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.