I had the privilege of kicking off my first interview with renowned theologian, Walter Brueggemann. I caught up with him while he was in Chicago at the SCUPE Congress on Urban Ministry. He was invited in as one of the plenary speakers on the congress’ theme of peacemaking. And I thought I would pick his brain about his career, his book Peace, and his perspective on Chicago. We met over a cup of tea and hot chocolate. To my surprise, he was the hot chocolate guy.
TE: One of your theological themes is imagination – why is imagination such an important theological concept to you?
WB: The word imagination comes from the word image. We all have an “image of reality.” And that image is often dominated by a “market ideology” – the self-seeking paradigm that says that we need to be anxious about ensuring our own affluence and security. An imagination is our ability to think otherwise about the world. Jesus’ parables are clear examples of seeing the world as “otherwise.” Imagination, therefore, is the center of teaching and preaching ministries because we will not act better than we can imagine. Without discipline our imagination is dominated by market anxieties. The gospel task is to imagine outside the market ideology.
TE: Speaking of imagination, I have always enjoyed your writing style. Not all theologians go down as smoothly as you do. Your style seems to be so rhetorical and even poetic. Some of your stuff sounds like you’re starting to preach a little bit! To what do you attribute your writing style?
WB: They say that good writers shouldn’t use adjectives, but I think I use three adjectives in every sentence! I have actually had to work a lot at writing well. And my writing stays close to my oral style. I actually write longhand. I even catch myself talking out loud when I write.
TE: In your book Peace you explore shalom, the biblical notion of peace (wholeness). And you explain that one feature of shalom that God gives (as a gift) to the world is a sense of order. And therefore you suggest that the world is safe, and that this reality calls for wonder, amazement, gratitude, and a more whimsical view of life overall. While I appreciate (and I think I grasp) this view, I know many people in my city who wouldn’t. For instance, mothers who refuse to let their kids play in the neighborhood for fear of losing them to the streets. So how do you explain a perspective like this to people who live fearfully amongst chaos and violence daily?
WB: Great point. Granted, I don’t get to speak much to that kind of an audience. But overall, our talk of gratitude has to be matched by our walk. Our walk as Christians has to be speaking gratitude to those who live among violence and chaos. It won’t do for the church to talk about the assurances and promises of God, and not actually walk and live them out. So we have to develop a neighborhood fabric that lives out the reality of gratitude.
TE: Why do you think this is so hard for Christians to do?
WB: It is because that market ideology is such a powerful force. We inhale it constantly. Many people would say that this anxiety is inherently human. I say that is ideological production. And it is a totalizing mindset that is hard to get out of. It’s why Jesus ended up with 11 disciples.
TE: One particular element of peacemaking that is relevant to my ministry is access to healthy and affordable food. Breakthrough runs a dynamic food pantry on the west side of Chicago in an area that has been recently dubbed a food desert. Many people in that community do not experience the “shalom” of eating a regular healthy meal, especially in community with others. And this, of course, is just symptomatic of other problems in blighted urban areas where resources are not distributed evenly between the have and have nots. But eating plays such an important role in the human condition. You have written that “at the table is where shalom really exists.” How do you think the church might develop a theology of food that can lead to more peacemaking/justice in urban areas?
WB: [At the SCUPE conference] I spoke about the food fight that exists between those who want to accumulate and those who want to share. The manna story in Exodus is the lead story because the wilderness is a food desert. And in the food desert there is no reason to expect food. But the Israelites complained and God gave them food. And Jesus’ feeding miracles are a re-performance of that manna story. So the Church must enact a similar ministry of manna to produce food systems, turning the desert into a table, allowing people to expect and imagine otherwise in the food desert. Food pantries like yours are good examples of how we re-perform the Jesus miracles and the manna story. The battle in Church is to help people see that the Gospel is about food; it is about producing and distributing resources to the have nots. To quote the Sri Lankan evangelist D.T. Niles, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” I take that to be a material statement overall. But churches get too preoccupied with orthodoxy and church systems and all that [we forget about the holistic nature of the gospel.]
[Side bar – a great Brueggemann article to read about this is "Enough is Enough"]
TE: Are you working on any interesting project(s) right now?
WB: I’m working on a book about prophetic preaching. It focuses on the prophetic theme of loss, and not so much on God’s judgment. The prophets connect social loss to the reality of God, which is an almost impossible topic for middle-class or more affluent churches to embrace. But this is especially relevant today when you think about the economy and how so many people are “losing”– losing jobs, homes, pensions, etc. The market ideology wants us to deny the reality of loss.
TE: What do you think about Chicago, and where do you eat when you come into town?
WB: I don’t really know too much about eating in Chicago! Although I did eat at The Berghoff while I was here this week, and that was excellent.
About Chicago, I recently read Richard C. Longworth’s Caught in the Middle, and I was struck by his thesis that the Midwest generally missed the wave of globalization, except for Chicago, because Chicago is a collage of generative people – a lot is riding on the function of Chicago. So we’ll see how Rahm Emmanuel does.
If you have someone in mind that would make for a great Front Porch Interview, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org