Walter Brueggemann on Prophetic Preaching

In his book, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), Walter Brueggemann wrote: “A study of the prophets of Israel must try to take into account both the evidence of the Old Testament and the contemporary situation of the church. What we understand about the Old Testament must be somehow connected with the realities of the church today” (p. 1).

The Prophetic Imagination is a book that all my students must read when I teach a course on the Hebrew prophets.  This book has an amazing message to people who aspire to be prophetic in their ministry.

For instance, Brueggemann’s definition of prophetic ministry is a call to action.  Brueggemann wrote: “Prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice” (p. 116).

Brueggemann has continued to develop his concern for prophetic preaching in his new book, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an  Emancipating Word (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2012).

I have read the first chapter of the book and I liked what I read.  The book will not be available until January 2012.  When the book is available, it will be added to my library and join my collection of books written by Brueggemann.

Augsburg Fortress Press has made available the first chapter in PDF format.  I encourage pastors and seminary students to read this chapter and learn more about the practice of prophetic preaching.  Below is an excerpt taken from the first chapter of Brueggemann’s book:

It is my hope, in what follows, to make a credible connection between the material of “prophetic utterance” in the Old Testament itself and the actual practice of “prophetic preaching” that is mandated in the actual work of pastors who are located in worshipping congregations. It is not difficult to see what the prophets of the Old Testament are doing, and we have ample interpretive analyses of that work.

But the transposition from that ancient clarity to contemporary social, ecclesial reality is not easy or obvious.  “Prophetic preaching,” undertaken by working pastors, is profoundly difficult and leaves the preacher in an ambiguous and exposed position.

The task is difficult because such a preacher must at the same time “speak truth” while maintaining a budget, a membership, and a program in a context that is often not prepared for such truthfulness. Indeed, given the seductions and accommodations of many congregations, not to mention larger judicatories in the church, such venues are often not readily venues for truth-telling.

Given that problematic reality that is ubiquitous and systemic, we may also note that “prophetic preaching” is not in its definition obvious. On the one hand and popularly, “prophetic preaching” may mean to take up the great issues of the day, so that the preacher is cast, with some immediacy, in the role of prophet. On the other hand, it is possible to construe “prophetic preaching” as a probe of ancient prophetic texts with inescapable side glances at contemporary issues.

This latter perspective focuses on texts rather than immediate contemporary context; in many congregations this is a more viable approach that may lead, on occasion, to direct or implied connections. My own judgment is that for most preachers in most congregational settings, a focus on the biblical prophetic text—with traces that connect to contemporaneity—is a more realistic way to proceed. For that reason I have elsewhere suggested that the preacher may be a “scribe” who handles old texts and permits them to be seen with contemporary force and authority.

In such an approach, the preacher-scribe is not cast as a prophet but as a handler of the prophetic tradition who brings to availability a treasure of what is old (tradition) and what is new (contemporaneity) (Matt. 13:51-53). It will be this latter perspective that I pursue in this discussion.

When I ponder what the ancient prophets in Israel are doing as we have them in the text, I arrive at this judgment that will serve as my guiding thesis: prophetic proclamation is an attempt to imagine the world as though YHWH—the creator of the world, the deliverer of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whom we Christians come to name as Father, Son, and Spirit—were a real character and an effective agent in the world. I use the subjunctive “were” because such a claim is not self-evident and remains to be established again and again in every such utterance.

The key term in my thesis is “imagine,” that is, to utter, entertain, describe, and construe a world other than the one that is manifest in front to us, for that present world is readily and commonly taken without such agency or character for YHWH. Thus the offer of prophetic imagination is one that contradicts the taken-for-granted world around us.

At the outset, it is clear that this way of putting the matter refuses two common assumptions. On the one hand, it rejects the more conservative assumption that the prophets were predictors, those who tell the future, with particular reference to predictions of the coming Christ. On the other hand, this thesis refuses the common liberal assumption that the prophets were social activists who worked to establish social justice. It strikes me that the ancient prophets only rarely took up any concrete social issue.

More important to them than concrete social issues is the fact that they characteristically spoke in poetic idiom with rich metaphors, so that their language is recurringly teasing, elusive, and evocative, with lesser accent on instruction or didacticism.

You can read the remainder of chapter one here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Preaching, Prophets and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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