The Thick & Thin Man
Walter Brueggemann’s Penumbral Notions & Theatrical Sense
by Mark Tooley
It is a long journey from the eighteenth-century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards to modern deconstructionist Walter Brueggemann. But the latter, ordained in the United Church of Christ that descends from Edwards’s Congregationalists, is becoming as big a name in American church circles as the former was in his day.
A professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, Brueggemann writes clever and winsome commentaries about the faithful and enduring relationships found in the Bible, between God and his people, and among people themselves. He has gained a surprising following among some liberal Evangelicals and other orthodox believers, thanks to his critiques of American nationalism and the free market.
Recently lecturing in Edwards’s native Northampton, Massachusetts, where Edwards helped ignite the First Great Awakening, Brueggemann offered his own version of a great awakening. He wants to lift up the “thick narrative” of the Bible and preserve it against the “thin” interpretations that the church and society have too often preferred.
By “thin,” he means the “ideology” that the church has tried to impose on the Scriptures. This ideology, which is “bias without interest in data,” often reveals itself in “nationalism” and the “idolatry of the free market system” and has long been used by the church, and is being used now, to oppress women, racial minorities, and homosexuals.
The Bible is “perverted” when seen as an “answer book,” he warned in The Bible Makes Sense (2001). To understand it that way is to ascribe to it a “static absoluteness that presumes the fixity of what is proper” and to place it “beyond the demands and pressures of historical existence.”
He is often vague, but he seems not to view the Bible as a historically reliable narrative of God’s interaction with fallen humanity. That would be the thin reading. Instead, it is a rich collection of lore about faithful relationships, and it is an indictment of social injustice. That is the thick reading.
By “thick,” he means a theology that understands the Scriptures as being about “faithful relationships” rather than “right morality, right piety, or right doctrine,” as he put it in The Bible Makes Sense. These relationships cannot be “reduced to formulae” but “live always in the free, risking exchange that belongs to covenanting.”
Discard ideas about the Bible containing “flat certitudes” and “eternal myths,” Brueggemann urged in his book. Instead, look at it as “trust[ed] memory, a dynamic image, a restless journey,” an “open question” that invites “new dimensions of fidelity,” not an “object” to study but a “partner with whom we dialogue” and a tradition “surging among us.”
I attended the lecture the next night in a charmingly severe, white-steepled old Congregationalist church, located on the village square of Shrewsbury. Brueggemann’s smooth-flowing lecture (sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society) excited no shrieks of agony, as Edwards’s appeals for salvation once did. The comfortably clad audience listened quietly and attentively as he suggested that a theology of doctrine be set aside for a theology of “journey.”
On this journey, he told his audience, authority must be placed not in the texts of the Scriptures themselves, nor in the church’s traditional interpretation, but in ongoing dialogue between the reader and Scripture. A true biblical faith means refusing “oversimplification” and accepting an invitation to a life of “complexity” before God.
“The church is a place for thick narrative and the subversive activity of saying the surface judgments of society are not trustworthy.” The biblical faith’s function is not to give us direct answers to ethical issues, which is a misuse of the Bible, but to help us “imagine the world differently.” The Bible “subverts and unsettles” us by inviting us “beyond ourselves to a world where God dwells.”
“Narratives about salvation are enormously thick and always contemporary,” Brueggeman asserted, saying the Deuteronomy Scriptures about the Lord bringing Israel out of Egypt were really about the much later sixth-century exile of Israel in Babylon. “We go back so we can speak to contemporary circumstance. The Old Testament gives a theatrical sense of an alternative reality.”
Those who read the Bible this way, “whether you’re liberal or conservative, you’re in subversive activity because you’re listening to an alternative reality about the holiness of God. Scripture is a script for an alternative imagination in the world that frees us for a different kind of life.”
Although the Scriptures are open to an endless variety of equally valid interpretations, they all point to the kind of social-justice critique of which Brueggemann approves. In particular, he insisted, the Bible calls us to imagine the future without the “militarism” and “consumerism” of the “dominant society.” It “invites us to live alertly in the presence of huge ambiguities.” Unfortunately, he complained, society can’t tolerate the “deep ambiguities” of the Scriptures, whose “texts contradict texts.”
Predictably, his own political critique of American society is not at all ambiguous. “The dominant narrative pattern is always against the dominant narrative of our society, which is militarist consumerism,” he said. The church’s task is to “create a political environment” in which it is less risky to interpret the Scriptures in ways that challenge society’s power structures.
A questioner asked Brueggeman how he handles the official faith statements of his own United Church of Christ, which describes the Bible as the Word of God. He deftly answered that creeds, like the Scriptures, should be interpreted “thickly,” i.e., loosely and metaphorically. Inspiration simply means that God’s Spirit is involved in the dialogue between text and reader, he said.
“Our classic formulas cover over huge complexities,” Brueggemann said of the historic creeds and confessions. His denomination’s official belief that the Bible is God’s Word does not “thinly” mean “direct dictation,” but “mystery and depth.” He enthused that great creeds are always very thick and that “many great battles [occurred] in the church because we take stuff thinly.” He suggested that the “holiness of God” implies an “inscrutability” that goes beyond our “creeds, morality and politics.”
When we “domesticate” God, we wind up with an “idol,” Brueggemann warned. “We trade in absolutes because we imagine we have the mind of God.” At best, we have a “penumbral notion” of God’s way, he said. “Don’t crowd God’s holiness with your absolutes.”
Who this “God” is, he did not clearly explain in his Massachusetts lectures, nor has he in his written works. Clear definitions of the deity might violate his policy against “thin” theology.
Jonathan Edwards likely would have recognized the old white church in which Brueggemann lectured, and perhaps some of the quaint village and surrounding farms that were lined with stone walls. But would he have been surprised by Brueggemann’s unabashed rejection of Scripture as objective truth, to be replaced with a new understanding that vests ultimate authority in the dialogue between text and reader?
Likely not. Edwards, with his dark view of human nature, would have grimly nodded at Brueggemann’s work and growing popularity as yet one more example of humanity usurping the authority of God.
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“The Thick & Thin Man” first appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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