Friday, July 17, 2009

But will it preach?

Walter Brueggemann is certainly one of the most well known biblical interpreters and preachers in mainline Protestant circles. In this short video, however, he appears positively tongue-tied as he tries to explain the place of historical criticism in preaching. (Hat tip to Bob Cornwall for causing me to find this.)

Brueggemann acknowledges the now universally recognized obstacle that historical criticism has become to preaching and the church’s overall task of spreading the gospel. His proposal here that we somehow put historical criticism on a shelf to be admired but essentially ignored is, of course, nonsense. His stumbling hesitancy would seem to indicate he knows this himself.

The problem, he says, is that historical criticism “flattens” the text. But why would that be when essentially the same methodology is applied to other literature, like Homer or Shakespeare, with no ill effects? The reason, of course, is that such other literature does not claim to be “God’s word” or holy scripture.

What Brueggemann won’t acknowledge here is that historical criticism by definition grants no special privilege to any writing it analyzes. He does say that it “deconstructs the text” but doesn’t elaborate. This, however, is the crux of the problem for its use in the church. By accepting the legitimacy of historical criticism as a means of understanding the Bible, mainline churches and their colleges and seminaries have accepted its verdict that the Bible is simply one piece of ancient religious literature among many others. It can be evaluated as better than those others, or even as the best among them, but it can’t be evaluated as “true” or as speaking God’s truth.

More than flattening the text what historical criticism does is to bring the whole Bible down to earth. It is revealed to be the work of human beings, living in a certain time and a certain place, who inevitably wrote with all the limitations of any historical authors—limitations which the church heretofore had ignored or denied. And for ancient writers those limitations are pretty severe as far as contemporary readers are concerned.

Take for example the texts used most often in Christian preaching, the gospels. A preacher familiar with historical criticism is stopped immediately by a basic question: What am I looking at? That is, what kind of literature is this particular text?

While the gospels’ primary interest is in Jesus, of course, there are varying degrees of doubt as to what any particular text tells us about a historical Jesus. Did he say or do this? Did he tell this story, perform this act, or was this done to him? Historical criticism casts shades of factual doubt on virtually every text a preacher encounters. What is the "real Jesus" and when are we encountering what was said or imagined about him by the early church, the gospel writer, local folklore, legend, or mythology?

Thus most preachers are forced to hesitate doing what they most want to do, which is to announce with confidence, Jesus said or did thus and so. The texts are not necessarily flattened. Rather, viewed through the lens of historical criticism, stories remain just as fascinating, intriguing, meaningful or profound as before, so long as they are treated as stories. It becomes impossible, however, to treat them as newspaper accounts, if you will, of events that happened. It’s impossible, that is, if you want to speak with honesty and sincerity.

Brueggemann begins by talking about the need to declare the gospel to be “true.” Again, he gives no further explanation of this, but this is a huge can of worms. He may be nodding at what has in fact become mainline churches’ biggest conundrum: deciding what is the gospel today and whether we ourselves actually believe it.

What’s fascinating about this short video is how Brueggemann is able to skip along the surface of the contemporary church’s most profound problems without really diving into any of them. This, I think, is exactly why mainline churches are in the mess they are in today. Having gone down the road of historical criticism and modern thinking generally, it’s simply impossible for us to view our tradition the same way our forbears did. At some fundamental level, however, we still want to. But now we know too much—we can’t go back.

So, like Brueggemann, mainline Christianity pretends that its message and mission are basically unchanged, when in fact everything now is different. We are in a new time and a new world. Not only have our sacred texts been deconstructed but inevitably so too have the God and Christ that they speak of.


William Thomas Dahlberg said...

Ok...I am with you, and I hope there is a part two to this post. How do we preach? What do we preach? What do we have if we don't have historical criticism? What about the "can of worm" we know as "infallibility and inerrancy" that so many of our more conservative friends adhere to and insist on? Just a few questions (sorry)...thank you for your great insight!

Anonymous said...

I read this, then I read your suggested link and get very excited about a chance for peace.

David Mc

Doug said...

Bill, this is what I too am struggling with, of course, and I hope to write some kind of "part two" in the near future. As I said, everything has changed so our preaching must change as well. We really need to come to a new consensus about what the Bible is and how we can use it. I just don't see how "biblical preaching" can happen anymore the way it did in the past. In fact, I don't think it is happening. Texts are now primirily pre-texts for orations on a whole assortment of topics. I just think it would be a lot better if we acknowledged this and developed some new understanding of what preaching is about.

Doug said...

David, we can always hope. I do think more and more people are seeing and appreciating this world in new ways.