Creeds, Doctrine, and Prophetic Images

Speaking of Walter Brueggemann (see my last post), I though I’d share an excerpt from an interview he gave a few years ago. It’s been stuck in my mind since I listened to it several months ago, and the more I think about it, the more I agree with it.

Ms. Tippett: I’d love to talk about your image of God, and I want you to talk about that more personally. But I thought I might start, you know, for example, in one of your sermons, you are talking about some poetry, Isaiah, and you talk about that it offers five images for God. This is just one — (laughter) one passage in Isaiah: “A demolition squad, a safe place for poor people who have no other safe place, the giver of the biggest dinner party you ever heard of, the powerful sea monster he will swallow up death forever, a gentle nursemaid who will wipe away every tear from all faces.” How are normal people, not biblical scholars, how are they to make sense of a text like that? Of a God — who God is?

Mr. Brueggemann: Well, they’re going to make sense of it if they have good preachers and teachers to help them pause long enough to take in the imagery. But you see, what the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, 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 formulation, which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening so more metaphors gives more access to God and one can work one metaphor awhile, but you can’t treat that as though that’s the last word. You got to move and have another and another. That’s what I think. It’s just amazing. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, there are just endless metaphors.

Ms. Tippett: It is — dwelling with the images, again, is very different from memorizing Bible verses. And it’s even different from reading the Bible.

Mr. Brueggemann: That’s right, that’s right. I happen to think memorizing Bible verses is a good thing because then you have the text available that can yield this stuff. Because what a metaphor or image does is to invite you to keep walking around it and looking at it another way and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. . . .

Ms. Tippett: So if I asked you this way in terms of your image of God, you know, are there metaphors that have spoken to you across time or that speak to you now that didn’t before? Are there metaphors that have come to you in your life as a human being and in your study as a scholar and your work as a preacher to be more and more meaningful?

Mr. Brueggemann: Well, I think they basically arise out of my continuing to look at the text and it depends on what text I’m looking at. Obviously, that is then related to what’s going on in my life that day. For example, if I take the phrase — and I can’t even remember where it is — “Let me be the apple of your eye.” That’s a very strange phrase, but what that pictures is a God who’s a big eye that looks at you caringly and treasuring you. So what I imagine from that, it’s like being a little kid that’s lost in a department store and you finally go around the corner and there’s your mother looking at you and you’re safe again. So I want to have God look at me that way.

Now I don’t want to construct the whole theology out of that phrase, but that’s enough for that day and I’ll find — I’ll be given another phrase another day like that. So that’s kind of how my mind works. It doesn’t yield a doctrinal package; it just yields a bunch of fragments that are not easily fit together. But the reason that works for me is that I am aware that I as a person without entity, I am essentially a collection of fragments that do not fit very well together, so that’s OK.

If you have the time, I highly recommend listening to the whole interview (it’s about an hour long). He talks about a lot more than just this topic, and all of it is good.

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