What does it mean to preach a "Decentering Word"?

The Word Militant by Walter Brueggemann

Brueggemann, Walter. The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007. Available at CBD and Amazon.

Brueggemann’s thought provoking volume from 2007 consists of eleven articles written for various journals from 1995–2003, now gathered into a single edition. Many of his insights are derivative thoughts from Karl Barth, but Brueggemann is helpful in that he finds such gems in the Old Testament Scriptures, thus opening up new worlds for his readers through what is by far the dustiest part of most Bibles. In the first chapter, “At Risk with the Text,” WB quotes KB as a faithful interpreter of Jeremiah, when he described the common situation of the Christian minister:

As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison (3, italics orig.).

Focusing almost entirely on Jeremiah in this chapter, WB identifies a number of peculiar similarities between Jeremiah’s Judah, and today’s America: he finds that both are societies fueled by the conviction that they a) possess the certain hope of the world, b) have been chosen as God’s agent, and c) are therefore immune to the threats of history (18). All of these notions are at odds with the word of scripture, and all of them call forth the divine wrath. Moreover, they invite the preacher into a conversation with the ancient prophets and their God, to comprehend anew the work that God is doing, and to speak truth to a world driven by power. 

In “Preaching as Reimagination,” WB argues that the task of the preacher is to identify the cultural script into which his people have unwittingly accepted as true reality, and to offer hope in God’s reality as a counter-narrative. Here WB delves into somewhat postmodern literary waters to demonstrate that what we call “reality” is up for debate today. The realities in which we live are texts which offer certain possibilities, and have certain advantages, but which invariably bolster some ideology or another. For the preacher today, such a realization is fundamental to fulfilling the preaching task of speaking of another text—God’s text—and offering it to the weary and burdened souls who live day to day under harsh narratives which cannot give life (33). The goal, then, is to identify the contestation of various narratives which vie for the place of reality, and to invite people into the Gospel as the sole narrative which is adequate to the needs of the individual.

In “The Preacher, the Text, and the People,” WB points out that in many churches the voice of the pastor becomes positively identified with the voice of God. The danger of such a tendency is that it means that we wind up with a situation of triangulation, in which fighting lines are drawn up as congregation vs. pastor & God. WB suggests an alternative model of preaching, wherein the voice of the pastor becomes more closely identified with congregation, and thus the emerging find themselves confronted together by the voice of God in the text.

In “An Imaginative ‘Or’,” which is no doubt one of his best chapters, WB argues that the preacher’s tasks lands him in a situation in which he must always offer an “either/or.” The quintessential example is Joshua’s option to Israel: choose this day whom you will serve. WB remarks on the event, “this particular crisis of either/or is negotiated and Israel comes to be, yet again, an intentional alternative community, alternative to the gods of the land” (59). Furthermore, it is always the case that the distinctive option for the faith community “for praise and obedience is not self-evident in the nature of things, but depends completely and exclusively on the courageous utterance of witnesses who voice choices and invite decisions where none were self-evident” (62). He details numerous examples of the either/or from the preachers of scripture, and argues that such radical options need still to be offered by the preacher of today.

In “The Social Nature of the Biblical Text for Preaching,” WB identifies four possible ways to offer the text to a congregation: to present 1. “a world of transformation” for the oppressed and marginalized, 2. “a world of equilibrium” for the marginalized to learn to wait and yearn, 3. “a world of transformation” to those who do not want the world changed, and 4. “a world of equilibrium” to those who are powerful and comfortable and would like to keep it that way (98–9). WB argues that each can be found in scripture, but says that “good preaching… is fundamentally opposed to two tendencies in our culture.” The first is “a false kind of objectivity that assumes the world is a closed, fixed, fated given” and second, “a kind of subjectivity that assumes we are free or able to conjure up private worlds that may exit in a domesticated sphere without accountability to or impingement from the larger public world” (100).

I love WB for his passionate expression, but primarily for the way in which he continually pushes me to meet God both in the text and in my life, and to see the text as a world-creating voice from which I cannot escape unscathed. Furthermore, I find that he is something of an heir to Kierkegaard, who believed in the most absolute God possible, and who was simultaneously convicted about the freedom with which we must choose again and again to follow Him alone. Certainly, there are many things about this book that I find perplexing and disconcerting, but WB seems to me as a lonely prophet who somehow or another comes from a different existence than my own, and knows much more about my God than anyone else I know of today.