This Narrative of Death that is So Powerful Among Us

Religion Dispatches contributor Daniel Schultz recently published his first book: Changing the Script, based in large part on the thought of Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann. To mark the book release, we sent “Pastor Dan” to interview Brueggemann at his home in Cincinnati.

The following conversation, edited for length and clarity, is broken into three parts:

Dan: I should note, in the interest of full disclosure, that you and I are not only both from the United Church of Christ, we both come out of the Evangelical and Reformed tradition. I know for example that it is a pet peeve of yours, as it is mine, when that German side of the tradition gets ignored.

Walter: Right.

Dan: Do you think any of that tradition survives in your work?

Walter: Oh, very much so. I’m increasingly aware of it and, I think, intentionally work that way.

Dan: From the perspective of social justice or engagement?

Walter: From social justice, and I think the evangelical strand of that was marked by a kind of innocence about scripture—I think I have a fairly innocent perspective on scripture. Without raising excessive numbers of critical questions.

Dan: You tend to have a very straightforward reading of scripture.

Walter: That’s right, that’s right. Not complex, but also not quarrelsome. I don’t know if you know Carl Schneider, he was the great historian at Eden Seminary, the historian of the Evangelical Synod, and he accented all the time that the evangelical tradition was “irenic.” I think I get that. So in Old Testament Studies…

Dan: Old Testament Studies is not irenic.

Walter: Well, people really like to hack at each other and I don’t see the point of that. People who do otherwise are people from whom I can learn, and I don’t have any need to defeat them or top them.

Dan: I noticed in reviewing some of your work that you are very concerned with pulling those narratives out of scripture, whether within a particular book, or between the different books as they move along in the Old Testament.

Walter: I think that narratives construct the world for us and dictate policy and practice, and I think that our society is trying to live by a false narrative; the narrative of the national security state. So it seems to me the challenge for the church is to see whether we can show we have a better narrative, a more accurate narrative, out of which to generate policy and practice.

Dan: Right. I want to come back to that point in a bit, but that gives a good transition into another question. That narrative of the national security state, as you describe it in your speech Counterscript, is fed by various “scripts,” as you call them: therapeutic, technical, consumerist, and militarist. How did you discern those scripts, and how did you come to decide that those four were the most relevant?

Walter: That thesis was a very long time germinating for me. I began to think about the connections between those things. I think the two that I would really accent are the military and consumer, and what became clear to me was that the reason we need the absurd military we have—absurdly large and expansive—is we have to protect our consumer advantage in the world. I think I came to the technological by thinking about technological medicine and human medicine. Technological medicine assumes that there is a mechanical fix to whatever is wrong with us.

Dan: So reading some Ellul and some Hauerwas.

Walter: Yup, yup. And the therapeutic—that probably came from MacIntyre and Bellah. So it came out of my reading, but also, you know, came out of my experience with people of how we’re living and what we’re doing to each other and all that.

At the time, I was very aware of the incredible extent of cosmetic surgery in which everything can be fixed, which is an attempt to deny our mortality. I’m just now working on a thing on George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say” and what I’m arguing is that the real reason you can’t say those words is that they remind us that we are bodies, and therefore we are fragile and we’re mortal, and we’re going to die.

Dan: Right. Which doesn’t allow you to advertise.

Walter: That’s right.

Dan: I wonder what George Carlin would have thought of a theologian writing on his work?

Walter: [laughing]

Dan: He might have seen that as terribly ironic. Were there particular experiences that guided you in developing the idea of those scripts, or is this more general summation of your life experiences?

Walter: Well, it’s kind of what I do for a year or do is give a series of lectures, and then I revise them and revise them and revise them until they gel, so this was a slow-going process, a growing process that came out of my reading, and you’ve mentioned some of the authors. But I do a lot of circuit-riding in the church, and pay attention to some of the kinds of questions that people ask me when I do lecturing and preaching. It just seemed to me that those were ways of summarizing and solidifying the pathologies that are everywhere around us.

Dan: In another interview with you that I read, you described yourself as “an old churchman,” and it seems your work—not the Old Testament criticism so much, but the other work—is very much grounded in the world of the church, in a way that seems fairly unique among academic scholars these days.

Walter: I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s certainly true for me. My teaching has all been in church seminaries and most of my lecturing is. I do find that when I do lecturing in other university contexts—which I don’t do a lot of—the questions are not very different. These are things on people’s minds whether they’re inside or outside of the church. But I am very consciously and very much a churchman, and that’s my matrix for my own life. I think for all its failures and flaws, the church has entrusted to it some really important stuff that nobody works at except the church when it’s faithful.

Dan: Has it always been a habit for you to resist the scripts in your life, or has it been something that’s developed for you?

Walter: I think intuitively, without having thought about it, I have long understood that my faith calls me to resist it—I don’t mean that I have always done it so well—but it is the question of my life. I would say in the last decade I have come to a clearer intellectual framing of that, but I don’t think it’s a new idea.

Dan: Of course, it goes back at least to The Prophetic Imagination, which is a very socially aware book.

Walter: Right. Right. I go back and look at those things I wrote over thirty years ago now, and I’m kind of surprised I had already articulated it. [laughing]

So on the main points, I don’t think I’ve moved very much. I think I’ve refined it and extended it and all of that. But I was very much influenced by Hauerwas and Willimon about the kind of over-againstness. I think I’ve developed that in my own way, which is very different than the way Hauerwas has gone with it. Hauerwas is much too philosophical for me. I think he would rather appeal to Aristotle than the Bible, but that’s okay.

Dan: It strikes me that Hauerwas wants to set very clear lines between Christians and the rest of the world, to the point where they’re not really tenable anymore.

Walter: That’s right. The lived reality is much more ambiguous than that. We have to keep trying to sort it out.

Dan: But you have some sympathy with that post-liberal project?

Walter: Oh, I do indeed. I thank that’s right. “Post-liberal” has to do with public ethical questions, but in Old Testament studies, post-liberal really has to do with post-historical-critical.

Dan: So in a couple of sense you have some sympathies.

Walter: That’s right. That preoccupies me a great deal. I’m doing some lectures at the Trinity Wall Street church, and the session next January is going to be on how the church can now think about the Bible, and one of the issues has to do with critical and post-critical and all that.

Dan: The stream you have not taken is that sort of re-mythologizing of those narratives.

Walter: By which you mean…

Dan: Trying to restore to restore that lost framework… I’m not really sure what I mean by that!

Walter: As a teacher and a preacher my job is to line the world out in those categories, and then the listener can decide whether that’s literal, whether that’s historical, whether that’s metaphorical. I think it’s all of those, I think it’s none of those, and I don’t have to answer for that.

Dan: Your job is to recover the narrative and make it “strange again.”

Walter: That’s right. As a resource through which the world can be imagined differently. So I’ve been working at the thesis that the prophets of the Old Testament are poets who imagine the world as though Yahweh were a real player. Their resistance to the kings in the Old Testament—because kings, or any real power people—imagine the world having disposed of Yahweh, and, I think in the modern world, in the modern church world, the God of the Bible has largely been disposed of, which is what Barth’s whole thing about the strangeness is.

Dan: Sure, sure. That God has been locked in the closet, if nothing else.

Walter: Yup. Yup. That’s right.

Dan: Well, Religion Dispatches sent me down here to talk to you about my book, so I’m afraid some of these questions will be sort of, “Well enough about me, let’s talk about me.” You’ll have to forgive me for that.

Walter: [laughing] That’s fine.

Dan: What I’d like to do is walk through some of the scripts, and we can talk about our different perspectives, and when you have a chance to read it, you can send me an e-mail and say, “Oh Schultz, you blew it.”

Walter: [laughing] I won’t say that.

Dan: For the therapeutic script, I talked about abortion. Not in that sense of abortion is an elective procedure and therefore should be not done. It’s not selfish in that sense. But where I took it was to say, like Hauerwas does, that sexual relationships are relationships of power, and once you understand that, you understand that the consequences of sexual relationships are also about power.

So the drive to regulate reproduction and women’s use of reproduction is really a way to fight those battles about women’s place in society. So from a progressive perspective, what this script indicates to us is that we should not be fighting issues of power by trying to control medical procedures. How would you apply that therapeutic script to the case of abortion?

Walter: That’s a new question to me. I don’t know that I’ve thought about it that way. I do think that the therapeutic script assumes that I ought to have everything that makes it comfortable and easy for me without reference to anything else, and that might make it into an argument that on-demand abortion is too easy and too comfortable and life is too precious to be accommodated that way. I think you could develop that kind of argument.

But then that argument is countered by what you just said about other people controlling the process and denying it. So I don’t think there’s a direct and a singular application about that. I think that that four-fold script I’ve identified wants to get along without relationships of fidelity and I think abortion, like everything else, has to be situated in relationships of fidelity. That issue isn’t a clear directive, but it has to do with relationships, it does not have to do with a mechanical process of keeping a life or taking a life or whatever, and it requires a whole different way of thinking about fidelity within the family and fidelity with the doctor or whoever and so on.

Dan: If I understand you correctly, you might say that being faithful to your partner in a relationship means being an equal.

Walter: That’s right, that’s exactly right.

Dan: You can’t have true fidelity without some kind of radical equality. So there’s a number of different counterweights there: women need to be free to make choices for themselves, but they need to be faithful to their relationships. Meanwhile, their partner needs to be faithful to the relationship while allowing that person to have some power and some choice.

Walter: That’s right. And of course when you say all that, that’s why the issue is so difficult. There isn’t an obvious or simple resolution to it, probably on either side, where people holler at each other.

Dan: Going from the Niebuhrian perspective, we all tend to underestimate how invested we are in those power dynamics and overestimate our ability to compensate for them. Do you see that kind of dynamic at work a lot in these scripts?

Walter: Oh, I think everywhere about that. If you focus on the technological, it is ceding our lives over to experts. I don’t know if you know the name of Peter Block.

Dan: Yes!

Walter: I just came across his book, but one of his big accent points is that we’ve turned our lives over to professional experts. So we don’t rely on our neighbors, but we rely on people who know a lot. That’s a huge temptation about all of these moral questions.

Dan: It’s interesting that you say that. I paired the technological script and the consumerist to talk about the recent economic meltdown. You can see in there I go through this big explanation of what happened: it’s called “A Brief History of Big Shitpile,” which is sort of a pungent way of putting it, but I think very apt. So on the one hand, I use that to illustrate that consumerist script that people want to have everything without regard to the neighbor and in particular that comes out in how the economy is rigged for the benefit of the rich over and against the rest of everybody, really. But at the same time we can’t rely on those kinds of experts to lead us out of that damage. We have to look at those questions of justice and equity.

Walter: Yup. Which I suspect is one of the problems with Obama’s policies; that all of his advisers are the Wall Street titans who think in that cocoon.

Dan: Yes, I have a friend who’s a television journalist, and he did some taping with some of those tycoons of Wall Street. He says it’s unreal; they have no idea that they destroyed the economy. They think they should be rewarded with millions of dollars for taking risks, and the party should just go on. They’re just completely oblivious.

But you said you were thinking of medical technology more so…

Walter: Well, medical technology, and I was thinking of cosmetic surgery. I was thinking of the seduction of thinking if you can find the right smart professional, they can fix anything. I think an authentic human perspective is that our lives are to be lived and not fixed. There’s an article this morning and I had seen some stuff on it before, there’s some research that shows that people who have cancer and get palliative care (rather than chemical care) live longer and are happier. Which is an astonishing outcome, given the commitments we’ve made in the other direction.

Dan: How many patients who don’t receive that kind of care, but receive the aggressive interactions. Ellul is very much concerned with those kinds of technological questions—I don’t think he survived to see the online boom—but he might have some real questions about the kind of gizmos that I’m carrying around with me. [pointing to digital recorder, cell phone, iTouch]

Walter: That’s right. I think he’s the primary voice who anticipated all of this. It seems to me he is vindicated over and over and over again, that technology is not neutral, but that it brings an ideology with it.

Dan: I’m more familiar with that from Niebuhr, who resists the “technic,” he says, and is more oriented to political science and economics, and stuff like that, but also I’ve read a lot of science fiction, when I was a kid, and they raise some of those very same issues. There was one book I was reading where people could receive upgrades in their genetics. The parents could buy upgrades for their kids when they were born, which raises the very interesting question of class stratification.

Walter: And now that kind of idea doesn’t sound at all fantastic.

Dan: No, as a matter of fact, we’re seeing something of that with the sex selection in India and China, almost eugenic kind of selection.

Walter: And the whole health care thing where rich people have access. That’s got to make a difference in longterm maintenance of genes and all that.

Dan: That’s a trend that’s been accelerated, but it’s by no means a new one. I remember someone saying that we all have some royal blood in us because royalty tends to survive and their families go on to make more kids.

Walter: Right. Right. [laughing]

Dan: Turning to another subject: then there’s the militarist script. I wrote in the book about torture at some length, going from some of William Cavanaugh’s ideas about what torture is and how it’s produced. As you know, he has this very interesting idea that torture is a technique that produces its own justification: because we have to do something so awful to these people proves how bad they are and that we have to do it in the first place. There’s this kind of circular logic to it.

Walter: I read a book by James Bradley called The Imperial Cruise. It’s about Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy. He has photographs in that book of US soldiers waterboarding Filipinos in 1905.

Dan: And they were jailed for it.*

Walter: They were jailed for it?

Dan: At least some of them were. Because that was illegal. Well, it’s still illegal, but…

Walter: But we’ve been at it a while.

Dan: Right. But Cavanaugh—among others, I think it’s Darius Rejali—documents how those techniques spread from the Philippines and within a very short time, you start to see them in US jails, as those soldiers come home.

Walter: I didn’t know that. It’s not surprising, but I didn’t know it.

Dan: There’s a University of Wisconsin professor named Alfred McCoy who talks about how the CIA takes these Chinese and Russian torture techniques and there’s a manual produced to show how to resist those for US soldiers. And they reverse-engineer those and start teaching people how to apply those ever more precisely to break down people. That’s what gets taught at the School of the Americas. It’s this fascinating story about how we literally become those people we fear and despise.

But as I go on, I develop that same idea that you have that militarism is there to protect those other elements and further it. Are you one of those folks who question the need for such a large defense budget?

Walter: Of course. I think you need a defense, and you need a budget to pay for it, but I am persuaded of the argument that empires fall because they spend themselves into destruction over the military. It’s incredible how in the last three months it’s like suddenly Republicans have suddenly discovered the deficit, but the deficit was kept off the books by George Bush for the wars. I heard a guy the other day say on NPR, “We will stay in Afghanistan until we can’t afford it anymore. We will never find a reason to leave, we will never arrive at a victory, but we will finally have to quit.” I think the judgment that we can’t afford it—we’re probably not very far from that.

Dan: I think I saw the figure the other day that it costs us about a million dollars for every insurgent we’ve killed in Afghanistan. **

Walter: It’s so crazy.

Dan: It’s unreal. I was very surprised when I started the book, it took a while, but I started writing about people who were critiquing the size of the military budget and starting to ask those questions about why it’s so large. Would you know it, by the time I got done writing the book, there’s Barney Frank, the US Representative, Alan Grayson, Ron Paul, saying the same thing. It’s just amazing how fast that has become a mainstream critique.

Walter: Yup, yup.

Dan: So it sounds like we’re not all that far apart on militarism.

Walter: No, not far apart at all, I would think.

Dan: Are there other ways that that plays out that you see? Or is it really just the size and scale of the empire that has caught your attention?

Walter: Well, I think it then permeates everything else in terms of force being the way you settle every question and the way in which militarism, that ideology, crowds out any commitment to social welfare, or even any compassion that would lie behind a welfare program. So I think it is an elemental distortion of our value system. So it’s not simply that we ought not to have these bases or have these troops or these weapons, it really is the ideology of militarism that pervades everything.

For a while I would write a letter of protest every time I went to a movie and there was an ad for the Marines. What strikes me now is that it’s so normal. It’s just like selling soap, and you assume, of course we should have those kinds of ads.

Dan: And they’re not having to do as hard a sell anymore with the economy in the toilet.

Well, you mention that ideology of militarism, and of course ideology confers an identity: part of what makes us Americans, according to that ideology, is our support for the armed forces, and you’re never more American than those who have fought and died for our way of life.

Walter: And what this continual war does is that it continues to produce voters of these people and their families and so on who sustain a political commitment to all that stuff. It seems to me it gets increased exponentially so that to be able to think about policy or politics outside that ideology is increasingly difficult.

Dan: Because there’s so little alternative identity. You may have heard that Goshen College recently agreed to start playing the national anthem before their sporting events.

Walter: I read that. When Goshen does that, school is out.

Dan: That’s right. That’s the last line of defense, as it were.

Walter: Well, I hadn’t thought of it like that, but that’s a marvelous illustration of what we’re talking about.

Dan: About how pervasive it is. And I’m sure you know from your time in the church how that kind of infects the church, so you have to have the flag in the church, you have to recognize those patriotic holidays in worship and salute the men and women in the service.

Walter: The biggest Presbyterian church in Atlanta—I think 14,000—I don’t know whether they still do, because they’ve got a new pastor—but every Sunday when the offering was brought forward, they sang either “My Country Tis of Thee” or something like that.

Dan: A patriotic hymn.

Walter: During the offering.

Dan: Wow.

Walter: And it was done shamelessly. They didn’t even get it.

Dan: Once you get into that habit, that’s a hard one to break.

Walter: Oh, to break it is… I heard the story of this pastor that worked and worked to get the flag out of the sanctuary, and then ten years later came back for an anniversary and the flag was back in. He asked somebody about it and a layman said, “Oh, every time a new pastor comes, we organize a lottery about how long it will take him to get it out. Because as soon as he leaves, we’re going to put it back in.”

Dan: John Thomas wrote this wonderful piece about saying the Pledge of Allegiance in Church, and how on the one hand, how offensive that is, and difficult to put up with, but on the other hand, he’s proud to be an American, and his commitment to being part of the church is to stay in covenant with that church, even in those moments when he profoundly disagrees with them. I thought that was a wonderful illustration of those ambiguities and how hard it is to stay in covenant with one another.


Dan: Well, speaking of covenant, we were talking about those alternative identities, and I wanted to talk about your new book, Journey to the Common Good for a little bit. I haven’t read the whole thing, but it seems like the thesis is pretty much that we find those kind of new identities as neighbors in that journey through scripture, through that narrative. Is that right?

Walter: That’s right, I think, insofar as the Bible or the Old Testament is telling the tale of covenant, and it really is a protest against the raw power of Pharaoh or all those ideologies that are like that.

Dan: And it’s one that takes a long time to play out, that protest. Let me ask first, you said you had some sympathies with that post-liberal project. Do you tend toward that Hauerwas and Yoder stream of alternative witness within the church?

Walter: Yup, yup, I’m very much influenced by that. What I learned from Doug Hall… a Canadian Reformed theologian. What he said was that the Hauerwas line calls you to withdraw from society. And Doug said that for Reformed people, withdrawal from society is correct, but it’s a first move and the second move that Hauerwas does not make, is to move back into society with transformative energy. So disengagement and re-engagement, and I think it’s right for our Reformed tradition.

Dan: Right. It’s absolutely fascinating how—just to do the intellectual history for a moment—how that comes out of that kind of Swiss and lower German reformation, and not Lutheranism. But it persists and it comes through the Evangelical and Reformed Church, among other places—and the Congregationalists pick up on it in their own way.

It’s funny to me, because I think Hauerwas would resist that idea of withdrawing from society very much. He’d say, “No, no, we’re not withdrawing, we’re engaging in a different way.”

Walter: But insofar as he appeals to the Mennonite tradition of Yoder, it is to some extent a withdrawal: we don’t participate in the political process. I understand, you maintain another kind of presence, but yeah.

Dan: On a certain level Yoder, of course, would not have been very interested in that question at all. He’d just say, “Well Mennonites do what Mennonites do, whether that’s a withdrawal or an alternative witness doesn’t make any difference.”

How do we find that kind of covenant or invite people into that covenant in a world that seems very much structured against it?

Walter: That’s the big question that’s in front of the church. I incline to think that it’s rooted in the eucharist, that the eucharist is the model of shared abundance. I think the African Americans in the United Church of Christ have it right: they call it the “welcome table.” The table of military consumerism is not welcoming, so that the eucharist really contradicts that.

Dan: To go back to Cavanaugh for a minute, he has this really interesting idea that the nation-state—which is pretty much what you call the “national security state”—has this need to enforce sharp boundaries. Coming out of that is his understanding of torture as constructing these radically separated identities, and the purpose of torture is to destroy community, which the eucharist then restores.

Walter: Which is the main argument of his book, isn’t it.

Dan: Right.

Walter: I was at a meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches about the church and the environmental crisis (this was long before Al Gore). We were all wringing our hands and saying “There’s nothing we can do,” and a Czech theologian who was there said, “There’s always something you can do. If you cannot do anything else, you can celebrate the eucharist.” He is letting the eucharist be a modeling of how you construe the world as a neighborhood. But then the eucharist has to be rescued from a privatized sin/salvation theology, where I think most people understand it.

Dan: That theme is still present even in the Episcopal church, the Anglican tradition, though they have some wonderful models that come out of New Zealand of how that’s a public, communal celebration.

Walter: There’s a lot more to do about that.

Dan: In a sense, that brings us full circle, because where I end Changing the Script is to talk about ways that people can resist the military script. One of them is to seek diversity within the church, because that kind of authoritarian system can’t abide diversity within itself. So when you fight for same-sex equality within the church, or women’s ordination within the church, or making a racially diverse church, you’re depriving that authoritarianism of the oxygen that it needs.

Walter: Which comes to its pinnacle in the gay presence in the military, because the military cannot tolerate non-conformity, and probably the gender question is perhaps the most radical question of otherness that we can imagine.

Dan: The most fundamental. So we find hope in those new identities conferred upon us in the eucharist. How do you find hope in this kind of dire situation that we’re in these days?

Walter: [laughing] Well, I think two things. First, here and there, in every community, there are active hopers who do things. We’ve got a woman in our church—our church is in a coalition that helps operate an orphanage in Honduras, and a group from our church, a group of young people and a group of adults go down every year, and here’s this woman, she’s probably my age, she’s not young, and she goes down there every year. She spends ten days living in this orphanage. Well, it’s this huge act of hope. It’s not much, but we have to identify and celebrate those hopers, and the other thing is that I spend a lot of time studying the Bible. And the Bible is fundamentally a book of hope because the God who indwells the Bible will not be domesticated. That’s very Barthian.

Dan: That’s right. God’s otherness. I don’t know if you’ve read John Haught, who talks about the promise and mystery of God. It’s the self-revelation. He has this crazy idea that God lives in the future and progressively reveals more and that leads us on, and that’s what produces hope for us.

Walter: Which is that Advent theme.

Dan: Right. Well, one last question for you. You’ve talked several times, here today and in the Counterscript speech that kicked off this whole project, about that kind of partisan wrangling, those arguments we carry on with one another. What role does partisan engagement have for Christians?

Walter: We are inevitably strong advocates for what we think is right. What I’ve said in several places is that it is foolish for liberal Christians and conservative Christians to spend all of their energy against each other because the real challenge and the real adversary is this other script. When you think about this other script, compared to that, liberal and conservative Christians should be allies, given our differences. I sometimes think that the quarrels in the church are simply a smokescreen to keep from facing the hard questions. It’s easy to carry on those quarrels.

I gave an address to the Episcopal House of Bishops two years ago. The Bishops were concerned that the Episcopal Church is dividing into red and blue, and so you have red and blue parishes and red and blue priests and red and blue dioceses and all that. So the question the conflict was about is, how do red and blue Christians live together? I do think that the gospel has got to contain the ideological stress points among church people, because the real alternative is not red Christians to my blue Christianness, the real alternative is this narrative of death that is so powerful among us.