Prophets, Poets, Pastors, and the Church

Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar [1] whose work has been enormously helpful to me. Beginning with Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advovacy, and moving through many of his other books and articles, I have developed an appreciation for his approach to the biblical text and his sturdy faith in God (the fact that he has graciously maintained an on-going email dialogue with me - a non-scholar - has only added to my respect for him).

Dr. Brueggemann is the one who introduced me to the concept of prophets as poets. In his own body of work, that idea was planted in The Prophetic Imagination (published in 1978) and grew to full harvest in Finally Comes the Poet (published in 1989). In that latter work Brueggemann insists, "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...The poetic speech of text and of sermon is a prophetic construal of a world beyond the one taken for granted"[2]. The time between the planting and harvesting of the prophets-as-poets idea, was characteristically marked by pruning and watering, which I think can be discerned in The Hopeful Imagination (published in 1986).

I came at the concept somewhat through the backdoor. Having appreciated his work on Old Testament theology, I searched online to see if there were any audio lectures available to listen to. Fortunately, I came across a brief survey of the Old Testament he did in 2004 for FPC Knoxville. I found his presentation to be candid, honest, and intriguing, so I wanted to know more about what informed his communication style and approach to the Bible. That led me to get ahold of his book called The Word Mililtant (published in 2007), it's a collection of essays on preaching, the Bible, and contextualization. I found what he had to say in that book challenging, enlightening, and inspiring.

So that's when I circled back and entered his work on prophets as poets in his own chronology - beginning with The Prophetic Imagination. When I made it to the opening remarks in Finally Comes the Poet, I was struck deeply at the core of my own experience:
"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 no readily compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less"[2].

What could possibly be the antidote to such a reduction of the gospel message?

I can do no better than to quote Brueggemenn here at legnth:
"To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. ...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 poety, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson's fast ball, the jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old world 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"[3].

What would happen if a pastor took that kind of unsettled/unsettling approach in our community today?
Is it even possible for a pastor/preacher to fill the role of prophet/poet?

With all of this permeating my thoughts, I came across a one minute video clip featuring John Goldingay as he talks honestly about the interaction of artists, prophets, and the church. Goldingay is a prolific scholar of the Old Testament who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary. His three volume work on Old Testament Theology has been very helpful in illuminating some texts and ideas that were otherwise blackholes in my reading and thinking.

I was therefore pleased to find Goldingay addressing this topic of arists (poets), prophets, preachers, and the church, Here's what he had to say:

Artists & Payroll Prophets from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Brueggemann and/or Goldingay (and why)?

[1] In their book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan refer to Brueggemann as "the foremost scholar on the Old Testament in North America today."
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet, 4.
[3] Ibid., 1.
[4] Ibid., 3.

Related Posts:
STICKY Sermons: Writing & Delivering Sermons that Stick
Let the Old Folks Speak


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