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One characteristic of Walter Brueggemann's recently published Theology of the Old Testament that distinguishes it from comparable studies is its author's explicit commitment to hermeneutical pluralism. Whereas the classic works of biblical theology located the enterprise within a univocally Christian framework, Brueggemann's massive and learned volume proposes a "contextual shift from hegemonic interpretation ... toward a pluralistic interpretive context."(1) The transition is not an option but a necessity in a postmodern situation marked by "the disestablishment of the triumphalist church in the West" and the loss of "a consensus authority." "No interpretive institution," he writes, "ecclesial or academic, can any longer sustain a hegemonic mode of interpretation, so that our capacity for a magisterial or even a broadly based consensus about a pattern of interpretation will be hard to come by."(2) For Brueggemann, this loss is a gain, since "the [biblical] texts themselves witness to a plurality of testimonies concerning God and Israel's life with God."(3) The disintegration of consensus goes hand in hand with "the parallel disestablishment of the institutional vehicles of such interpretation" that have repressed awareness of the rich internal diversity of the Old Testament.(4) In the absence of a hegemonic consensus, enforced by repressive and discriminatory institutions, "the testimony of Israel" will be able to recover its character "as a subversive protest and as an alternative act of vision that invites criticism and transformation."(5) For Brueggemann, the repressiveness and discrimination of the institutions is reflected in the dominance of the white males within them. In a situation of more diversity of race and gender, he repeatedly tells us, valid alternative visions will blossom.(6)
Brueggemann's book leaves James Barr with "the impression of a total surrender to postmodernism." "Not so much to postmodernism in all its forms," Barr immediately adds, "as to the sort of liberal/postmodern mixture influential in the so-called `liberal' churches and theological schools, where the gospel is a combination of altruism, egalitarianism, anti-elitism, pluralism, multiculturalism and political correctness."(7) The question arises, however, whether any worldview that fails to challenge the commitments Barr summarizes in his last clause can really qualify as postmodernism at all. Would not a genuine "plurality of testimonies" and "a subversive protest as an alternative act of vision" subvert the gospel of "altruism, egalitarianism, anti-elitism, pluralism, multiculturalism and political correctness" and show how the Old Testament offers an alternative to them, too? Indeed, if we take as definitional Jean-Francois Lyotard's influential characterization of postmodern thought as the suspicion of metanarratives, Brueggemann, for all his invocation of postmodernist terminology, would not qualify as postmodern at all. For he rejects the claim that Lyotard's definition is characteristic of our age and maintains instead that "our situation is one of conflict and competition between deeply held metanarratives." Therefore, he writes, "the metanarrative of the Old Testament (or of the Bible or of the church) ... must enter into a pluralistic context of interpretation, in order to see what of [sic] dispute and accommodation is possible."(8) What we have, in other words, is not really a "pluralistic interpretive context" in the postmodern sense, in which there is no bedrock of truth to which interpretation must either prove faithful or fall into discredit. Rather, we are confronted with something more akin to a capitalist market place, in which rival interpretations engage in "conflict and competition" until one of them--Brueggemann hopes it will be "the metanarrative of the Old Testament (or of the Bible or of the church)"--emerges triumphant. In spite of Brueggemann's frequent employment of the postmodernist rhetoric of subversion, protest, and plurality, what he actually envisions is more like the liberal vision of a public space in which different interpretations compete freely in the firm conviction that through this process the truth will eventually win out.
In the free market model of economic organization, it is not too hard to determine which contestant has scored victory in that process of "conflict and competition." The balance sheet rules. In the case of the market place of ideas, the matter is more complex. In the laboratory sciences, there have traditionally been criteria by which the success or failure of a hypothesis can be adjudicated. In the case of ideas in other domains, such as the interpretation of literature (especially scriptures), determining the victor (that is, eliminating excess plurality) is a more difficult--some would say, impossible--task. For this reason, even if Brueggemann did not invoke "a plurality of testimonies" and kindred postmodern ideas, just how he thinks this "conflict and competition" can be adjudicated would remain murky. Without a higher standard to which to appeal--a metanarrative, so to speak, that trumps even the Christian metanarrative to which he is committed(9)--how are we to know which interpretations have won the "conflict," survived the "competition," and earned a place at the table in the new "accommodation"? For, despite Brueggemann's advocacy of pluralism and unyielding opposition to "hegemonic interpretation," not every interpretation receives a place at his hermeneutic table. Some are neglected altogether. One notes, for example, that in his seven hundred and seventy-seven page Theology, marked as it is by encyclopedic learning, two popular, contemporary, biblically-oriented belief systems, each with enormous theological implications, are nonetheless never addressed: Scientific Creationism and the Biblical Codes. Is their exclusion owing only to the repressive force of institutional inertia and the hegemonic interpretation that inevitably accompanies this? Or is there some standard of reason and evidence that rightly keeps the multitudes of adherents to these two systems (many, perhaps most of them, white males) quite outside the pale of academic and religious respectability? And if such standards (however tentative and corrigible) do exist, might they not, at least in theory, be fairly brought to bear against other perspectives as well--traditionalist, liberationist, and whatever--without an accusation of racial or gender bias or other self-interested distortion?
One way that Brueggemann handles this nettlesome problem is also in continuity with liberal tradition. He shifts the focus from the definitive statement of a norm or truth to the open-ended process of ascertaining it. Although in practice Brueggemann assumes standards of judgment that transcend specific communities and particular identities (this is, in fact, unavoidable), his interest is not in the result of the "conflict and competition between deeply held metanarratives," but in the process of dispute itself. He insists that "the dispute cannot be settled ultimately but only provisionally." The reason for this is crucial. For Brueggemann, the dispute continually resists settlement not because he is some sort of skeptic, for whom closure is an epistemological impossibility, but because he adheres to a theological conviction that "this disputatious quality is definitional for Israel and for [YHWH]," their restless Deity who shakes up all preconceptions through his endlessly surprising and "contradictory self-presentations."(10)
Just how far this interesting alliance of Old Testament theology and postmodernist hermeneutics can go is most unclear. As we have seen, Brueggemann's postmodernism does not prevent him from advocating the biblical metanarrative alone, as he understands it, and he leaves open the crucial question of just how much plurality he would accept as legitimate if his candidate were to win the "conflict and competition between deeply held metanarratives" that he thinks is taking place. In this connection, it is revealing that Brueggemann's acceptance of pluralism does not extend to the domain of ethics. Indeed, he cites with enthusiasm Jacques Derrida's own belief in "the indeconstructibility of justice"(11) and speaks positively of the Jewish traditions that hold even YHWH himself accountable to "this irreducible claim of justice."(12)
Why justice, however, is "indeconstructible" is again unclear. In welcoming "the disestablishment of our usual modes of interpretation," Brueggemann cites with approval Karl Marx's famous claim that lies at the foundation of ideology critique: "the ideas of the dominant class become the dominant ideas."(13) There is, however, no lack of applications of the Marxist claim not only to "modes of interpretation" but also to visions of justice, with which, after all, they are willy-nilly associated. In the case of the Old Testament, if one were so inclined, one could deflate the demands of prophets, priests, and sages for justice by reducing them to the class interest of those who make them--the white males of the time. Similarly, in the case of Walter Brueggemann's own vision of justice, one might reduce his fierce opposition to what he labels "military consumerism" (and his notion that Old Testament theology stands four square against it)(14) to his own frequently self-acknowledged status as a "tenured white male."(15) After all, few Americans who speak forthrightly in favor of the military or capitalism have (or are likely to receive) tenure, certainly not in liberal Protestant seminaries of the sort in which Brueggemann teaches; and the percentage of non-whites who believe in and serve in the military is far higher than the percentage that become professors or publish in Old Testament theology. At West Point or on Wall Street, in other words, Brueggemann's social and political vision might qualify as subversion or prophetic critique, but in the liberal Protestant academic world in which he works, it is far from it.
In short, for all his advocacy of radicalism and acknowledgment of his own social location, Brueggemann fails to recognize the destructive or deconstructive potential for his own theology in the ideology critique that he readily applies to others. Although he writes as if he is opposed to hegemonic interpretation in general, his true opponent would seem to be various kinds of theological and social conservatism.(16) But this use of the rhetoric of postmodernism and ideology critique may be overkill. For the relativizer can be relativized,(17) and the type of reasoning that Brueggemann employs to deconstruct traditional theologies and magisteria of various sorts harbors the potential to deconstruct his own passionately held ethical commitments as well.(18) Conversely, if a vision of justice can be pronounced "indeconstructible," then perhaps a commitment to a religious tradition and its modes of authority might fall in the same category, whatever the race, gender, or social status of those who adhere to them.
Brueggemann on Jewish Biblical Interpretation
Brueggemann's explicit and self-conscious commitment to hermeneutical pluralism moves the range of legitimate interpretations beyond the circumference of Christianity itself, again in a dramatic break with just about every previous work of this scope on Old Testament theology. "Here I insist," he writes near the end of his book, "that if the church has no interpretive monopoly on the Old Testament, then it must recognize the legitimacy of other interpretive communities, of whom the primary and principal one is the Jewish community."(9) Once again, the warrant for pluralism is not skepticism or its fraternal twin, relativism, but rather a deeply theological affirmation. In this case, what Brueggemann affirms is the "polyvalent quality" of the Old Testament, which allows and requires contemporary interpreters "to draw the Old Testament text to our circumstance," a circumstance in which "Jewish faith and an actual Jewish community must be on the horizon of Christians."(20) As in the case of his general orientation toward pluralism, so in the case of his generosity toward Judaism, "what is theologically required by the text as such is positively reinforced by historical circumstance and its enduring demands." What Brueggemann exhibits here is more than respect for Judaism; it is a claim that "if Christian appropriation of the Old Testament toward Jesus is an act of claiming an elusive tradition toward a Jesus-circumstance, we can recognize that other imaginative appropriations of this elusive tradition are equally legitimate and appropriate."(21)
Were Brueggemann an advocate of a thoroughgoing hermeneutical relativism, as some postmodernists are, this openness toward Judaism would be readily understandable. Jewish biblical interpretation would be "equally legitimate and appropriate" only because we lack the grounds on which to rule out any interpretation, to invalidate, that is, any community of interpretation. To refute the suspicion of relativism here, Brueggemann needs to identify "an imaginative appropriation of this elusive tradition" that is not legitimate and not appropriate, and explain why. It is, after all, hardly a bold move to include the outsider in an edifice whose walls have tumbled anyway; inclusiveness on the part of those who have lost the capacity or the self-confidence to exclude is cheap. By not providing a counterexample, he leaves unknown the identity of the control on his pluralism that prevents it from decomposing into relativism. Still, given his remarks concerning the "indeconstructibility" and irreducibility of justice, we can make an educated guess regarding the nature of this control. Presumably, in the present American context an illegitimate appropriation of the Old …