The poetry which subverts the prose

An artist has to seek an audience or a constituency and I think they are to be found among the wounded. And I think the wounded in our society are everywhere but we are schooled in denial, so I believe the hard task is to break the denial so that people can get in touch with their own pain.

And I think that art both ministers to people at the point of their pain, but may also be a way of penetrating the denial to be able to have a conversation about it in the first place.

I think that the pressure for certitude and absolutism is a kind of anxious frightened response to the reality of pain. We think we cannot bear it and so we protect ourselves from it by imagining that we don’t know about our own pain.

What we always discover is that if we can get access to our pain in a community that we trust, our pain almost always is bearable because the trustworthiness of our brothers and sisters will hold and is reliable and will not let us fall through.

And it seems to me that what good artistry has to do is to help us see or hear that our certitudes are mainly phoney, that life does not conform to our certitudes, that our absolutes are much less than absolute, because the force of stuff that comes underneath and our experience will not give in to that.

So when I think of the Old Testament I think that Job is the perfect model of that. Job’s friends are the practitioners of certitude and absolute orthodoxy and Job’s artistry keeps coming underneath that to protest against that certitude.

I don’t quite know how it works in the book of Job but I believe that God in the Whirlwind Speeches is also something of an artist; that he moves in big images and questions and invites a first think about things. That seems to me to be a place in which the poetry wants to subvert the world of the prose in which the friends live.

That’s how my mind works about it. And if we think at all about the church, it is historically and intrinsically an artistic operation. It always struck me in the little rural church where I grew up that no matter how flat or unimaginative and prosaic the life of the village was, we had that organ music on Sunday morning. And what that organ music did was to create space to ponder the stuff that didn’t fit the formulae.

And by and large, the language of the church and the language of liturgy is essentially artistic language. We flattened it so the work it seems to me, first of all, is to help people see that what has been entrusted to us is artistic from the bottom up. And if people are caught up in dogmatism or moralism, they tend not to notice how artistic it all is.

Walter Brueggeman


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