Brueggemann, in his book[ref]Walter Brueggemann. The Creative Word.[/ref] The Creative Word, focuses on the Torah as he declares the following five beliefs about a story.
Story is concrete
Biblical stories are about particular persons in particular times and places.
Story is open-ended in its telling
Brueggemann believes that the community of Israel was not interested in a static meaning or flat memories for Israel’s new generation. Rather, she was concerned about creating a context, evoking a perception, forming a frame of reference that went beyond and did not depend on any particular version or nuance of any particular narrative. The storyteller requires fidelity, however, by knowing the boundaries of form and plot and characters.[ref]Brueggemann, The Creative Word. 23.[/ref] Brueggemann appears to be saying that the boundaries are literary and he remains unclear about the historical.
Story In Israel Was Intended for the Practice of Imagination
Brueggemann believes that the speaker has as much freedom as the hearer in deciding what is happening in a story. He says:
…there is no straight-line communication of data from speaker to listener. There is an open field of speech between the parties that admits to many alternative postures. This means that the listener has nearly as much freedom as the speaker in deciding what is happening. The listener is expected to work as resiliently as the teller. The communication between the two parties is a bonding around images, metaphors, and symbols that are never flattened to coercive instruction. Israel has enormous confidence in its narrative speech, sure that the images and metaphors will work their own way, will reach the listener at the point of his or her experience, and will function with a claiming authority. Such communication is shared practice of the secret which evokes imagination.” It includes the listener in the secret, thus forcing the awareness of an insider. And it serves to draw a line on the other side of the listener, distancing the listener from all the outsiders who do not know the secret.” That is, once the secret is known, it cannot be not known. The telling of the secret evokes imaginative work in the listener. Thus the practice of imagination moves, on the one hand, with liberation. The listener has freedom to hear and decide, and is expected to decide. On the other hand, however, the story moves with authority to claim people for the inside. The authority that moves through it is not only the authority of the teller, but also the authority of the story. Israel’s imagination is liberated and liberating. That does not mean unlimited and undisciplined, as though anything goes. The imagination of Israel is circumscribed by the scope of the stories about which there is consensus. Israel has a covenant with its tongue that the evoking of imagination does not move outside this consensus. We shall see that in the other parts of Israel’s canon, there is a breaking beyond this consensus. For the Torah, however, it is enough to accept the consensus and to move around in it fully. It is the consensus on which stories are based that defines the arena for free imagination.[ref]Brueggemann, The Creative Word. 24.[/ref]
If Brueggemann is saying, and it is unclear to me, that there is no historical setting behind the story, then I would disagree. I am not yet convinced that history and grammar are to be given up in our quest to hear the meaning of a story. Surely, the storytellers told their stories within a context with a purpose in mind and the collectors of these stories via inscripturating then place them in a certain order for a purpose. The author(s) of the Pentateuch did not start with the story of the Exodus, as important as it was, but placed it in its context for some purpose. I often wonder if those who espouse a “reading from in front” of the text would allow those reading their text to make of it what they will. I think not!
Stories In Israel Are Characteristically Experiential
By experiential Brueggemann does not mean personalized or privatized in the immediate time frame. Rather, he speaks of stories that were the public experience of Israel, a notion that is not easy in a culture beset by narcissistic individualism and subjectivity.
For Israel, the personal immediate experience was not adequate for life. Some community shapes perception and governs personal experience. To speak of a personal experience that is private is to be deceived. “As there is no ’presuppositionless exegesis’ of the text, so there is no ’presuppositionless experience’ of life. For Israel, these stories were “a counter experience, a subversive alternative to an imperial consensus. Every time Israel told one of its stories, it meant an assault on and refutation of other stories. This point is well lost in the Western church. “We have become gently benign, as though our stories were simply casual alternatives to some others that are also worthy of consideration.” The stories of Israel were meant “to dismantle alternative worlds as well as to construct new ones for the listening community.”[ref]Brueggemann. The Creative Word. 25-26.[/ref]
History and Grammar Are Important
At this point, I am still persuaded that history and grammar cannot be totally laid aside in favor of one’s own imagination. What do we mean by Historical-Grammatical? It is the study of history and grammar surrounding the biblical account/Story. Each biblical document must be studied in its own context that includes language, types of literature, historical background, geographical conditions, and the life-setting of the people, in order to discover that meaning.
It is my opinion that there is an interaction between the Old Testament and its ancientness, the New Testament and its first centuriness, and the church and me in all its twenty-first centuriness when I hear its stories. How do I understand the story? By using all the tools of historical exegesis to enable me to hear the words of the Old and New Testaments’ writers and writings as their first readers and hearers might have read and heard them, catching the full meaning intended by the writers, but always with an ear open for the unexpected word of God through the writers of the Old and New Testaments, challenging my own twenty-first centuriness and all its presuppositions and perceptions. The late William Lane captures this idea well in the introduction to his commentary on Mark.
Only gradually did I come to understand that my primary task as a commentator was to listen to the text, and to the discussion it has prompted over the course of the centuries, as a child who needed to be made wise. The responsibility to discern truth from error has been onerous at times. When a critical or theological decision has been demanded by the text before I was prepared to commit myself, I have adopted the practice of the Puritan commentators in laying the material before the Lord and asking for his guidance. This had made the preparation of the commentary a spiritual as well as an intellectual pilgrimage through the text of the Gospel. In learning to be sensitive to all that the evangelist was pleased to share with me, I have been immeasurably enriched by the disciple of responsible listening.[ref]William Lane. The Gospel According to Mark. xii.[/ref]