The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word

by Walter Brueggemann

Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 158 pages


reviewed by ROY W. HOWARD


Preachers may wish it were not so, but few things are more tiresome than “prophetic preaching” as it is commonly practiced. It usually involves a self-proclaimed “prophet” haranguing the congregation about what needs to be done or undone about a particular social ill chosen by the preacher from an ideological bag of options.

The result is rarely hope kindled, and more often despair descends upon the listeners. Usually the congregation is left guilty. Occasionally, the listeners are revved into taking a “prophetic stand” in the world. On those occasions the guilt is overcome by a not-so-subtle self-righteousness. One might wish for other days when prophetic sermons were drenched in Scripture making a deliberate link between the biblical text and the crisis at hand. (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons come to mind.)

194-23-3.jpgThankfully, Walter Brueggemann stepped into that gap and has been offering biblically grounded, theologically astute and socially critical sermons for years. In this collection of essays, he demonstrates again that true prophetic preaching is much more transformative than an ideological rant.

Brueggemann teaches a form of preaching that depends upon careful exegesis of biblical narratives bringing forth an incisive critique of all forms of life that run counter to God’s promise. One is strongly cautioned to avoid choosing a particular social ill for prophetic judgment, but rather to aim at a more complete emancipation of a people into those capable of resisting all social forces that undermine God’s intention for the world.

The familiar themes of his work are recast here in a vibrant and at times stunning form of deep exegetical work that makes prophetic preaching anything but tiresome. Brueggemann has a remarkable ability to bring the prophets’ words and poetic imagination to bear on contemporary life. In a chapter on loss and relinquishment, he advises preachers walking the vocational road of pastoral and prophetic, “Honest articulation of loss, without excessive theological adornment or interpretation, is quite clearly central to prophetic faith. It occurs to me that prophetic preaching will do well to present word and gesture for the processing of loss.” Pastors attuned to their congregations’ deeper currents need to hear such advice.

Some readers familiar with Brueggmann’s life work might quibble that there is nothing new here. But that is like reading the Bible for the umpteenth time and finding nothing new. The familiar themes of counter-story, abundance versus scarcity, God’s wild, unpredictable faithfulness and textual formation of a people can be found in here. Yet, Brueggmann has recast these abiding themes in fresh ways that continue to strengthen the practice of preaching a truly emancipating word; speaking truthfully of our real condition while lifting up the God who counters despair with newness of life. Congregations will benefit from the sermons of pastors who learn the art of prophetic preaching from one of our greatest teachers and practitioners.