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A Grand Dinner Party, a Powerful Sea Monster, and a Gentle Nurse Maid
An Introduction to Walter Brueggeman's Ideas on Biblical Metaphors and the Christian Imagination
A friend and then multiple podcasters have all recently recommended Walter Brueggeman, whose expansive work I look forward to diving into further. Upon first introduction via his interview on the "On Being" podcast, I found fresh vocabulary and a wealth of overlap with other thinkers who espouse a more enchanting, poetic, and anticipatory interaction with the biblical texts instead of systematic, informational, or expositional handlings.
The main thrust of these thinkers: the bible is not a scientific textbook or data to be analysed. It is much more. These authors implore us to approach the Bible with the worldview of the original audience, ready to commune with God Himself, instead of merely through the distancing abstractions of creeds or doctrines.
Upon receiving the Torah, the Israelites were a nomadic and illiterate people group grappling with the pains of growing into an identity endowed by a God who had claimed them as His people and then enacted strange miracles to prove His fidelity. The Hebrew mind, therefore, was best engaged through narratives, imagery, and oral wisdom, readily shared by a father to his wide-eyed children gathered around a leaping desert fire with bright stars dotting a clear sky above them after a long day of journeying.
With this in mind, Brueggman mediates on the vivid metaphors which surface throughout the whirlwind promises in the book of Isaiah. From one passage, he located the following potent images used for God:
1. The giver of the biggest dinner party ever had
2. A powerful sea monster who will swallow up death forever
3. A gentle nursemaid who will wipe away every tear from all faces
4. A safe place for poor people who have no other place
5. A demolition squad
When you read each of these phrases, your mind can craft a clear image. One that can not be perfectly defined but instead imbibes a plethora of meaning through the firing of dozens of neural pathways.
In tracing stark differences between the Eastern and the Western mind, Ray Vanderlaan asked several evangelical American Christians to describe God. They promptly replied, "God is almighty", "God is omnipotent", or "God is love". But when Vanderlaan posed the same question to several young Jewish students, they responded with "God is my shade", "God is my shepherd", or "God is my father".
The Western mind gravitates towards abstracted terms, attributes which need to be defined or conceptualised. While the Eastern mind leans on images and experiences, which can be felt, sensed, and understood with the heart. Furthermore, each "my" claimed their intimate connection to God and His specific faithfulness.
So to end, words from Brueggeman regarding our interpretations of the Bible.
"There's a need for teachers and preachers who can help us pause long enough to take in the imagery. What the church does with its creeds and doctrine and tradition- it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation - and then it’s deathly... you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame otherwise you’re just going to be left with these dead formulations. Which, again, is why poetry is so important because it keeps opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close until you’re left with nothing with transformational power.
So more metaphors give more access to God."
God knows the human soul yearns for beauty and longs to be wrapped into a more cosmic story that transcends self. And so He tenderly reveals Himself in the ways most effective to our human faculties. May we activate our imaginations so that we may draw closer to God and revel in the multifaceted and visceral manifestations of His love towards us.
“Responsible interpretation requires imagination.” -Walter Brueggeman
*Pictures from a walk around Kensington and Battersea Park, London
On Being podcast, interview with Walter Brueggemann
Follow the Rabbi, Ray Vanderlaan
Drinking in all the beauties and oddities around me.
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