong and got wrapped up in the liturgy.
JKR: Seven is a lot of sabbaticals!
WB: I’d get a semester off every three and a half years, and if you teach forever, why, you get a lot of sabbaticals. Both seminaries where I taught [Eden and Columbia] were very generous about sabbaticals. Most of my more extended books I wrote in Cambridge.
JKR: What are you thinking about and researching right now?
WB: I am trying to think what a prophetic response might be, out of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, to the collapse of our society and the disintegration of the moral fabric of our economic system. I think the pivot point in that is the prophetic work of grief, over our huge loss, because our society basically wants to deny the collapse and just pretend that we’re going to recover everything. So the way I’m trying to make the argument is that the whole collapse that’s symbolized by 9/11 is an equivalent to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament.
JKR: Interesting. I remember hearing you speak a couple of years ago and you said that a whole literature had grown up on the book of Lamentations since 9/11 –- that it had previously been ignored in biblical studies, but has become very important.
WB: In the last decade, there’s been a huge explosion of research on the book of Lamentations, with a lot of good commentaries that we never had before. I’m glad to say that a lot of that emerged out of Columbia Seminary where I taught. Kathleen O’Connor has a major book out on that, and Todd Linafelt and Nancy Lee have both made major contributions to the study of Lamentations. Lee, for her doctoral work, learned to speak Croatian so she could go to Croatia and study lament in another culture.
The only place Lamentations doesn’t happen is in cultures where people are committed to enlightenment rationality. People in enlightenment rationality don’t lament. They just suck it up.
JKR: Where are Americans in terms of “enlightenment rationality”?
WB: I think a lot of people know in their gut but have not yet thought it that enlightenment rationality is not adequate for a viable human society. It does many good things, like give us the capacity to fly an airplane or advance health care, but underneath that, enlightenment rationality cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We need a more elemental narrative, and of course I think that the gospel narrative is the one that tells the tale of security and happiness in a very radical way.
JKR: What would you say is the greatest problem facing Christianity right now?
WB: Probably an attempt to get free of its past that is marked by authoritarianism and a kind of tacit violence. I think that many, many people are alienated from the church’s offer of the gospel because they have been wounded by the church. I think the church’s abusiveness that’s in the headlines today is simply a token of much of the wounding that the church has done. To reform or renew the church beyond that . . . it is not easy or obvious how to do that. But that is our ecclesial work, I think.
And I think that the church has allied itself with much in our society that contradicts the gospel, and for the church to claim its freedom from that is very difficult. It means top-heavy institutionalism, and complex, expensive government structures, all of which depended on a kind of affluence that is not in the church’s future in our society. To learn to get along without that surplus of resources, and to get a mindset for traveling light institutionally, is a huge challenge for all of us. Basically what that means, however we work it out, is that we have to travel light. We can’t afford to travel any other way.
JKR: What drew you to the field of Old Testament studies?
WB: It was my seminary teachers. I had two extremely important seminary teachers in Old Testament. Neither ever really published anything, but they were so alive to the text, and made it seem the most fascinating place to be. They channeled me into graduate school.
When I got to graduate school at Union Seminary in New York, my major teacher was the one major scholar in the United States who was studying rhetoric, James Muilenburg. He was extraordinary and changed the field. His most important student was Phyllis Trible. A lot of the rest of us also got into that [rhetorical criticism] in good ways.
My other teacher was Sam Terrien who did some of the same stuff. He spent his life on the book of Job and was so knowledgeable about the rhetoric. So it was a great combination.
JKR: What’s your next project?
WB: I don’t think I’m going to have any more big projects. I do my preparations for my speaking engagements, and it’s always possible that that will add up to a project. But I’m not going to take on anything big because . . . I cannot work long hours at a time anymore.
JKR: What do you like to do to enjoy your retirement?
WB: I listen to a lot of music and read a lot. I go to films. We went to see Ruby Sparks, which is amazing. It’s this writer who writes a story about a fictional character named Ruby Sparks. But she comes off the page, and he figures out that if he writes another paragraph he can make her do whatever he wants. And he wants her for a companion and lover, but figures out he can’t really have her as that if he can control her. It’s really a movie about freedom.
JKR: What are you reading right now?
WB: I read rather randomly. I just read Toni Morrison’s new book called Home. I read a lot of the current journalistic books on the political and economic crisis we’re in. I just read The Predatory Society and one called Worse Than You Think. I just keep a file of titles, and when I can get them from the library I get the next one.