Walter Brueggemann Recites Psalm 146
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Sometimes we have to make some difficult cuts for a one-hour show, but, with Walter Brueggemann, a kind of rock star in the theological world, it becomes even more challenging. The audio above includes one of these behind-the-scenes moments.
When Krista asked him to read a biblical verse that means something special to him, he responded by reading an excerpt of Psalm 146. Why he chose it and his explanation is even more intriguing.
Listen in and let us know how you react to his understanding of these verses.
Phyllis Trible has taught us that the Hebrew word for ‘mercy’ is the word for ‘womb’ with different vowel points. And so mercy, she suggested, is womb-like mother love. And it is the capacity of the mother to totally give one’s self over to the need and reality and identity of child. And mutatis mutandis then, mercy is the capacity to give one’s self away for sake of neighborhood. Now none of us do that completely. But it makes a difference if the quality of social transactions have to do with the willingness to give one’s self away for the sake of the other rather than the need to always be drawing all of the resources to myself for my own well-being.
So it is this kind of generous connectedness to others — and then I think our task is to see how translates in to policy…I think that a community or a society finally cannot live without the quality of mercy. The problem for us is what will initiate that? What will break the pattern of self-preoccupation enough to notice the others are out there and we’re attached to them?
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
—Franz Kafka, from a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904.
Walter Brueggemann loosely cited this passage from Kafka in our interview being released this week and so, while fact-checking the script, we thought we’d verify for attribution. And, we wanted to read what he originally wrote. Following is the German version from which the English was translated:
"Ich glaube, man sollte überhaupt nur solche Bücher lesen, die einen beißen und stechen. Wenn das Buch, das wir lesen, uns nicht mit einem Faustschlag auf den Schädel weckt, wozu lesen wir dann das Buch? Damit es uns glücklich macht, wie Du schreibst? Mein Gott, glücklich wären wir eben auch, wenn wir keine Bücher hätten, und solche Bücher, die uns glücklich machen, könnten wir zur Not selber schreiben. Wir brauchen aber die Bücher, die auf uns wirken wie ein Unglück, das uns sehr schmerzt, wie der Tod eines, den wir lieber hatten als uns, wie wenn wir in Wälder verstoßen würden, von allen Menschen weg, wie ein Selbstmord, ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich."
Photo by Celeste RC/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0