Chapter 4: The Social Nature of the Biblical Text for Preaching, by Walter Brueggemann
(Note: Walter Brueggemann, professor of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA.)
The preacher stands midway in the process of the biblical text. The process of forming, transmitting, and interpreting the biblical text is a creative process at its beginning, midpoint, and ending. The creative dimension of the process means that the text and its meanings are always being produced. They never simply exist. They are not just "there," but the community is continually engaged in a willful act of production of meaning. That is what is meant by "the social nature" of the text. It is the community at work with the text.(1)
The Textual Process
The textual process has three identifiable points, each of which is creative, that is, productive. First, it begins in the formation of the text, that is, the way in which the text has reached its settled canonical form. Historical-critical methods of study are concerned with the ways in which the community, through editors, redactors, scribes, and traditionists, has put the text together. Whatever view we have of the creation of the text, we know that human hands and hearts have been at work in its formation.
Second, the end of the textual process is the reception and hearing of the text which is done by the congregation. We know that such listening is a complex matter, because communication in general is exceedingly complex, and reception of the text is a specific moment of communication. No one can any longer imagine that the preaching of the text is heard by members of the community just as it is spoken, or just as it is intended by the preacher. The listening is done through certain sensitivities that may distort, emphasize, enhance, or censor, depending on the particular situation of the listening community. The listening community is engaged in a constructive act of construal, of choosing, discerning and shaping the text through the way the community chooses to listen.(2) The text thus construed may or may not be the text that is the one offered by the speaker. That is, the text heard may be quite different from the one proclaimed.
It is the third identifiable point, the midway process of interpretation, that interests us in this paper. Interpretation is all the action between formation and reception that seeks to assert the authority and significance of the text. This interpretive step includes the classical creeds and commentaries, the long history of theological reflection, contemporary scholarship, and contemporary church pronouncements. Above all, it includes the interpretative work of the preacher in the sermon. It is in the sermon that the church has done its decisive, faith-determining interpretation. The sermon is not an act of reporting on an old text, but it is an act of making a new text visible and available. This new text in part is the old text, and in part is the imaginative construction of the preacher which did not exist until the moment of utterance by the preacher.(3) Like a conductor "rendering" Beethoven so that that particular music exists only in that occasion, so the preacher renders a text so that it only exists in that particular form in that particular occasion of speaking.(4)
These three dimensions of the textual process -- formation, interpretation, reception -- are all creative acts in which the text and its meaning are not only an offer made to the community, but are a product generated in the community. Interpretation and listening, as well as formation, are creative acts of construal. This creative aspect of the text is unavoidable and should be welcomed as an arena in which faith is received, discerned, and made pertinent. Some may think such creative possibility in interpretation is an aberration to be avoided. It cannot be avoided. Nor should it be avoided, because it is the way in which God's Word is alive among us. Interpretation can and must be creative and imaginative if it is to be interpretation and not simply reiteration. Listening is inevitably an imaginative act of response in which the listener does part of the work of rendering the text.(5)
This entire creative process consists of two factors which are in tension and which make our topic both important and difficult. The textual process is at every point an act of faith. In faithful interpretation, the entire process is governed by the work of God's Spirit of truth. It is this that permits interpretation to be an act of faith. The promise of faith is the conviction that in its formation, interpretation, and reception the text is a word of life that makes a difference. No part of this process is undertaken on the pretense that this is objective or neutral or a matter of indifference.
Those who formed the text did so because they knew the traditions to be important and they judged them to be true and urgent for the ongoing generations of the community. That is the theological meaning of the canon. The subsequent interpreter who received the text has labored diligently over the text, as does the contemporary interpreter, because faith requires interpretation. Interpreters in every generation, even those who have exercised enormous
freedom, have intended their work as an effort in fidelity. Finally, those who receive the text, the assembled community of listeners, gather in an act of faith. The church gathers around the text because it takes the text seriously. It listens eagerly (and therefore imaginatively) to try to hear the nuance in the text that is God's live Word now. Participants at every point of the textual process are unembarrassed about the premise of faith. All parts of the textual process are undertaken primarily to ensure the powerful, authoritative presence of the Word among members of the community.
It is also the case, however, that every part of the textual process is an act of vested interest. Exegetical study is now learning this insight from sociological criticism.(6)The textual process does not proceed objectively or neutrally, but always intends to make a case in a certain direction. Just as there is no "exegesis without presuppositions,"(7) so there is no textual activity that is not linked to a vested interest. The formation of the text itself has been an act of vested interest. Certain pieces of literature are selected, gathered, shaped, and juxtaposed in different ways to argue certain points. We know, for example, that the early community around Moses authorized certain texts that served the interest of liberation.(8) The Exodus narrative is surely put together by proponents of a radical liberating faith. In the time of Solomon, other texts were celebrated because they legitimated the concentration of power in the monarchy and served to enhance the inequality of the status quo.
In like manner the interpretive act is notorious for being an act of vested interest. There is no doubt that "liberation communities" in the Third World approach every text with an inclination that tilts interpretation in a specific direction. We are coming to see that even what we regarded as the objective scholarship of historical-critical method has not been objective, but has served certain social interests and enhanced certain epistemological biases.(9) We are coming to see that what we thought was objective has in fact been the "class reading" of male Euro-American theology. Richard Rohrbaugh has offered stunning and convincing evidence that many of the great American preachers of the last generation handled texts so that the sharp and disconcerting social dimension that questioned our economic commitments was ignored. As a result, the text was interpreted in other directions that probably were serious distortions.(10)This was not intentional distortion on the part of the preacher. It is simply that our faith is regularly embodied in a vested interest that we ourselves are not always able to discern.
Finally, listening to the text and its interpretation is an act of vested interest. Over time we select the mode and substance of interpretation that we want to hear. We select our interpretive tradition. We read certain books, subscribe to certain journals, even join or avoid certain churches in order to find a textual interpretation congruent with our vested interests which we can receive and hear and to which we can respond.(11)
The textual process of formation, interpretation, and reception is therefore always a mixture of faith and vested interest. To study "the social process" is to pay attention to that vexed combination. That the textual process is skewed by interest requires a hermeneutic of suspicion.(12) That the textual process is an act of serious faith permits a hermeneutic of retrieval. Despite the identification of these two hermeneutics, the matter remains complicated and problematic because we cannot practice one hermeneutic first and then the other. We cannot first sort out vested interest and then affirm faith, because vested interest and faith always come together and cannot be so nicely distinguished. We must simply recognize the fact that the two always come together, even in the midst of our best efforts of discernment and criticism.
The creative act of formation-interpretation-reception produces a text. As it produces a text, it forms an imaginative world in which the community of the text may live. That production of a text is a willful, intentional act generated by faith and vested interest. That the text is "produced" means a different text could have been formed, interpreted, or received. This means that the produced text is never innocent or disinterested. But it is this text, never innocent or disinterested, that we take as the normative text for our faith. The text that has been produced and made canonical is the only one we have. It is to that text we must obediently and critically attend.
When the community has thus produced a text, it is the task of the community to consume the text, that is, to take, use, heed, respond, and act upon the text. The entire process of the text then is an act of production and consumption whereby a new world is chosen or an old world is defended, or there is transformation of old world to new world.(13) The purpose of using the categories of production and consumption is to suggest that the textual process, especially the interpretive act of preaching, is never a benign, innocent, or straightforward act. Anyone who imagines that he or she is a benign or innocent preacher of the text is engaged in self-deception.(14) Preaching as interpretation is always a daring, dangerous act in which the interpreter, together with the receivers of the interpretation, is consuming a text and producing a world.
The world so produced is characteristically a world made possible by faith, but it is a world mediated through vested interest. Thus the text never only says, but it does. What it does is to create another world of perception, value, and power which permits alternative acts. Great attention must be paid to vested interest and its impact on perception, value and power, because vested interest has an enormous power to guide the textual process in certain directions. It is this dangerous, inevitable drama of the text that is referred to under the rubric "social nature." As both member and leader of the community, the preacher is necessarily involved in this dangerous, problematic production and consumption of texts through which worlds are chosen and life is transformed.
The Classic Tradition of Sociology
The classic tradition of sociology illuminates the lively shaping action of the community upon the text.(15) It is important to recognize that sociology arose as a distinct discipline in response to a specific social crisis. That is, sociology is not simply the general study of human community, but from its beginning was a discipline preoccupied with a particular set of awarenesses and problems.(16) The startling changes in human consciousness that came in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries which are associated with the Enlightenment and modernity have made us aware that the world in which we live is a social contrivance that carries with it important costs and gains. Sociology is essentially a critical discipline that has exposed the deceptive notion that the social world is an absolute given arrangement, by bringing to visibility the ways in which society continually constructs itself. At the outset sociology as criticism was aimed against traditional notions of the absolute givenness of social life which were legitimated by religious orthodoxy. These notions, as sociological study made clear, also brought with them the legitimacy of an absolutist economic and political orthodoxy.(17)
Sociology was therefore initially addressed to the mystification of a religion that claimed and pretended the world was a given. At the same time, however, sociology tended to be blind and inattentive to a scientific orthodoxy that posited a new social given; this time, objective, rational, neutral, and technological -- all the things we have come to label as positivistic.(18) Critical sociology emerged to deal intentionally with the naive positivism of much social science; it has become clear that the new "objective" world is as confused as the old religious world, and as incapable of seeing as operative its own ideology.(19) Critical sociology can help us see that the vested interests and ideological defenses of "scientific objectivity" are as dangerous and dishonest as the old absolutes of religion.
This shift from the old world of religious tradition and convention to the new world of technical control is a theme that has preoccupied the classical tradition of sociology. This theme has been articulated in various forms. We may mention its appearance in the three progenitors of the classical sociological tradition.
1. Karl Marx addresses the social alienation caused by capitalism and the role of religion in legitimating social structures that are exploitative and dehumanizing.(20) Marx's great insights are that economic arrangements are decisive for all social relationships and that religion functions
primarily to legitimate economic arrangements. Clearly Marx was preoccupied with the shift in economic relations that tore the economic dimension away from the general fabric of social life.(21) He saw that this shift was deeply destructive of the possibility of human community. The emergence of alienation as a central product of the modern world is at the center of Marx's analysis. The textual tradition entrusted to the preacher has as a task the discernment of that alienation and the consideration of alternatives to it. The preacher must pay attention to the ways in which the text and interpretation participate in the process of alienation.
2. Max Weber sought to provide an alternative to Marx that did not identify economics as the cause of everything.(22) Weber paid particular attention to the new forms of social control and administration and the emerging power of bureaucracy. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret Weber (against Marx) as a friend of modernity. Like Marx, Weber saw the heavy toll that the structures and values of modernity would continue to assess against the possibility of humanness. The emergence of new forms of rationality preoccupied Weber. The emergence of destructive forms of rationality is also a struggle in the Bible, where covenantal modes of rationality are regularly offered against the temptations of naturalism and nationalism. In our present social situation, the connections Bellah has made concerning managerial rationality offer a suggestive critical insight for the preaching office.(23)
3. In a more conservative mode, Emile Durkheim was interested in the requirement of social cohesion for the survival of society.(24) In his classic study of suicide, Durkheim observed what happened in societies where the fabric of value and cohesion is exhausted and persons must live in a context of normlessness.(25) Durkheim's critique can cut two ways. Ours is a society that lives at the edge of normlessness, and on the other hand, we are a society that reacts to normlessness with a heavy-handed emphasis on conformity. The crisis of normlessness and conformity in our culture sounds strangely reminiscent of the Mosaic crisis about freedom and obedience and the problematic of the law as Paul understood it. The preacher is cast in a social role as a voice of normativeness, in a society bereft of norms.
There are great differences among these three spokes-persons for social possibility and pathology, but they all focus on the fact that societies have ways in which to articulate and distort certain kinds of truth that make human life possible Or problematic. Social structure, order, and value are not objective givens. But they also are not simply connections that can be willfully and artificially wrought. They are, rather, the slow, steady work of formation, creation, and transformation by which a community orders its life of perception, value, and power.(26)
Interpretation as Social Construction
The act of interpretation takes seriously both the old treasured memory and the new demand of the situation. Interpretation seeks to mediate between tradition and situation. On the one hand, interpretation is always responsive to the situation, that is, commenting on the new social realities that are already established. On the other hand, interpretation is always assertive, saying something genuinely new and challenging the community to rethink and reperceive the newly established reality in light of the tradition. In modes of both response and assertion, interpretation is an imaginative act which articulates reality in a new way that had not been possible until the moment of speech. It is the speech that creates the possibility.
Sociology shows us that society is constantly reconstructing itself. While great attention therefore needs to be paid to the manipulation of power and the management of economic and political forces, we know that the primary mode by which a community reconstitutes itself is by its interpretation, by its reflection on ancient memory and tradition, and by its recasting of that memory and tradition in new ways that are resonant with the new situation.(27) All communities are always engaged in the process of interpretation. This is what ideology, propaganda, mass media, and civil religion are about. They are responses and assertions that are more or less creative, which seek to mediate a newness juxtaposed between tradition and situation.
In order to arrive at a better understanding of interpretation as a social act of reconstruction, several dimensions of critical exposition are peculiarly important.
1. Interpretation is unavoidably a communal activity. The whole community is involved in the process. Interpretation must take place if the community is to live and continue. Interpretation inevitably does happen because it is a main activity of the community. Sociology has helped us see that communities are always engaged in interpretive acts of reconstitution and reconstruction. That act of interpretation is characteristically a mixture of faith and vested interest.
With the coming of the Enlightenment and the rise of modernity, many have failed to understand the inevitability of interpretation. The fascination with so-called objectivity led to the mistaken notion that reality did not need to be interpreted. As reality did not need to be interpreted, it was mistakenly concluded that the biblical text could be read in a straightforward manner without interpretation. This is also the mistaken notion of those who want the U.S. Supreme Court to be "strict constructionists," that is, not to engage in interpretation. The kind of interpretation that denies it is interpretation is the most dangerous kind, because it is not then available for criticism.
2. The interpretative act of social reconstitution is what the biblical text itself is all about. That is, the text is not simply a factual reporting about what happened. In each of its statements it is an act of interpretative mediation whereby ancient Israel and the early church seek to reconstitute the community in the face of a new danger or crisis.(28) In ancient Israel the new situation is characteristically the new concentration of power and knowledge in the monarchy or the loss of monarchial power and knowledge in the Exile.(29) In the New Testament the characteristic new situation is the interface between Jewish and Gentile Christians and the derivative problems of ethics and organization. In each case the new situation requires a total recasting of the memory in order to sustain the identity of the community.
The texts are not only response, however. They are also bold assertions in the face of the new situation. For example, in the Old Testament the Yahwistic theologians do not simply conform to the new social reality, but make a strong case that in the new situation Israel must understand itself as the bearer of a blessing.(30) In the New Testament, for example, Luke-Acts offers bold suggestions about how the church must understand itself and order its faith. That the Old and New Testament texts are both responsive and assertive means that they are deeply imaginative. They proclaim a social reality that did not exist until that moment of articulation. Moreover because the text is deeply imaginative, it is probable that each such requesting of social reality is a mixture of faith and vested interest. Thus the J writer is concerned to maintain a human vision against a monarchial enterprise of self-aggrandizement. Luke seems to have been concerned lest the early church become a sect aligned against the Empire. The community over time has judged the vested interests of the texts (for example, J and Luke) to be faithful vehicles for faith and not acts of distortion. As a result, these specific texts have been judged authoritative and designated as canonical.
In the Pentateuch the documentary hypothesis of JEDP has been much misunderstood and maligned. It is an attempt to characterize the ongoing interpretive act of mediation that was underway in ancient Israel.(31) The J material, according to the dominant hypothesis, is an attempt to mediate the old memory in the affluent situation of Solomon. Similarly, the P tradition is an attempt to mediate the old memory in the despairing situation of Exile.(32) These two moments, United Monarchy and Exile, require fresh interpretative acts or the old tradition will have been in vain. In the cases of both J and P, one can detect that this interpretive act is indeed a response to a social crisis, is an assertion in the face of the crisis, and is a remarkable act of imagination. It takes very little insight to see that in each case the mediation is a mixture of faith and vested interest.
In like manner the Synoptic Gospels are mediations of the old memory of the early church.(33) The Gospel of Mark faces the challenge of Roman imperialism; Matthew takes up the question of the relationship between Christians and Jews, or perhaps Jesus and the Jewish tradition; and Luke struggles with the Gospel in a Gentile world. These Gospel statements are clearly not theological absolutes (or we would not have these three variants), nor are they factual descriptions of what happened, but they are mediations that make available a new world in which the community may live joyously and faithfully.
3. In the creative, imaginative act of construction of reality, the interpreters, those who process the text, are dangerously engaged in two ways.(34) On the one hand, they are so engaged because they inevitably make responsive, assertive mediations in the midst of their own mixture of faith and interest. Interpreters are never interest free but always present reality in partisan ways and, indeed, cannot do otherwise. On the other hand, in the act of interpretation they also have their own world remade. They do not stand outside this process but are being self-interpreted in the very act of biblical interpretation. In this act of mediation hermeneutics then makes a new world possible. In hermeneutics as mediation, we thus bring together the "process of the text," which includes formation, interpretation and reception, and the sociology of world-making through which the community reconstructs itself.
The key hermeneutical event in contemporary interpretation is the event of preaching. The preacher either intentionally or unintentionally is convening a new community. This recognition will help us see why preaching is such a crucial event not only in the life of the church, but in our society. We must interpret to live. There is almost no other voice left to do interpretation on which society depends that is honest, available, and open to criticism. Most of the other acts of interpretation that are going on in our midst are cryptic and therefore not honest, not available, and not open to criticism. The preaching moment is a public event in which society reflects on what and who it will be, given the memory of this church and given a post-modern situation in society.(35)
4. In the handling of the text by the preacher as interpreter and by the congregation as receiver, the hermeneutical work of world-constitution is going on. The interpretive work is done through the preacher's mixture of faith and interest while the congregation is listening and responding in its mixture of faith and interest. All parties to this act of interpretation need to understand that the text is not a contextless absolute, nor is it a historical description, but it is itself a responsive, assertive, imaginative act that stands as a proposal of reality to the community. As the preacher and the congregation handle the text, the text becomes a new act that makes available one mediation of reality. That new mediation of reality is characteristically an act of fidelity, an act of inventiveness, and an act in which vested interest operates. Moreover the preacher and the congregation do this in the midst of many other acts of mediation in which they also participate, as they attend to civil religion, propaganda, ideology, and mass media. They are incessantly involved in a complex of various interpretive, constructive acts, while claiming the interpretive act authorized by the Bible to be the normative one.
The Congregation and the Crisis of Modernity
The congregation that engages in interpretation (and with the interpretation embraces a certain refraction of the text) is not a contextless, undifferentiated entity. The congregation, as a community in crisis, gathers to decide one more time about its identity and its vocation. The people gathered have been bombarded since the last gathering by other voices of interpretation that also want to offer an identity and a vocation. In what follows I am focusing broadly on the typical main-line North American congregation, either Protestant or Catholic. I assume such a congregation, because that is the context in which I characteristically do my interpretation. Certainly other congregational settings could be assumed, and I do not imagine that this one is normative, or even preferable.
A different statement might be made in a different context, such as in post-Christian western Europe, in totalitarian East Germany, or in oppressive El Salvador, but our congregation is not yet post-Christian, not in a totalitarian context, or faced with direct oppression. This congregation is a gathering of people who have been largely enveloped in the claims of modernity. It is a community with a memory and with a present reality. In the midst of this memory and this reality, the act of interpretation is undertaken one more time.
The memory is the memory about God and God's people, about the summons of ancient Israel and the baptism of the early church, about Jesus and the people of Jesus from his time until our time. That memory is about births given to barren women, bread given to desperate peasants, shepherds to scattered sheep, forgiveness given to those immobilized by guilt. It is about deep inversions and strange power for daring obedience. This memory and the text that conveys this memory are the source and subject of our preaching. But the memory around which the congregational gathering takes place is also somewhat distorted. In my own work I have studied the memories of David to show how those memories have been variously cast and how they have been articulated to accommodate various social settings and social possibilities.(36) The memory may be enmeshed in a nostalgic longing for normalcy and "the good old days," when life was simple and agrarian, settled, and well-ordered. That nostalgia is all intertwined with evangelical memory, so that the nostalgia has a vague religious feeling about it. There is a need to sort out the normative memory from this other vague yearning.
The present situation of the congregation needs careful attention. It is usually a situation of considerable affluence (even if some present are not affluent). The affluent ones are the ones who are competent and know how to generate income and move through the chairs to the seats of power. But the affluence and competence we treasure so much is matched by a profound fear -- that the dollar will collapse, that the bomb will explode, that the Communists will attack. The affluence-competence factor invites us to "stand tall" and be secure; the fear syndrome undermines our confidence and we live our days in an inarticulate uneasiness. This interface of affluence-competence and fear distorts public issues. The matters of compassion and "justice for all" that are embedded in our public conscience have become shriveled. Our fear drives us to selfishness, greed, vengeance. Along with public failure, we find an erosion of our personal sense of life, a restlessness that generates anxiety that drives us to greed, and finally to despair that it won't really work out. Our actual experience of our common life is not remote from the alienation of Marx, the technical rationality of Weber, and the normlessness of Durkheim.
There are many things to celebrate in this new world of competence and technical security. It boggles the mind to think how different we are from our grandparents and how much better off we are. But we are dimly aware that this new mode of life we value so much has caused us to jettison much that we previously valued. It is odd that the old festivals of solidarity wane, yet there is a persistent hunger for such occasions of solidarity. Old patterns of familial and liturgical gatherings are less and less compelling in our society. Our young people ask about roles and careers, but vocation seems like an obsolete idea. We surprise ourselves when we entertain brutality as a policy option in the world, and vengeance now seems acceptable if aimed at the right people. We have become people we did not intend to become, and we are not fully convinced that this is who we want to be. Given our perception of the world, however, that is who we need to be if we are to "succeed" according to the norms we have embraced.
Such a community gathers for the act of interpretation. Even if we have never heard of the word '"modernity,'" we sense in inarticulate ways that we embody much that is "modern." Much has been lost to us, even if much is gained. We gather to see if we can hold the gain and yet recover what is lost. We gather to see if the world of vocation and tradition, of birth and bread, of shepherds and forgiveness can be mediated to us in the midst of our disproportionate affluence and fear. We do not want to discard the old memory, as our modern world wants to do, but we do not want a flat reiteration of the old memory that pretends we are not affluent and not afraid. We do not want simply a nostalgia that does not touch any of the real problems, the ethics of our affluence and the moral dilemma of our fear. We yearn for a responsive, assertive, imaginative act of interpretation that recasts the memory in bold ways that will transform our situation.
Our discussion thus far suggests a convergence of four major factors in the act of interpretation. These reflect, on the one hand, our present general intellectual situation and, on the other hand, the specific situation of the church. I find it remarkable that these four factors, which are drawn from very different aspects of contemporary thought and life, should so powerfully intersect in relation to our interpretive responsibility.
1. The textual process itself is an act of regular recasting that includes both faith and vested interest.
2. The sociological tradition in its classic presentations concerns the problem of alienation (Marx), the problematic of rationality (Weber), and the emergence of normlessness (Durkheim). All of these conditions are part of the modern world, and we know them all firsthand.
3. The task of interpretation is the task of the community to mediate the tradition in ways that construe a new world, that permit a new ethic among us.
4. The congregation is gathered to see if the old memory can be articulated in ways that reconfigure our present social reality of affluence and competence, of fear and brutality, of restlessness and despair.
The preaching moment is a moment of great complexity great danger, and great possibility. Present in that moment are the textual process, the sociological realities, the act of
interpretation, the waiting congregation. Such a momen requires a strategy through which a new community might be summoned to a fresh identity and a bold vocation.
Options in Social Construction
The preacher in the act of interpretation and proclamation of the text is engaged in world-making. I find it most helpful appeal to the phrase of Berger and Luckmann, "the social construction of reality."(37) The community authorizes special persons to head and oversee the process of social construction. In our context, the minister (usually ordained) is authorized to lead the community of faith in its construction of reality. Such an act is an ongoing process of education and
nurture, especially in liturgy.(38) This liturgical articulation is presented as objectively true. When it is also received in this way, this liturgically presented world may be internalized by members of the community as mine. Thus the process of appropriation includes the public action of the community and the personal internalization by the individual members who participate in the liturgy.
The second awareness from Berger and Luckmann is that the "life-world" so constructed is always underway and must be modified. New data, fresh perspectives, new experiences, and changed circumstances require recasting the life-world to keep it credible. If it is not regularly recast, the "old world" becomes disengaged from experience so that it either must live in protected, uncritical space (where it will be irrelevant), or it will be jettisoned as dead. It is the ongoing act of interpretation that recasts the life-world to keep the text credible. The preacher is engaged with the biblical texts in both elements, to sustain the act of appropriation and to engage in the ongoing recasting to keep the text credible.
This means that the purpose of interpretation and preaching is to present a life-world that is credible, that can be appropriated, out of which the community is authorized and permitted to live a different kind of life. As the text itself is a responsive, assertive, creative act, so the interpretation of the text is also a responsive, assertive, creative act. The purpose of the sermon is to provide a world in which the congregation can live. Indeed, the preacher is intentionally designated precisely to mediate a world that comes out of this text which endures through the generations. That world which the preacher mediates is one possible world out of many that could be offered. The offer of this world competes with other offers made by capitalism, by militarism, by psychology of various kinds, by health clubs, by automobiles, by beers, and so on. Moreover it is a possible world among many which might be articulated out of the Bible, so it makes a difference if the text mediated is a Mosaic or a Solomonic text.
Scholarship has found it helpful to speak of a topology of interpretative postures. We may speak of a primary decision, so that the interpretive act is either transformative or stabilizing, in the service of discontinuity or in the service of equilibrium.(39) The basis for that model is rooted in the social history of ancient Israel and is evidenced textually in the Old Testament tension between the transformative vision of Moses, which belonged to the earliest voice of liberated Israel, and the stabilizing tendency of royal theology which sought to build institutions and establish a reliable social structure.(40) When the texts are read sociologically, this interpretive issue of transformation-equilibrium is enormously helpful. This Old Testament paradigm (as Gottwald has shown)(41) has important parallels to a Marxist class analysis, to Weber's construct of charisma and bureaucracy, and I should suggest, also to Toennies' topology of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.(42) The text itself in the Old Testament reflects this tension. The radical vision of Mosaic faith is in deep tension with the royal enterprise subsequently developed.
The tension exists between texts with different social locations.(43) The act of interpretation can and inevitably must deal with the ways in which the text destabilizes and transforms, or the way in which the text stabilizes and gives equilibrium. How the text is interpreted by the preacher and how the text is received in the congregation may depend on the vested interest of both preacher and congregation, which may or may not adhere to the position of the text itself. Texts may transform and stabilize. Sometimes the same text may function either to transform or stabilize, depending on context, interest and interpretation. Text and/or interpretation offer a world of transformation or equilibrium that enhances or diminishes a particular view of social reality. It is in the nature of the act of interpretation and therefore of preaching to participate in these world-making acts, either knowingly or unwittingly.
In what follows, I am presenting a topology of texts through which various texts will be interpreted. It is, of course, the case that the texts themselves are never as clear and unambiguous as is the topology. The topology is useful only to the extent that it helps us see specific texts afresh; it should never be imposed on texts.
The text can be an act of good faith, because both transformation and stabilization are faithful acts of God and both meet deep human yearnings, but the mediation of either comes through the vested interest of the preacher. Whether the preacher will mediate a world of transformation or equilibrium depends on many things, including what the preacher reads, with whom the preacher eats, the economic history of the preacher, and much else.
The texts will be received by the congregation as an act of faith. People do come to church to hear and respond. The reception of a mediation of either transformation or equilibrium happens through the interpretive receptivity of the congregation. What happens, what the text can '"do," depends on the propensity of the congregation. That will be determined by many factors, but they include where and how the congregation is socially situated, what travels have been taken, what part of the world has been seen, how many members have experienced poverty, unemployment, crime, and all sorts of social disruption -- or conversely how strong is the social equilibrium in the experience and horizon of the congregation. All of these factors impinge in powerful, subtle, and complex ways upon the interchange of text, preacher, and congregation. In the midst of the interchange, a new world may be mediated.
In presenting the world of the text to the congregation, the preacher has, according to this topology, four possible strategies. The topology assumes that the text may be an offer of transformation or stability and that the congregation is likely to be in a situation of transformation or stability. The available strategies in establishing an interface between the text-world and the congregation are these:
1. To present "a world of transformation" to those who yearn and hope for transformation. This is done when oppressed or marginalized people are invited to hope for the basic changes of social reality that are given in the texts of transformation.
2. To present "a world of equilibrium" to those who wait and yearn for transformation. This is done when oppressed or marginalized people are invited to accept and participate in the present regime as their proper duty and their only hope. The present order is then presented as the best chance for any change, hut it will be change within that order that is accepted as non-negotiable.
3. To present "a world of transformation" to those who value the status quo and do not want the world changed. This is when those who benefit from present social arrangements are called, in the face of that benefit, to submit to change as the will and work of God.
4. To present "a world of equilibrium" to those who crave equilibrium and regard the present social world as the best of all worlds, a world decreed by God. This is done when religion becomes a comfortable endorsement of the status quo.(44)
Each of these strategies is possible and each reflects a decision about the thrust of the biblical text and how that is to be related to the actual situation of the church.
Each of these four strategies is possible and on formal grounds, each is biblical. It is equally clear that the gospel gives criteria to sort out the various strategies and to see that all the possible strategies are not equally legitimate for genuine evangelical proclamation. The preacher is summoned by the gospel to present an imaginative Word that lives "out beyond" and challenges the taken-for-granted world of the congregation.
In presenting this topology, I am aware that the actual situation of any congregation is enormously complex. In every congregation there are those who welcome change, those who resist change, and those who are unsure. Moreover, there are various kinds of changes, each of which needs to be critically assessed. In addition, various preachers and pastors are inclined either to welcome or resist change and that helps shape interpretation and preaching. My discussion intends not to deny or disregard all of that complexity which must be honored and taken seriously.
For purposes of clarity, however, in what follows, I have chosen to deal only with the third and fourth elements of this topology. My sense is that these dimensions of interpretation bear particularly on the typical North American congregation. A church that does not want the world changed will either be offered a text-world of transformation that calls the present into question (#3 above), or a text-world that celebrates equilibrium (#4 above). To be sure, there are times in such a congregation when equilibrium is legitimate and a genuine offer of the text, but for now we have posed the question in another way. The preacher thus may appeal to texts that offer either equilibrium or transformation and in doing so must pay attention to the possible hearing of the gospel that will occur in the congregation if the text is heard as an abrasion or as an assurance.
The important interpretive point is that the text should be kept in conversation with what the congregation already knows and believes. At times, the purpose of interpretation is to evoke fresh faith for another world from that which the community already knows and believes. In the typical North American situation, it is often the case that the text should be interpreted to make available an imaginative world out beyond the one to which the congregation now clings. More often this is so because such congregations tend to be ideologically trapped in a social world at odds with the gospel. But this interpretation that calls for newness may, nevertheless, appeal to the deep and serious faith latent in the church.
In a world of war and violence, for example, equilibrium is not objectively true, but is in fact an imaginative act of interpretation that has been established and accepted as true. The interpretive issue is whether to ally the gospel with that -already accepted mediated world or to propose an alternative that may "ring true" but also will surely evoke conflict.
The strategy of the preacher then is to use texts in ways that legitimate the present perceived life-world, or to present a life-world that puts people in crisis by offering a challenge to their present view and posing an alternative. Both are needed, but different emphases probably need to be made in various circumstances.
Whatever strategy is undertaken, it is most important that the preacher -- and hopefully the congregation -- is aware that good preaching (which is an act of inventive world construction) is fundamentally opposed to two tendencies in our culture. It is opposed to a false kind of objectivity that assumes the world is a closed, fixed, fated given. That assumption of objectivity is a great temptation to us, whether the claim is given in the name of religious orthodoxy or in the name of technological certitude. An evangelical understanding of reality asserts instead that all of our presumed givens are provisional and open to newness, a newness that may be enacted in the event of preaching.
The other tendency to which good preaching is opposed is a kind of subjectivity that assumes we are free or able to conjure up private worlds that may exist in a domesticated sphere without accountability to or impingement from the larger public world. Such a powerful deception among us seems to offer happiness, but it is essentially abdication from the great public issues that shape our humanness.
The preaching task is to be critical and challenging in ways that expose our present life-world as inadequate, unfaithful, and finally flat. This is to be done, however, in ways that neither become ideological nor simply terminate the conversation. Preaching is aimed not simply at this or that ethical issue, but seeks to cut underneath particular issues to the unreasoned, unexamined, and unrecognized "structures of plausibility" that are operative in the congregation. Such preaching is also to offer reassurances about the coherence of reality, but a reassurance that is not a legitimation of present arrangements, but an act of hope about another life-world available in the gospel. That life-world could offer the joy for which we yearn, which the present life-world cannot give. This offer of another world is the primary work of the gospel, for the gospel is news of another world. The articulation of that other world is unavoidably a critique of and challenge to every present world. This "other world" which is announced in and mediated by the gospel is not "other-worldly" in the sense that it is in the remote future, in heaven, after death, or "spiritual." Rather, the "other world" is now "at hand" (Mark 1:15). It refers to the present Rule of God that calls us to a new obedience now and that releases us from every other obedience in the here and now, for the sake of God's sovereign rule.
Texts of equilibrium are important to the formation of a new life-world. The creation narrative-liturgy of Genesis 1 :1-2:4a is such a text. It asserts that the world is ordered, good, belongs to God, and is therefore reliable. When according to critical study, that text is set in the Exile as an affirmation to Israelites and a polemic against Babylonian imperialism and Babylonian gods, the social function of that equilibrium emerges. The Genesis text asserts that the world belongs to God and therefore not to Babylon, not to their gods or their rulers. Moreover God rests and Israel is mandated to rest. In that mandate it is asserted that Israelites in exile need not be endlessly anxious and frantic to become secure or to please Babylon, but can rest in God's sure rule. Thus the text offers a world of well-ordered stability and equilibrium, in which Israel is invited to live. That well-ordered stability is not neutral, however, but is a counter-equilibrium that invites Israel to break with seductive Babylonian offers of stability and equilibrium that cannot be true because the world does not belong to them. The community that lives within this text is given stability but also is summoned to a freedom outside Babylonian definitions of reality. That is, by an act of imagination, creation theology becomes a warrant for what the Empire would regard as civil disobedience.(45)The capacity of exiled Israel to act freely depends on its acceptance of the world of this text. The text responds to exile, asserts against Babylon, and imagines an alternative world of faith in which life is possible. The congregation may be invited to sense what an uncommon act of imagination this text is which dares to say that the world belongs to Yahweh who is a God of rest and order, dares to say it even to exiles whose life is disordered and restless.
Texts of transformation are equally important for a new life-world. The healing-feeding narrative of Elijah in I Kings 17:8-24 is such a text.(46) It is a text of disruption. It tells about this strange formidable man of inexplicable power who comes into the life of a poor widow. He deals with her poverty by giving her food. He deals with death by raising her son to life. He is perceived by the widow, by the narrator, and finally by us, as a bearer of the power for life. This text evokes a question about this power, where it is available, and on what terms. The narrative asserts that power for life is not given through the royal regime but by this uncredentialed outsider.
This story destabilizes. It shatters the poverty-stricken, death-ridden world of the widow. It breaks her assumptions and her habits. If we listen attentively to the story when it is well told, it will also break our conventional assumptions, for it announces that the world is not the way we thought it was. The critical effect of the narrative is to delegitimate the king and his deathly rule and to invite us to another rule under the God of life. But the story of disruption also turns out to be a story of affirmation. It asserts that power is available, that life can be given, that food is offered.
Thus the story responds to the failure of Ahab and his governance. It asserts an alternative reality against Ahab's world. By an act of imagination, a story of feeding and a story of healing have been mobilized as vehicles for a different life-world. The narrative invites the listening community into new arena of existence in which God's power for life has enormous vitality for new possibility, even though it is untamed and unadministered and we cannot harness and manage it on our terms.
Every text proposes a life-world that may counter ours. Texts of equilibrium are needed to give people a sense of order, but such texts as Genesis 1:1-2:4a turn out to be invitations to transformation. Texts of transformation are needed to give people hope that there is possibility outside present circumstances. But such texts as I Kings 17:8-24 turn out to be invitations to a new equilibrium wrought only by the gospel. Texts of both equilibrium and transformation are needed. In both cases it requires not only the capacity to respond and assert, but also the capacity for imagination in order to let these texts become truly effective. Characteristically they invite the listening community out beyond the presumed world to a new world of freedom, joy, and obedience.
Exegetical Comments: I Kings 8:1-13, 27-30
The text we will consider in detail in relation to the social nature and function of interpretation is I Kings 8:1-30.
1 The literary delineation of the text is complex. We may, however, make three preliminary, critical judgments:
a) The text contains very old materials. Verses 12-13 in particular probably go back to the actual liturgy of dedication in the time of Solomon and reflect uncompromising, uncritical temple theology.
b) The text contains later Deuteronomic theology.(47) Verses 27-30 contain a critique of temple theology that had too easily assumed God's presence.
c) The completed form of the text is likely an exilic construction (which becomes more explicit in verses 31 ff.) and reflects the theological agenda and interests of the Deuteronomists. As exilic theology, it reflects on the old claims of the temple to be God's place of presence in the sober context of the Exile of 587 Bc.E. and the destruction of the temple.(48)The grand claims of the temple turned out to be not true. It is not the case that God dwells there forever, for now the temple is destroyed and the community, including its priests, is displaced.(49)
Thus the text is a reminiscence of temple theology that is critically assessed even as it is knowingly appropriated. The text continues to hold on to the temple as a central source of hope for Israel, but it also knows that temple hope is profoundly problematic because it makes assumptions about God's availability which crowd God and cannot be sustained. The reality of God's presence is now seen through the prism of exile which must face the experienced reality of God's absence.
2. The sequence of the text is as follows:
a) Verses I - 13 is a narrative account of the actual liturgy of dedication and the movement of the ark, Israel's most sacred symbol, into the temple. Noteworthy are the prominent role of the priests and the careful attention to the details of liturgical propriety. These verses reflect uncritical confidence in the liturgic claims of the monarchy.(50)
b) Verses 14-26 are a reflective statement, placed in the mouth of Solomon, concerning God's commitment to the Davidic dynasty. The promise asserted here refers back to II Samuel 7:11-16, but in I Kings 8:25 the unconditional promise of II Samuel 7 has become conditional by the introduction of "if."(51) One can detect a restless awareness in Israel of unconditional and conditional assurances from God. The facts of the Exile qualify the unconditional character of the promise.
c) Verses 27-30 are a statement of sober reflection on God's presence in the temple which critiques the confident claims of verses 12-13. One can discern here the voice of exilic Deuteronomic theology that proposes that it is not God's self, but God's name that is in the temple.(52) The solution may seem to us not very persuasive, but it is at least evidence of the honest, profound, and imaginative wrestling with the problem of God's presence among banished exiles.
3. In its completed form, I Kings 8 stands as the pivotal text in the long Deuteronomic history from Deuteronomy through Second Kings.(53) That interpretive reflection on the history of Israel with God concerns (a) God's goodness to Israel, (b) Israel's recalcitrant response to God, and (c) the delayed but heavy judgment of exile. Immediately after I Kings 8, the Deuteronomist begins the downward tale to the year 587, destruction, and exile.
Deuteronomic theology is complex.(54) For our purposes, it is sufficient to observe the tension between temple and Torah as a central motif.(55) The temple functions ideologically as a guarantee of God's presence in Israel; thus it is a legitimating part of the royal-temple establishment. The temple is a visible embodiment of self-assertive ideology by king and priest that makes God a sure patron. In tension with that is Torah theology which asserts that obedience is the prerequisite for presence. Disobedience will evoke God's absence. This is the context in which the "if," of I Kings 8:25 is to be understood.
This tension can be discerned historically as a live dispute in exilic Israel that trusts in God's presence but knows well about God's absence. This tension can be discerned literarily in the contrast of verses 12-13 and verses 27-30. It is this tension of temple and Torah, of conditional and unconditional, of presence and absence that I have taken as the theme of the sermon that follows. This sermon has been preached at the Iliff School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and First Congregational Church, Swampscott, Massachusetts.
"A Footnote to the Royal Pageant"
(I Kings 8:1-13, 27-30)
While the choirs processed, the choirmaster sat nervously and proudly holding his baton, posed for the moment of his new anthem. The king sat complacently, too satisfied in the royal box, too confident of all that he now controlled. The procession was long and colorful with all the great men and sheep and oxen and incense -- and the ark and the priests and the cherubim. Perfectly rehearsed, perfectly implemented. Everywhere splendor and elegance -- and glory. When all were in place, the choirs sang what had never been sung before in Jerusalem, a genuinely new song:
The Lord has set the sun in the heavens,
but has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.
I have built thee an exalted house,
a place for thee to dwell in for ever. (I kings 8:12-13)
God was there. The temple was dedicated. The king was legitimated. The order of temple and monarchy was sanctified. God was present now, for time to come, forever and ever, world without end.
1. This is a sermon about God's presence and the legitimacy that comes from it. The high claim of presence made in this text is not different from the claim with which most liturgies begin -- assured, umambiguous, settled, "God is with us." The problem, of course, is that this is a theme in a royal pagaent. It is done for reasons of state. The music is crafted by state employees whom we call temple singers. The theology is worked out by royal ideologues who never forget the name of their true patron, and his name is Solomon and not Yahweh. In the end it is all too neat. Of course God is present. That has been the promise and claim for Israel since the burning bush when God came down to sojourn in the slave camp. But then the presence was awesome, inscrutable, and terrifying. But kings manage things better than slaves. Now the presence has become settled and reassuring and enduring. Moses may have trembled, but the king only smiles benignly, without trembling, because the resolve of God to dwell in this place -- that is what the liturgy affirms -- means that God is present, always present, ally, patron, guarantor, a social functionary. The choirs may sing, but it will not be that simple to reduce God to a character in the king's drama. It couldn't be that simple, but the king is not vexed by that problem, as indeed kings never are.
This is a sermon about God's presence because theologians and pastors, theological teachers and theological students now have to think more seriously and more critically about God's presence than we have had to do for a long while. They must help the whole church think how and in what ways God is present and how and in what ways God may be absent. We hive grown up in our culture sure of God's attentiveness and availability. Notions of God's abrasive freedom are almost gone from our vocabulary. It all seems so cozy. Pastors and seminarians in Clinical Pastoral Education are paid to let God be present, because it seems to give reassurance. But life is not all a royal pageant. Life is also a social revolution. It is a long dying in the night and a waiting for the phone to ring. Such living (and dying) happens for some, more in the absence than in the presence of God. There are signs as we think about the Christian West and the rise of Islam and oil that seem to indicate that the glory may have departed, and the liturgy may be a lie over which the king still presides benignly. The question requires us to be tough and honest about the text and about the texture of our life that is more problematic than the king's pageant intends or acknowledges.
2. After the three-hour liturgy (for royal pageants tend to last that long), they had a luncheon in Jerusalem and then a panel discussion reflection on the liturgy -- what it meant, what we learned from it, how we ought to think about it. The heavies were all there with their prepared seven-minute responses which panels always require. And as is the case with such panels, some responses were more clever than others. The panel is never as powerful as the liturgy, for we are always too self-conscious and game-playing on such panels. But there was one urbane, candid, unencumbered voice that day. It was the Deuteronomist. He was tenured and had no fear of royal theologians. He could say things that the choirmasters might not like, or that had just never occurred to them, because they were so caught up in aestheticism that they lacked critical distance. He spoke with clarity and with some indignation:
Will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee, how much less this temple! God dwells in heaven, not here, God watches from heaven and hears from heaven. God is attentive, but not available, not on call, not patron, not guarantor.
There was a stunned silence when he finished. Astonishingly, it is an exegesis of the second commandment! I thought for one day we could be free of that heaviness for the sake of the king's program. But Israel never quite gets free of the second commandment. The Deuteronomist always makes sure of that, sounding it again and again. There is a strange distance maintained between heaven and earth. The one who is sovereign might for a moment be mistaken for patron, but this God really does not "do windows," even the windows of the king.
It must have been a stunning moment in the day of the dedication of the temple to have this statement dumped in the middle of Jerusalem, because it has the effect of delegitimating all the proud claims of the day. It abruptly empties Jerusalem of its claim to heavenly significance. It warns against absolutizing any project, any scheme, any formula. It makes clear that we come as expectant but unsure supplicants, that the initiative for our life is held by God who will not easily fit into our models, political, economic, and moral. Every religion, ancient or modern, has a God who is a willing patron. Every religion but this one -- and we are cast into the world without a patron, only with a Sovereign who listens and who hears, but who will not be administered.
3. So the panel ended. The folks went home. The king retired to his quarters exhausted and satisfied. He was only mildly alarmed by the Deuteronomist, for who listens to such abrasive theology? And anyway, that guy always said the same thing and people no longer paid him any attention. Everybody went home, except of course the janitors. A big crew had to clear up the litter. It was everywhere. Old bulletins of the service were even left around the ark. The ark had been the focus of the service. It was the oldest, most honored symbol, kept over from the days of the revolution. It was said to be God's special place. One of the young custodians, who had become cynical by living too close to "holy people," thought he would take a peek. He did not believe much about God's presence, but he did not have the skill or ability to doubt the claims of the throne very critically. It just seemed to him it was all more mundane than the liturgy suggested. His cynicism had helped him notice that the ones who believed all these liturgical claims so deeply were also the ones who seemed so well-off and secure. Perhaps such self-contained, excessively reassuring liturgy is more compelling when one has more of this world's goods. He suspected the claims might not convince so easily if one were not so well-off.
So he took a look into the ark. He did not touch it, for his cynicism had not advanced that far. Nor was he that jaded. He did not know what he expected to see. But he was shocked when he looked. What he saw was not God, but two tablets.
There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone
which Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a
covenant with the people of Israel when they came out of the land of Egypt. (I Kings 8:9)
The words said nothing mystical or enigmatic or eloquent or supernatural about God's presence. Only the old simple words first uttered to the liberated slaves:
No other gods,
No graven images,
You shall not steal,
You shall not commit adultery,
You shall not covet.
Kings have better words, more syllables, smoother, more reassuring, not so costly, but slaves and peasants tend to get down to basics. The janitor, at the end of the pageant, was driven back behind the pageant to the liberating miracle and the moment of bonding when Israel's life was changed and Israel's identity was set for all time in obedience against all the rulers of this age. The janitor was not a sophisticated theologian, or he would not have been messing with the litter. He never made the choir. He never participated in a theological forum, but it dawned on him that simple folk have found God's presence in the daily radicalness of holding to a covenantal ethic. Obedience is the shape of God's presence.
Moses had put obedience and presence together:
What great nation has a God so near,
What great nation has a torah so righteous. (Deut. 4:7-8, author's translation)
The Deuteronomist loved that word remembered from Moses. Moses did not have in mind the triviality of morality, but the deep vocational embrace of covenant. The janitor had a hunch that day that God's presence would not be found in the large, eloquent liturgies. He sensed inchoately that most of that was for reasons of state, contrived to enhance security and legitimacy. One must not be deceived and God must not be mocked.
4. The temple was empty. The lights were out. Every one was gone. Except there in the shadow outside was an old woman. She must have been a widow, for she was all in black, stooped from having carried too many jars of water. Her gnarled hands caressed the stones of the temple where she was not permitted to enter. She caressed, she believed, she trusted and there she found a little peace. There are little old women and other rejected powerless people everywhere around temples and churches and such holy places. I saw one in Spain. She looked so beaten, but she was waiting. She had enough faith to be there. This one in Jerusalem heard ringing in her ears, going over and over it in her head, the anthem she had heard from inside the building:
The Lord has set the sun in the heavens,
but has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. (I Kings 8:12)
She held on to the building. She believed and trusted. She knew. The anthem is true. The temple stands making God available in God's gracious abiding splendor. The widow comes there to grasp life desperately one more time.
A pastor I know reports on a trip to Russia. He was in a crowded Orthodox Church in Moscow. Amid all the pageantry, at a point in a service he did not notice, the little old women, wearied with their life, wearing babushkas, began mumbling in a language he did not understand. It was a sing-song chant they all understood. He found out later they were, as they do each Sunday, quietly and defiantly reciting the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are the pure in heart .
Blessed are the peacemakers .
The old widows believed the promises of the liturgy and they came to the temple as the place to reenact the hope that kept them free and sane.
All of these may come to the same temple room together: the king who counts too heavily on his liturgical legitimacy, the Deuteronomist who knows better and debunks, the janitor who finds only Torah tablets and seeks to obey, the little old lady who has nowhere else to turn, and holds desperately to the place of the liturgy which she regards as the place of presence.
It occurs to me that the king and the black-dressed, stooped widow follow the same liturgy. It was true for her, desperately true. She found there sustenance in a world that was shaped like starvation. But it was not true for the king who controlled it all. For the king it was a lie. He needed to heed the Deuteronomist. Or better, he needed to consult with the janitor who knew more.
We are left with the text, the temple, and the liturgy. We have a yearning for presence. Only a few of us have been driven with the widow to find the liturgy true. To arrive at such guileless certitude requires fingering the tablets with those ten liberating words. The church in the West -- and we in theological study -- have this old liturgy and a new awareness that God among us is sovereign and not so easily available. We are driven to question behind our conventional legitimacy the character of the God who is not contained.
Our struggle with the God of the Bible is that God's presence is real, but never on our terms.(56) In God's presence we are more surprised than assured, more shattered than accepted. But how our meeting with God turns out will be a gift from God, never designed by us.
Listen to this exegesis of the text from I Kings 8.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:9-14).
We have the text, the temple, the tablets, the ark, the liturgy. Our life-work is in sorting it out. The royal pageant is important. But God is not a mere footnote.
I have taken the text of I Kings 8:1-13, 27-30 for a sermon because the theme of presence is important in our society. Obviously God must be present or we will die (Ps. 104:29-30). False forms of presence will deceive us and destroy us, however. One false form of presence among us is the therapeutic, in which a subjective, individualistic model of reality assumes that we can have a private relationship with God without reference to social reality. A second false view is in degenerate modes of civil religion which regard God as a patron and ally of Americanism in all its forms. Moreover the public practice of civil religion and personal therapeutic propensity are mutually reinforcing. Together in the name of freedom they encourage the most destructive, stultifying kind of conformity. That false practice of God's presence, in both of its forms, is untrue and unbiblical because it reduces God to our ally and denies God's sovereign freedom. That false practice of presence seduces us into idolatrous worship of self, of nation, of ideology, so that the courage to lead a life of tough dignity and serious accountability disappears. It is my judgment that the theme of presence must be critically addressed, because a presumed, uncritical presence functions to legitimate and sanctify much that is false and destructive in our common life. This sermon intends to surface that issue.
I have constructed the sermon around four voices, through which I intend to suggest four social practices, four social functions, and four social possibilities. The first (verses 12-13) is the voice of official religion which uncritically celebrates the status quo and understands God to be its legitimator.
The second (verses 27-30) is the voice of Mosaic theology which sounds the second commandment through the Deuteronomist. In ancient Israel and in our preaching, this theological voice functions to criticize easy religion.
The third voice (verse 9) which I have placed in the mouth of the janitor is a voice that debunks and in rather simple form returns to obedience as the center of biblical faith. This voice is congenial to that of the Deuteronomist, but the text (verse 9) bears none of the marks of that theology.
In the fourth voice, that of the widow, the voice of hopeful marginality, I have obviously exercised homiletical freedom. I have done so to form a sharp contrast with verses 12-13 and
have done soon the strength of the parable in Luke 18:9-14.1 did not want simply to dismiss the liturgical claim of verses 12-13. That would be too easy, too abrasive, and not faithful to the text. Instead of dismissal I suggest rather that verses 12-13 may be true faith or false ideology, depending on the social situation of the believer. What functions as faithful for "have-nots" may be false for "haves." Obviously I have made an interpretive decision informed by a conviction of "the preferential option of the poor." By going in that direction I hope to raise questions for future conversation among the listeners.
The sermon intends to do four things.
1. To suggest that the issue of God's presence is urgent and complex. It is a complex issue with which the Bible itself struggles. Implicit in that affirmation is the suggestion that the issue is not settled even for us settled secure North Americans, but is an open question with risks. We need to pay attention also to other voices that are alive and involved in the conversation.
2. To enact the notion that our practice of faith is a conversation of many voices, some of which are congenial to us and some of which are not. We must be full parties to the conversation. Partly that conversation is a public, external one going on in the world church. Partly it is an internal one, because in our seasons of honesty we are all these voices and we are not of one mind and do not experience God's presence in one single mode.
3. To engage the congregation in an imaginative act of interpretation. The sermon intends by inference to open up a suggestive critique of American civil religion and to suggest that as the church holds to the second commandment, we may notice idolatry in peculiar places. The urge back to the commandments suggests that in our cultural exile, if we sense that the glory has departed, a return to obedience is a clue to our future. To raise the question of obedience in the midst of American civil religion is a hazardous enterprise, but that is precisely what the Deuteronomist has done in the midst of temple ideology.
4. To offer through the text an alternative life-world. The life-world offered here is a world other than the Western imperial world of control, security, and affluence. It is a world of exile in which many voices compete, in which God's presence is an open question, in which the poor are visible and vocal, in which the cynical must be heeded, in which the commandments may prevail. It is a world in which presence may be true — or a terrible self-deception. New decisions are possible for Western Christians in this life-world, but they will be possible only if widows and janitors are included in the conversation. The text, set in the Exile, dreams of a homecoming and restored well-being, only if there is obedience. Such obedience is only possible, however, when the question of presence is honestly faced. The God disclosed here commands. This God also cares, but will not be our ally in the things of the world. Imagine that widows and orphans have access to the very God whom the heavens cannot contain! Much less can our impotent ideologies contain this God.
This text reflects a situation similar to our own, one in which royal liturgy regularly guarantees our world. The text asserts a situation radically in tension with that royal promise. Thus, in a shrewd and delicate way it both affirms and questions, assures and debunks. Such a text may gain a hearing, because there is a hunch even in the royal pageant that more needs to be said about God. More needs to be said about God for God's sake, and for our sake.
1. On the work of the community in generating the text, see Michel Clevenot, Materialist Approaches to the Bible (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985), esp. chapters 12-15. Leonardo Boff, Church, Charism and Power (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1985), 110-15, has seen the critical implications of this insight of production concerning the ideological control that the interpreting community exercises over the text.
2. On the freedom exercised and the choices made in such construal, see David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). On a "canonical construal" of the Old Testament, see Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986).
3. Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), has shown in a compelling way the dynamic relation between tradition and traditio, i.e., the tradition and the ongoing traditioning process. It is often the case, clearly, that the traditio becomes the new tradition. See also his more succinct statement of the matter, "Torah and Tradition "in Tradition and Theology in the Old Testament, ed. Douglas A. Knight (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 275-300. In this latter work he comments: "Hereby the danger inherent in the dialectical process between a divine Torah-revelation and a human exegetical Tradition has been disclosed. Tradition has superseded the Torah-teaching and has become an independent authority. Indeed, in this case, Tradition has replaced Torah itself" (294).
4. In the "rendering" of the text, one "renders" God in a new way. On the theme, see Dale Patrick, The Rendering of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).
5. On the methodological possibilities in "reader response," see Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), and the collection of essays, Susan R. Sulieman and Inge Crosman, eds., The Reader in the Text (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980).
6. For brief introductions to this method of study, see Robert R. Wilson, Sociological Approaches to the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), and Norman K. Gottwald, "Sociological Method in the Study of Ancient Israel," in Encounter with the Text, ed. Martin J. Buss (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 69-81.
7. See Rudolf Bultmann, "Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?" in Existence and Faith (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1960), 289-96. Given our current sociological inclination, the formula has come to have different, and perhaps more radical, implications than originally suggested by Bultmann.
8. This is a central argument of Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979). See, for example, chapter 13 where he speaks of substructure and superstructure and narratives as "objectifications of the tradition superstructure."
9. This point has been well argued by Elisabeth SchOssler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984). For startling examples of tendentious interpretation, see Robert Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
10. Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The Biblical Interpreter (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978).
11.On the neutralizing effect of much scholarship, see Jose Cordenas Pollares who has observed the power of "guild scholarship" to avoid the central interpretive issues. He writes, Today, Sacred Scripture is studied with the benevolent approval of the pox imperialis; no exegetical activity disturbs the tranquility of the 'empire' for a single moment. What biblical periodical has ever fallen under suspicion of being subversive? Biblical specialists have curiously little to suffer from the Neros and Domitians ofour time." A Poor Man Called Jesus (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986), 2.
12. The notion of a hermeneutic of suspicion has been normatively presented by Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970). See the programmatic use made of it by David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1981), 346-73 and passim.
13. On production and consumption in relation to texts, see Kuno Fussel, "The Materialist Reading of the Bible," in The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics, ed. Norman K. Gottwald (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983), 134-46.
14. The preacher characteristically and by definition uses words in a performative manner. Cf. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962). On the definitional impossibility of a "neutral pulpit," see Brueggemann, "On Modes of Truth" Seventh Angel, 12, March 15, 1984, 17-24.
15. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), exhibits the categories of discernment that have been generated and nurtured by sociology.
16. See Robert A. Nisbit, The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1966), for a survey of the characteristic themes of classical sociology.
17. This is of course the focus of Marx's critique of religion. It is important that his critique be taken in a specific context and not as a general statement. For a positive sense of Marx's critique of religion see Jose Miranda, Marx Against the Marxists (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1980).
18. See Robert N. BelIah, "Biblical Religion and Social Science in the Modern World," NICM Journal for Jews and Christians in Higher Education, 6, 1982, 8-22.
19. See Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (New York: Basic Books, 1970).
20.The writings of Marx are complex and not easily accessible. The best access point I know is the introduction by David McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx (New York: Macmillan, 1971). On alienation in Marx in relation to religious questions, see Arend van Leeuwen, Critique of Heaven (New York: Scribner Book Companies, 1972), Critique of Earth (New York: Scribner Book Companies, 1974), and Nicholas Lash, A Matter of Hope (Notre Dame, Ind.:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1982). See most recently, Rene Costi, Marxist Analysis and Christian Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985).
21. On the emergence of "laws of the marketplace," which are regarded as detached from social pressures and values, see Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).
22.Weber's works are scattered, but a useful sourcebook is From Max WeBer: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946). For an accessible introduction to Weber, see Frank Parkin, Max Weber (London: Tavistock Publications, 1982).
23. See Robert N. Bellah Ct al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 44-51.
24. Robert King Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Fress, 1957), chapters 4 and 5, has well articulated Durkheim's attentiveness to the crisis of normlessness.
25. Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology (New York: Free Press, 1951). More generally on Durkheim, see Kenneth Thompson, Emile Durkheim (London: Tavistock Publications, 1982).
26. For a more general critical survey of recent sociological thought, see Robert W. Friedrichs, A Sociology of Sociology (New York: Free Press, 1970).
27. See Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation, 1 and passim.
28. Narrative is essentially this act of recasting and interpreting the memory to meet a new crisis. Unfortunately narrative theology has been frequently presented as a sense of relief at being delivered from Enlightenment modes of historicity, without attention to the dynamic, positive act of reconstitution. On the power and significance of story, see James Barr, "Story and History in Biblical Theology," in The Scope and Authority of the Bible (London: SCM Press, 1980), 1-17, and Tracy, Analogical Imagination, 275-81. On the cruciality of narrative, see Fred B. Craddock, The Gospels (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981). "A writer has in the 'sources available the sayings and the events for a narrative about Jesus Christ. A church has needs to be addressed. The intersection of the two is called a Gospel, a literary work of immense courage and freedom," 27.
29. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology I (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 36-85, has shown how these two crises are pivotal for Israel's interpretive action.
30. See Hans Walter Wolff, "The Kerygma of the Yahwist," The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions, Walter Brueggemann and Hans Walter Wolff (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), 41-66.
31. See more generally Brueggemann and Wolff, The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions.
32. On the Exile as a situation requiring and permitting bold interpretation, see Ralph W. Klein, Israel in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).
33. On the canonical process and its significance in the New Testament, 'see James D. G. Dunn, "Levels of Canonical Authority," Horizons in Biblical Theology, 4, 1982, 13-60.
34. For a formidable introduction to the issue's see Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1980). See also Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics, Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1969). Unfortunately both Thiselton and Palmer are confined to the tradition of Heidegger. This tradition needs to be carefully critiqued by a political hermeneutic rooted in Marx as suggested by Ernst Bloch and the Frankfurt School. A more balanced view that takes into account the liberation trajectory is offered by David Tracy, Analogical Imagination, chapter 5 and passim.
35.On the shape of religious problems and possibilities in a post-modern context, see William Beardslee, "Christ in the Post-Modern Age," in The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, ed. Jean-Francois Tyotard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) and Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern, A-Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
36. Walter Brueggemann, David's Truth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).
37. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
38. On constructive work in education, see Jack L. Seymour, Robert T. O'Gorman, Charles R. Foster, The Church in the Education of the Public (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 134-56. More generally on the constructive work of imagination see Paul W. Pruyser, The Play of lmagination (Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1983), chapter 4 and passim.
39. Friedrichs, A Sociology of Sociology, shows how the tension of transformation and equilibrium has operated in sociology. Concerning Old Testament 'study, see Walter Brueggemann, "A Shape for Old Testament Theology, I: Structure Legitimation," Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 47, 1985, 28-46; "A Shape for Old Testament Theology, II: Embrace of Pain," CBQ, 47, 1985, 395-415.
40. See Walter Brueggemann, "Trajectories in Old Testament Literature and the Sociology of Ancient Israel," Journal of Biblical Literature, 98, 1979, 161-85.
41. See Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh, chapter 50, on the interface between his method and the classical traditions of sociology. See my presentation of the paradigm of the two trajectories in tension, Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978).
42. Ferdinand Toennies, Community and Society (1887), trans. C. P. Loomis (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
43. Robert R. Wilson has pursued the same textual paradigm with a topology of central and peripheral prophet's. Following Wilson's language, one may say there are texts that are "central" and those that are "peripheral." Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).
44. The presentation of a religious world of equilibrium to those who crave equilibrium is what Marx referred to by his famous characterization of religion as "the opiate of the people."
45. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation, 322-26, has shown how Second Isaiah is a reinterpretation of Genesis 1 for quite specific purposes in a polemical situation.
46. On the text, see Walter Brueggemann, "The Prophet as a Destabilizing Presence," in The Pastor as Prophet, ed's. Earl E. Shelp and Ronald H. Sunderland (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1985), 48-77.
47. See Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Sup. 15 (Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1981), 60, and Jon D. Levenson, "From Temple to Synagogue: I Kings 8," in Traditions in Transformation, eds. Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 143-66.
48. For an influential proposal on the editorial history of Deuteronomy, See Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 274-89, and Richard D. Nelson, The Double Redaction of the Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Sup. 18 (Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1981).
49. See Klein, Israel in Exile, esp. chapters 2 and 6.
50. On the crisis in the theology of presence evoked by the loss of the temple, see T. N. D. Mettinger, The Dethronement of Sabaoth: Studies in Shem and Kabod Theologies (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1982).
51. See Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation, 386.
52. On name theology, see Gerhard von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy, SBT 9 (London: SCM Press, 1953), chapter 3.
53. On this chapter in relation to the governing structure of Deuteronomy, see Dennis McCarthy, "II Samuel 7 and the Structure of the Deuteronomic History," JBL, 84, 1965,131-38.
54. The classic statement of Deuteronomic theology is that of von Rad, Old Testament Theology I, 69-77, 334-47. See also Wolff, "The Kerygma of the Deuteronomic Historical Work" in The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions.
55. Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Ark and the Temple," in Beyond Tragedy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 47-68, offered a sermon contrasting the notions of presence and legitimacy in the temple and the ark. Since Niebuhr's time, scholarship has redefined the functions of these various options, but his general point remains valid and suggestive.
56. See Samuel L. Terrien, The Elusive Presence (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).