Brueggemann said a lot, and it’s only in going through my notes and synthesizing and summarizing that i can really get a feel for/handle on what he was saying (beyond: “The evil conservatives try to brainwash society with thin narratives of fear and control and silence, but the Bible is a thick narrative which subverts the evil dominant paradigm”) even though he interspersed his lecture with things like “The point is...” or “My five theses are...” at times.
He started the lecture talking a lot about the “thin narratives” of secular society and how they’re born of anxiety. There was much bashing of the Right. He cited (1) the silencing of people, (2) sound bytes and quick and easy answers, (3) ideology, (4) body care - superficiality and control. Trouble is, of course, the Left is often just as fond of those first three.
1) Society wants to reduce everything to thin control with nothing left over to surprise.
2) Biblical faith is refusal of such closure and has thick narrative at its center.
3) Communities of faith are the only places where these thick narratives are talked about in ways which are subversive to the thinness of society.
I was pissed about #3 because hi, colleges and universities much?
He said that the closer we stay to the Biblical text the closer we are to that subversive thick narrative, which sounds nice and all but i’m troubled by the implication that all of the Biblical narrative subverts the dominant paradigm.
He said that we have traded the hard work of fidelity for the ease of certainty. This is a very good point, but again, people on all sides are guilty of doing that. Although one can expect a certain kind of majority in the audience for a talk at Smith/Northampton, i was still troubled by this constant assumption that we were all of one mind as to the current administration. And he was taking total potshots, so it really detracted from the scholarly tone the talk was supposed to have. Plus all the conservative-bashing implied that we just needed to change the mindset of the Evil Others, that these lessons didn’t apply to us because we were already enlightened like that -- or something.
He mentioned the Yoko Ono “Imagine Peace” NYTimes ad and i thought “That is a fucking thin narrative.” Working towards peace is a complex and difficult process. It’s easy to state desires, but working to actually make the come to fruition is a much more complex process.
GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?
1 Henry IV III.i.52-54
He said that the text is never history, that it is contemporary testimony (of each new generation’s suffering). He said the point is that you can’t settle on a meaning of a text, you can’t be locked into historical criticism because the story is continually feeding the imagination.
It seemed like he was extrapolating from the examples for which that idea makes sense to talk about the whole Bible, which was troubling. Also, while i understand the idea that Scripture is true for all time, to say that because it continues to have meaning throughout generations, continues to resonate even as societies change, that it can’t also have a specific historically contextual meaning, or that we shouldn’t take serious consideration of what it meant at the time it was written, troubles me.
He talked about the stories like those of the Passover ritual and of the Israelites crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land and said that the narrative produces the child’s question so that the children can see through the lens of faith. I was confused as to how all this followed. He seemed almost to be saying that these stories were created to give children a model for faith, that it wasn’t about whether the events of the stories actually happened but about the kind of lessons they taught. At one point he said that the center of the Bible was the “substantive claim of God’s holiness” and the texts are artistic forms in which the Biblical writers attempted to witness to that holiness. Or something like that; my notes are vague because he said a lot and didn’t leave a whole lot of time for processing before moving on to another idea/statement/example.
He kept calling the Psalmist “she” and “her” and it seemed like he was emphasizing that intentionally, but i wasn’t really sure to what purpose. Would have been far too nit-picky and tangential to ask during the Q&A even if i hadn’t been too overwhelmed to articulate coherent questions by that point.
Psalm 136: “For his steadfast love endures forever.” He said the life of the community is testimony to God’s enduring love. An interesting idea.
Psalm 107: gratitude for fidelity - the Lord delivered us.
He talked about gratitude for quite a while, but i wasn’t sure how it fit in with the rest of the talk. He said that without anyone to thank one’s neighbor becomes a threat (or rather, one comes to perceive one’s neighbor as a threat). I was really unclear as to how that followed. He said that life is not a competition, and i can see the argument that if we think of life as a competition then all Others become threats, but i don’t understand how that fit with the gratitude theme.
Mark 6:30- and Mark 8:1-
The parables of feeding the 5000 and the 4000.
Jesus: took bread, broke bread, blessed bread, gave bread
Brueggemann talked about the importance of those 4 words (took, broke, blessed, gave), that litany, how the language is that of the Eucharist. It occurred to me that the Last Supper hadn’t happened yet at that point, so it wouldn’t mean anything to the disciples, though obviously the account was being written after the Last Supper so the writer would have it in mind.
Brueggemann said that economics is defined as the distribution of scarce resources but Jesus has made the world different. Yes, Jesus got to break the rules of scarcity, and that’s a powerful message and all, about abundance and everything, but i don’t remember him giving that food-multiplying power to his disciples and we nowadays sure don’t have it, so we have to work with scarcity. Later Brueggemann has Jesus say “my abundance has replaced the scarcity”and you can point to the story in John 4:5-42 and Jesus saying, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (John 4:13). But if one wishes to stick around to effect change on this Earth, one needs water from the springs of the ground as well as from the spring of God.
Next, the story in Mark 8:14. “Beware the junk food of the Empire,” Brueggemann said for Jesus. Mark 8:15 actually says “Beware of the years of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” but lo, the note in my bible says “Yeast, a symbol of pervasive corruption hidden within human beings.” Who knew?
Brueggemann talked about Jesus backing down to a “concrete operational level,” a level of thinness, because the disciples weren’t getting it. They had forgotten the bread and he led them through a question-and-answer about “How many baskets of extra food were left when I fed the 5000? And the 4000?” Brueggemann was totally making fun of the disciples, portraying them as eager “Ooh, these kinds of questions we can answer,” which i thought was unfair and, although superficially humorous, uncalled for. Brueggemann pointed to Mark 8:21: “Do you not yet understand?” -- the sad statement of Jesus to the church. And yes, the disciples often do not get it, and Jesus mourns, but would we have done any better in their place? Is it possible that we get the stories told to the disciples passed down to us because we are like them, because to be understood Jesus must talk to us as he talked to them? Gee, perhaps.
Jesus mentions their “hard hearts” when talking about how they do not understand, a phrase which of course recalls Pharoah of the Exodus story.
Brueggemann said that we think in terms of military consumerism, so we don’t see that the holiness of God has changed the world. I was talking to Emma about the Old Testament covenants are with the Israelites, the Chosen People, and how i like the interpretation that Jesus fulfilled the covenants and prophecies and now we are all the Chosen People through that grace, but in could have gone for some more clarification from Brueggemann about how God changed the world -- was Jesus trying to remind us of some eternal fact, that God’s holiness can make this world so much better than it is if we would only let go of our greed and superficiality? was Jesus saying that although things had operated on principles of materiality and power for a long time, he had come to bring God’s holiness into the world and offer us a new paradigm?
1) I missed this one.
2) There is no one normative version of this narrative, but rather many tellings which all have a family resemblance.
3) This method of telling is against dominant meta-narrative of society -- technological therapeutic military consumerism.
Gathering to hear this narrative is to subvert.
We try to make this narrative like the dominant one.
4) The decisive issue in this alternative thick narrative is the elusive holiness of God who serves none of our agendas.
5) It is the task of ministry to tell this version of reality in its clarity and elusiveness so we know we’ve never got it.
The task of ministry is to invite people into crisis between the two kinds of narrative, to reread reality with this thick narrative, to empower the community to take interpretive risks themselves while respecting the interpretive risks of others.
The great rabbis created a culture of interpretation. Thin society wants answers rather than interpretation.
The lecture was 45 minutes and then there was a half an hour of Q&A.
I don’t remember the question, but in some answer he said that there is no center of elusive holiness in other books, that that is why the Bible is the powerful book it is. I rather suspect believers of other religions would beg to differ.
He said that the prime purpose when we get together (in church) is to be fed by this narrative. I like that idea.
He said something about liberals trying to make the Biblical stories relevant to modern-day and said “I don’t know anyone who was ever moved by relevancy.” I nearly blew a gasket. Are people ever moved by stuff that isn’t relevant (or at least perceived as relevant) to their lives?
He said something about the quest for certainty beginning with the science of the 17th- and 18th-centuries, and there is a certain mentality associated with the Englightenment, the idea that it was possible for humans to know everything about the world, but people had been “certain” ever since approximately the dawn of time. Religions throughout history have insisted that they were certain about what they said, that theirs was the Truth of all existence.
Someone asked about the stuff in the Episcopal church in a way that said he was obviously alluding to the whole gay priest thing. Brueggemann said he didn’t want to comment specifically on that and must have said “the gay and lesbian issue” about 8 times. He said it’s not really about the gay and lesbian issue, it’s about churches being scared of the end times or something. I forget exactly what it was, in part because Emma and i got caught up in giggling about how we were signs of the apocalypse. (Apocalypse always makes me think of this, particularly Andrew Sullivan’s comment: "For the record, if I ever ride into the apocalypse, I'd rather just prance around and have a serf banging coconut shells behind me.")
Edit: I talked to Liz Carr on Oct. 26 and she said that at the dinner prior to the lecture Brueggemann had talked a lot about people's anxiety about death -- saying that that's where a lot of people's bad stuff comes from -- and it's entirely plausible that he said something about anxiety about "the end" or "end times" and i interpreted that apocalyptically (and i know that dissolving into giggles i missed much of his answer) though Emma claims he really did use the word "apocalypse."
Joel stood up and pointed out first, that perhaps one should say “thick texts” rather than “thick narratives” since there is much in the Bible that is not narrative (law, liturgy, etc.) and second that thin ideologies exist on all sides, that we take what we like from the Bible. He has been saying essentially that in class throughout the semester, which is one of the things i really like about the class, but getting up and saying it after that lecture made him my new favorite person and i e-mailed and told him so. (After the lecture Emma and i grabbed cookies and left because i needed to process before i could be articulate and coherent with real people; much though i would have liked to have talked with people about the lecture, there was no way for me to talk about it that soon after it.) Brueggemann said he didn’t endorse a direct movement to current politics, which was ridiculous because he’d been talking about current politics throughout his lecture.