Why Can’t Walter Brueggemann Leave Me Alone?

03 Nov

Why is it that Walter Brueggemann cannot leave me alone?

Why can’t he leave me to my quiet corner of the world going about my business is the same ordinary way I have always done it?

Probably because the professor of the Old Testament prophets is himself a prophet.

Brueggemann is an author, scholar, speaker, and retired professor of Old Testament Theology. He spends most of his time now writing and speaking. He challenges me, frustrates me, confuses me, and at times helps me. He has helped me rethink the purpose and meaning of Old Testament prophecy and the role of the OT prophecies. For this I am thankful for Brueggemann’s voice. If you read (or listen) to Brueggemann, do so with a discerning eye (or ear), I cannot say that I always agree with him. Most of the time, I find myself wrestling with him.

Recently he has been challenging me to think (rethink) about preaching as re-imagination. I have started a new series on Sunday morning called “Imagine,” which is an exploration of the imagery in the book of Isaiah (specifically chapters 1-9). Brueggeman has helped me see Isaiah wasn’t just forecasting the future; he was stirring the imagination of Israel in order to produce hope. Isaiah was working on God’s behalf to form and reform Israel to look like the alternative community of worship & justice that God had intended. Isaiah’s medium was poetry. This has been such a helpful paradigm shift for me to see Old Testament prophecy has poetry. In this regard, prophets are more like songwriters (and poets) than preachers, although their poetry/prophecies were often verbally proclaimed. And so Brueggemann  is challenging me to think about my own preaching/teaching in terms of reimagination.

I read this recently from his book Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles. This is the outline from Chapter 3: Preaching as Reimagination

1)      Ours is a changed preaching situation, because the old modes of church absolutes are no longer trusted.

2)      Along with the failure of old modes of articulation, we now face the inadequacy of historical-critical understanding of the biblical text as it has been conventionally practiced.

3)      A great new reality for preaching is pluralism in the interpreting community of the local congregation.

4)      Pluralism as the perspective and orientation of the community that hears and interprets is matched by an emerging awareness of the polyvalence of the biblical text.

5)      Reality is scripted, that is, shaped and authorized by a text.

6)      The dominant scripting of reality in our culture is rooted in the Enlightenment enterprise best associated with Rene Descartes, John Lock, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which has issued in a notion of autonomous individualism, ending in what Philip Rieff calls “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.”

7)      This scripting tradition of the Enlightenment exercises an incredible and pervasive hegemony among us.

8)      We now know (or think we know) that human transformation (the way people change) does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude, but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality.

9)      The biblical text, in all its odd disjunctions, is an offer of an alternative script, and preaching this text is to explore how the world is, if it is imagined through this alternative script.

10)   The proposal of this alternative script is not through large, comprehensive, universal claims, but through concrete, specific, local texts that in small ways provide alternative imagination.

11)    The work of preaching is an act of imagination, that is, an offer of an image through which perception, experience, and finally faith can be reorganized in alternative ways.

12)   Because old modes of certitude are no longer trusted, the preaching of these texts is not an offer of metaphysics but the enactment of a drama in which the congregation is audience but may at any point become participant.

13)   The dramatic rendering of imagination has as its quintessential mode narrative, the telling of a story, and the subsequent living of that story.

14)   The invitation of preaching (not unlike therapy) is to abandon the script in which one has had confidence and to enter a different script that imaginatively tells one’s life differently.

15)   The offer of an alternative script (to which we testify and bear witness as true) invites the listener out of his or her assumed context into many alternative contexts where different scripts may have a ring of authenticity and credibility.

16)   Finally, I believe that the great pastoral fact among us that troubles everyone, liberal or conservative, is that the old givens of white, male, Western, colonial advantage no longer hold.

Chapter 3: “Preaching as Reimagination” from Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles (1997)

Oh Brueggemann, why can’t you just leave me alone! I mutter this under my breath, because I know I need to hear what he is saying. He is right that our preaching situation is changed (#1). Authoritative, know-it-all, overly confident approaches to preaching are not trusted in our culture. Evangelicals (and indeed Christianity at large) no longer has a privileged place in society. The times, they are a-changin’. No doubt about it. So we need to rethink our modes of articulation (#2). I certainly do. I think all good craftsman work to hone their craft.

Where I disagree with Brueggemann is in his accommodation of pluralism (#5). It is true that individual communities of faith in different cultures can find different ways to apply the Scripture in the life of the community, but application is far different than interpretation. Our application may be different; our interpretation must be in harmony with historic orthodoxy. We need to know what the biblical text meant, before we try to determine what it means. We cannot jettoson all historical-critical approaches to Scripture. There is meaning there. If we try to jump aboard the “deconstruction expressway,” we will end up destroying the text and losing the gospel, which is our alternative script.

Brueggemann is right that our culture has been “scripted” by the enlightenment (#6). For all the good the enlightenment has brought us, one of the downsides is that it can leave us cold, dry, and numb. Preaching as reimagination, offers people an alternative script (#11), one that is filled with the hope of God. So maybe, I am happy that Brueggmann continues to pester me. It is what I need to continue to grow.

I am not done with Brueggeman. These are just my thoughts today. I am sure he will continue to bug me in the future.


Posted by on November 3, 2009 in Ministry, Theology



2 responses to “Why Can’t Walter Brueggemann Leave Me Alone?

  1. Paula

    November 3, 2009 at 4:33 am

    Derek, I’m glad to hear that Brueggeman is challenging you. He is a wise man and a very wonderful professor. I sometimes wish I could have sat closer at his feet like some of my colleagues who attended CTS when he was a professor there. I studied his writings while in Seminary at UDTS and was able to attend a few conferences where he spoke. I gleaned a myriad of things from him, and continue to do so. I apprecaite your appreciation for him. Keep seeking. Peace to your journey.

  2. derekvreeland

    November 3, 2009 at 4:41 am

    Yeah he has challenged me. I have a pastor friend who is PCUSA and he studied under him at Princeton. Brueggemann certainly has his ear to the culture and his insight into OT prophecy has helped me tremendously. Theologically, he differ in places, but I am eclectic enough to allow him to push me along in my spiritual journey.


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