Walter Brueggemann told the opening session of the 41st Trinity Institute Jan. 20 that 21st century Christians need to stop being mired in old quarrels over scriptural interpretation and instead approach the Bible as “an intricate set of symbols and signs and signals that are arranged in a certain imaginative, artistic configuration that yield a new kind of reality.”
Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, said that such an approach can help Christians engage with the Bible in a way that avoids pre-packaged interpretation. Instead, he said, Christians and the churches to which they belong need to engage with the Bible in a way that gives them a place to stand in their lives and their faith in the midst of “the power of nation states, the reductionisms of scientism and in the capricious power of the marketplace.”
The 41st Trinity Institute, sponsored by Trinity Wall Street and titled “Reading Scripture Through Other Eyes,” is meant to help participants “become more conscious of what we are looking for when we return to the Bible as a source of inspiration,” according to the conference’s web pages.
The conference began on the afternoon of Jan. 19 with a meeting of the theological reflection groups in which conference participants are encouraged to engage. Those gatherings were followed by Eucharist in Trinity Church. The conference ends Jan. 21.
Other speakers include U.S. author Mary Gordon (Jan. 21 morning session), Nigerian biblical scholar Teresa Okure (Jan. 20 afternoon session), South African theologian Gerald O. West (Jan. 21 afternoon session) and preacher and panelist Steed V. Davidson.
A number of participants are viewing the sessions at partner sites throughout the United States and Canada, Nigeria, Panama, Sudan and South Africa. Others are attending via live webcast. During a panel discussion after Brueggemann’s presentation, questions came in via video conferencing from South Africa, Missouri, Connecticut and Toronto, in addition to those asked by New York participants.
Church Divinity School of the Pacific Dean and President Mark Richardson said in introducing Brueggemann that modern-day skeptics look for an “unfeeling God of the scripture that they find by treating the material of the Bible as if it can be flattened out into facts much as scientific inquiry is about discreet, quantifiable things and processes, and then they attack the God they think they have discovered in scriptures.”
Thus, he said, the Bible becomes “a symbol of what is past and what must make for a new spirituality.”
Brueggemann suggested that the antidote involves a movement beyond critical examination of the Bible to a “post-critical” stance that engages more deeply with the text itself, rejects traditional methods such as historical criticism in favor of approaches that acknowledge the interpreter’s stake in the interpretation and looks at “Jewish modes of interpretation that do not move so quickly to closure.”
For instance, he said, historical criticism’s approach had resulted in the situation where “we didn’t read the Bible much; we just read books about the Bible. It turns out … that the Bible is much more interesting than any of the books about the Bible, such as some of the ones I have written.”
Brueggemann said he now prefers to help people come to a stance from which they see the Bible is “thick and layered and conflicted” and reveals a God who is much the same. “And we are made in the image of a God who is thick and layered and conflicted,” he said.
In this approach, failed interpreters are those who do not go beyond pre-packaged interpretations while “kingdom scribes” treasure what is old and “offer what is new.”
During a panel discussion with Brueggemann, some of the panelists worried that members of their congregations may not be ready for such an approach.
“There is an enormous appetite for an authoritarian approach to the Bible,” said Gordon, adding that “a sense of certainty in God” can be lost in the sort of interpretation Brueggemann suggested.
“There’s a reason why fundamentalists are doing better than the likes of us,” she said.
Brueggemann argued that the sort of stance he advocates “doesn’t have to be high-falutin'” but it is “the posing of the kind of accessible questions that let the text come very close to people’s experience” and thus help them interpret the pain and joy they experience. Trinity Institute is a continuing education program for clergy and laity that is part of Trinity Church Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. Founded to provide theological renewal for clergy in the Episcopal Church, the organization broadened its focus to include the work of emerging theologians of divergent thought and from diverse parts of society. Information about past conferences is here.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.