The Flat and the Fat: The Poetic Gospel of Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, the biblical theologian, states “the truth of the Gospel cannot be articulated in flat, certain prose, but it must be articulated in a poetic rhetoric in which when you hear it, you as the listener, still get to decide what it means.” (Brueggemann’s Q&A session). I examine this statement in terms of the rules of rhetoric (discourse) and the distinction between the intentionality of a text, that is, what the writer wants the text to mean, on the one hand, and the listener, or reader, getting to “decide what it means,” on the other. 

Living in our post-modern, post-structural age, we need to be reminded that idea that the original intentions of a poet, or any writer, can be discovered through a responsible reading has been expressed a century before the first  stone was laid for the construction of  the wall of China. It was the Chinese philosopher, Mencius (372–289 BC), who said: “Therefore, a commentator of the Shijing (Book of Odes) should not allow literary ornaments to harm the wording, nor allow the wording to harm the intent of the poet. To trace the intention of the poet with the understanding of a reader — only this can be said to have grasped the poet’s intention.”

For the poet, there are two main links in the chain of being; the one is God, the other, the poet. It wasTorquato Tasso,  (1544-1595), the Italian poet of the late Renaissance, who said, “No one merits the name of creator except God and the Poet. (Non merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta).

Brueggemann has written about 60 books, most of them on biblical topics. The book he is most proud is “Finally comes the poet” in which he describes how, through the proper use of the imagination, the Bible can breath new life into the depressed soul.

 He grew up in a community that didn’t value the arts. “I think the arts are always in contention with moralism and my community was all on the side of moralism. So my attempt to discover the arts that characteristically speak of openness in ambiguity has been a huge thing for me. That is why personally, my personal accomplishment is in my book, “Here finally comes the poet.” It was my struggle to say that the truth of the Gospel cannot be articulated in flat, certain prose, but it must be articulated in a poetic rhetoric in which when you hear it, you as the listener, still get to decide what it means.”

 Art” (the arts) for Brueggemann opens in ambiguity; not only art but the whole modern system of knowledge opens in ambiguity, where “you as the listener still get to decide what it means.”

If I have rightly interpreted Brueggemann’s intentions (which I can only do through the words he uses), he is saying that not only the arts but all of reality is wrapped in a blanket of ambiguity, universal ambiguity. Modern educators also advocate an openness to ambiguity, but do not see ambiguity behind every bush. A deconstructionist might say that ambiguity can never be behind nor in front of every bush, or behind any bush; for the simple reason that ambiguity is the bush. Christians can learn much from deconstruction: the devil isn’t behind the bush, silly; he is the bush. But I digress. Here is a modern educator’s view of openness to ambiguity:

 The component of openness and tolerance of ambiguity is much neglected in schools. What we learn in school is how to do things correctly, to find the one and only right answer. Learning how to avoid mistakes prevents us from being open for other experiences. Risk-taking, socially and cognitively, is often being rewarded negatively. Working in a group or a class does not seem to go along with non-conformity. School is not normally considered to be the place for relaxation. In general , I believe that the pedagogical concept of open teaching and learning, open school and open instruction, recognizing the ecological/environmental living and learning conditions for an all-round education towards creativity” (Klaus K. Urban: Assessing Creativity: A Componential Model 167-186, in Creativity – A Handbook for Teachers, World Scientific Publishing Company).

 Let’s apply this openness to ambiguity to a text, a biblical text. For Brueggemann, the biblical text is the inarticulate text, which requires to be artistically articulated by the reader’s “poetic rhetoric.” I would add “passionate,” of which I think Brueggemann would approve. So we have the reader’s “passionate poetic rhetoric.”

Rhetoric” has two meanings: 1. the negative meaning of “grandiloquence,” in plain lingo, “hoopla;” the bread and butter of most politicians, and 2. the positive meaning of “the art of discourse.” The second diagram shows how “rhetoric” slots into the “humanities.” “Rhetoric” applies to the sciences as well, indeed, to any kind of writing; letter writing, for example – and theological writing!

 

 Now, to a biblical text as an illustration of the distinction I want to make between:

  1. Brueggemann, who says, in his “Here finally comes the poet” that “the truth of the Gospel cannot be articulated in flat, certain prose, but it must be articulated in a poetic rhetoric in which when you hear it, you as the listener, still get to decide what it means.”

    And

  2. The intentional meaning of the Gospel, that is, the novel idea that the Gospel intends to say what it wants to say, and to do it in articulated “flat certain (of itself) prose.”

Consider the following sentence of Jesus from the Gospel of John:

I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Brueggemann says away with the inarticulations of the “flat certain prose” of traditional biblical inspiration, and displace it with my personal passionate “poetic rhetoric.” How, I ask, in the name of rhetoric (the rules of discourse), do you think you have the imaginative right to exchange the logos with your internal rhetorical rhema.

 The distinction between “internal testimony” and “inspiration” is related to the popular distinction in “God-gave-me-a-Rhema-today” circles between rhema (“the Holy Spirit talking to me” as someone said) and logos (the “flat” word written for all). This distinction is false. Rhema and logos are synonyms for “word,” any kind of word, spoken or written. Debonnaire airs it well:

This false dichotomy between the two words has been used to give false credibility to doctrines that tickle the ears, trouble hearts and minds, and lead astray. For in fact , when we examine the scriptures where both words (rhema and logos) are used, we see that a word/rhema is not more inspired of the Spirit of God than a word/logos. Neither is it larger or more personal.”

To consider rhema personal, round and fat, and the logos impersonal square and “flat” (Brueggemann), indicates symptoms of schizologia: a split between what “this verse means to me” and what “this verse means,” what this verse intends, that is, what Jesus means by the words, which, surely, is as clear as prosaic day. (See my Schizologia: Internal Testimony versus Inspiration of Scripture).

What should also be clear to any basically competent exegete is that the Bible  consists of different genres such as legal codes, psalms, historical narrative, prophecy, and symbolic narratives (apocalypses). Whether the text be immediately clear or requiring deep study, it is to the text we must bow (I’m using a metaphor, of course).

“The spiritual native beauty of heavenly truths, is better conveyed unto the minds of men, by words and expressions fitted unto it, plainly and simply, than by any ornaments of enticing speech whatever; and therefore we say with Austin, that there is not anything delivered in the Scripture, but just as it ought to be, and as the matter requires.” (John Owen: Exposition of the letter to the Hebrews, Volume 1).

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