Walter Brueggemann on the imagination and preaching

In his wonderful book, Rabbit is Rich, John Updike offers the following observation: ‘Laugh at ministers all you want, they have the words we need to hear, the ones the dead have spoken’. Here Updike is suggesting that religious language, the Bible’s language, or what he calls ‘the words … the dead have spoken’ are the very bread and butter of a minister’s vocabulary, words which determine not only the content of a minister’s speech but also the conduct associated with a minister’s speech. Indeed, ministers are permitted to speak only that which has been given. All other words are only waffle, a foul and unholy wind. No wonder that Bonhoeffer said that ‘teaching about Christ begins in silence’. For the words which the dead have spoken are, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us in his book on the psalms, ‘words that linger with power and authority after their speakers have gone’. Brueggemann understands the psalmists and prophets to be the great poets of our tradition, who speak to God out of the fullness of the human condition. He considers the entire psalter as a collection of three kinds of psalms: there are psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. ‘Poets exist so that the dead may vote’, said Elie Wiesel, and they vote in the Psalms. ‘They vote for faith’, says Brueggemann. ‘But in voting for faith they vote for candor, for pain, for passion – and finally for joy. Their persistent voting gives us a word that turns out to be the word of life’. Brueggemann is concerned about the kind of exclusively happy-clappy churchianity that exists, saying that ‘the problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in the psalms of orientation) is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is so savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry’. True poets, painters, musicians etc. take the fullness of creaturely life seriously and, insofar as they do this, open up space in which the Holy Dove of God has room to flutter her wings.

Revelation, healing, hope, forgiveness, worship, prayer, the transformation and redemption of human community – what are these if not fundamentally engaged with the matter of the human imagination. The psalmists new this. The prophets new this. And Brueggemann calls upon preachers today to embrace a like posture with the utmost seriousness. He begins his book The Prophetic Imagination with the following words:

The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act. This enculturation is in some way true across the spectrum of church life, both liberal and conservative. It may not be a new situation, but it is one that seems especially urgent and pressing at the present time. That enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons. Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric.

The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture. When we suffer from amnesia every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.

The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way out of enculturation. This is not a cry for traditionalism but rather a judgment that the church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity. And that is true among liberals who are too chic to remember and conservatives who have overlaid the faith memory with all kinds of hedges that smack of scientism and Enlightenment.

He continues:

 … The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us … So, my programmatic urging is that every act of a minister who would be prophetic is part of a way of evoking, forming, and reforming an alternative community. And this applies to every facet and every practice of ministry. It is a measure of our enculturation that the various acts of ministry (for example, counseling, administration, even liturgy) have taken on lives and functions of their own rather than being seen as elements of the one prophetic ministry of formation and reformation of alternative community … [I]f the church is to be faithful it must be formed and ordered from the inside of its experience and confession and not by borrowing from sources external to its own life.

So in calling upon preachers to take seriously the role of the imagination, Brueggemann is not asking us to discard our own tradition and to take on something new. Rather, he is inviting us to do what God’s prophets and apostles have always done – to hear and to see and to taste and to touch and to speak the word of God, and to do so with all the powers of new imaginings that God has given to us, even in our own tradition, so that we might wrestle with the Word of God, with the old old story, as if for the first time, and have our lives formed by it.

In another book, Finally Comes the Poet, Brueggemann turns his attention specifically to preachers:

The gospel is too readily heard and taken for granted, as though it contained no unsettling news and no unwelcome threat. What began as news in the gospel is easily assumed, slotted, and conveniently dismissed. We depart having heard, but without noticing the urge to transformation that is not readily compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less.

The gospel is thus a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.

He continues:

When truth is mediated in such positivistic, ideological, and therefore partisan ways, humaneness wavers, the prospect for humanness, is at risk, and unchecked brutality makes its appearance. We shall not be the community we hope to be if our primary communications are in modes of utilitarian technology and managed, conformed values. The issues facing the church and its preachers may be put this way: Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced? In the sermon – and in the life of the church, more generally, I propose – we are to practice another way of communication that makes another shaping of life possible; unembarrassed about another rationality, not anxious about accommodating the reason of this age.

The task and possibility of preaching is to open out the good news of the gospel with alternative modes of speech – speech that is dramatic, artistic, capable of inviting persons to join in another conversation, free of the reason of technique, unencumbered by ontologies that grow abstract, unembarrassed about concreteness. Such speech, when heard in freedom, assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped. Reduced speech leads to reduced lives. Sunday morning is the practice of a counter life through counter speech. The church on Sunday morning, or whenever it engages in its odd speech, may be the last place left in our society for imaginative speech that permits people to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life.

To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. The terms of that phrase are readily misunderstood. By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching. Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it a soothing good humor.

It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel. This offer requires special care for words, because the baptized community awaits speech in order to be a faithful people. What a way to think about a poetic occasion that moves powerfully to expose the prose reductions around us as false! … Because we live so close to the biblical text, we often fail to note its generative power to summon and evoke new life. Broadly construed, the language of the biblical text is prophetic: it anticipates and summons realities that live beyond the conventions of our day-to-day, take-for-granted world. The Bible is our firm guarantee that in a world of technological naivete and ideological reductionism, prophetic construals of another world are still possible, still worth doing, still longingly received by those who live at the edge of despair, resignation, and conformity. Our preferred language is to call such speech prophetic, but we might also term it poetic. Those whom the ancient Israelites called prophets, the equally ancient Greeks called poets. The poet/prophet is a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibility in the listening assembly. Preaching continues that dangerous, indispensable habit of speech. The poetic speech of text and of sermon is a prophetic construal of a world beyond the one taken for granted … This poetic/prophetic utterance runs great risk. It runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood … The more tightly we hold to settled reality, the more likely the alternative construal of the poet will be dismissed as ‘mere fiction’. The poet/prophet, however, does not flinch from ‘fiction’, for the alternative envisioned in such speech is a proposal that destabilizes all our settled ‘facts’, and opens the way for transformation and the gift of newness.

And so Brueggemann encourages us to think of preaching as ‘a poetic construal of an alternative world’, the purpose of which is to ‘cherish the truth, to open the truth from its pervasive reductionism in our society, to break the fearful rationality that keeps the news from being new …  After the engineers, inventors, and scientists, after all such through knowledge, “finally comes the poet”. The poet does not come to have a say until the human community has engaged in its best management. Then perchance comes the Power of poetry – shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities … This speech, entrusted to and practiced by the church, is an act of relentless hope; an argument against the ideological closing of life we unwittingly embrace’.

It is precisely this posture towards and way of thinking about the poetic and fantastic (i.e., from fantasy, fiction, etc.) nature of reality and the shape of divine revelation that is just so imperative, not only for preaching but also for prayer, for pastoral encounters, for crafting liturgy, for choreographing church leadership structures and meetings, etc. Surely one of the main roles for leaders of faith communities is to help transform and foster our imaginations with the rich and fundamental traditions and texts that have formed us as a people, and to help God’s people to hear those afresh, as if for the first time. And for leaders of Christian faith communities, this means fostering an imagination baptised in the promises and stories of the Bible, seeing and hearing and tasting them as God’s ever-new speech.

And what art encourages is the opening up of hermeneutical space wherein our questions are taken seriously, where we can feel safer to explore them with God and with God’s people. Such a posture is something of a confession too; a confession that (i) there is truth that desires to be known; and (ii) we do not and cannot monopolise and control the truth of things.

Brueggemann reminds us that the meeting of the community of faith is an odd kind of speech meeting which ‘has the potential of evoking a new humanity’. And he suggests that in order for the new reality to be birthed, four partners need to be present:

1. The first partner in the meeting is the text. The congregation gathers with a vague memory of the text – a memory that has the text mostly reduced, trivialized, and domesticated.

2. The second partner in the meeting is the baptized. The community, he suggests in Finally Comes The Poet, ‘gathers to be shaped by a text that addresses us, an articulation of reality that lies outside of us that we cannot conjure and need not defend. The ones gather have been baptized. They may understand in an inchoate [i.e., tentative, embryonic, etc] way, but they have in fact made some vague decision about the cruciality of this text. They do not have a clear articulation of the text’s authority. Or they have a clear articulation that has become so scholastic as to be without use. Nonetheless, they are prepared to accept, in a general way, that this text is their text, the voice of life addressed to them’. He continues:

The baptized then, have been struggling with this text. The ones gathered are those who have either been other texts and have found them wanting, or have greatly resisted other texts and need this text reiterated Once again. Either way, out of compromise or resistance, the community gathers not for entertainment or private opinion, even for problem solving, but for the text made available yet again. They gather to hear the text that is shamelessly theological, candidly kerygmatic, and naively eschatological. The community waits for the text that may be a tent for the spirit. It waits with the hopeful yearning that the ‘house of authority’ is still intact. But if the text is to claim authority it will require neither the close reasoning of a canon lawyer, nor the precision of a technician, but it will require an artist to render the text in quite fresh ways, so that the text breaks life open among the baptized as it never has before.

3. Third, Brueggemann avers, there is ‘this specific occasion for speech’. Here he notes that ‘when the music stops and the rheostat is turned down, then there is this precious, awesome moment of speech’:

It is not time for cleverness or novelty. It is not time for advice or scolding or urging, because the text is not any problem-solving answer or a flat, ideological agent that can bring resolve. This moment of speech is a poetic rendering in a community that has come all too often to expect nothing but prose. It is a prose world for all those who must meet payrolls and grade papers and pump gas and fly planes. When the text, too, has been reduced to prose, life becomes so prosaic that there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit. We become mindless conformists or angry protesters, and there is no health in us. We become so beaten by prose that only poetic articulation has a chance to let us live.

Into this situation, in this moment, the preacher must speak. She does not get to speak a new text. She must speak an old text – the one everybody knows. From the very first syllable, the ending is already known. But it is a script to be played afresh, so that in this moment of drama the players render the play as a surprise to permit a fresh hearing, a second opinion. It is an artistic in which the words are concrete but open, close our life but moving out to new angles of reality. At the end, there is a breathless waiting: stunned, not sure we have reached the end. Then there is a powerful sense that a world has been rendered in which I may live, a world that is truly home but from which I have been alienated. The speaker must truly be a poet. After the scientist and the engineer, ‘finally comes the poet’ (which Israel calls prophet) – to evoke a different world, a new song, a fresh move, a new identity, a resolve about ethics, a being at home.

4. Brueggemann’s fourth and final cadence concerns the fact that in the voice that takes the old script and renders it to evoke a world we had not yet witnessed (cf. Isa 43.19), a ‘better world [is] given as fresh revelation’. ‘Something’, he insists, ‘is revealed’, and ‘we know not how’. He continues:

A probe behind the closed parameters of religion too-long settled and politics too easily comfortable. It is not only truth disclosed, but it is life disclosed. Life unclosed, Life made open, certitudes broken so that we can redecide, images moving, imagination assaulting ideology. We find new configurations of life yet unformed, unthought, but now available. The old slogans sound unconvincing. I thought I had come for certitude, but the poetic speech does not give certitude. As I am addressed by the gospel, I hear anew that possibility overwhelms necessity in my life. The only available absolute given me is a ‘fiction’ to which I must trust myself – a gracious ‘fiction’ on which I stake my life, authored by God who also authors the text and the speech.

The congregation departs. Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner. Same tired beginning on Monday. Now, however, there is disclosed a new word, a new hope, a new verb, a new conversation, a new risk, a new possibility. It is not a new truth, but rather one long known that had been greatly reduced. That long-known truth is now greatly enhanced in riches, texture, availability, demand. My life is mapped in mystery and I accept that new life; but it is also mapped in vulnerability and it frightens me. The mystery gives regal authority and freedom in the face of an IRS audit. The vulnerability permits me to come out from behind my desk, my stethoscope, my uniform, my competence, my credentials, my fears – to meet life a little more boldly. Yet again, as the word is spoken one more time, we move through the wearisome death-ridden days of our life and come back once again to Easter to be stunned into disbelief, and then beyond disbelief, to be stunned to life, now filled with fear and trembling.

The meeting involves this old text, the spent congregation believing but impoverished, the artist of new possibility, the disclosure. The Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that we can be administered. The Prince has such powerful allies in this age. Against such enormous odds, however, there is the working of this feeble, inscrutable, unshackled moment of sermon. Sometimes the Prince will win the day and there is no new thing uttered or heard. Sometimes, however, the sermon will have its say and the truth looms large – larger than the text or the voice or the folk had any reason to expect. When that happens, the world is set loose toward healing. The sermon for such a time shames the Prince and we become yet again more nearly human. The Author of the text laughs in delight, the way that Author has laughed only at creation and at Easter, but laughs again when the sermon carries the day against the prose of the Dark Prince who wants no new poetry in the region he thinks he governs. Where the poetry is sounded, the Prince knows a little of the territory has been lost to its true Ruler. The newly claimed territory becomes a new home of freedom, justice, peace, and abiding joy. This happens when the poet comes, when the poet speaks, when the preacher comes as poet.

Words to sink your ears into

Missing your lectures? Eyes need a break? Need to kill some time over the Christmas period? Want to impress your friends (and enemies) with your learnedness? Check out some of the following links (which are mostly from our friends at Holden Village):

H. George Anderson

Karl Barth

  • “Was ist für Sie Mozart?”. Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach (Text Schweizerdeutsch Text Standarddeutsch). Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Weihnachtsgruss 1960 (siehe auch Letter Nr. 12) [mp3]
  • Institutio-Jubiläum 1959 (siehe Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Nr. 158, vom 11./12. Juli 2009, S. B 3) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit den Tübinger Stiftlern vom 2. März 1964 über die Entstehung der Barmer Theologischen Erklärung (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 19641968, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 1997, S. 111–114; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 221–223) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft Württemberg vom 15. Juli 1963 über die Bedeutung von Barmen (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 1963, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 2005, S. 54; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 191) [mp3]
  • Aus “Die Liebe”, Abschiedsvorlesung Karl Barths vom 1. März 1962 an der Universität Basel (siehe K. Barth, Einführung in die evangelische Theologie, Zürich 20045, S. 220) [mp3]
  • Aus “The Community”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 26. April 1962 in Chicago und 2. Mai 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 41) [mp3]
  • Aus “Commentary”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 23. April 1962 in Chicago und 29. April 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 9–12) [mp3]
  • Tondokumente aus Letter Nr. 6.
  • Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach. Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft in Württemberg. Aus dem Gespräch am 15.7.1963 im Restaurant Bruderholz in Basel. [mp3]
  • Gespräch in Bièvres. Aus der Diskusion am 20.10.1963 über Fragen im Zusammenhang seines Buches «Einführung in die evangelische Theologie». [mp3]
  • Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago. Aus dem Schlusswort bei der Podiumsdiskusion in Chicago 26.4.1962. [mp3]

Carl Braaten

Walter Brueggemann

Nancy Eiesland

Terry Fretheim

Martin Marty

Bonnie Miller-McLemore

Jürgen Moltmann

Ched Myers

Lesslie Newbigin

John Polkinghorne

Dorothee Sölle

William Stringfellow

  • Civil rights movement – an interview with Robert Penn Warren: Part I, Part II (1964)

Helmut Thielicke

Vitor Westhelle

Rowan Williams

Umhau Wolf

John Howard Yoder

While praying for the people of Christchurch …

Christchurch quaked again this afternoon. And even here in Dunedin, some 360 kms away, there were not a few who felt the earth rumbling, giving way, somewhere beneath us.

And this afternoon, many of us paused to pray again for those who have for many months lived with uncertainty and amidst regular aftershocks. Somewhat stuck for words, I turned to two prayers in Walter Brueggemann’s Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth to help me find a voice and to give me somewhere to start.

Even on such a day

We prattle about your sovereignty … especially we Calvinists;
all about all things working together for good,
all about your watchful care and your severe mercies.

And then we are drawn up short;
by terror that strikes us, in our privilege, as insane;
by violence that shatters our illusions of well-being;
by death that reminds us of our at-risk mortality;
by smoke and fire that have the recurring smell of ovens.

We are bewildered, undone, frightened,
and then intrude the cadences of these old poets:
the cadences of fidelity and righteousness;
the sounds of justice and judgment;
the images of Sodom and Gomorrah;
the imperatives of widows and orphans.

Even on such a day we are not minded to yield on your sovereignty,
We are, we confess, sobered, put off, placed in dread,
that you are lord as well as friend,
that you are hidden as well as visible,
that you are silent as well as reassuring.

You are our God. That is enough for us … but just barely.

We pray in the name of the wounded flesh of Jesus. Amen.

While reading Isaiah 1

◊◊◊

The terrible silencing we cannot master

Holy God who hovers daily round us in fidelity and compassion,
this day we are mindful of another, dread-filled hovering,
that of the power of death before which we stand
thin and needful.

All our days, we are mindful of the pieces of our lives
and the parts of your world
that are on the loose in destructive ways.

We notice that wildness midst our fear and our anger unresolved.

We mark it in a world of brutality and poverty and hunger
all around us.

We notice all our days.

But on this day of all days,
that great threat looms so large and powerful.

It is not for nothing
that we tremble at these three hours of darkness
and the raging earthquake.
It is not for nothing
that we have a sense of our helplessness
before the dread power of death that has broken loose
and that struts against our interest and even against our will.

Our whole life is not unlike the playground in the village,
lovely and delightful and filled with squeals unafraid,
and then we remember the silencing
of all those squeals in death,
and we remember the legions of Kristy’s
that are swept away in a riddle too deep for knowing.

Our whole life is like that playground
and on this dread-filled Friday we pause before
the terrible silencing we cannot master.

So we come in our helpless candor this day …
remembering, giving thanks, celebrating …
but not for one instant unmindful of dangers too ominous
and powers too sturdy and threats well beyond us.
We turn eventually from our hurt for children lost.
We turn finally from all our unresolved losses
to the cosmic grief at the loss of Jesus.
We recall and relive that wrenching Friday
when the hurt cut to your heart.
We see in that terrible hurt, our losses
and your fill embrace of loss and defeat.

We dare pray while the darkness descends
and the earthquake trembles,
we dare pray for eyes to see fully
and mouths to speak fully the power of death all around,
we dare pray for a capacity to notice unflinching
that in our happy playgrounds other children die,
and grow silent,
we pray more for your notice and your promise
and your healing.

Our only urging on Friday is that you live this as we must
impacted but not destroyed,
dimmed but not quenched.
For your great staying power
and your promise of newness we praise you.
It is in your power
and your promise that we take our stand this day.
We dare trust that Friday is never the last day,
so we watch for the new day of life.
Hear our prayer and be your full self toward us.
Amen.

Good Friday, 1991

Walter Brueggemann on biblical theology and skillful hermeneutical moves

‘… the discipline of biblical theology needs no “case” to be made for it, and certainly not by me. There is deep and wide ferment in the field, indicating that scholars and interpreters across the theological spectrum are ready to be engaged in work that is fresh and suggestive. It is possible that such an interpretive enterprise may be primarily historical, that is, reading old texts to see what they “meant.”

My own interest is much more “confessional,” as I am a church person who reads for the sake of the faith and life of my community. I suppose, without great intentionality, that I read according to Ricoeur’s nice pairing of “suspicion and retrieval.” The “suspicion” is an awareness that every text and every reading, including my own, is laden with ideological interest. This is true of skeptics, minimalists, and fideists of all kinds. The “retrieval” is to see what may be said after one has done rigorous criticism. What one finds, after criticism, is that there is still this character “God,” who continues to haunt and evoke and summon and address. No sort of criticism, so it seems to me, finally disposes of that character. Now it may be that the character is an act of literary imagination; or it may be that the character is indeed an agent who is in, with, and under the text. Either way, one cannot dispose of that character. I find myself moving back and forth between a literary character and an active agent. Either way, that character haunts and causes everything to be redefined.

But being haunted by this character is not just a confessional act for “believers.” I believe the best exposition of this testimony for “non-believers” is by Terry Eagleton in his Terry Lectures at Yale. Eagleton is not a “believer,” but he takes seriously the claims of this text that are more than “literary.” Eagleton shows that the claims are not merely cognitive and so readily dismissed by “silly atheists.” Rather, Eagleton sees that the claims of the tradition are that this holy character is linked to the valuing of “the scum” of the earth. The point is a practical one, not an intellectual one …

Given the current frailty of the capitalist system and the fact that the “big money” continues to grow while ordinary people increasingly become poor and homeless, I suspect that this character, embedded in this tradition, is a wake-up call for contemporary social-political thought. It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting …

The capacity to find an alternative to biblicism or historical criticism requires skillful hermeneutical moves, whether made intentionally or intuitively. If one begins with the assumption of neighborly covenant—the outcome of Sinai—then neighborliness becomes the test for policy and practice. Such a focus does not resolve all of the complexities of real-life decisions, but it does preclude from consideration some possibilities that are anti-neighborly and anti-covenantal. Such an approach does not just find a specific text, as is so often done, but participates, as we are able, in the “world” that is constructed by the text. It is odd and disappointing that some of the loudest citers of texts love to refer to specific texts but have no interest in or awareness of the broad claims of the text or the way in which the dots are connected to provide an alternative vision of social reality and derivatively, an alternative mandate about social reality. Thus I believe that the clue to fruitful connections is a practice of imagination that is self-aware and well-informed about the complexity of the issues. There is no reason for biblical interpreters to be simplistic or to imagine that easy or ready connections can be made …

As I have gotten older and as our social scene has become more dysfunctional, I have become more aware of the ways in which the central claims of the Bible contradict the practices of our culture. This means, in my judgment, that now as never in my lifetime the full and bold articulation of biblical claims is urgent as a serious offer in our pluralistic society. There are no easy accommodations between those claims and the dominant modes of our culture, even though the old model in which I was nurtured—“Christ transforming culture”—mostly imagined an easier connect. My practical hope is not very great. I do think that the younger generation in our society is not so boxed in on the hard questions as are many older people. I think, moreover, that the growing diversity in our society may offer openness for genuinely human options, as I do not think that our diverse and younger population will settle easily for the old answers of the privileged. After all of that, of course, our hope is not a pragmatic one; it is an evangelical one, that God is faithful and that God’s purposes will out. The wonder of the Biblical tradition is that the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible that the convergence of holy purpose and vulnerable pain may “change the wind,” as Jim Wallis voices it. Since the old resolutions of our problems are clearly now failed, there may be an openness to initiatives that are more humane. That of course depends on courageous, sustained testimony… and it is a fearful time’. – An interview with Walter Brueggemann.

‘Who shall unseal the years, the years!’: Around the traps

A Script to Live (and to Die) By: 19 Theses by Walter Brueggemann

These 19 theses by Walter Brueggemann are the most interesting thing I’ve read all day [to be sure, it’s been a bit of an admin marathon today], an encouraging invitation to those of us striving to live by, and to train others to live by, what Brueggemann calls ‘the alternative script’:

1.        Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognised or unrecognised, but everybody has a script.

2.        We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialisation, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3.         The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socialises us all, liberal and conservative.

4.        That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5.        That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

6.        Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.

7.        It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, to enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.

8.        The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.

9.        The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.

10.    That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature – its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.

11.    That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.

12.    The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must be taken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.

13.    The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so to debilitate the focus of the script.

14.    The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?

15.    The nurture, formation, and socialisation into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialisation by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighbouring of all kinds.

16.    Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.

17.    This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit, so that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.

18.    Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is crucially present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.

19.    The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and to manage a way through it. I think often I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you took all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.

[These theses were presented at the Emergent Theological Conversation, September 13-15, 2004, All Souls Fellowship, Decatur, GA., USA]

Psalm 6: A reflection

anguishFor the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith.

A psalm of David.

1O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.

2 Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony.

3 My soul is in anguish.
How long, O LORD, how long?

4 Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.

5 No one remembers you when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave?

6 I am worn out from groaning;
all night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.

7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

8 Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.

9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.

10 All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed;
they will turn back in disgrace.

The problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in the psalms of orientation) is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is so savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry.[1]

What strikes me most about Psalm 6 is that (like Job), when under the cloud of defeat, David doesn’t whinge to others, nor does he use the occasion to cultivate a calloused heart toward God. Fear, pain and distress constitute his world (and little else, or so it would seem). And his enemies want him dead.

But David turns to God. His turning constitutes a refusal to settle for things as they are, a snub to recognise the world as it would seem. His song is an act of relentless hope that considers that no situation falls outside of God’s capacity for transformation, nor of God’s responsibility.[2] Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III, in their book Cry of the Soul: How our emotions reveal our deepest questions about God, recall that:

The Psalms do not offer an analytical treatment of emotions. They are not a how-to text from which we can extrapolate four easy steps to resolving difficult emotions. Such simplistic reductions of our inner world, and of life itself, strip the heart of calling out to God in the darkness of His mysterious involvement with us. Instead, the Psalms invite us to question God. But they do this in the context of worship – they were the hymnal used in public worship. God invites us to bring before Him our rage, doubt, and terror – but He intends for us to do so as part of worship.[3]

So David calls out to God, and he recalls, among other things, God’s unfailing love.

Yet what if we were to listen in on this prayer as if it were not only David’s, but also that of a frightened man in Gethsemane, afraid that his impending death would mean the end of fellowship with God. ‘Who praises you from the grave?’ There is no resurrection hope here. So Thielicke:

Sheol [is] the land of no return, which means exclusion from God’s saving dealings with his community. Since salvation is history – in God’s mighty acts and in worship – exclusion from history is particularly painful. It involves the contradiction that on the one side life is ordained for God’s honor and praise and the other side is lost in the land of no return.[4]

When the Son takes on flesh and becomes Jesus, he becomes our brother, fully identifies with us in all the experiences of life, entering into the depth of creaturely existence ‘so savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry’. And as our brother, he dies our death, the death of all. All humanity enters Sheol in him.

And on the third day … Jesus – and humanity in him – turned to God.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 25.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure, Theme, and Text (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 29.

[3] Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III, Cry of the Soul: How our emotions reveal our deepest questions about God (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1994), 37.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, Volume Three: Theology of the Spirit (ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 401.

Brueggemann on Isaiah 40:28-29

sowerJim Gordon shares a ripper from Brueggemann on Isaiah 40:28-29 that speaks powerfully to the anxiety that attends and motivates modern life:

‘Creation not only works for the powerful, the mighty, and the knowledgeable. It works as well for the faint, the powerless, the hopeless and the worthless. It works by giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater. It works so that strength is renewed. It is creation that precludes weariness and faintness, and invites walking, running and flying.

Evangelical concern may derivatively raise the issue of our terrible disorderedness that issues in unseemly anxiety and in inescapable fatigue. It is a good question to raise in a local parish; Why so driven, so insatiable, so restless? The answer, in this doxological tradition, is that our lives are driven because we are seriously at variance from God’s gracious food-giving program. 

And where there is a variance and a refusal to trust:
youth are faint and weary, 
     the young are exhausted, 
     and there is little liberated flying or exhilarated running. (Isaiah 40.30)’.

– Walter Brueggemann, Text under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 35-6.