The writings of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann have had a profound impact on my thinking over the years.
Back when I was a theology graduate student, I read Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Augsburg, 1984). This book introduced me to the importance of human experience embedded in the Psalter, especially the value of lament psalms in processing pain and helping us move towards newness of life. The Message of the Psalms was life-altering and spoke directly to where I was in my faith journey. Brueggemann’s insights into lament, both in this book and in his famous article on the “costly loss of lament,” greatly influenced my own argument about the inadequacy of classical theodicy in “Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense.”
Then I read The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 1978; 2nd ed. 2000), which crystallized the contrast between the impulse to autonomy and control in Pharaoh’s Egypt and the Israelite monarchy, on the one hand, and the challenge to this autonomy in the exodus and in the Yahwistic faith in the prophets, on the other. This book, published a few years before the Psalms book, articulated the move in the prophetic literature from embracing pain (here Brueggemann focused on Jeremiah) to being energized by hope (here he focused on Deutero-Isaiah). It was The Prophetic Imagination, more than any other resource, that opened my eyes to the sociopolitical implications of the gospel. Brueggemann was helpful in providing a paradigm for interpreting both the Old Testament and the New; his chapters on the cross and resurrection of Jesus in terms of the prophetic pattern of the Old Testament were illuminating.
However, I began to see certain limitations in Brueggemann’s analysis of patterns in the Bible. His take on Scripture was very helpful in addressing suffering and injustice and in prodding us towards a redemptive vision. But his suspicious interpretation of creation texts in the Old Testament did not match my experience of these texts as liberating and empowering. In fact, Israel’s Praise (Fortress, 1988), his second book on the Psalms (he has since written more), was even more suspicious of creation texts, interpreting them, along with the enthronement psalms, as nothing more than royal legitimation for the status quo. It was my high respect for Brueggemann, combined with my perception of a different reading of creation in the Old Testament, that led me to publish a critical review of the topic, titled “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann” (1994).
Prior to publication, I presented this paper at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1992. Since the conference organizers had put my paper right after a panel discussion that Brueggemann participated in, he was there to hear my paper. It also turned out that the person who was to present after me had pulled out of the conference, so there was a gap of half-an-hour. The conference chair asked Brueggemann if he would say a few words in response, since we had some time. I actually have no recollection what Brueggemann specifically said, since I was sick as a dog. I had laryngitis the night before and wasn’t even sure I would be able to deliver the paper. As it was, I had to speak in almost a whisper (I told the audience that I came to them in the weakness of the flesh).
All I remember is that Brueggemann was very gracious; he was basically affirming and appreciative. And then when my paper was published, he wrote a very positive response, locating my paper among various recent approaches to Old Testament creation theology. I found out later that even before my SBL presentation Brueggemann had already begun to come to a more positive view of the topic of creation, evident in his oral presentations (I later listened to some recordings). Some of his more positive views found their way into his Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Fortress, 1993), and later into his magnum opus, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress, 1997).
I’ve had many contacts with Walter Brueggemann over the years, from responding to a paper he gave at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto (in 1997) to hearing him give papers at SBL and attending many of his speaking engagements in Rochester.
He wrote a great blub for the back cover of Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith for a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995), which I co-authored with Brian Walsh, and he even sent me a nice card congratulating me when I got a full-time teaching appointment at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1996. Later, he wrote a very positive endorsement of my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).
More recently, Brueggemann has written an endorsement for A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014):
“Richard Middleton plunges boldly into a most-treasured misreading of the Bible. He shows the way in which ‘other-worldly’ hope of ‘going to heaven’ is a total misread of gospel faith. In a demanding, sure-footed way he walks the reader through a rich deposit of biblical texts to make clear that the gospel concerns the transformation of the earth and not escape from it. Middleton summons us to repentance for such a mistaken understanding that has had disastrous practical implications. This is a repentance that he himself avows. When his book catches on, it will have an immense impact on the way in which we think and act about our common future in the gospel, a common future with important socio-economic, political derivatives. The reader will be rewarded by Middleton’s boldness.”
Actually, it is I who have been rewarded by Brueggemann’s boldness—I’ve been rewarded again and again.