Book Review: Re-describing Reality: What we do when we read the Bible

Author: Walter Brueggemann

Publication: London: SCM Press, 2009.

Summary:  In this book, leading Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the methodological approach he uses for interpreting Scripture and provides a number of extended examples from the Old Testament. He argues that the biblical text creates a world where YHWH is the key character, a world that is not as others say it to be, and that reframes all our understandings in its light. Interpreting the text therefore involves the imagination, as we seek to bring this text into contact with the world as we have previously accepted it. He deals with some of the dangers inherent in biblical interpretation including the temptations to reduce the text to a “closed package of settled truth,” or to privatise it as a resource for personal life and overlook its communal dimensions.

Brueggemann outlines a three step procedure of interpretation he teaches his students to use:

  1. Force of Imagination (Rhetorical Analysis): a close reading of the text considering its rhetoric and persuasion;
  2. Hosting of Intertextuality (Key Word Analysis): locating other uses of words and ideas within Scripture that illuminate their usage in the specific passage under consideration;
  3. Pondering of Ideology (Social Analysis): paying attention to the ideological disputes in both ancient Israel and our own society that shape and inform our understanding of the text.

Brueggemann does not believe that there can be a one-size-fits-all approach to biblical interpretation, but instead allows the genre, context and intention of a text to determine his focus. For example, he finds the idea of dividing narratives into scenes like a screenplay helpful, whereas with the prophets he looks at the summons issued as a key to understanding, and in the Psalms it might be reiterated images and patterns that stand out.

Evaluation: On one hand, this book is quite easy to read – it is shorter and less “textbook-like” than many of Brueggemann’s other works. On the other hand, it is a book that is not at all simplistic and will open many questions and possibilities for the reader – it contains huge theological ideas as well as engagement with a broad range of perspectives.

The chapter on “counter-testimony”, a key idea in Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament, is perhaps the most dense as he considers other approaches to the difficult passages of the OT, but it provides a helpful entree into his wider theological thinking. He is at his best when he unpacks a text from Jeremiah in a way that moves beyond concepts and propositions to the persuasive force of images and metaphors.

Brueggemann’s key encouragement to the interpreter is to read Scripture itself, rather than falling into the danger of primarily reading about it, and his examples demonstrate possibilities for doing so in ways that even those who are very familiar with the Bible may find inspiring.

Brueggemann’s emphasis is on the transformative potential of the biblical text. He is troubled by the tendency among both conservatives and liberals to “parcel scripture out into its preferred elements” and seeks instead to allow the text to lead him wherever it will. He sees biblical interpretation as a task that the church must re-engage in continually. He concludes that the ongoing task for interpreters is to “resist the seduction of making things normal, routine, and business as usual,” and this book should open readers up to that ongoing challenge.


Reviewed by: Melinda Cousins, Lecturer in Biblical Studies




One comment

  1. melindacousins · September 24, 2014

    Reblogged this on Thinking Out Loud … and commented:

    This is a book review I recently posted on Tabor MTC’s blog Manna.
    I love Brueggemann’s writing, and this is one of his most accessible books for new readers. I find his perspective on biblical interpretation really inspiring – that it is not merely reading a book, but rather redefining how we understand everything!

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