Home > Fisks, Theology > “Walter Brueggemann #3: Method, Madness, and the Mob” by Rolin Bruno

“Walter Brueggemann #3: Method, Madness, and the Mob” by Rolin Bruno

25 November 2009

Review of Theology of the Old Testament, 1997

I’m still smarting over Brueggemann’s unsupported statement from last week:

“Critical consensus holds that [Genesis 1:1-2:4] is an exilic text.”

 When Brueggemann indicated he was attempting to lay aside any categories forced on the Old Testament from outside the text, he evidently did not mean to exclude the holy grail of “Critical Consensus.” However, on reading ahead a few more pages, I am a trifle mollified.

You see, I had been laboring under the false conceit that Brueggemann was actually writing to me. I thought that his intended audience would be people like me, who had an interest in the Old Testament and what it had to say about theology.


Brueggemann is writing to the Mob. This particular Mob is an elite group of scholars who write (hopefully) erudite research and opinion articles in a host of scholarly journals, such as the Journal of Biblical Literature, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Theological Studies, etc., etc., etc. This is where the ongoing, multi-year conversation takes place among scholars investigating theology and the Bible.

And he writes to them for good reason. The Mob is the group that is going to give Brueggemann his passing or failing grade. If he slips up, makes a factual error, or (horrors!) an error of logic, this is the group that will pounce on him and tell him he’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Since they are a largely disparate group, there will be a minority that will think he’s doing fine, and a few, like my professor, will think he’s wonderful.

Brueggemann’s tome is not the type of published work that becomes a barn-burning public hit. Without—dare I say it—without a critical consensus that his work has something valuable to add to the ongoing theological conversation, instructors won’t recommend it to their students, course designers won’t shape their classes around it, and the book just won’t sell.

I should have had my first clue at page 158, where he introduces his touchy subject:

“A student of the theme of creation in the Old Testament must inevitably face the issue of whether the Old Testament claims creation ex nihilo: Did God create out of nothing?”

How odd, I thought as I read that. Why is he addressing students now? I’m a student. Aren’t we all? The answer is, no—his book is directed to the Mob of other elite scholars, and he had just become aware that an actual student would be concerned with this question.

It finally came together as I read on to his next subject, the promises given to Abraham. He writes, “As older materials are reused, these old land promises become a ground in the exile for hope for the landless and the displaced.” In other words, the Abrahamic text existed before the exilic text. Then he footnotes his statement to rebuff a scholar who disagrees, who claims that the promises to Abraham are an exilic text. So the ground rule is clear: agree with the consensus, and the Mob won’t bother you, except perhaps the miffed minority. Buck the trend, and you need to mollify the Mob by explaining yourself and footnoting the contrary opinion.

That’s not the rule I followed when I wrote my thesis on Jude. To be fair, that’s probably not the rule that Brueggemann intended to follow either. But with his mind centered on the Mob, it was easy to forget to footnote an item in which he was following—here it is again—the critical consensus.

So much for the Mob; let’s move on to the Method.

I have noted that Brueggemann uses Rhetorical Criticism as a primary tool. In his introductory comments to my first episode posted on 14 November, Elder Oyster lamented, “I was at a loss for a long time to find someone knowledgeable about Rhetorical Criticism….” When I read that, I thought, “Surely he can’t be speaking of me!”

My graduate textbooks were of little help. Beyond Form Criticism, in its review of Rhetorical Criticism, included a J.K. Kuntz essay in which he asked “What can be posited concerning the strophic structure of Psalm 18 and asserted about the scope, interest, and movement of its strophes?” That sentence, along with his entire essay, left me completely nonplussed.

James Muilenburg, who viewed the emphasis on strophic relationships and Greek rhetorical prototypes with suspicion, was a trifle more helpful, writing, “there has been a proclivity among scholars in recent years to lay such stress upon the typical and representative that the individual, personal, and unique features of the particular pericope are all but lost to view.” However, that still left me with no model for how one goes about applying the “new” rhetorical criticism.

Brueggemann may be presenting such a model. He structures chapters 4–6 respectively around verbs, adjectives, and metaphorical nouns. For his five verbal topics, he highlights the Old Testament’s “most mature testimony” (creation narrative), its “oddest testimony” (promise to Abraham), its “most revolutionary testimony” (deliverance from bondage), its “most pervasive testimony” (commands), and its “most intimate testimony” (leadership and presence).

As a detail-oriented “square” (nerds had not yet been invented when I was in high school), this is something I can slog through: mechanically turning the crank on the examination of distinctive words, looking for what is unique and personal that might reveal the writer’s thought and purpose. The strangest thing, I discovered, is this is what I have already done. Of the 277 pages in my master’s thesis, Jude and the Scoffers, upwards of 60 pages are devoted to linguistic and rhetorical analysis in the style used by Brueggemann. Who knew?

With just these rhetorical criticism tools, I was able to establish (when I came up for air) the ethnicity, religious history, education, Christian ministry, peer-group identity, and character of the writer. In addition, the rhetoric of Jude proves that the letter comes from no other location than Palestine, that it was written at no other time than between AD 40 and 70, and that the author was no one other than Judas, the brother of James, of the family of Jesus.

Of Brueggemann’s methods, I have scanned scarcely 7 of his 29 chapters. It will be interesting to see what other implements he pulls from his tool bag as he proceeds, and whether he will use other perspectives to examine the rhetoric of the Old Testament. I do not envy his task.

Well, we’ve looked at Method and the Mob; what’s next?

Slogging through page after page of distinctive examples taken from parts of speech, Brueggemann must needs come up for air once in a while. That affords him the opportunity to indulge in his particular madness, which is the struggle to become conscious.

Chapter 7, “Yahweh Fully Uttered,” begins by stressing the scope of the task:

 “When all of the detail of testimony is offered, the profoundly difficult question remains: What does all of this add up to as a presentation of the Character of Yahweh? … That is the business of the court [the listener] and not of the witness.”

You and I—and Brueggemann, of course, are the “court” who will digest the testimony.

“It is rather the work of those who hear the witnesses—that is, interpreters—to construe or imagine a comprehensive characterization of Yahweh based on the details of Israel’s testimony.”

Are you ready to start? Well, here are a few problems that will confront you:

 “Such work of generalization can never take into account all of the data, but must accent or deemphasize, include or exclude, some testimony. Moreover, the decision to include or exclude, to accent or deemphasize, is never innocent. Rather it follows from presupposition, whether it is an inclination toward historical-critical, canonical, liberationist, or some other form of interpretation. We never escape the haunting question about whether thematization, in principle and without reference to any particular substance, violates the very character of the testimony that relishes the detail. This thematization is our required work and our most profound hazard.”

 Madness. Has Breuggemann been sneaking a peak at the Briar Patch Dictionary?

Brueggemann prefers thematization to systematization, following the lead of not a few Old Testament scholars. The shoehorn has not yet been devised that can force all the nooks and crannies of the Old Testament into a grand system without doing damage to the individual texts.

Unless, perhaps, your system is that of Christianity.

Br_er Rabbit.

For those who might be interested, here is a link to my thesis, Jude and the Scoffers. It’s on file with the Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN).

Categories: Fisks, Theology
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