Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Theses Revisited: A Clarification from Brueggemann Himself

Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Theses Revisited: A Clarification from Brueggemann Himself April 15, 2014

In September 2005, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann sat with a group of church leaders for a theological discussion as a part of the Emergent Theological Conversation series. In my opinion, this is of the most innovative and fruitful contributions Emergent Village has made over the years. The secret was in the format: they would engage a world class scholar for a couple of days—Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Brueggemann, Miroslav Volf, Jurgen Moltmann to name a few—but instead of prepared lectures with a short Q & A, the theologian were invited into an extended conversation about not only their work, theology, biblical studies, philosophy, and culture, but also their life experiences—life life and person Ithe work. Tony Jones usually curated these conversations displaying a unique gift for drawing out the narrative at work behind the public person (This format uniquely suited some of Tony’s natural gifts, he’s really good at this).

Walter Brueggemann brought along a working document that he called his “Nineteen Theses,” a series of convictions he had developed over the years that he hoped would seed the discussion time. Since the day I heard him share these 19 theses, they have always been in the back of my mind, guiding much of my ministry life. I think he describes the task of ministry so well that there’s scarcely anything that could be done to improve upon it. Short, succinct, penetrating, these 19 theses can serve as the guiding agenda for a life leveraged in the service of the church.

Over the years the 19 Theses have been quoted, referenced, and repeated; listed, nearly always it seems, by listening to the recordings, and copying it down, or linking to someone who did the same. This has created an odd question for me: In his 3rd thesis, Brueggemman lists what he sees as the dominant narrative (what he calls a script), for American society. When he initially read the list, he says, “The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer milatarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative.” Then he immediately adds this comment, “I worked really hard on those four words, technological, therapeutic, military consumerism.”

I’ve probably listened to this presentation at least a dozen times over the years, and I’ve always wondered which list is correct. I listened to the whole lecture recently, and was interested to note that after than initial listing, and for the rest of the recording, Brueggemann never again uses “consumer militarism.” It’s always “military consumerism.” And, sometimes he short-hands all four with “military consumerism.” I’ve always thought he just misspoke on the initial listing and corrected himself the rest of the time.

I think it matters because a couple things could be happening: First, the final word in the list could be seen as bearing the most weight. If so it is the most important, and is somewhat modified by the other three. If that’s the case, then the order matters a great deal. What’s the heart of the script: consumerism or militarism? Second, the terms military and consumerism could be linked in this list, in which case the order doesn’t matter at all.

It bothered me enough that I reached out to Dr. Brueggemann to ask for a clarification (I’m commenting on it extensively in Shrink & wanted to get it right), and he gave me some important details. First he said that he’s not been totally consistent with it over the years as he wrestled with the language (a fact he mentioned in that original lecture). He wrote, “I’m inclined to agree with you that the final word should  be consumerism. But then I think again, because we are so militarized I think it could go either way, but would settle for consumerism as the final word.” He then told me to check an article he wrote for The Christian Century than contained the list, and said this should probably be the final form.

I had no idea the list was published. In fact, over the years I have looked for a published list, and have never found one. I’ve quoted from the 19 theses extensively, included pieces of this list in two books now, which means my footnoting has passed through several editors and none of us ever turned up the published form of his 19 theses. The article is called “Counterscript: Living With the Elusive God,” and it appeared in The Christian Century that same year, 2005. (Vol. 122, No. 24, November 29, 2005, pp.22-28). You can find the full article here. In it Brueggemann says the following:

“The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

* I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

* I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.

* I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.”

* The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”

So there you have it. The list should really read: “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism.” I’m very thankful to Walter Brueggemann for thinking about these again with me, and for pointing me toward the article.

Below I’ve listed the headings for each thesis from The Christian Century article. This, I believe, is the most succinct, complete, and accurate listing of his 19 Theses (and it’s interesting to see them in an alternate form… a couple of them read a bit differently). Below it, I’ve also listed the 19 Theses as he spoke them to the gathering in 2005, for sake of reference.

Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Theses – The Christian Century, 2005.

  1. Everybody has a script.
  2. We are scripted by a process of nurture, formation and socialization that might go under the rubric of liturgy.
  3. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.
  4. This script — enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television — promises to make us safe and happy.
  5. That script has failed.
  6. Health depends, for society and for its members, on disengaging from and relinquishing the failed script.
  7. It is the task of the church and its ministry to detach us from that powerful script.
  8. The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is undertaken through the steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we testify will indeed make us safe and joyous.
  9. The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and enacted through the tradition of the church.
  10. The defining factor of the alternative script is the God of the Bible, who, fleshed in Jesus, is variously Lord and Savior of Israel and Creator of heaven and Earth, and whom we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  11. The script of this God of power and life is not monolithic, one-dimensional or seamless, and we should not pretend that we have such an easy case to make in telling about this God.
  12. The ragged, disjunctive quality of the counterscript to which we testify cannot be smoothed out.
  13. The ragged, disputatious character of the counterscript to which we testify is so disputed and polyvalent that its adherents are always tempted to quarrel among themselves.
  14. The entry point into the counterscript is baptism.
  15. The nurture, formation and socialization into the counterscript with this elusive, irascible God at its center constitute the work of ministry.
  16. Ministry is conducted in the awareness that most of’ us are deeply ambivalent about the alternative script.
  17. The good news is that our ambivalence as we stand between scripts is precisely the primal venue for the work of God’s Spirit.
  18. Ministry and mission entail managing that in-escapable ambivalence that is the human predicament in faithful, generative ways.
  19. The work of ministry is indispensable.

Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Theses – The Emergent Theological Conversation, 2005.

  1. Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognized or unrecognized, but everybody has a script.
  2. We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialization, and it happens to us without our knowing it.
  3. The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative.
  4. That script, enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.
  5. That script has failed… the script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.
  6. Health for our society depends on disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.
  7. It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, too enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.
  8. The task of de-scripting, relinquishment, and disengagement is accomplished by a steady patient intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.
  9. The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-metanarrative, counter to the script of technological therapeutic military consumerism.
  10. That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature, its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, & Spirit.
  11. That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. (Who we conventionally name J,E,D, and P). But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence.
  12. The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless. [I think the writer of Psalm 119 would probably like too try, to make it seamless]. Because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated. [This is my polemic against systematic theology]. The script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, military consumerism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must betaken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.
  13. The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so too debilitate the force of the script.
  14. The entry point into the counter-script is baptism; whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?”
  15. The nurture, formation, and socialization into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialization by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighboring of all kinds.
  16. 16. Most of us are ambiguous about this script; those with whom we minister (and I dare say, those of us who minister), most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.
  17. This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit. So that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that evokes resistance and hostility.
  18. Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is equally present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of old script and embrace of new script.
  19. The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one [see if that’s an overstatement]; there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and to manage a way through it. I think often; I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you talk all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.
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