A Prophetic Voice

I recently discovered an hour-long 2011 video of Krista Tippett’s On Being radio interview (via Minnesota Public Radio) with scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann. Entitled, “In the Room with Walter Brueggemann,” it offers a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at a stimulating conversation about prophetic imagination.

In the Room with Walter Brueggemann (Video by On Being)

I’m a big fan of On Being and of Brueggemann’s work, including his seminal work The Prophetic Imagination. (I just checked out his “collected sermons” through my local library’s interlibrary loan system.) What struck me most about the interview, besides Brueggemann’s down-to-earth laugh and the fact that he grew up in rural Missouri (or “Missour-ah,” as he pronounces it), was the dialogue between minutes 27 and 37 on the challenges and complications of preaching— or writing or blogging, I would add—about current events, such as the war in Iraq.

Brueggemann: …It comes through to some people as simply liberal cant and not really the voice of the gospel, because it’s not only tied up with our military ideology but it’s all tied up for specific families who have sons and daughters in the service, and it sounds like a repudiation of them. So it gets to be a very complex issue, but we have to talk about it…so that that sort of stuff doesn’t become commonplace and assumed as normal among us. It’s quite abnormal to be committed to that way in the world.

Tippett: I think that this larger point that you’ve been making about the aesthetic, literary, poetic sensibility of the prophetic tradition…that the very language is different and transformative, that it takes that voice out of political boxes, because…I’m really aware that a lot of words that religious people treasure and that are core, I mean the word ‘justice,’ the word ‘peace,’ these words themselves are tarnished in our culture. They have all kinds of political association and baggage…They’re liberal or they’re conservative or they belong to some agenda, and I think that’s also a problem when preachers start talking about those things…

Brueggemann: Which is why a poetic preacher always has to try to find another way to say it…It’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an issue…I think what they’re doing is they’re going underneath the issues that preoccupy people to the more foundational assumptions that can only be gotten at in elusive language, and very much the institutional church has been preoccupied with issues.

Tippett: Which automatically puts you on one side of the issue or on the other side of the issue.

Brueggemann: That’s correct, and when we do that, we are robbed of transformative power. Because then it’s ideology versus ideology that does not produce very good outcomes for anyone.

He goes on to call Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu, a now-retired South African bishop, as recent leaders whose manner of communication echoes that of the biblical prophets.

Two final points that have stuck with me since watching this video are:

  1. Brueggemann draws an important distinction between emancipatory preaching and what he calls “affrontive” preaching, the former representing a prophetic vein of communication that brings change and reconciliation and the latter representing the lamentably more common brand of shrill preaching that causes people on different sides of issues to dig in and remain at odds.
  2. I love how Brueggemann refers to the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures as “uncredentialed people without pedigrees.” In a world that lauds and honors titles, God often spoke (and still speaks) through people without them.

For a brief summary of Tippett’s thoughts on Brueggemann’s work, check out her post on Huffington Post from later in 2011.

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