Posts Tagged ‘Walter Brueggemann’

There is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of anxiety in our society.  Of course, it hasn’t merely trickled into the Church; the waters have rushed through our doors.  There are many reasons for the anxiety.  A great resource for reading about some of those reasons for anxiety in our culture is Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  As I have reflected on my cultural context and the intersection with the Church in America, there is a strand woven through the very fabric of our lives which compounds our anxiety: the myth of perpetual progress.  (Incidentally, though not insignificantly, this myth leads to violent practices, like “evangelistic” movements called Crusades which utilize manipulation and coercive techniques).

There are many reasons for the propagation of this myth, especially because it appeared to be true for so many years in our borders.  The proliferation of technology and medical science and so many other useful tools painted a picture of prosperity that would continually rise to new levels.  Economic growth, particularly after WWII, seemed on a constant upward trajectory (setbacks were always believed to be temporary).  The Enlightenment’s ethos promised that everything would evolve to higher degrees of rationality, creativeness, wealth, power, and success.  And, as such, such success could be measured and monitored.  If progress seemed impeded, it wasn’t because perpetual progress was in question.  Rather, it was time to change leadership or fix this or that problem which prohibited further expansion and development.  But, fundamentally, the idea and myth of perpetual progress remains unquestioned and unchallenged.

This ideology of progress has increasingly become one of the dominant ideologies in the American church.  I constantly see it expressed in my denomination’s polity, but I know that isn’t particularly unique to our denomination either.  There is continuous pressure to grow, to expand, like ecclesiastical colonialism reaching toward an obscure Manifest Destiny we call “evangelism” – or, more honestly, cultural assimilation.  If the negative connotation of assimilation seems too strong, consider the methods of most church planting/ church growth models.  The “target audience” is typically monolithic – young, urban professionals with young families, which can support the ministry with their disposable income.  Everything within the worship service is then geared to appeal to this group’s interests and desires.  Progress and consumerism (both dependent upon numbers and percentages) are conjoined twins, particularly because “progress” has been reduced to an individual’s capacity to choose what suits their desires (this plagues most any age group in our culture).

But, the church in America and other Western countries has had to wrestle with diminishing incomes, sliding attendance, fewer volunteers, and a culture that continues to encroach on the times that were previously reserved for churches.  In other words, we are beginning to see the myth of progress, not only in the culture, within the Church be exposed as an untenable promise.  Deny it as strongly as we might, the reality, and its attendant anxiety, is palpable.

Of course, this does not mean that the myth of perpetual progress has died.  Too many are in denial for it to have died so easily.  Instead, we merely redouble our efforts at marketability, business acuity, and technological reproduction.  In other words, we seek any methodology, technology, or technique that will give us an edge to once again regain our ascendancy within the culture and our particular community.  This effort is undergirded by a particularly acidic theology of chosenness and exceptionalism (both within the culture and the Church, which tend to horribly mix into civil religion).  By the way, this same mentality leads to Israel’s Exile and Jerusalem’s destruction, yet the Church follows suit as if it is immune to such judgment.  The idea of exceptionalism and chosenness is not that we are simply set apart by God but, furthermore, that we are ordained by God and can thus never fail – perpetual progress.  It is the belief that God is always interested in our expansionistic success and has blessed the whole affair (i.e., imperialism).  We revel in resurrection, but neglect crucifixion as a distinct possibility when following Jesus – even as an institution.  Resurrection without crucifixion is merely the prosperity gospel, which lacks any family resemblance to Jesus.

The most insidious aspect to the myth of perpetual progress within the Church is the fallout experienced by pastors and local churches.  In fact, they feel this acutely and it often causes distress and tension within the pastoral-congregational relationship.  It is easy for the church or the pastor to become a taskmaster pushing for limitless progress or a return to the glory days of cultural ascendancy.  Despair characterizes our gatherings when we don’t measure up to the ideal of progress.  So, we make excuses or dismiss our “failure,” putting a positive spin on it (not unlike media spin-doctors).  To use contemporary language, we employ “alternative facts” in our reporting to paint an overall picture of health, no matter how much we may have to twist the truth of reality.  Denial concerning the myth of progress gives way to despair when we don’t “measure up” and we are left disillusioned about faithfully fulfilling our calling.  Likewise, significant theological issues, such as salvation or sanctification or discipleship, are reduced to a  paltry reality which can be numerically captured on paper.  Thus, because we sought to measure it in one moment, salvation became a singular moment, rather than an unfolding reality into which we are continuously invited to participate.  It is an anemic Christianity which has replaced discipleship with “showing up” (see Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship).

But, if we allow the myth of progress to be broken open and give ourselves permission to move past our denials which struggle (even with good intentions) to recapture an imagined glorious bygone day, we may find ourselves engaging a future of God’s new possibilities.  But, again, this is no guarantee of success, no imagined exceptionalism that insulates us from failure.  But, it is possible that the spectacular failures in which we endeavor may yet find God miraculously and surprisingly working through them, and us, in ways we yet to imagine.  In fact, we would be given permission to “fail” and to fail gloriously, to risk much and trust God for the “results.”

It is the kind of failure which is present in a dying church in a dying town, and yet proclaims hope.  To preach Good News in communities  that will never make national headlines and yet to see this as the most important work in which we might engage.  To imagine that the smallest acts of kindness and compassion unleash seismic shifts in the lives of those for whom we care.  To imagine that greatness is in serving.  To believe that death may be a new beginning.  To pray that even small mustard seeds of faith can uproot the grandest mountains in our path.  To imagine that the greatest metrics can never be measured and that the smallest, weakest, seemingly insignificant people, places and practices are quite possibly those upon which God smiles and blesses.  Maybe… just maybe… the vital work of the Church can be re-energized for the mission of God, not by playing the myth of progress game, by painting a compelling vision of God’s Kingdom unleashed in our midst, a costly discipleship, inspiring us to greater acts of love – regardless of the outcome.  I see many pastors, ministers, and laity, often in obscure corners of the world, leading unafraid from underneath. They take the slow & tedious road of faithful discipleship that lacks the star power of conferences or the glory of large crowds.  But, their work is every bit as vital and beautiful and important as the “success stories” of those fast growing, cutting edge churches.  And, perhaps, we can confess that “growth” does not translate into success, especially if it looks more like corporate takeover than actual evangelism.

To put a point on my argument, I am reminded of the story of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14.  A massive Philistine horde stands ready to descend on Saul’s men, save for a ravine between the two encampments.  Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak off and move toward the enemy.  Jonathan suggests showing themselves to the enemy and awaiting their response, either come up or stay where they are.  If told to come up, this will be a sign that God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory.  Two men outmatched and yet willing to risk greatly despite an uncertain future and outcome.  Jonathan affirms as much: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.”  Jonathan does not presume success in his endeavor, the future is obscure from his sight, yet he acts in hope-filled expectation that God is at work.  Jonathan does not display certainty of “God will act,” but the trusting confidence that exclaims the not-so-presumptuous “perhaps.”  The myth of perpetual progress cannot imagine the “perhaps,” but ever only the idolatrous certitude of progress, prosperity, and power.

 

 

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Rev Levi Jones wanted to present a fifth post in order to discuss preaching practice in the proposed theological framework of the first four posts. You won’t find here a one-size-fits-all method for every sermon. Instead, Levi offers some suggestive insights into the proper posture of the preacher in preparing for the task, as well […]

via “Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology

“We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed… It is the sober opinion of many concerned Christians, some who give the sermon and some who hear it, that preaching is an anachronism.”[1]  Fred Craddock penned these words in 1970, nearly 45 years ago!  Yet, this statement resonates with similar sentiment concerning preaching today.

Whereas Craddock was dealing with preaching’s struggle in the shift from Modernism to Post-modernism, I believe preaching is wrestling with a slightly different aspect of that same shift.  Simply put, preaching is wrestling to find its place in a technological and media-driven society.  Craddock’s dilemma has similar roots to our own preaching dilemma.  He struggled to shift from deductive methods of preaching to inductive methods.  Our situation is also a matter of language, but resides in the culture’s sense that language no longer has any meaning or value.  The problem facing preaching is like a hydra’s multiple heads connected to a common body.  Perhaps in lopping off one head, others have sprouted with which we must now contend.

Where we might break from a technology’s grip on our lives, more “heads” spring up.  In the face of such seemingly overwhelming barriers to preaching, despair or surrender may appeal as the logical options from which to choose.  In such a culture, does the sermon still have a place in worship?  Is preaching nothing more than an antiquated vestige of an institutional Church writhing in its own death throes?

These are legitimate questions.  Craddock notes, “To explain this general reaction, perhaps one need not look for reasons profound; it may be simply that these critics have heard us preach!”[2]  This may be the very thing that is most difficult to admit and the most damning.  The surrounding culture stands puzzled asking us why they should listen to our preaching.  What is gained or offered in such moments?  I am convinced that would not remain the sentiment about preaching if it proclaimed the power of the Gospel through which the Spirit transforms lives, including the preacher’s life!

Here is where the tension manifests itself.  Does fault lie with preacher or hearer?  There is no simple, clear-cut answer.  There are so many factors that have paved the way for where we find ourselves now.  In truth, it is quite possible, if not probable, that fault lies with both preachers and hearers.  We now turn to assess some of those hindrances and possible ways to navigate those choppy waters.

THE METHOD IS THE MESSAGE: METAPHOR AND EPISTEMOLOGY

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, provides insightful commentary about entertainment and technology: “Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever ‘languages’ we find it possible and convenient to employ.  We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as ‘it’ is but only as our languages are.  And our languages are our media.  Our media are our metaphors.  Our metaphors create the content of our culture.”[3]

Television, computers, social media, and the internet are the modern metaphors shaping our language, and thus our culture.[4]  The influence of these metaphors on the Church is easily observed by the extent of their utilization in its ministries.  Few churches are not employing the methods of communication of the culture in order to reach that culture.  In using these technologies we might gain something (i.e., accessibility) but we might also lose something.

For instance, technology connects us globally with intense speed.  We have a constant barrage of images, stories, weather forecasts, tweets, status updates, tragedies, war, business and other news whose origin is not connected with our own context.  The news continuously flashes isolated stories that lack narrative flow and connectivity.  Each story is a self-contained whole, needing no further analysis.  If the news is de-contextualized, then it has no real bearing on our lives.  It’s not real.  It only occupies our minds for a moment and vaporizes as a new story appears to take its place.

If this is true, it is certainly concerning for a congregation’s capacity to perceive sermons as pertinent and relevant to their contexts, their lives.  If a sermon is merely another de-contextualized “story” with no connection with what happens before or after it, then we quickly delete it from our memory.  It has no lasting import; it is simply another news story blurb. [5]  Add to this the overwhelming mass of messages available to us continuously, it is easy to see why language is flippantly dismissed as meaningless, even by those who should be language’s greatest stewards!

Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “…to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”[6]  The language forms that we receive in our visual and technological age undoubtedly shape our manner of life, it orients us to itself.  For instance, in referring to forgetting a memory in our minds, we might say, “I deleted it from my hard drive.”  The language of technology has replaced the language of biology.  The larger implication is that humanity’s perception of itself is centered in the computer.  Obviously, this is an issue from a theological anthropology perspective.

Postman’s critique of entertainment culture deals primarily with the cognitive aspects of technology’s instruction.  This does not give attention to fuller issues of our embodiment by which we are formed kinesthetically via technology and social media.  These technologies order our day-to-day living.  Alarms wake us up, much of our job is managed through technological gadgets, cellphones render us always available.  Technology shapes us, not merely through information, through its formational practices.

We are shaped by those practices that incorporate our bodies in the metaphor’s message.  James K. A. Smith writes, “Insofar as our being-in-the-world is navigated metaphorically, we can appreciate why Johnson posits a fundamental aesthetics of human understanding.  Even more strongly, Johnson will argue that our higher order ‘conceptual’ thinking is nonetheless indebted to – and dependent upon – primary metaphors that are linked to the bodily basis of meaning.”[7]  Technology exercises its power primarily because it integrates the whole body in its use.

Another way we might talk about the metaphor’s capacity to shape our lives is through the dual dimensions of desire and imagination.  That is essentially what we mean by the kinesthetic and aesthetic arena of our creatureliness.  The various metaphors that we employ, not simply the messages we hear, create a vision of what we want in life and what that looks like.  It is through what we imagine the “good life” to be that our desires are pointed toward a telos.  Out of this imagination and desire arises our action, our response.  Thus, no metaphor is a tabula resa.  Every metaphor communicates an assumption about the purpose for which we were created.

Because we are fully embodied creatures, preaching must also take this into account when seeking to shape a community of faith.  Too often, our preaching has been aimed primarily at the cognitive dimension of people.  That is not unimportant, merely deficient if we hope to allow preaching to be as formative as technology (which is difficult given the disproportionate time technology claims of us!).  It is necessary that the language, content, and form of preaching connect with the aesthetic, kinesthetic qualities of “human being-in-the-world.”[8]

Preaching, too, is a metaphor.  It shapes our collective imaginations, which further shapes our perceptions of reality.  Preaching uses language, which entails a form of life.  This life is then embodied in the various other practices, symbols, signs, and metaphors of Christian life.  We communicate messages, but we must also be mindful of methods.  The content of our preaching has not always meshed with the form of our preaching.  As mentioned earlier, so much of our preaching has been geared toward the intellect.  We are reduced to brains rather than fully embodied people.  This neglects the powerful influence of our bodies, emotions and senses to the Church’s detriment.

Our language, which is rooted in embodied life, cannot stop at only explaining the world but must also evoke a world.  So much of our interaction with our environment comes as second nature.  If, as James K. A. Smith suggests, we are creatures that engage the world in intuitive kinds of ways, not simply cognitively, then preaching must also engage this aspect of personhood in our communication.  By evoking the primary experiences of a congregation, the preacher has moved into that realm of the affective.  In other words, preaching must engage both the mind and heart of the listener.

THE ICONOGRAPHY OF PREACHING

Jacques Ellul suggests that images, which deal with reality (not truth), enables media to appeal to the aesthetic, kinesthetic elements of life.  Ellul finds a problem in the fact that images are decontextualized metaphors that necessitate explanation.  They, in his opinion, do not correlate with truth – only words can do that.  Images deny words their power and place and rob people of necessary community for discerning truth.  With the proliferation of images, the Word and its vitality are diminished and finally discarded.  This is the essence of the Decalogue’s prohibition against images, according to Ellul.  They necessarily, due to the fallen nature of the world, become idols.[9]

Yet, language cannot be entirely separated from images, especially due to language’s earthiness embedded in every life.  Although Ellul defends his position against dualism, his categories separate matter and spirit, truth and reality in a total bifurcation.  If the redemption of reality is part of the work of Christ, which the Church carries forward, then it seems appropriate that images might also be employed in our preaching and worship in faithful ways.

Jennifer Lord follows this thought:

“Our goal is to work with the textual words and images and to find our own words and images for each sermon.  This is faithful work because to shape appropriate new words in order to expand on textual words and imagery is incarnational work: we are tethered by the biblical text but work to show its gospel meanings for our lives now”[10].

The work of preaching is allowing the power of the Word to infiltrate our reality.  Obviously, we still await the fulfillment of the day when God shall be “all in all.”  However, we also recognize the privilege that we are invited to participate in the life of God even here and now!  Thus, the prayer that “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is not simply a future hope but an invitation for us to embody the Kingdom now!

Fred Craddock observes the dissonance in iconoclastic thinking and the implications for preaching:

Even the angry preacher, deliberately iconoclastic and anticlerical, preaches relevant sermons in a way no longer relevant.  The preacher is still saddled with the traditional image of preaching with its clearly discernible authoritarianism being communicated nonverbally not only in intonation and manner but also in the form and movement of the sermon.[11]

Even those trying to avoid images have an image that informs their methodologies and metaphors.  Moreover, the images are inherent in the metaphors themselves.

Carol Meyers, in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Exodus, comments on the Decalogue’s iconoclasm:

Its basic intent is aniconic; that is, it forbids the construction and worship of images meant to represent a deity.  There is some ambiguity in the wording: it may be forbidding people to make sculptured images, probably meaning metal ones, of any aspect of creation; or it may be forbidding the making of such images to represent a god.  Given the fact that representations of flora and fauna are part of the specifications for the tabernacle and temple, the latter reading of the text seems more likely.[12]

Throughout the Scriptures, imagery is employed as a sign or symbol of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.  The Tabernacle, Temple, Ark of the Covenant, Eucharist, the Church, Jesus (who also becomes Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice), all signify in vivid imagery God’s presence.  With the exception of Jesus, do they contain the whole of the mystery of God?  Certainly not.  But, that does not mean that images are prohibited.  Rather, images cannot pretend to be God.  Ellul’s poor incarnational, iconoclastic, and anti-ontological theology skims for proof texts that speak against images.  Yet, his assertion of the Word’s power does not seem capable of conquering his certainty that images can only degrade the Word.  In this sense, it seems that Ellul is unable to finally affirm the Word’s power of redemption (at least until the Second Coming).  But, one might question why the humiliation of the Word matters now if there is nothing that can be done until Christ returns.

Ellul posits that the Incarnation was a particular historical event.  It is not cosmic in its nature.  However, this, in my assessment, falls far short of an appropriate pneumatology that follows the Spirit of Christ at work in and through the Church!  Yes, we continue to wait for the eschatological consummation, but that does not mean that we as those that partake in the imago Dei are incapable, by God’s power, to embody the Word here and now!  Dennis Kinlaw makes this point abundantly clear, “As I read the biblical biographies of mighty preachers, I’m convinced that ultimately there is no great preaching unless the preacher partakes of the divine holiness in some measure.”[13]

Icons continue to be an important part of worship and in preaching.  However, preaching itself cannot be an icon because it is an aural and oral event.  As Walter Ong states, “Writing moves words from the sound world to a world of visual space, but print locks words into position in this space.”[14]  In other words, because preaching is oral it does not occupy visual space as do icons.

However, this does not mean that icons are not a vital part of preaching.  There are at least two ways that icons can play a supporting role in preaching: preacher and community as icon and sacraments as icon.  We cannot pretend that preaching is an isolated moment.  It takes place in the context of communal worship, whose audience is God.  That is essential!

Images do not contain the full mystery to which they point.  If they claim to do so, they are idols.  An icon is not an idol.  It is either one or the other, not both.  To use a metaphor, an icon is like a window that allows us to see through it to something beyond itself.  As soon as we become preoccupied with the window (perhaps we become entranced by the reflection of our face on the window’s surface), it no longer serves its function.  It is at this point that the icon becomes an idol.  And, yes, there is always a danger for that to happen!  However, we have yet to get rid of our Bibles due to the tendency for bibliolatry!  Does it then make sense to do away with any and every image for which this might be a temptation?  Eliminating images and icons from worship does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of idolatry.  We have always been adept at turning God’s good creation into our obsession (idolatry).

The preacher as icon notes the necessary aspect of a vessel consecrated to service with God.  One who has yielded to the Word and been deeply transformed by such an encounter is marked by a power in their preaching.  Dennis Kinlaw notes the importance of this kind of preaching, “…The Spirit-filled preacher knows how to relate the Word of revelation to the Word in creation.  No matter what a teacher says or how impressively he says it, if there is not some extrinsic witness to what he is saying, nobody will believe it.”[15]

In other words, when the Word bears witness through us, Christ is also incarnated in and through us.  This is also why there is such disillusionment that stems from pastoral failure.  Truth and reality are not aligned in the preacher and the congregation languishes under the dichotomy.  In a similar vein, if the congregation sees only the top of the preacher’s head while they read from a manuscript, the congregation may wonder if the truth of the Gospel has really gripped the preacher in their inmost being.  It is through the character, mood, intonation, passion, and Spirit-filled leadership that the glory of God is imaged through the preacher.

Preaching, however, is not only about the preacher.  It is about the hearers as well.  As we receive the Word, we are called out of our passivity to response.  As we faithfully respond to God’s call, we are also participating in the life of God.  The Word calls for us to embody, to become icons, God’s glory to the world.  Thus, we become visible reminders to the world that God loves and desires to redeem the Creation!

The sacraments as icons are also essential for preaching because they are the symbols of the Word’s transformative work already available in the ordinary elements of Creation, which includes us!  Bread, water, and wine are the elements of everyday sustenance.  Yet, through the Spirit’s power they become more than these things alone.  They become the means of grace whereby we encounter God’s presence!  The preached Word always moves to touch the ordinary elements of life, albeit transformed elements.

AESTHETICS, IMAGINATION AND DESIRE

In essence, we are back to where we started with metaphors.  The Word and Sacraments become the culture-shaping metaphors of the collective imagination and desire of a congregation.  James K. A. Smith puts it this way:

We don’t choose desires; they are birthed in us.  They are formed in us as habits, as habitus.  And as Merleau-Ponty helped us to see, the acquisition of such habits is ultimately a rearrangement of our corporeal schema – a reconfiguration of how we imagine ourselves and our places in the world.  Or as Bourdieu would put it, to acquire a habitus is to have been incorporated into a social body and its vision of a way of life.  And that incorporation marshals our embodied nature.  In short, the way to the imagination is through the body.[16]

Preaching, along with the Sacraments, has always been a means for being incorporated into the social body that is the Church and its vision of the “good life”, which is the Kingdom!

But, if our language has been ineffective and the preaching event seemingly inadequate, how might it be re-energized?  Several authors (i.e., Fred Craddock, James K. A. Smith, Walter Brueggemann, and others) have suggested that a primary means of allowing language to be evocative is through narrative and poetry.  That does not mean that preaching is simply a series of stories.  Rather, it calls for narrative flow and intentionality that begins and then goes somewhere.  This is the difference between Kierkegaard’s direct and indirect language.  Direct language is the language of the sciences.  Indirect language is the language of faith because it deals with the existential questions that are irreducible, it provides meaning.[17]

The language of narrative and poetry also provides us with the opportunity to see the world afresh.  Walter Brueggemann’s text, The Prophetic Imagination, undergirds the power of preaching in this way: “The prophetic imagination knows that the real world is the one that has its beginning and dynamic in the promising speech of God and that this is true even in a world where kings have tried to banish all speech but their own.”[18]  This is the difference between the closed speech of deductive methods and the open speech of inductive methods.  It is the distinction between propositional preaching and poetics.  For, as Brueggemann notes, “The newness wrought by Jesus will not be explained, for to explain is to force it into old royal categories.”[19]

But, poetry and narrative happen upon us in unexpected ways.  It is not the language of certainty, but allows the edge of mystery to circle about our worship.  James K. A. Smith states:

I imagine a telos or vision of the good life on an aesthetic, metaphorical, poetic register.  And that is why a ‘vision’ of the kingdom is birthed in me or inscribed in me through aesthetic means.  I come to imagine the kingdom in certain ways – because I have drunk up the stories of a people or a culture.  I am incorporated into the habitus of a people, and that habitus in [sic] inscribed in me, because I have been immersed in the stories of the body politic.  Liturgical animals are imaginative animals who live off the stuff of the imagination: stories, pictures, images, and metaphors are the poetry of our embodied existence.[20]

The technological and visual age has tapped into this realization.  Our immersion in that culture profoundly shapes our imagination by incorporating us into the cultural narratives.  Much of this happens on a sub-conscious level!  This is where preaching has opportunity to provide a counter-narrative, a poetic engagement with reality.  We are formed as a community as we are corporately storied and habituated through our communal listening to the Word and responding in obedience.  Preaching is the language forming event of the community of faith.  As such, it inevitably shapes the form of life for a congregation.  To ignore this vital duty is to ignore our calling and to submit ourselves to the culture shaping world of technology and media.

GOD CALLS PREACHERS

            If preaching really is no longer a viable option for communicating the Gospel, then someone should inform God.  It seems to me that the basis for continued efforts to preach and to preach well is rooted in a long and continuous history of preachers called by God to go and proclaim the Gospel!  If God still desires to call preachers, then it also follows that God is willing and able to empower the effective preaching of the Gospel.  Perhaps preaching’s decline is not due to God’s inability or preaching’s lack of relevance.  The problem may lie in impotent preachers and congregations who lack connection to the Source of our preaching.

Technology, as a dominant metaphor, often plays a significant role in this disconnect from God.  In this technological age, perhaps our only hope is to allow God to breathe through our preaching so that our imaginations are awakened to the Kingdom’s call, as has happened in every age where the Word is proclaimed by the faithful.  It is a Word that names the world, not only as it is, as it should be.  When this is our proclamation, iconic communities are formed whereby the glory of God is reflected for the world to see and hear the invitation to be transformed by the Word.

 

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Print.

Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.

Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. Print.

Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985.

Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

 

 

[1] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3-4.

[2] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3.

[3] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, 15.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. This is Neil Postman’s essential argument concerning technology’s capacity to shape our epistemologies.  Our entertainments have destroyed our capacities to speak, to think cogently, to have true dialogue, and to act.

[6] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953, Pt. 1, paragraph 19.

[7] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[8] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[9] Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985. This is the basic premise of Ellul’s work. He traces through both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament a line of thought that suggests images are entirely absent from these stories, unless these images are idols.  In his thinking, it is only the word that is capable of communicating truth. Images can only display reality, but can say nothing about the truth of that reality.  And, at best, those images only give the perception of seeing the whole of reality. But, in fact, we only see a small portion which must be interpreted but cannot be since images are decontextualized. It seems that the apostle Paul might not fully concur with Ellul’s assessment of reality. After all, Romans 1 has Paul claiming that nature clearly communicates there is a God, leaving us without excuse.  Perhaps reality is not entirely divided from truth, even if it can only communicate it in limited ways.

[10] Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 37.

[11] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001,

17.

[12] Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 170.

[13] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 18.

[14] Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012, 119.

[15] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 65.

[16] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 125.

[17] Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. 70.

[18] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, 64-65.

[19] Ibid, 104.

[20] Imagining the Kingdom, 126.

This is a small piece I wrote about why I read Walter Brueggemann.  He is a significant voice for Old Testament studies and has been a significant voice that I have come to value in my own studies and development as a pastor and theologian.  His social critique has been helpful in many regards, as well as, his imaginative interpretations for our context.  For your viewing pleasure: http://www.walterbrueggemann.com/2013/11/07/levi-jones-why-i-read-brueggemann/

This book, on many levels, is designed to be academically rigorous.  In its 336 pages, it has 474 citations.  These citations range from early Church fathers to Medieval monks to modern theologians like Hauerwas, Brueggemann, and Dawn.  Not only were the notes extensive, they covered a great deal of diversity.  Judging from the citations, this book is heavily influenced by Karl Barth, Richard Baxter, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, John Wesley, and Martin Luther.  Willimon represents his Methodist heritage, but also seems to have some Reformed leanings.

To begin, Willimon notes four things about pastoral ministry: ministry is an act of God; ministry is an act of the church; to be a pastor is to be tied in a unique way to the church, the believing community in Christ; and ministry is difficult.  This then leads to the significance of ordained ministry.  Willimon wants to affirm several things about ordination: it is an act of Christ and his church; it is for service to Christ and the church; it arises ‘from above,’ as a gracious gift of the Holy Spirit; it arises from below, from the church’s need for, and wisdom in designating, leadership; it forms those who are to serve as priests to the priests; it sets apart those who are to serve as exemplars to the congregation, being in all things without fault; it is an act of collegiality; and it is effected through the laying on of hands and prayer.  Ordained ministry is to be called to be “servant to the servants of God.”

There are several contemporary images that have drastically shaped the concept of pastor, for better or worse.  These include: political negotiator, therapist, manager, resident activist, preacher, and servant.  Several of these images have created expectations of the pastorate that are not Biblical.  Therapist and manager are two that fall largely into that category.  The recovery of preacher and servant have been one positive movement toward a more Biblical approach to ministry.  In all things, Willimon reminds us that ministry is to be cruciform.

Priestly patterns of ministry have several elements: gathering the congregation; gathering them around the story of God; interpreting, proclaiming, and expounding Scripture; preparing the congregation for service; calling for and receiving the offering; remembering God’s mighty acts; eating meals together in Jesus’ name; and scattering the church into the world.  “In all acts of ministry the pastor is priest, the one who constantly looks for ways in which all of our meetings with one another might also be meeting with the living Christ, in which every activity of the church might be sacramental, a means of grace, a human act whereby we sign, signal, and point to the outbreak of the kingdom of God among us” (90).

The pastor as interpreter of Scripture and preacher and teacher are especially important.  Words make worlds.  The question is not whether we are shaped by outside influences but which outside influences we will allow to shape us.  Given that we are increasingly in a post-Christian culture, those images for pastoral ministry are vital.  Pastors are called to equip the saints for every good work and help the Church live out the counter-narrative that typically opposes our culture.

Pastoral counseling is vastly different than clinical counseling.  According to Willimon pastoral counseling does not so much depend on the contemporary counseling methods that seek to be “unbiased” (as if that were a possibility).  Rather, pastoral counseling is about guiding people and that quite often means speaking the truth in love at the point of people’s deepest points of brokenness.

Consistently, Willimon places emphasis on the pastor’s character.  Preaching includes more than words; it is living.  Although the pastor is a Christian among Christians, they must also be leaders to the flock as an example of this odd kingdom ethic – the Church.  Constancy in ministry is one way that this is accomplished.  Living among people for an extended period of time allows others to observe our way of life and for us to make the deepest impact on the community.  This also means that we must take care of ourselves (not selfishly).  But, we must maintain our relationship with God and take care of our spiritual, physical, and mental well-being.  This includes discerning what is “essential” and what is merely “important” in ministry.

Overall, I thought this book was fantastic.  Willimon has an uncanny ability to communicate clearly and pointedly with a great understanding of the contemporary atmosphere that the Church faces.  I like Willimon’s approach to pastoral ministry.  He communicates well the tensions that the pastor finds and must be able to work through as a minister to the flock.

Robert Webber writes, “In these celebrations we rehearse our… identity and meaning, and we find the story of our lives in the larger story…  These times of celebration and festivity… bring a stop to my world, to my frantic scurrying around, and to the orderliness of my daily routine.  I am refeshed, restored, and renewed through laughter and play.  Friendships are renewed, relationships restored, and ties to friends and family are deepened…  For me, worship is in many ways like these festivities because it brings the past into the present by the telling and acting out the work of Christ.  It contains all the elements of festivity: coming together, story, symbol, memory, sharing, relationship, good will, giving, receiving… Worship connects me with the past, gives meaning to the present, and inspires hope for the future as my soul and spirit become blended again into the drama of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection” (Worship is a Verb 29).

Although Webber is describing worship, I do think there is a natural connection with Sabbath living.  For one, Sabbath is worship.  It is holy to the Lord.  But, it is not a ceasing of activity but a focusing of our energies upon God alone.  Sabbath is both personal and social.  It restores and renews our relationship with God, but it also deepens our relationships with one another by re-filling the well from which we draw, re-cultivating the soul to reap a harvest of love.  It is celebration and festivity, not merely dull lounging around without purpose.  Yes, it is rest, but it is a focused rest that helps us sort out and maintain what is of primary importance.  However, Webber realizes that worship in our culture is often typified by cold indifference.  Our secularization has in many ways impacted our ability to worship.

Webber notes, “Secularization must be understood as something more than violence, permissive sex, and political corruption.  It is a shift in the way we see and understand things.  There was a time when the idea of mystery was more a part of our thinking than it is now.  God was in his heavens – high, holy, and lifted up.  In worship there was a sense of awe and reverence in the presence of the One who was wholly Other.  But now we have either reasoned God out of existence or so reduced him to clichés and formulas that the mystery has disappeared.  Our approach to God is intellectual and scientific on one extreme and excessively “buddy-buddy” on the other; both are sorely lacking in imagination” (30).

This brings up similar issues from Walter Brueggemann’s book A Mandate to Difference and James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.  Like Webber, they believe that a lack of imagination has seriously hampered the ability of Christians to fully, genuinely worship.  Sabbath restores our imagination by not merely removing us from reality, but by re-introducing us to true reality, God’s reality.  It re-orients us to God’s way in God’s world.  This requires imagination, the hope of a future.  Secularization, Webber claims, is the primary opponent to this goal.  “Liberals turned worship into a time for ethical reflection on the love of God, while conservatives concentrated on an intellectual defense of the gospel.  In both cases church leaders gave in to secularism and allowed it to defile worship.  Consequently, celebration through storytelling and symbolic action was put aside for a verbal approach to worship” (30-31).  The question we must ask is: What is true worship?

Webber continues, “Secularism has also affected worship through its distorted understanding of human personality.  Since secularism lacks a supernatural view of the person, it seeks to define personhood apart from the biblical concept that we are created in the image of God.  Instead, to the secularists, persons are defined in terms of economics, thought, or production… Worship that is principally geared toward dispensing intellectual information or pressing for results – massive church memberships or decisions – has already capitulated to the secular attitude.  It reduces human personality to a brain or a product, and worship deteriorates into nothing more than information for the mind or a product for the producer.  Secularization calls into question those elements that lie at the very heart of Hebrew and Christian worship.  Biblical worship is rooted in an event which is to be lived, not proven.  The purpose of worship is not to prove the Christ it celebrates, but to bring the worshiper so in tune with God’s reconciliation through Christ that his deathand resurrection become a lived experience… When our life story is brought up into the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, it then gains meaning and purpose” (31).

Sabbath cannot ultimately remain an intellectual construct and endeavor.  If it is to have real depth and genuine transformation follow, it must be a lived reality.  Sabbath is not merely a day but a lifestyle.  It is not a fad of culture, but a practice of the life of Christ in and through our own lives.  It is the restoration of human personhood.  Our value goes much farther than our intellectual capabilities, our jobs and positions, or our productivity capacity.  Sabbath can be just as prone to secularization and malpractice.  However, transformation happens when we keep the Sabbath to embody the Christ event in our lives and in our world.

“Liturgies or worship practices are rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity – they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us” (Desiring the Kingdom 93).  They are the practices that grab hold of our love and direct it to some “ultimate” end.  As I have said earlier, I believe that our telos is Love.  There are many “liturgies,” acts that shape our desires, to be found within the Church (and outside the Church).

James K. A. Smith notes, “This liturgical affirmation of materiality is commonly described as a sacramental understanding of the world – that the physical, material stuff of creation and embodiment is the means by which God’s grace meets us and gets hold of us” (Desiring the Kingdom 141).  The sacramental imagination, as such, is the intuition that God meets us here in the material reality and we are called to respond in material ways.  It is through these practices that God shapes us to embody the Kingdom of God back into the world.

“These are habits that play a significant role in shaping our identity, who we are.  Engaging in these habit-forming practices not only says something about us, but also keeps shaping us into that kind of person” (Desiring the Kingdom 82).  We must be intentional and cautious about participating in ritual without a proper understanding of that ritual.  Otherwise, we engage in traditionalism, which places highest priority upon the act, not the end goal.  However, ritual is important in that it keeps us continually in remembrance of our calling, which is a constant call for the Israelites in Deuteronomy.  We often forget what God has done and are swayed to follow foreign gods.

The idea of time plays a prominent role in the worshiping community.  The Christian calendar calls our attention upon Christ.  The aspect of time indicates and shapes our entrance into worship.  The colors, the smells, and the lighting all demonstrate a posture that we take in worship.  Whether it be penitence or rejoicing, the Christian calendar calls us to respond to the work of Christ, rather than being fixated on obscure, trivial realities.  Nor, do we orient ourselves in the world by the world’s understanding of time.  Rather, we find Sabbath rest.  In this, we come to appreciate and understand the significance of our lives, which is not wrapped up in production.

Sabbath, as Brueggemann argues, plays a vital role in our liturgies.  Brueggemann writes: “The reason that Sabbath is a radical discipline is that it is a regular, disciplined, highly visible withdrawal from the acquisitive society of production and consumption that is shaped only by commodity.  Work stoppage and rest are public statements that one’s existence and the existence of one’s society are not defined by the pursuit of commodity, and that human well-being is not evoked by commodity but precisely by the intentional refusal of commodity” (Mandate to Difference 59).

Sabbath reminds us who we are and who we belong to.  Thus, we are called to live in the world as a particular type of people in a particular way.  We are not the world’s and we do not need to live in the world on its terms.  We understand relationships to be of primary importance, even at the expense of our person.