Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Renowned Scholar

Walter Brueggemann '55 brings the Bible to life as a leading authority on the Old Testament.

It began more than a half-century ago in Blackburn, Missouri. Walter Brueggemann got a job baling hay. He was in the seventh grade and proud to be a working man. He climbed on the back of a hay-baler and rode, sneezing and coughing, as it kicked up the Saline County soil. “It was like spending all day in a dust storm,” Brueggemann remembers.

It wasn’t his only job. He hired out as a farm hand for the corn and dairy operations around Blackburn, in west central Missouri. He drove a team of horses, and if you’ve never tried such a thing, Brueggemann would like you to know that driving a team of horses is hell on teenage arms. Later, in Blackburn High School, he got a job at a filling station. Every day after class he pumped gas until 9:00 p.m.

In time he graduated from baling hay and pumping gas to markedly more cerebral work. For decades now he has worked as a scholar and teacher, wrestling with scripture—as Brueggemann puts it, he’s a “Bible man.” He writes books and articles and sermons about the Old Testament, trying to show how its musty old stories and poems can help us make sense of our lives, and maybe even change our lives. It’s the work he chose years ago, not long after he left Blackburn; at some point, the work became the abiding passion of his life. “It’s what I spend most of my time thinking about, every day,” he says.

Walter Brueggemann was drawn to the Old Testament even as a boy. Here members learning the story of David and Goliath—the world’s first and best underdog story—about a runt with a slingshot who turned out to be capable of great things when given the chance. Sometimes it seems that Brueggemann regards the Old Testament itself as something of an underdog—too often overlooked and neglected, but capable of great things when given the chance. His work has been largely about remedying the neglect of the Old Testament. “If you neglect the Old Testament, you miss out on so many of the great themes, and you end up with a distorted view of the New Testament,” he says.

Brueggemann is not just another Bible man. He is widely acknowledged as “perhaps the foremost Christian scholar of the Hebrew Bible,” as the Cleveland Plain Dealer called him. At this mature point in his career, the accolades pour in for him like raves for a Hollywood blockbuster. “There is no scripture scholar in America who sells more books or informs more sermons,” says Mark Thiessen Nation, of the London Mennonite Center. “If there is any one author every preacher should have in his or her library, it should be Walter Brueggemann.”

Jane Fisler-Hoffman, of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, is a former student of Brueggemann’s. “When we pastors are at our best,” she says, “we do what he does—wrestle with the Word and look at the world around us, and put the two together in ways that matter and touch lives.”

Now, after a long and useful and extraordinarily productive career, Brueggemann is getting ready to retire. That just might be the most difficult task he has tackled yet. “It occurs to me now that all I’ve ever done, all my life,” he says, “is work.” To find the source of a career of such determination and achievement, it may be that you have to go back to the days spent amid choking dust on a hay-baler back in Blackburn. That is where Brueggemann started working, after all, and he hasn’t stopped since. He still teaches his full load at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia, near Atlanta. Three or four times a month he travels to lecture or preach. In between he writes books. Don’t ask how many books he’s written. No one really knows, not even Brueggemann himself. His curriculum vitae lists sixty-two titles. But that’s only a good guess, because his work gets repackaged and translated into other languages so often that it’s hard to tell where one book ends and another begins. Whatever the actual number, it’s an absurdly prolific output, and if you want to know how such a thing is done, listen to the author and erstwhile hay-baler explain. “I live,” Walter Brueggemann says, “in a state of exhaustion.”

You remember the Old Testament. You remember the Bible stories you learned as a kid. The plagues, the flood, the coat of many colors. The snake and the apple. The gorgeous poetry of the Psalms.

All that just scratches the surface, of course. The Old Testament is a vast assemblage put together over thousands of years, an attempt to chronicle the long history of a group of desert tribes and their relationship with their creator. Let’s be honest: that history doesn’t always make for edge-of-your-seat reading. When was the last time you delved into the Book of Habakkuk? There are those endless begats, the patriarchs with the unpronounceable names, and the sheer strangeness of the language. What exactly is a cubit?

Tellingly, it was the very strangeness of the Old Testament that appealed to Walter Brueggemann, even as a boy in Bible study. “It was like entering another world, a little like Narnia, but not quite,” he says, referring to the peculiar otherworld of the C. S. Lewis stories. “It fascinated me from the beginning, and it still interests me as a scholar—precisely because it is unfamiliar. It’s impossible to be jaded by the familiarity.”

Back in Blackburn, Brueggemann grew up in a world bound by tradition and wedded to the familiar. His father was the pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church, a small, tight-knit community that clung fiercely to its German-American roots. When Pastor Brueggemann urged the congregation to abandon German and make English its official language, he caused an uproar. “German was the language of the faith and it could not be given up,” the pastor’s son remembers. “It became an almost endless conflict, and a vicious one. What I recall is my father’s courage in taking that position.”

Being a pastor’s son in a rural parsonage imposed certain limitations on Walter. For one, it meant that he would never be Blackburn’s most popular boy. “It simply was not socially permissible to have too many friends, because the pastor and his family could not afford to be too closely connected, or to take sides in disputes. You were just never unaware that you were the preacher’s kid.” His social world thus circumscribed, Walter developed two passions. He played basketball (“fifteen months a year”), and he read books.His father was his “first and best teacher.” For two years, every Saturday morning, father and son studied, drilled, and memorized together to prepare for Walter’s confirmation in the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Walter was 14 when the day came. He stood before the congregation and answered the catechism questions put to him one by one by his pastor-father. Then the elder Brueggemann read a Bible verse he had selected for the occasion.

The confirmation verse was a tradition in the church. “The idea was for the pastor to try to match the verse to the confirmand,” Walter explains. The verse was meant to attach itself to the person; it was to be read not only at his confirmation but also at his funeral, and at every special occasion in between. It was “a verse to mark one’s life.” For his son’s confirmation verse, Pastor Brueggemann selected Psalm 119, verse 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

“Of course, my father didn’t know that I would become a Bible scholar,” Walter acknowledges. Nevertheless, the verse marked a turning point for the son. His confirmation day, he says, was the “defining moment of my attachment to the Bible.” From that point forward, he was symbolically “bound to the Book.” Coming from an accomplished contemporary scholar, that statement is surprising in a way. Psalm 119, verse 105 is hardly a formula for detached intellectual probing and questioning. It is about obedience and devotion—not the values we sometimes associate with modern scholarship. For Brueggemann, however, that is the point. He is both scholar and believer, and anything but detached in his relationship to his work. His double role raises the stakes for him. As scholar and believer, his task is not only to illuminate the text, but also to help the text illuminate the way of his fellow believers. “There are those who would dismiss your work as ‘not real scholarship’ because you are a believer,” Brueggemann notes. “But I decided early on who I was going to be writing for. I was going to be a scholar for the church.”

In practice, this means that Brueggemann’s most devoted readers are not his fellow academics but his fellow ministers. His seemingly inexhaustible output of Old Testament analysis serves as a resource for countless Sunday sermons. His work occupies a place of prominence in the libraries of pastors because it renders the otherwise remote and inaccessible world of the Old Testament timely and pertinent. For Brueggemann, the strange words and images of the distant past nourish our ability to imagine a better future.

In his 1978 book The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann explores how the activities of prophets in the Hebrew tradition provide a kind of road map for contemporary ministers. Like prophets, he argues, ministers must not only criticize the status quo but also energize their communities to imagine alternatives. “Prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation,” he writes. “Rather, prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality.”

“Karl Barth said something about preaching with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” says Thomas Walker, theologian-in-residence and associate pastor at the Second Presbyterian Church, in Indianapolis. “That’s Walter. This is no academic exercise for him. It’s about a way of living in the world. I think Walter’s work has pointed out how we need to recover the ability to think biblically, to envision other realities for ourselves.”

“His work links the thought world and the church world—and that’s rare,” says Jane Fisler-Hoffman, the minister and Brueggemann’s former student. “I think he has so radically influenced us all that his work has become part of who we are. I’m not sure we notice it or appreciate his influence fully.”

Beyond his impact as a writer, Brueggemann has shaped generations of ministers in more than forty years of teaching at seminaries. He is now William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. He lives near the seminary with Mary Bonner Miller, his wife of forty-one years. When his former students gather, they bond over memories of his lecture style: hand gestures punctuating his thoughts, half-glasses perched on the end of his nose. Fisler-Hoffman remembers seeing him mount his classroom desk to impersonate an alert watchman during a discussion of the exile’s return.

“Walter doesn’t sit still when he’s talking about scripture,” says Walker. “With some people, that sort of thing is an act. With Walter, it’s real. It’s a result of the passion he has for the subject. It excites him, and he’s able to pass that energy on to his students, as he did for me.”

“Believe me, Walter doesn’t have to stand on a desk to get your attention,” says Fisler-Hoffman. “Teaching is a personal commitment for him,” she adds. “I feel sad for the students of the future who won’t have the benefit of his teaching.”

In 1951, Walter Brueggemann, along with six classmates, was graduated from Blackburn High School. That fall he made his way to Elmhurst College, five hundred miles from home. The peaceable campus may as well have been midtown Manhattan. “The place seemed very large to me, very intimidating,” he remembers. Walter’s enrollment at Elmhurst was almost inevitable. It was the college of choice for the sons of pastors in the Evangelical and Reformed Church. His older brother had arrived at the College a couple years earlier, smoothing the way for Walter. Still, making the move from a tiny rural high school to a competitive college, a few miles west of the nation’s second-largest city, wasn’t easy for him. “I had no idea, for example, that you were supposed to bring a notebook to class and take notes,” he says. “I was just woefully unprepared.”

Majoring in sociology, Brueggemann studied with Theophil W. Mueller, a legendary professor who saw education as “a way of social and personal redemption,” in the words of his great friend, Dr. Rudolf G. Schade. Mueller “was a crotchety, unaccommodating teacher,” Brueggemann remembers, “but we adored him.” Preoccupied with surviving the transition to college life, Bruggemann found time for little beyond his familiar pursuits—basketball, study, and work, not necessarily in that order. To defray his expenses he landed a job washing dishes in the Commons. He also spent hours doing odd jobs around the gym. He never went out for varsity athletics. He never dated. He kept his nose clean. The first time his roommate came home drunk from a party, Brueggemann knew the pairing wouldn’t work. “I suppose I was so aware of all my deficits, my lack of preparation, that all my energy went into trying to succeed,” Brueggemann says. “I know I missed a lot that way, but that’s the way it was.”

Characteristically, it was a book that enlarged Brueggemann’s circumscribed world. The book was Moral Man and Immoral Society, by Reinhold Niebuhr, Class of 1910. It was not an assigned book for class; Brueggemann doesn’t remember how he got his hands on it. He does remember reading it on a pleasant spring day in his sophomore year on a bench in front of Irion Hall. What he absorbed so unsettled him that he had to read the book a second time on the spot. “What it said was that people were good one at a time, as individuals,” Brueggemann says. “But when they act in concert, they get devious and immoral. I was shocked. I was innocent, a nice liberal student who thought that everyone did good. That book changed everything. It caused me to read the newspaper differently, to listen in class differently. It sent me in the direction of scholarship that has turned out to define my work.”

His intellect and imagination thus awakened, he got the hang of college-level study and began planning to attend seminary.

In 1955, the College awarded him the bachelor of arts degree summa cum laude. The speaker at the 1955 commencement was the distinguished theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, Class of 1912, a former president of Elmhurst College and the younger brother of the celebrated author of Moral Man and Immoral Society. “I was probably too young to appreciate the event,” Brueggemann says, “but I could see that he had a kind of quiet authority. When he spoke, you listened.”

Forty-two years later, Walter Brueggemann returned to the Elmhurst campus that had so awed him as a 17-year-old. The occasion was the 1997 commencement. This time, the speaker was another distinguished theologian, Walter Brueggemann. In the years since his own commencement, Brueggemann had studied at Eden Theological Seminary near St. Louis, and had completed his doctoral work at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Reinhold Niebuhr served on the faculty. Ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ, Brueggemann had taught at Eden for twenty-five years, then at Columbia, and had written his small yet substantial library of books.

Delivering a commencement address can be a dubious reward for a life of noteworthy achievement. It is an opportunity to speak to a group of people in flowing gowns and tasseled hats, a substantial portion of which would rather be getting on with the post-graduation partying. Of course, Brueggemann, the erstwhile hay-baler, gas pumper, and dishwasher, was not one to give short shrift to any assignment, and he engaged his task at Elmhurst College with his customary intelligence and diligence. He was not long into his address when he told his listeners about his youthful epiphany on the bench in front of Irion Hall all those years ago. He told them about Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work had so unsettled him that day, and about Richard Niebuhr, whose work was equally challenging to complacent minds. Then he told them a Bible story—the story of Jezebel and Ahab, the royal couple who cheated the honest farmer Naboth out of his land before getting their comeuppance at the hands of the prophet Elijah. It was a story, Brueggemann said, that the Niebuhrs, with their deep Elmhurst roots, would have appreciated.

“There is, in the memory and in the vision and in the bones and buildings of this College, a passion for justice that is not seduced by market values or by greed or by cheap linguistic euphemisms,” he said. That was exactly why he wanted to share the story with the graduating class of Elmhurst College. “The reason we treasure these stories is that they remind us that there is a depth to our common life, a depth rooted in holiness that cannot be safely violated.” Others may not be worried about injustice and greed, Brueggemann reminded his audience. “But we daughters and sons of this place know and notice and care, because of the stories that keep ringing in our ears.”

It was an elegant address, modest in scale but generous with insights. Most likely many of the new graduates were like the Walter Brueggemann of forty-two years earlier—listening politely, even attentively, but not quite prepared to absorb a pronouncement of depth and subtlety on a day of celebration and release. Still, it’s possible that one or two or a few in the audience heard Brueggemann’s stories and were unsettled. Perhaps they, like him, will keep returning to listen and to tell and to find fresh meanings in those stories. Stories that keep ringing.

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