The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word by Walter Brueggemann

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Pastoral Ministry
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Preaching is an audacious act.  It is audacious because one dares to stand before a congregation and declare, “The word of the Lord.”  This is especially true given that the word given is often “counter-textual” to the dominant narrative of society, culture, and world.  As such, preaching offers a different world to the listener than is currently on display.

Preaching is really an act of creative imagination, seeing beyond what is to what can be.  That does not mean it is fictive rumination.  Rather, it is a hope-filled rendering of a textual tradition that provides an alternative to the prevailing “texts” of an entropic world.  Thus, the hearers are invited to enter into a different narrative with an open future.

Brueggemann offers a theory of “triangulation” concerning the people, pastor, and text.  In any family, there is a constant tension between two parts of the triangle joining together against one party of the triangle.  Thus, in families, this creates often destructive tensions of us versus them.  This also happens in pulpits where the pastor imagines it is them and the text against the congregation.  The congregation will sometimes push back in response.  However, if we see the pastor in partnership with the people against the text, this provides a new way in which to hear the text.  The text remains a dangerous utterance for both pastor and people, but the pastor is no longer vulnerable but merely is walking alongside congregation as they both wrestle with the implications of the text.

Also, there is both an “implied author” and an “implied audience.”  The script is from an author, often far removed from the actual author of a text.  This implied author (i.e., Moses) speaks to an implied audience a particular message.  In preaching these texts, we need only allow the utterance to be spoken and let it stand.  When this happens, the text can remain scandalous for both pastor and people without it denigrating into a pastor-versus-people reality.  The integrity of the text is preserved because it is not in service to an ideology of pastor or people.  Rather, both are open to hearing the text’s voice, which provides a counter-world.

Brueggemann states, “A sustained offer of doxologies concerning the miracles of abundance, of narratives of the give-and-take of covenantal mutuality, and of commandments as preconditions for life in the world make room for prophetic analysis and articulation.”  Thus, one does not need to be a “prophet” but a scribe that is submerged in the text of tradition.  “To think of one’s self as a scribe ‘trained for the kingdom’ may deliver one from the excessive ‘righteous indignation’ that is connected to conventional notions of ‘prophetic preaching.’”

Preaching calls for the formation of an alternative community.  The utterance establishes an either/or scenario.  The prevailing culture of death, destruction, and chaos is the either.  The Gospel preached provides the or of God’s life-giving activity.  The or provides the alternatives for this alternative community.  Of course, God’s life-giving activity is always “at hand but never in hand.”

Brueggemann suggests sociological criticism and rhetorical criticism to help us see the texts clearly.  Sociological criticism notes that every text serves someone’s interest.  Rhetorical criticism focuses on the linguistic arrangement, form, and structure to best discern what the underlying issues may be.  Within exegesis, Brueggemann upholds three steps: rhetorical analysis, word study, and artistic imagination.  In other words, the student of exegesis is to take notice of what the author is doing, not merely saying.  Furthermore, the student is “situate the text in a network of other texts.”  Finally, the student is to ascertain the ideology behind the text.  The ideological force indicates what it is reacting to, which allows us to see the social implications.

Every text must be interpreted.  Likewise, every text serves certain interests.  As such, no interpretation is unbiased but serves particular interests.  Sociology, with the likes of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, help us to see the ways in which community life becomes distorted.  The text and the interpreters of the text must be aware of those distortions and how the text may speak into those places.  For this reason, interpreting the text is not an objective endeavor.  Rather, it is “world-construction” whereby the hearers are invited to enter into an alternative to those community and life distorting practices of society.

Communities are never static but undergoing continuous reconstruction.  This is done primarily through interpretation.  Brueggemann suggests that transformation and equilibrium are the two options that are served by interpretation.  The interpretation depends on the text, context, and the community itself.  As such, the preacher must “pay attention to the possible hearing of the gospel that will occur in the congregation if the text is heard as an abrasion or as an assurance.”

The Deuteronomistic and sapiential tradition found within scripture frame the world through a direct causal lens.  In other words, for every sin or evil the end result is death, either because of God’s punishment or the world is simply wired to allow the natural consequences of foolish to rebound on the perpetrator.  There are certainly elements of that in our world.  However, the composition of a three person framework (i.e., Pharaoh, God, and Israel) moves to a more dynamic understanding of reality, which says that not everything is simply a causal relationship.  This is important because preaching must always take this into consideration and not make moralisms that are far too simplistic and reduce reality down to causal consequences.  Rather, preaching must also consider the full implications of a fallen world in which good people sometimes receive bad things.  People are not simply the “perpetrators” of evil, they are also the victims of evil.  And, ultimately, even when we have found ourselves either perpetrator, God “abounding in love and steadfast mercy” does not always give us what we deserve but forgives us.

Brueggemann makes the point that “world construction” in our society can often happen without any reference to God.  Thus, preaching must often use “testimony” rather than “proclamation.”  It speaks as witness on trial rather than to the consensus.  Like the Old Testament, preaching is a word spoken typically against the hegemony of empire.  In the midst of empire, preaching “[appeals to] a past of life-giving miracles; a future of circumstance-defying promise; and present neighbors in fidelity.”

A useful metaphor for re-imagining the Gospel for our context is exile.  Although we do not experience landlessness, we do experience the demolition of our “structured, reliable world” and a dismissal of our “treasured symbols of meaning.”  This is undoubtedly true in the midst of modernism’s fall and the Church’s eroding influence.  Preaching speaks our loss; enables rootedness; seeks the holy, awesome presence of God that satisfies true desire; it does not “resolve, explain, or deny” the moral incoherency in which we live; and it “models… resistance, defiance, and negotiation” against domestication of the empire.

The utterance of the Old Testament “denotes rather than connotes; it points and opens and suggests, but it does not conclude or define.”  This makes preaching difficult in that our culture is geared toward exact definition and conclusion rather than willing to plumb the depths of mystery that must remain open.  Preaching provides a “sub-version” of the dominant narrative with its closed possibilities.  Preaching supplies the imagination with the God-given possibilities of life that being opened up, even in the midst of chaos.

The ninth commandment calls for truth-telling.  This truth-telling is necessary for justice to be served, truth upheld, and community to be sustained.  The destruction of community and justice are found in the seeds of false-hood and lies.  Thus, truth-telling is an important element in preaching.  It is more important because the dominant narrative of empire tries to bribe and cover over truth, anesthetizing us to a radical call to a life that is God-centered and God-oriented.  We are called to be witnesses, not only to our neighbors but to our world.

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