So much for dialogue

August 2nd, 2022

In her book No, You Shut Up, political commentator Symone Sanders recounts an interview she had on CNN with Chris Cuomo in conversation with Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, about the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville in August of 2017.

The debate got heated, and we began talking over each other. Cuccinelli accused me of jumping from one thing to another; I replied I was being factual, and he was hedging to avoid the heart of the issue.... Cuccinelli tried to redirect the conversation.... By that point I was fuming. “And now someone’s dead,” I cut in. Cuccinelli did not like that. “Can I finish, Symone? Will you just shut up for a minute and let me finish?” “Pardon me, sir,” I began, my voice getting louder.... “You don’t tell me to shut up on national television.” Cuomo agreed, and he said so. “Then how do you make them stop talking when they keep interrupting you?” Cuccinelli continued. “‘Them’? ‘They’?” I said. “I’m sitting right here!”[1]

So much for dialogue. The heated exchange offers a hard lesson on what to avoid in order to engage in genuine dialogue: “talking over” each other, accusation, interruption, changing the topic, and objectification, to name a few. Rather than about winning debates, Sanders’s timely book is about hosting “constructive, critical conversations” that welcome divergent viewpoints for the sake of “innovation,” “creativity,” and “change.”[2] The need for such dialogue, the kind that “reaches across the aisles” of division and counters the “othering” of others, is paramount for such a time as this. And how shall we describe this time in a word?

“Disruption” comes to mind, manifest on so many levels: physical, political, social, environmental, economic, existential. Perhaps 2020 will be considered the year of the “perfect storm” of disruptions, which assumes, of course, that the subsequent years will not be quite as bad—the evidence suggests that may not hold up.

Christians tend to mirror America’s culture wars. Worse, the Christian Bible, the church’s “founding document,” is often deployed to fuel division. James Calvin Davis identified in 2010 the “big four” issues that have divided Christians for many years: abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, and gay marriage.[3] One could add climate disruption and white supremacy. Over such issues, Christians have become strangers to each other, even within families.

Nevertheless, diverse and divided as they are, Christians profess their unity in Christ. Where, then, can such unity be found on the ground? Where should it be found? I propose at least one place of practice: the table of fellowship, where people of faith engage in good faith and in genuine dialogue across their ideological differences and cultural identities.[4] In addition to the church’s unity in Christ, the biblical precedent is strong for striving toward such dialogue. Far from recounting God’s curse against humanity, the “tower of Babel” story of Genesis 11:1-9 illustrates God’s embrace of cultural diversity. As its continuation, the Pentecost story in Acts 2:1-13 demonstrates God’s desire for the church to communicate the gospel across and within diverse cultures and communities, not at their expense but in their flourishing.[5] How can such communication take place for the sake of all cultures? Dialogically.

The need for Christians to engage in dialogue across political, cultural, racial, ideological, and theological divisions is dire. One would think that communities of faith could practice empathic ways of listening and self-searching dialogue leading to mutual understanding and even transformation. To do so, moreover, during this time of rancorous division and polarizing fear would be nothing short of prophetic—a clarion call to the world. But, alas, the fear of conflict and change, coupled with an unwillingness to engage in self-critical examination, continues to deter even faith communities from engaging in dialogue as the first step toward nurturing moral growth and transformation. Nevertheless, Christians have every good reason to engage in dialogue, and that reason comes first and foremost from the “Good Book.”

Many Christians are unaware that the Bible, inspired and foundational as it is, is itself an e pluribus unum, a work of theological and literary diversity. It is also, historically, a manifold response to monumental disruptions in the lives of communities, spanning centuries upon centuries of struggle, from military defeat and exile to occupation and imperial oppression.

Much of the Hebrew Bible was written in the wake of national disruption and trauma brought about particularly from the Babylonian invasion and destruction of Jerusalem (597–539 BCE).[6] The Northern Kingdom (“Israel”) had earlier fallen to the Assyrian Empire (722 BCE), with a substantial portion of its population deported and new ethnic groups settled in the land, resulting in complete cultural upheaval (2 Kgs 17:5-41).[7] The Southern Kingdom (“Judah”) survived for nearly a century and a half more before succumbing to the reigning superpower of the day, Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 BCE), whose “captain of the bodyguard,” Nebuzaradan, burned Jerusalem’s temple to the ground and destroyed its walls in 587 BCE (2 Kgs 25:8-10).

One historian’s estimate is that up to 25 percent of the population of Judah was exiled to Babylonia via at least three waves of deportation.[8] The Deuteronomistic history claims that only the “poorest people of the land” were left (2 Kgs 24:14; 25:12), while 2 Chronicles insists that the entire surviving population was deported and the land lay “desolate” to enjoy its “sabbath rest” (2 Chron 36:20-21). While historians continue to debate the extent of Israel’s collapse in the aftermath of Babylonian conquest, to say that many Israelite lives in the sixth century were “disrupted” would be an understatement. In response to such national trauma, an “almost frenzied literary production” took place, and in a host of genres.[9] Such production continued unabated beyond the exilic period, but often with a backward glance.

Social disruption in whatever form has a way of inspiring literary activity. The prolific Southern novelist Walker Percy was asked in 1962 why so many great writers have arisen from the American South. He answered with a mixture of shame and laughter, “Because we lost the war,”[10] which prompted another Southern writer Flannery O’Connor to write, “Dear Mr. Percy, I’m glad we lost the War.”[11] One must also acknowledge many Black authors from the South and the North, from Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who have confronted the horrific disruption of enslavement and its harrowing aftermaths, all wrought by the uniquely American caste system.[12]

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Much of ancient Israel’s literary activity codified in the Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures was driven by what one could call “pain seeking understanding.” And such understanding was by no means uniform: national trauma generated a wide variety of responses, from the psalmic laments to historical retellings, from short stories and sapiential lessons to prophetic pronouncements. As the product in part of disruption’s trauma, the Bible stands out for its literary diversity, including its conflicting viewpoints, all embedded in an overarching complexity forged from its divergent parts. Biblical scholar Seth Sanders observes that the Pentateuch is literarily unique in this regard, particularly in comparison to its ancient Mesopotamian counterparts. Genesis and Exodus, for example, are filled with incompatible yet parallel narratives that prove to be “glaringly inconsistent,”[13] resulting in an “incoherent interwoven source.”[14] “The interweaving of parallel variants of the same event” without any attempt to harmonize is the Pentateuch’s “most problematic and important feature.”[15]

“Problematic”? Sanders does not use the term pejoratively, although I would have preferred “unprecedented.” Put another way, the Pentateuch’s “problematic” incoherence is its badge of honor. Sanders argues that such inconsistencies result in a biblical text that is “radically incoherent, yet still strangely readable.”[16] Scripture’s “strange” readability, I would add, is part of its appeal. What Sanders calls problematic is one of the Bible’s most promising and powerful features for contemporary readers. Sanders does find one value in the Bible’s “incoherence”: he claims that in light of the conflicting flood stories in Genesis 6–9 and the divergent creation accounts in Genesis 1–3, “comprehensiveness trumps cohesion.”[17] The Pentateuchal authors and editors found great value in bringing together divergent accounts of common narrated events rather than settling on one consistent story or seeking a harmonized unity. The same could be said of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament, each one bearing its distinctive perspective(s). Our biblical editors and canonizers, in other words, recognized “the danger of a single story.”[18]

However, to claim “comprehensiveness” as the single driving force behind the Bible’s literary and theological diversity is open to question. I suspect that even as our ancient authors and editors masterfully wove to- gether divergent perspectives, they also, at the same time, rejected other possible viewpoints, even alternative traditions. To be more cautious, I would propose “relative inclusiveness” rather than complete “comprehensiveness,” recognizing that our biblical tradents rejected certain perspectives and traditions about God, such as YHWH having a female consort or arboreal cult object, which we know from archaeology was a widespread belief among Israelites.[19] The Bible embraces its theological diversity while also holding fast to certain nonnegotiable convictions regarding the character of Israel’s God.[20] We do not know all the objectives and motivations that were at play in the production of scripture, but we do know that the Bible’s composers were not slaves to consistency, as Sanders well points out. They excelled in preserving variant perspectives, accounts, and legal material, if only to a relative degree. The result is an expansive, eclectic sacred text, more an anthology than a book. The Bible is no echo chamber.

Why does the Bible preserve such a diversity of perspectives and traditions? In some cases, the Bible’s canonical inclusiveness is strikingly ironic: later traditions that were intended to replace earlier ones came to be bound together in fine codified fashion.[21] Even if “comprehensiveness” was a goal for the ancient editors of scripture, the question remains, why try to attain it? What purpose inspired such inclusivity? My guess is that eliciting dialogue was at least one critical aim,[22] if only from the simple fact that dialogue emerges when two or more differing perspectives are presented together without resolution or finalization. For ancient Israel, such dialogical diversity was, in part, a multifaceted way of understanding the disruptions it had suffered. With diversity as its “problematic” hallmark, the Bible itself could be called a “super-book.”

The same could be said of a particular corpus within the Bible: the book of Psalms, a “super-Psalter.” While typically viewed as a book of ancient prayers and hymns, the Psalter’s greatest hallmark is its theological and literary variety, providing some of the most dramatic examples of dialogical diversity set forth in scripture. The Psalter could easily have been less diverse and, hence, much shorter in length. Its 150 psalms (in MT; 151 in LXX or Greek Septuagint; 155 in the Syriac Bible) could have been more “cookie cutter” in its makeup, resulting in a much shorter Psalter. But no. The Psalter’s diversity is characterized not only by its various genres but more so by its content, as we shall see.

Being so wide ranging in its theological scope and diversity, the Psalter was aptly called by Martin Luther as “a little Bible” (eine kleine Biblia). In his 1545 (1528) “Preface to the Psalter,” Martin Luther gives his reasons:

The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly—and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom—that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible...almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book.... It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook. In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book.... There you will have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed, you will find in it also yourself and the true Gnothi seauton [“know thyself ”], as well as God...and all creatures.[23]

As a “Bible” in miniature, the Psalter covers much of the Bible’s diversity, consisting of prayers, hymns, instruction, historiography, creation accounts, narrative, law, wisdom, and even love poetry (see Ps 45; cf. Song of Solomon). The Psalter addresses common themes and issues shared throughout the Hebrew scriptures while offering its own various perspectives.

In a time rife with polarizing fear and division, communities of faith can learn much from the uniquely dialogical nature of the ancient scriptures, particularly the Psalms. For contemporary readers, acknowledging and engaging the Bible’s dialogical diversity could be a resource for cultivating a self-critical openness to dialogue with others, particularly those who are different. This study explores specifically the various ways the book of Psalms dialogues with itself and with the larger canonical corpus, while fostering a shared vision of life before the God who is considered above all else to be a God of “benevolence” or ḥesed, a God of unwavering concern for a people’s well-being, a “tenacious solidarity.”[24] By exploring how the Psalms “talk” to God and to each other, how they practice the art of dialogue, communities may find transformative ways of overcoming partisan polarization and fearful distrust to flourish together even amid disruption and division.

But a word of warning. The dialogues hosted by the Psalms are not for the faint of heart. They can be uncomfortable, particularly for polite or “civil”-minded Christians, which explains, for example, why the lament psalms are often overlooked in Christian worship.[25] But the present day calls for uncomfortable, fearless dialogues over issues that have been neglected or left simmering before exploding in the public arena. The Psalms are about being honest to God and honest with each other. They do not pull punches.


Excerpted from Deep Calls to Deep by William P. Brown. Copyright © 2021 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


[1] Symone D. Sanders, No, You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 2–3.

[2] Sanders, No, You Shut Up, 222.

[3] James Calvin Davis, In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 76. In a more recent work, Davis identifies “forbearance” or “bearing with one another” as a fundamental Christian virtue for dealing with conflict and division (Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017]).

[4] The image is borrowed from the inclusive fellowship of “table community” practiced in the early Christian church, as modeled in Jesus’s eating with others. See, e.g., János Bolyki, Jesu Tischgemeinschaften, WUNT 96 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998).

[5] See Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Let All the Peoples Praise You: Biblical Studies and a Hermeneutics of Hunger,” CBQ 72, no. 1 (2010): 1–14; Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God’s Diverse World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2019).

[6] Trauma studies of the Bible are legion. For a sampling, see Elizabeth Boase and Christopher G. Frechette, ed., The Bible through the Lens of Trauma, Semeia Studies 86 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016); David M. Carr, Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 19–27; O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002); Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile, OBT (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002). For a thorough historical analysis of the Babylonian exile, see Rainer Albertz, Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E, trans. David Green, Studies in Biblical Literature 3 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2003), esp. 70–111.

[7] 2 Kgs 17:24 refers to the peoples of “Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hammath, and Sepharvaim” being settled in the “cities of Samaria.”

[8] Albertz, Israel in Exile, 88–89.

[9] Albertz, Israel in Exile, 4.

[10] See Allan Gurganus, “At Last, the South Loses Well,” Opinion, New York Times (December 8, 1996) at

[11] Warren Cole Smith, “We’re All ‘Moviegoers’ Now: Fifty Years Ago Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer Launched an Unlikely Literary Career,” World Magazine (July 14, 2012), at

[12] See the encompassing analysis in Wilkerson, Caste.

[13] Seth L. Sanders, “What If There Aren’t Any Empirical Models for Pentateuchal Criti- cism?” in Contextualizing Israel’s Sacred Writings: Ancient Literacy, Orality, and Literary Production, ed. Brian B. Schmidt, Ancient Israel and Its Literature 22 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 300. Drawing from Jeffrey Tigay’s groundbreaking work, Sanders argues that the Gilgamesh Epic resembles the Genesis Flood Story in terms of its “sources” or “elements” but not in its “form” (282–83; for detailed comparison, see pp. 287–94).

[14] Sanders, “What If There Aren’t Any Empirical Models,” 299.

[15] Sanders, “What If There Aren’t Any Empirical Models,” 282.

[16] Sanders, “What If There Aren’t Any Empirical Models,” 282.

[17] Sanders, “What If There Aren’t Any Empirical Models,” 301.

[18] To borrow from the well-known Ted Talk given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ted Talk (October 7, 2009) at

[19] See, e.g., the discussion in William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). See also chapter 6.

[20] For an overview of the historical and theological complexities of ancient Israel’s God within Israel’s Canaanite context, see Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[21] As, for example, with the Covenant Code and Deuteronomic Law.

[22] One could also include “compromise” in some cases. See, e.g., Walter Brueggemann, “Twin Themes for Ecumenical Singing: The Psalms,” Journal for Preachers 43, no. 4 (2020): 3–10.

[23] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Psalter” (1545 [1528]), in Luther’s Works Volume 35: Word and Sacrament, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 254–55.

[24] Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms: Tenacious Solidarity,” in Walter Brueggemann, Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy, ed. Davis Hankins (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2018), 354–55.

[25] Perhaps until now. See Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” in Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 98–111.

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