The influence of Walter Brueggemann on preaching has continually increased since Finally Comes the Poet was released in 1989. There are many reasons I enjoy his preaching. Among them, I like the way he challenges the powers that be with the word of the Lord. It puts me to mind of John the Baptizer calling out Herod Antipas. When he steps into the pulpit, it just feels like he is there to challenge Pharaoh’s Egypt and its lingering effects. I like that he proposes use of the Old Testament in ways that perhaps are overdue.
Yet, while challenging the powers on some level, he sometimes seems to snuggle up with other political powers. There are times Brueggemann comes across as some imaginative hybrid of Karl Barth and Karl Marx. I enjoy him most when he comes across as a descendant of the prophet Jeremiah.
I think he would agree that he draws from the social sciences, political theories, and the arts to feed his theological imagination. These, at the very least, provide him with some language for his theological proclamation. You do not have to listen to him too many times to realize he wants to prompt thought about economic and political concerns. While none of us would dispute the bible’s interest in such things in its quest for justice, one wonders if Brueggemann tends to overplay their significance as the bible’s primary mission. I can’t help but think he sometimes starts with an ecclesial analysis but winds up with a social-cultural analysis and am left thinking whether he thinks the two are the same.
Brueggemann makes a point to move beyond the historical critical methods of study. Though he may not cast it aside altogether, he does see it as a method born in modernity. Nevertheless, in our wiser moments we will recognize that it should not be the only tool in our hermeneutical toolbox.
Instead, Brueggemann proposes methods that utilize sociological criticism and rhetorical criticism. He claims to prefer these because they make hermeneutics more democratic, “In contrast to older methods that encouraged a kind of expert consciousness.” By encouraging newer approaches “everyone can look at the text and see something.” Indeed, Ben Witherington fears this turns exegesis into something like a Rorschach test where one can simply ask what can be found in the ink blots. We can all admit a danger if we get to tell biblical authors what their text means.
His attempt at hermeneutical correction may go too far. It is dangerous to separate the text from its historical context. Without such a context, the bible becomes a floating document full of phrases suitable for wall hangings and pleasant platitudes but no longer a record grounded in the historical intervention of God.
Due to tendencies to silence the Old Testament, Brueggemann claims to take an ecclesial agenda to the text rather than a Christological agenda. While we might want to applaud his efforts to make sure the Old Testament is heard, he has been accused of avoiding any Christian readings of the Old Testament. If this is true, we may wish to ask him what he thinks of a biblical metanarrative.
Of interest during this conversation, in an examination of postmodern hermeneutics, Brevard Childs uses Brueggemann as exhibit A. He shares a concern that Brueggemann sometimes confuses the human imagination with the Holy Spirit.
I suspect some are unable to see any value Brueggemann brings to the pulpit because of his potentially dangerous hermeneutics. I suspect others will consider me too critical and remind me that Brueggemann has forgotten more than I will ever know. Nevertheless, I consider him one of the most influential preachers of our lifetime. And I look forward to hearing him again later this month at the Festival of Homiletics in Washington, D. C. The theme for the conference is “Preaching and Politics” and quite frankly, I am rather excited about what Brueggemann will bring to the pulpit there.