LILLIES THAT FESTER SMELL WORSE THAN WEEDS:
Postmodernism and the Rise of the McLaren Sect
Deconstruction, the Academy, and the Rise of Walter Brueggemann
Dr. Robert Eubank
The Raleigh Tavern Philosophical Society
November 30, 2006
Part I of Lilies That Fester Smell Worse Than Weeds focused initially on the meaning of postmodernism so the reader could get a taste of what it was I was discussing. Then I went on to cover the post-conservative post-reformational movement among certain neo-evangelical intellectuals who have served as the theoretical basis for Brian McLaren and the Emerging Church. In the present work, I will follow the same investigative scheme. I will first map out what deconstruction really is, the literary methodology it has produced, and its effect on the academy. Then and only then will I move on to the important work of Biblical deconstructionist Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann has long well known in liberal circles but has only recently been “smuggled” into the evangelical presence, where his influence continues to grow. I want to focus on what Brueggemann believes as well as his deconstructive techniques for Biblical study. Thus this work is being produced not only for my fellow Raleigh Tavern members, but primarily for distribution among conservative evangelicals and many of their leaders. In particular, I want to acknowledge my debt to the one book I believe is essential to the investigation of deconstructive technique, whether secular or Biblical: Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge by Kevin J. Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield (Chicago), Illinois.
Deconstruction and the Academy
What exactly is deconstruction? Its originators and promoters would have you believe it is beyond definition except to its un-admittedly gnostic practitioners. The very act of defining deconstruction is thus to accept the strictures and language of Western metaphysics that they are attempting to supercede. They would have you believe that deconstruction can’t be reduced to a mere technique, philosophy, strategy, type of literary analysis, etc. And they are right. It can’t be reduced to any of these because it is all of them and then some. In reality, it is an attempt to decry, deride, and decenter everything of the West—its individuality, its rationalism, its philosophy, its religion—in order to throw it into disarray.
To Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, all of Western intellectual history and philosophy has from its birth had a logocentric foundation—i.e. it centered on a certain presence—God, the Logos, reason, logic, the self, etc. To do so is to affirm “beingness”—the essence of something. You yourself, for instance, probably feel that you have a core—the self, the “I”—that is the origin of all you say and do. Deconstruction denies that any of this, including “the real you,” is in fact “real,” although the finding that all of this is not real is to them “real.” It’s like their fellow postmodernists that claim that to deny the objective reality of truth is the ultimate truth (see Part I).
Central to deconstruction is another conundrum: the relationship between the meaning of a word and what it signifies is arbitrary. Words have no intrinsic meaning, but are only “signifiers” referring to other words, which are the “signified.” That is, words are just words that refer to other words. And human language refers only to itself, not any extratextual reality. So it seems everything is about nothing. To believe that words refer not to other words but to ideas that have an objective ontological status is to be logocentric. And the deconstructionists mean to delogocentrize the world. They fully intend to turn the world upside down, glory in the absurd and abnormal, and uphold the bizarre and contradictory against common sense and logic.
To the deconstructionist almost everything instead of being real is a social construct. Truth is but a social construct and has no objective existence. Even right and wrong are seen as being only constructs of a particular society or culture. Race is also seen as only a social construct. As social constructs nearly all things thus exist to be deconstructed or “undone.” This is done using the concept of binary opposition. To the deconstructionists, taking the work of the structuralists whom they supercede as a starting point, all structures or systems are made up of binary pairs, and one part of each pair is more important than the others, i.e. it is “privileged.” The relationship between the parts of the pair is thus hierarchical—speech over writing, presence over absence, mind over body, male over female, original over secondary, self-existent over parasitic, cat over mouse, heterosexual over homosexual, or straight over gay. Derrida is particularly bent out of shape that speech has been privileged over writing, though I don’t want to be bogged down by that opposition in this paper. Derrida moved to undo the opposition within the binary pair by explaining contradictions and tensions within the opposition. Though he sometimes inverts the opposition and focuses on the originally second term, Derrida’s primary task is to show neither term is complete unto itself; it must have the other, i.e. there is no “stand alone” or presence in only one part of the opposition. Derrida wants us to focus on the play between the parts, which he calls the différance, perhaps the most ballyhooed word in all of the deconstruction game.
We now consider Michael Foucault, whose greatest contributions to deconstruction are his “Power is Knowledge” statement and his explicit politicization of deconstruction. Note that he does not say the oft-repeated “knowledge is power,” but “Power is Knowledge,” that is, those that have the power determine what passes for knowledge. And what passes for knowledge is the means of whatever hegemonic interests are present at any particular time to control the masses. For the most part, that was determined to be the White, Male, Western, and Capitalistic interests. Foucault’s idea is that knowledge is a power play. He coined the term “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in which all social relationships are seen as tools of power. The project of the present moment should then be to reverse all power and social relationships in order to create “justice,” the one thing deconstructionists feel is undeconstructable. The way to do that is through the intellectual and cultural formation organs of society, especially the university, media, and literary criticism, by putting forth your knowledge as “the” knowledge. In this perception, the final result (he hopes) is an inverse binary opposition in which the underprivileged—the feminist, the gay, the Black, the Latino, the indigenous person or culture, the atheist, the agnostic, etc.—are to be liberated from their slavery and put on the throne, so to speak. Thus deconstruction proceeded to become a major part of the political debate itself and became self-consciously committed to one side over the other. (And I would say it had always been part of the political debate, though Derrida denies it. It is well known that deconstruction sprang from the explicitly political premises of the failure of the revolution the French professors and youth wished to happen in 1968. The founding of deconstruction was their way out. That way was to conduct “war by other means,” and the other means were the undoing of language and the undermining of all the great works of literature of which the West had seemed so proud.)
As it so happened, I was present at the creation of the American phase of this monster during my ten year non-tenure track stay at Rice University (1980-1989). Frank Lentricchia had already written his After the New Criticism, or the so-called Little Red Book of the cultural revolution, before he came to Rice in 1982. Thus already well-known, he published while at Rice the much further reaching Criticism and Social Change, or the Little Blue Book, which first broached the idea that “literary scholars…should contribute to the work of the left,” openly and forthrightly. (Philip Tinari, “Being Frank”). His first book had spelt out what he had not liked; the second advocated those things he wanted in its place, which in his own words were “activist study, contentious study, study with a purpose in mind, ulterior political goals, study that would open up the canon, study that would recognize the multiplicity of American cultures, study on behalf of the denigrated and the downtrodden” (qtd. in Tinari). Thus the line was drawn in the sand, and the line between scholarship and politics more than blurred.
Lentricchia, of course, became famous and was brought back to Duke University, where he would lead renegade scholarship into prominence. It was he who brought Stanley Fish to Duke, not vice-versa (as well as the famed Marxist critic Fredric Jameson). Duke quintupled its graduate applications, and the rest is history.
This self-conscious commitment to the revolutionary left has had serious repercussions in the classroom. Academic freedom allowed professors to create havoc in whatever way they wished. In fact, the deconstructionist teacher or literary critic feels it a duty to undermine the West, the U.S., theists, and the White, Male, Capitalist pigs. To them it is a crime to attempt to be unbiased: after all, this is a cultural war. And pity the poor student (and his grade) who has the courage to oppose them. If you are in cultural anthropology or some related field, God help you if you should show any Western cultural bias in your work. You had better be on the side of indigenous people everywhere that have been affected by the rapacious white man. Works of literature are not studied with an appreciation of their beauty as masterpieces or their understanding of the human condition and human interactions, but for their role in the Western hegemony and as a means for eventually forwarding the cultural revolution. As Gene Veith puts it in Postmodern Times, “The hermeneutics of suspicion sees every text as a political creation, usually designed to function as propaganda for the status quo.” These great works, Jane Austen or whomever, are seen to convey only an illusion of truth but are really covers for the power relationships that make up the culture. The deconstructionist thus bypasses any intent of the author but studies the writer’s process of meaning building and exposes it for the linguistic contradictions and power-relationships that are behind the text. This is what deconstruction is all about. Veith summarizes further that suspicion falls primarily on
…the texts that have the highest status, the “great works of literature,” the “classics” that are promoted in school and are part of the “canon” of the civilization. These texts are “privileged” because they codify and justify the racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, economic oppression, sexual repression (take your pick) that is the hidden superstructure of the culture
In yet another work, Modern Fascism, Veith surveys a remarkable example of a deconstructionist approach to Shakespeare:
As an example of how deconstruction is used in literary analysis, King Lear can be read in terms of the patriarchal family structure. His daughters are portrayed as villainous because they are rebelling against their overbearing father. Shakespeare is perpetuating a sexist culture, hiding and promoting its oppressive values in beautiful language and a winning story. Such interrogation of an author, like all interrogation, usually ends with the author being convicted of politically incorrect ideas. (On the other hand, authors too are seen as “texts,” products of their culture rather than autonomous creators.) But texts deconstruct themselves. Lear’s daughters, if the play is read closely enough, have clearly been victimized by their father and are not villains at all. They assert their own power against that of the patriarchal structure and drive their father mad. The patriarchal meaning is countered by a feminist meaning. The play has a subversive meaning that can be read alongside the official meaning. King Lear has been deconstructed.
In fact, partially as a result of the deconstructionist social agenda—the rebellion against the canon—Shakespeare has been removed as a required course in every major American university. Thus, the beauty and insight of such great works as even The Iliad and The Odyssey are happily bypassed and degraded on the way to “true” understanding.
The theories of how this is done are very interesting, and we turn now to those devices of literary criticism that are at the heart of deconstructive readings, remembering always that the deconstructionist wants to turn your world upside down, interrupt your complacency, and substitute the abnormal for the normal.
Normally we would think that a book and its author are linked. To think otherwise would seem to be absurd on the face of it. As usually conceived, authors produce texts, and texts are considered products of the author. Authors, of course, are considered responsible for their product. Texts say what their authors make them say. There is a meaning there which the author produces by writing something this way rather than that. “Of course,” you may say. “Elementary my dear Watson.” But not so to the deconstructionist. He views things quite differently. The text needs to be liberated from the powerful author through reader response theory and textuality.
Neither of these two terms can be reduced to what is called “the intentional fallacy,” which holds that a text is broader than just the author’s intentions. That position still assumes that there is a meaning to be found in the text, a meaning that might be found by careful, thoughtful reading because the writer might not have seen the significance of his own writing. But saying a text might be somewhat broader than the author’s meaning is very different than freeing the text to mean absolutely anything. The text thus has a life of its own—an endless number of possible meanings subject to no control whatsoever by the author’s actions or intentions. In reader response theory, the reader takes the place of the author in bringing the text’s meaning to life. The reader, according to this theory, actually produces and creates the meaning, while in textuality the text itself has a full range of meaning, which the reader discovers rather than creates. According to Roland Barthes, one of the founders of textuality, this means the text is open to the greatest variety of interpretations possible and is not restricted in meaning. According to this theory, the interpreter critic is just as much a writer of literature as the original author. The text is no longer the representative of “a meaning.” The interpreter belongs to a different world than the author—a different time, context, and place. So you should not expect the reader-interpreter to find the same meaning as the author. Reality is only a social construct, and the reader and literary critic thus makes his own reality. In Against Deconstruction, John Ellis says of this supposedly advanced technique that
…it suffices to say that textuality is only a radical formulation of the traditional laissez-faire attitude of that strain of literary criticism that has always wanted above all else to be free to do and say whatever it wished, without being held accountable or required to justify it.
Both reader response theory and textuality rely on the notion of indeterminacy—that the meaning of a text is undecidable. As summarized by Kevin Vanhoozer in Is There a Meaning in this Text?,
[N]either text nor author is capable of surviving deconstruction. The autonomous text offers no more resources for limiting the play of meaning than does the strangulated voice of the autonomous author. Textuality overthrows the Idol of Determinancy, and with it, the very possibility of literary knowledge….
There is simply nothing non-textual to which one can appeal to halt the inexorable march of indeterminacy.
As you may be able to tell from these theories, they are about as self-serving as they can be. The literary critic becomes as important as the writer, more attention goes to the critic than the author, and literary critics thrive as never before.
In case you think that deconstruction has been confined to some little backwater like the Ivy League, think again. Deconstruction in the United States has gone from being an antiestablishment insurgency to an entrenched institutional power. It has controlled literature and other departments in colleges and universities for two decades, as well as much of the literary establishment. Thank God its influence has been somewhat on the wane in the new millenium, except to the latecoming left-wing evangelicals who think it is ushering in a new millenium. How could such an absurd “thing” achieve not only currency but literary dominance? There are several reasons.
First, as a Cornell University professor told writer David Lehman,
The deconstructionists are absolutely ruthless behind the scenes. They are essentially fanatics. If you don’t conform to their orthodoxy, there’s something wrong with you. As in an inquisition, you are measured by your allegiance—you’re found religious or you’re burned.
Lehman himself in his Signs of the Times further adds
In the course of researching this book, I was to hear this same analogy, or variants on it, from teachers at so many other universities that it was hard to escape the sense of its ubiquity. One literature professor who has taught at Yale since deconstruction’s halcyon days there observed in 1982 that deconstruction had become “a church” replete with hierophants and disciples.
But this is hardly the whole story. How did it get such a foothold in the first place? This facet is related to more mundane concerns like careers and putting food on the table for yourself and your family. When by the mid-1970’s the older literary theory, the New Criticism, had run its course, panic began to set in. As Frederick Crews, author of the hilarious Postmodern Pooh, has written, “The sense that ‘everything has been done’ turns to panic as opportunities for appointment and promotion disappear. Such a climate is ideally suited to nurturing a mania for theories, however poorly supported, that promised to multiply the number of allowable remarks one can make about literature.” Add that to the fact that a sense of generational rebellion against the New Criticism had also set in, and there was something needed to seed that rebellion. And that something was deconstruction, waiting in the wings to be grabbed. And it was. As time went on, people saw that the acceptance of these methods led to promotion and pay. If you play the game, language games and word play become ends in themselves. And pity you if you didn’t play along. Our own Professor Clifton Fox once asked a colleague, “Do you really believe all this stuff?” To which the colleague replied, “It’s either that or be resigned to teaching freshman composition for the rest of your life.”
But it’s more than just what the somewhat inadequate word “careerism” might suggest. That has sort of a crass sound to it. But this is actually just the question of being able to support yourself and put food on the table from day to day. Deconstruction really meant a stressing of the soul. As a graduate student or young blooming professor you have to accept its strictures as a reality or be blackballed. Your grade and entrance to the profession will be blocked. So what can you do? It’s not that you will just be marginalized; you may never even reach the margin. If such a situation cannot cause stress to the soul, I don’t know what can.
And there is one more causal factor. John Ellis referred to it earlier—that deconstruction is just the sort of thing for the chap who wants to say anything he wants anytime he wants and not get called on it. Deconstructive readings are unbelievably thick going. Foucault once referred to Derrida’s almost unreadable style as “obscurantist terrorism.” Again, as David Lehman describes it, “The idea is that the style is so obscure that it’s hard to know what the author is saying and thus allows the savant to heap contempt on his critics by saying they have failed to understand him.”
Of course, this can rise up and bite you as it once did Derrida. John Searle had written an elegant eleven page critique of Derrida that really piqued Derrida. He replied in a ninety-two page tirade that noted that Searle had both misunderstood and misread him. Come again! You have been saying that there is no such thing as truth, even clarity, and that an author’s intentions don’t matter, it’s all in the reader’s response, and you turn around and say that Searle has misunderstood you!? (I mean, could there have been some intention in some of your ninety-two pages that you thought it somewhat important for the reader to understand?) As became clear to many, Searle understood only too well. This one little incident probably cost Derrida more followers and embarrassment than any other one thing.
Something also should be said to separate the average leftist and even orthodox Marxist from being tarred by the deconstruction brush. Just plain ole liberals the deconstructionist would berate as moderates and unbelievably mundane as well as co-opted by the system. As I related in my previous paper, a neo-Marxist (especially a Gramscian) or soft Marxist may be a postmodernist, but any knowledgeable orthodox Marxist can be neither a postmodernist nor A deconstructionist. He is logocentric to the core. He believes words have meaning, and he believes history has meaning. Indeed, he feels he has found the keys to that meaning. Therefore many Marxist literary critics view deconstruction with the disdain it deserves. Deconstructionists want to destroy history and philosophy. Marxists want to fulfill them. Marxist literary critics thus view deconstructionists as incomplete pseudoradicals, devotees of jargon, and/or just plain stupid. The degree to which they view deconstructionists as just playing linguistic games is the degree to which they cannot take them seriously as revolutionaries. Worse, they tend to look on them as yuppie cowards who have traded in the revolution for fancy sounding titles and good paying jobs. As David Lehman puts it, deconstruction is “precisely the kind of radicalism that flourishes in a yuppie environment.” Besides, it’s not a class war in which they are interested. It’s being chic. Thus they are into Queer Theory and homosexual rights because it’s “so cool.” Lehman describes it as “Meta-radicality, transcendent to the point of evaporation….[I]t is the fitting ideology for the period when the academic youth culture is turning from revolt to careerism without clearly distinguishing the two.”
There is one more thing I want to say before we move on. If you love great literature—the Dostoyevskys, the Tolstoys, the Charles Dickenses, The Sir Walter Scotts, the Thomas Hardys, the Mark Twains, the James Fenimore Coopers, the Thomas Manns—to see it become a pawn in a political one-upmanship game, especially one devoted to “the social revolution,” is distinctively despairing. I am probably the only Political Science Doctorate whose minor field was Russian Literature. I had a fantastic teacher. If I had had a crop of deconstructors, I’m sure I would have walked out. It is a desecration to this just past generation that the educational establishment has let our collegians be dominated by such drivel and be denied the insights of great writers, great literature, and great teachers. I close by recommending Professor John M. Ellis’ story of much of this loss—Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. No wonder English social philosopher Roger Scruton, in his An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, refers to deconstruction as “the Devil’s work”:
What deconstruction sets before us is a profound mystery, which can be approached only through the incantation of invented words, through a Newspeak which deconstructs its own meaning in the act of utterance. When at last the veil is lifted, we perceive a wondrous landscape: a world of negations, a world in which, wherever we look for presence we find absence, a world not of people but of vacant idols, a world which offers, in the places where we seek for order, friendship and moral value only the skeleton of power. There is no creation in this world, though it is full of cleverness - a cleverness actively deployed in the cause of Nothing. It is a world of uncreation, without hope or faith or love, since no ‘text’ could possibly mean those transcendental things. It is a world in which negation has been endowed with the supreme instruments - power and intellect - so making absence into the all-embracing presence. It is, in short, the world of the Devil.
What a wonderful introduction to that unbiblical practitioner of Biblical deconstruction—Walter Brueggemann.
The Strange Rise of Walter Brueggemann
Walter Brueggemann is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and is one of the major Biblical deconstructionists of our time. He was educated at America’s most famed and liberal seminary—Union Theological Seminary in New York. There, as Dan Steiger (in a positive commentary on the forministry.com website) puts it, “Brueggemann’s approach to Scripture was strongly influenced by a number of liberal theologians (of the German variety).…[His] association with [this] nurtured in him…a penchant for championing the cause of the underprivileged and marginalized elements of society.” For most of his life Brueggemann’s works have been used by those of the mainline churches, those already massaged by historical criticism. While Brueggemann has used and supported historical criticism, especially the form and redaction modes, he has realized the barrenness the singular use of this approach can give. He has moved on to deconstructive approaches, which certainly cannot be called either barren or unimaginative. G. Richard Wheatcroft at the Center for Progressive Christianity notes affirmatively that Brueggemann combines four elements in a potent interpretive mix of historical criticism, social scientific criticism, rhetorical criticism, and various forms of liberation theology.
While nothing mentioned so far can be called strange, it is certainly strange that such a man as Brueggemann has become very influential in certain evangelical circles. This influence would have been impossible even ten years ago. What has changed then? The answer is he has been “snuck in” by the Post Conservatives (see Part 1), Brian McLaren and the Emerging Church, and Richard Foster and the Renovaré movement without any explanation of his liberal background or deconstructive methodologies and given the status of a learned and innovative Biblical scholar to whom all good Bible students should repair for education and insight. Why would they do such a dishonorable thing?
Mark Tooley in the July-August 2005 Touchstone Magazine has, I think, put his hands on it. In his article “The Thick and Thin Man,” he writes that Brueggemann, “has gained a surprising following among more liberal evangelicals and other orthodox believers thanks to his critique of American nationalism and of the free market.” Just recently he declared against sending American missionaries to Iraq because it would be cultural imperialism. I think Tooley is right, though that he has gained such a following is not so surprising. Brueggemann shares with them and is an eloquent spokesman for a certain socio-cultural agenda. McLaren and other fellow postmodernists have a rather jaundiced view of the West and their own nation. Not so much notice has been taken of this aspect by evangelical critics of McLaren, who have focused more on his theological and related views. But this element is an important part of the mixture. McLaren’s declaration in the March 2004, Sojourner’s magazine that he is for the eventual abolition of free enterprise and private property shows that. Thus, given Brueggemann’s new significance, it would seem important to get a bird’s eye glimpse of what he is doing in the area of Scripture studies.
In the July 3-10, 2000 edition of the liberal Christian Century, Brueggemann published an article simply entitled “Biblical Authority” in which he vividly described his methodology for studying Scripture. Indeed, he feels this is everyone’s whether admitted or not. But Brueggemann’s new methods of reflection are, I would say, remarkably different from the usual exegesis of conservative scholars who probe the meaning of the text as the author intended it. Let us now look at Brueggemann’s six facets of Biblical interpretation.
The first facet of interpretation Brueggemann calls “inherency”—the word of God is inherent in the Bible, but it is the devil of a thing to separate the inherent from the situation impacted, and you can never be sure you’ve found it. He gives himself away when he writes in his second sentence that, “I believe in the indeterminacy of the text to a large extent.” From our earlier study of deconstruction we know exactly what he means—there is no literal normative meaning that the author placed there and is objectively present within the texts themselves. Instead, we are free to forever seek out “the strange and new” (Barth as quoted by Brueggemann)—or as Brueggemann likes better to put it “the live Word of God.”
The two next facets are interpretation and imagination, which should be discussed together because he is using interpretation here as a subset of itself and because imagination is the most celebrated and noted aspect of Brueggemann’s theory of interpretation. Brueggemann views interpretation as, “inescapably subjective…and inevitably disputatious.” Ever the postmodernist, he is trying, among other things, to rob conservative interpreters of any pretense of objective content. He views imagination as “a movement of the text beyond itself in fresh ways.” Please notice that “beyond itself.” He further notes “the characteristic and sometimes demonic mode of Reformed interpretation,” [emphasis added] which he says is “tentativeness hardening into absoluteness.” For a man who does not believe in the demonic in any sort of supernatural sense and who calls for understanding and liberality among all camps, this stark dismissal of the Calvinistic would seem to be surprising. He instead prefers imagination, which “entertains certain images of meaning and reality that are beyond the givens of observable experience.” He calls us all to an “otherwise” beyond the evident, for “reiterative objectivity has no missional energy or moral force.” Again you see the usual postmodern call beyond “mere” objectivity.
A particularly notable example of Brueggemann’s use of imagination is in one of his favorite themes—sexual liberation. He cites Isaiah 56, in which a distorted sexuality (a eunuch under Moses) is embraced by Isaiah, as having an apparent imaginative implication that homosexuality—also a “distorted sexuality”—can be accepted by God’s people at a later time. He also speaks of the “huge leap to imagine an ancient purity code in Leviticus 18 bears upon consenting gays and lesbians in the 21st century and has anything to do with ordination.” (One wonders who is taking the imaginative leap!)
Let us now look at Brueggemann’s concluding sentence on interpretation.
It becomes clear that the interpretive project that constitutes the final form of the text is itself profoundly polyvalent, yielding no single exegetical outcome, but allowing layers and layers of fresh reading in which God’s own life and character are deeply engaged and put at risk.
Come again! What is this “God’s own life and character are put at risk”? This sentence puts open theism to shame. But then again we should expect that. Open theism is just a project of Post Conservatives who believe in dialoging with liberals and are here bringing one obviously more radical than themselves in to teach them. Brueggemann seems to be saying here there is nothing beyond private interpretations, while scripture clearly warns us to flee private interpretations, to be aware of false teachers, and to maintain sound doctrine (2nd Peter, 1st and 2nd Timothy, and Titus). How are we to do that if any scripture is but a means of leading us to flights of fancy where we can discern “new and strange things” that have no clear meaning?
Let us pause to say here that Brueggemann is a very open and honest man, neither surreptitious nor withholding. From all descriptions I have seen on the blogs by former students, he is an affable and sweet-spirited man who is inspiring and unforgettable. In fact, let us also say it is these very traits which make him so dangerous. But those really to be decried are those who have brought him into our ranks so surreptitiously and dishonestly. One of the statements in this section reveals where he is coming from: “Those of us who think critically do not believe that the Old Testament was talking about Jesus” (emphasis added). He speaks of those who imaginatively feel it is, and he approves of this, but the point is he himself does not really believe it is “true.”
Like most secular postmodernists, Brueggemann is concerned by the influence of any supposed metanarrative, in this case a Biblical metanarrative. Brueggemann does not believe a Biblical metanarrative exists. While to him there are some overarching principles, there is no overarching storyline or grand unifying theme. Jesus is not in the Old Testament. Isaiah 53 (or Isaiah 9) is not talking about Jesus (though it’s OK to him, of course, if you imagine or want to believe it). Far from asserting a metanarrative, Brueggemann feels rather atomistically that the focal point should be “the specific text, without any necessary relation to other texts or any coherent pattern read out or into the text….this approach is congenial to postmodern perspectives” (Texts Under Negotiation p.58).
Brueggemann’s next facet is ideology, which he feels most everybody brings to the text. Everyone has “a vested interest.” There are no innocents (or of course objectivists). We should all be aware of that, he says; that’s the first step to balance and tolerance (though he would never be caught saying “to truth”). Then only by viewing a multitude of different vested interests and submitting ourselves to someone else’s filters can we achieve any form of balance. At least Brueggemann can smile a bit at his own passions: “Historical criticism is no innocent practice….Communitarian inclusiveness is no innocent practice, because it reflects a reaction against exclusivism and so is readily given to a kind of reactive carelessness.”
Brueggemann feels that there is a tendency to fall into one of two ideological camps, i.e. to have a patterned set of opinions about social and political things. I partially agree with him here, but one cannot explain away his “open and affirming” attitude toward homosexuals as just part of a “just as valid”: ideology. He writes
It is completely predictable that interpreters who are restrictive about gays and lesbians will characteristically advocate high capitalism and a strong national defense. Conversely, those who are ‘open and affirming" will characteristically maintain a critique of consumer capitalism, and consensus on a whole cluster of other issues.
There may be a certain truth in Brueggemann’s contention, but one must be very careful not to say that exegesis without ideology is impossible. Since Brueggemann tends to feel exegesis without ideology is not possible anyway, he seems to proceed ipso facto to ideologize the text.
I wish to close this facet with a commendably self-revealing paragraph of Brueggemann’s:
I have come belatedly to see, in my own case, that my hermeneutical passion is largely propelled by the fact that my father was a pastor who was economically abused by the church he served, abused as a means of control. I cannot measure the ways in which that felt awareness determines how I work, how I interpret, who I read, whom I trust as a reliable voice. The wound is deep enough to pervade everything; I suspect, moreover, that I am not the only one for whom this is true. It could be that we turn our anxieties, fears and hurts to good advantage as vehicles for obedience. But even in so doing, we are put on notice. We cannot escape from such passions; but we can submit them to brothers and sisters whose own history of distortion is very different from ours and as powerful in its defining force.
In speaking of the next facet, inspiration, Brueggemann does not mean what we usually mean when we speak of “the divine inspiration” of scripture. He is in fact a castigator of “classical formulations.” He is speaking of something which carries us beyond ourselves. As usual he finds the theme of “liberation” all throughout the Bible. He is very moving in his descriptions here, very lyrical and winsome. But we must always remember what he is and what he is doing. He is a deconstructionist, and he is deconstructing. And deconstructionists do not like to be deconstructed themselves. That’s for everybody else’s work. But let’s do it anyway. For instance, when Brueggemann speaks of the wind of the spirit blowing so that “churches, in councils, sessions and other courts, are led beyond themselves, powered beyond prejudice, liberated beyond convention, overwhelmed by the capacity for new risks,” he means they have been touched by the spirit of economic and socio-cultural liberation, moving beyond conventional belief and authority, beyond consumer capitalism and patriotism, to the truly “missional” and multicultural, to the new day of the really new life in Christ, little tokens of his idea of the final bringing in of the Kingdom of God on earth. He means specifically the bringing of his own church council, led by such as himself and the recently departed Yale liberal William Sloane Coffin, to an 80% vote allowing the gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered full acceptance in his church—the United Church of Christ.
Brueggemann’s last facet of interpretation is importance. After all, interpretation “gives the world access to the good truth of the God who creates, redeems and consummates.” And he is certainly right about technique—“Technique…threatens us. Technique is aimed at control, the fencing out of death, the fencing out of gift and, eventually, the fencing out of humanness.” But he seems not to be aware of the dehumanizing nature of his own technique. His is the deconstructive technique. Through it he has dehumanized the author and in addition has robbed the text of its own uniqueness. He has “freed” it of this uniqueness by letting “the spirit” blow it every which way. He straitjackets it according to a liberationist agenda and refuses to accede authority to the text itself. He has shut the author out and reduced his writings to whatever voice may speak to me (the reader) today. Kevin Vanhoozer notes the results of such an activity:
[An] ethical vacuum accompanies the death of the author. If meaning is the creation of the reader, how can the text ever be something “other,” with the power to affect us? If there is no fixed meaning apart from the reader’s interpretive activity, then there is nothing prior to that activity to respect. (Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 368)
In a later work, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Brueggemann abandons his more atomistic approach and relies on what he calls “the traditioning process,” in which he finds the whole community, not just the supposed writer, as the producer of Scripture. This is in turn part of what he calls “imaginative remembering,” in which every text is permeated with the ideology of the “traditioning community.” Lawrence Boadt, Professor Emeritus of Scripture at Washington Theology Union, says of the book, “Insights abound on every page because Brueggemann regularly turns trite assumptions upside down and views texts in new ways. He balances the great diversity and even contradictions of the biblical tradition” (emphasis added).
In Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann admits his debt to liberation theology, which has helped him see “the intimate contact” between social justice and the prophetic texts. He views the prophets as liberators in their own social setting, especially Moses, Jeremiah, and the “Second Isaiah.” He sees Jesus not so much as a personal savior but as a political figure opposing “the politics of oppression with the politics of justice and compassion.” In few other works does Brueggemann so straitjacket the text to serve his own social agenda (which, of course, is par for the course for a deconstructionist). Wheatcroft well summarizes Brueggemann’s thoughts in this work: “Today, the prophetic texts of the biblical tradition need to be used by the church in more imaginative ways and applied to concrete circumstances in order to effect changes in contemporary ‘social perspective and social policy.’”
Very important to understanding Brueggemann is his championing of the feminist and homosexual agendas. He has campaigned for the full acceptance of gay members in the church, which as noted has now been done in his denomination, the United Church of Christ. Regarding the blessing of same-sex unions, he also contributed a major article to the “Claiming the Blessing” initiative within the Episcopal Church. In an interview concerning the “Claiming the Blessing” initiative done by Julie Wortman of Witness, Brueggemann, in admitting there are parts of the text which “move in the other direction,” responds to himself by saying
[M]uch or all of the Bible is time-bound and much of the Bible is filtered through a rather heavy-duty patriarchal ideology. What all of us have to try to do is to sort out what in that has an evangelical future and what in that really is organized against the Gospel….[T]he arc of the Gospel is bent toward inclusiveness. And I think that’s a kind of elemental conviction through which I then read the text.
[O]bviously gays and lesbians are the vulnerable and the very loud heterosexual community is as exploitative as any of the people that the prophets critiqued. Plus, on sexuality questions you have this tremendous claim of virtue and morality on the heterosexual side, which of course makes heterosexual ideology much more heavy-handed.
Speaking of the liberation themes of Brueggemann, Donald Messer, and Jurgen Moltmann in the Gagging of God, D. A. Carson concludes that they are not “entirely absent from the text [but] are abstracted from the Bible’s plot-line such that their true significance and proportions are almost entirely lost.”
In covering the Episcopal convention that installed a practicing homosexual as bishop and gave local communities permission to bless same-sex unions, Katherine Kersten of the Wall Street Journal quotes Brueggemann in a “Claim the Blessing” interview as saying, “the Scripture is the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive tradition.” Of this she comments, “Approached this way, inconvenient passages can be dismissed as inconsistent with ‘Jesus’ self-giving love.’” Kersten also clearly delineates the central issue:
Speakers who urge approval of homosexual unions did not use the vocabulary or categories of thought of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. Instead, they appeared to embrace a new gospel, heavily influenced by America’s secular therapeutic culture. This gospel has two watch words: inclusion and affirmation. Its message? Jesus came to make us feel good about ourselves….This issue goes to the very heart of the Christian mission. The gospel of inclusion preaches a reconstructed, therapeutic Jesus, who accepts us exactly as we are. Traditional Christianity, however, holds that Jesus calls us to repentance of sin and to transformation through a new life lived in accordance with God’s will. The gospel of inclusion has little place for repentance or transformation. (emphasis added)
Just last year, Brueggemann spoke at Jonathan Edwards’ old environs, Northampton, Massachusetts, and at Shrewsbury. Mark Tooley, Director of the United Methodist Committee of the Institute of Religion and Democracy and correspondent for Touchstone Magazine, was there to record his remarks for posterity. Brueggemann reasserted one of his basic themes that “authority must not be placed in the texts of the Scriptures themselves, nor in the church’s traditional interpretation, but in ongoing dialogue between the reader and Scripture.” “Texts contradict texts,” he said. (Though if a text has no intrinsic meaning, how can this be?) Tooley concluded with what he thought Jonathan Edwards’ view of Brueggemann would have been:
Edwards…would have grimly nodded at Brueggemann’s work and growing popularity as yet one more example of humanity usurping the authority of God.
The first thing we should address in the conclusion is Brueggemann’s primary methodology—Biblical deconstruction. Brueggemann makes no pretense about taking the Bible at face value. Instead scripture should be “construed in a certain interpretive tradition.” Brueggemann primarily stands above Scripture “undoing” Scripture. He basically separates Scripture into “good” Scripture—that in tune with the social liberationist gospel as he claims it to be—and “bad” Scripture—for instance, all patriarchy supporting passages. Brueggemann’s vaunted poetic imagination is just an avant-garde way of doing what you want to do. Those evangelicals who are enamored of Brueggemann without understanding him should see his methodology for what it is—a postmodernist power play, pure and simple. Indeed, we have come full circle where it is not the secularists but a religious man that uses the patina of higher meaning—the “with God” life—to undermine the most precious and eminently understandable product of the culture—the Holy Scriptures. Brueggemann has no concern about the intention or meaning the writers put there. (He doesn’t even believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch.) Like any text to the deconstructionist, the Biblical text has no meaning, any meaning, every meaning, and ultimately (Foucaultian that he is) he wants “his” meaning to prevail. That is the sadness and sin of Richard Foster and others, some wittingly and some (like Thomas Oden) I think not, who have made him the Old Testament and Apocrypha Editor of the now (in)famous project I once looked forward to—the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible. I now know it for what it is, a major coup for the postmodernist, left-wing pseudoevangelicals. My gosh, it even uses the ideologically rewritten expurgated text, the New Revised Standard Version. Brueggemann will now more than ever be able to put forth “his” meaning before a large evangelical audience as well as a lot of others. And like literary deconstructionists, who in destroying great literature betray themselves as ideological charlatans, how much greater a charlatan is he who carries deconstruction to the Bible itself.
Moving on, Brueggemann’s support of same-sex marriage and full acceptance of homosexuals by the church is contrary to all forms of orthodox Christianity. Again, inconvenient passages like Romans 1 are bypassed with a “fare thee well.” The Bible is not the judge, but instead Brueggemann’s unbiblical presumption of inclusion. He also does not see Jesus so much as a personal savior but as a communal social liberator. Again, here Brueggemann seems skewed by his own passionate liberationist views. The social gospel consumes him in yet another attempt to bring in his version of the Kingdom.
It has been said “they ought to put warning labels on those sad country songs.” And, indeed, a warning should be put on Brueggemann and anyone who recommends him. It is hard to reject a Pied Piper proclaiming to look at the Bible not as “flat certitudes” and “eternal myths,” but as “a dynamic image, a restless journey—[an] open question—a partner with whom we can dialogue.” But these very attributes make him dangerous to consume without warning. The evangelicals recommending him should be the ones giving that warning, but they are not. They are in fact responsible for the great tragedy of persuading trusting evangelicals in the pews to read Brueggemann so as to put his brilliant mind and deconstructive writing at the service of their revolutionary agenda. Thus, I now give such a warning. This man is a theological liberal, he is a higher critic, he is a social liberationist, he is a deconstructionist, and he is a homosexualist. Need more be said?
I wish to note here how Brian McLaren and company often use deconstruction. Brian McLaren and the Emerging Church actually deconstruct people. Small group leaders to whom members report for their weekly propaganda sessions are the key for McLaren. Well-versed in small group dynamics, these leaders deconstruct their followers’ past relationships and belief systems—including their dedication to the notion of truth—in order to reconstruct the emerging postmodern neophyte in the “proper” view toward his society, his nation, and, of course, toward The White Man. Followers are to forsake the concept of “mine” for more “Kingdom values,” like holding property in common. Frederick Meekins of the Capitol Hill Coffee House blog catches the upshot of this technique:
It is not enough to live by the principles of the Bible by loving the Lord, taking care of one’s family, and otherwise staying out of trouble. Rather, one must confess the darkest recesses of one’s soul to the encounter group as it meanders about in ethical confusion as the facilitator guides them to a predetermined outcome not necessarily having anything whatsoever to do with the Bible or traditional Christian concerns….
Since the highest ethical good in McLaren’s worldview is the community, individual prerogatives and aspirations are seen as the bane and downfall of the natural world. McLaren in a 2004 Sojourner’s article titled “Consider the Turtles of the Field” chides that as a society we must move beyond concepts such as private ownership and free enterprise.
Such behavioral aspects of the Emergent movement should, I would suggest, be studied in conservative theological seminaries, in addition to a thorough grounding in postmodernism and in D. A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church and Scott Smith’s Truth and the New Kind of Christian. Scanning the blogs should also yield valuable information and give professors and students access to those who have left the movement.
 Why justice and not freedom or any other notion is completely arbitrary, and their notion of justice is just that—“their” notion. It is the social justice of the social liberationist, solidly left at its core.
 The Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian culture, i.e., the West that Brueggemann and his ilk so love to despise.