Brueggemann: Preaching as Re-Imagining


Where to start?


In retrospect, qb’s glad he started his Walter Brueggemann era by reading The Prophetic Imagination a couple of years ago.  That’s where Brueggemann, a preeminent Old Testament scholar from the Atlanta metropolitan area, lays out his most sweeping homiletical themes.  And those themes resound gloriously in The Word Militant:  Preaching a Decentering Word.


One of the most obvious characteristics of big-box, evangelical Christianity is the banality that issues from its pulpits under the transparent guises of “cultural relevance” and “practical application.”  Topical sermons to which qb has been witness over the past ten years include how to be a better and more faithful husband/wife, how to evangelize Bart Simpson, how to manage money, how to raise children, how to be happy at work, how to deal with conflict and troublesome people, etc.  All of those things, as far as they go, and perhaps with the exception of the Bart Simpson thingy, are good in themselves.  Nothing wrong with doing a better job at any of them.  Still – and this has been lamented many times in many venues – decent, practical instruction on all of those things is something we can get from many other sources, including the paradigmatic Dr. Phil and his patroness Oprah.  Good instruction on practical living is a market that the church does not corner, and – if we are honest – our preachers are not always exemplars of the tips and techniques they espouse.

Plus – again, if we are honest with ourselves – we’re not tremendously well known for our success, at least in statistical terms like divorce, prodigality, teenage pregnancy, drug use, etc.  Sure, there are flashes and islands of holy brilliance, but they are the exceptions and not the rule.  We do not differ all that much from the surrounding culture.  So the preaching doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect, despite the fact that it is almost always framed as the centerpiece of our corporate gatherings on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.  Our preachers are, by and large, young, handsome, smooth, polished, hip, self-confident, market- and technology-savvy, well trained in the nuts and bolts of secular executive leadership, ambitious…with beautiful spouses and seemingly flawless children.  And they feed us a steady diet of culturally relevant, practical application of the least controversial texts in the Bible.


And we are starving, emaciated shells of “the church militant.”  As Dallas Willard, N. T. Wright, Alan Roxburgh, and many others have observed, the cultural mainstream no longer flows through our churches.  Our influence seems to be ebbing, if in fact it was ever as strong as we’d like to imagine.


Into that vacuum steps Walter Brueggemann, a vise-jawed bulldog with a cheerful chip on his shoulder.  He has made his living studying the Jewish prophets, and he insists that we listen to them.  Today.  Creatively.  And with a view toward God’s eternal, redemptive purposes of justice and communal virtue.  He has an uncommonly high view of the preacher’s task, which is his central focus in The Word Militant.  His single-minded objective is to restore the truly prophetic dimension to the weekend pulpit – not exclusively by haranguing the assembly and cracking the whip, but in the sense of the Jewish prophets, who teased, cajoled, playfully insulted, told riddles, and spoke magnificent poetry.  The goal, he says in The Prophetic Imagination, is to “nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture.”  The way to restore Christianity’s impact, he seems to be saying, is backward, backing away from the insipid gruel of so-called practical instruction and toward the idiosyncratic, mysterious imaginations of Amos, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel.

Lots more to say on this in a future post or two.


5 thoughts on “Brueggemann: Preaching as Re-Imagining

  1. I love Brueggemann, especially his take on the Psalms and his embrace of lament and even imprecation, with the ultimate goal being a more honest relationship with our creator.

    His acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis still confounds me, though.

  2. I’ve several things by Brueggemann as well and respect them deeply. His commentary on the subject helped me with teaching Jeremiah. Love his book of prayers. It has been awhile, probably time to go back to his writings again. The Documentary Hypothesis seems to make a lot of sense to me.

  3. *chuckling*

    It should not surprise either of you to find that qb had no idea what the Documentary Hypothesis is, much less a credible opinion on it. So both of you are way ahead of ol’ qb.

    Having done a little bit of reading on it now – thanks for the tip – qb’s not sure what to say about it except, in general terms, that whether JEDP is an accurate source-critical reconstruction of the Old Testament’s origins or not, qb no longer clings desperately to some literalist notion of authorship, direct inspiration, or any related exegetical posture…and, influenced greatly (but only in part) by postmodern scholars like Brueggemann, qb is quite comfortable looking at the OT through the lens of history-as-written-by-victors-with-vested-imperial-interests…among such other critical lenses as might be fruitful from time to time.

    How’s that for straddling the fence?

    Thanks for stopping by.


  4. My problem with the Documentary Hypothesis is that it has an a priori assumption that the Scriptures are not inspired, and then seeks to see how it can pick them apart to find different “sources” for the material, often based on no more evidence than the topics covered.

    Note that I do not consider myself a fundamentalist in my view of the divine inspiration of the Bible as we now have it (it has almost certainly been edited a bit over the millennia), but the stance of those who forward the DH is more than I can usually bear.

    That said, Brueggemann is an exception. He embraces gospel in his writings, and consistently affirms the Hebrew Bible’s pointing to the Messiah Jesus. That’s why his embrace of the DH confounds me; just when I think I have people figured out, they go and throw me a curve ball (insert winking emoticon here).

  5. jds, I certainly relate to that. When I reviewed Scot McKnight’s _Blue Parakeet_, I leveled an analogous criticism, which reduces to a question of circularity in logic. It should not surprise us that well-framed logic ends up reinforcing the premises, etc., etc.

    On the other hand, Wright has taught me that the historical-exegetical task is an imaginative one, one in which we are forced to dream up a model that best fits the data. It is inevitable that, as they are refined, biased models will eventually fit the data better than rigorously unbiased ones, and we call Ockham’s razor to counterbalance that. Still, that a model is fraught with bias is no proof that it is incorrect. Elegance and parsimony are not decisive; they are corrective. So I’m not prepared to reject the DH solely on the charge of a priori bias. Theories of inspiration are every bit as susceptible to claims of bias as the outright rejection of it.


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