Saturday, 9 July 2011

Relevance in preaching 1

Preaching isn’t about making Bible texts relevant. Of the things I say in attempting to convince my fellow preachers that our task is vital memory work in this amnesic age, that sentence about relevance is the one that troubles people most. 'Surely our job above all others,' they say, 'is to make the Bible relevant?' As strange as it obviously sounds, I’m convinced that it isn’t. Indeed I suspect that relevance as a first priority in sermon design and delivery actually undermines scripture. I’ll try to justify that conviction through this blog and a few that will follow it, as time allows.

Book cover WJK Press
Let’s begin with the work of that great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, since he exemplifies a determination to connect the text and the world. Brueggemann conceives the biblical text as always challenging and critiquing commonplace understandings of experience and reality, which means those commonplace understandings cannot be the interpreter’s beginning.

Interestingly, the word ‘relevance’ is a term he studiously avoids in his consideration of how preaching properly works.  Indeed, in a recent article he asserts ‘the text is not directly addressed to us, and we should not work too hard at making it immediately relevant’ (The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word, page 39).  As an alternative he uses the term ‘resonates’ as a way of indicating that the preacher’s task is to enable a word to be heard that comes ‘from outside our closed system of reality’ (ibid, page 4).  Preaching, he insists, must always be subversive (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, page 6) and he means that literally: it offers a version of faith lived in reality that gets under the dominant versions and opens new ways of existing.  He writes:

My theme is alternative, sub-version to version, the sermon a moment of alternative imagination, the preacher exposed as point man, point woman, to make up out of nothing more than our memory and our hope and our faith a radical option to the normalcy of deathliness. (ibid, page 9)

Preaching here is a creative activity in which each generation of faith reworks the tradition so as to maintain its liveliness:

We now know (or we think we know) that human transformation (the way people change) does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality. (The Word Militant ... page 26)

This is a radical understanding of faith’s collective memory in that it lays the emphasis on tradition’s continuity being found in the telling and retelling which is properly productive of changes and shifts in tradition’s content.  Here, the maintenance of a living tradition is clearly paramount; but processes of that maintenance are acknowledged as continually bringing to birth new ways of understanding how that tradition is experienced as living.  The ways collective memories change are an aspect of how tradition functions effectively rather than being seen as a threat to the preservation of tradition.  Brueggemann’s use of tradition works towards the creation of world-views in the anthropological sense; it is an insistence on an epistemology that shuns a too strident and dominating objectivism.   As he puts it:

Reality is not fixed and settled … it cannot be described objectively.  We do not simply respond to a world that is here, but we engage in constituting that world by our participation, or action, and our speech.  As participants in the constitutive act, we do not describe what is there, but we evoke what is not fully there until we act or speak. (Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, page 12)

The preacher’s task is to call forth a sermonic language that can construe the world in new ways.  Thus Brueggemann’s definition of imagination is:

The God-given, emancipated capacity to picture (or image) reality — God, world, self — in alternative ways outside conventional, commonly accepted givens.  Imagination is attentiveness to what is ‘otherwise,’ other than our taken-for-granted world. (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha, page 27)

This imaginative ability allows new insights and understandings to develop from within tradition.  Processes of displacement and forgetting may indeed be at work in this, as collective memory theory suggests; but that does not necessarily mean that previous memories are just abandoned.  Rather, imagination enables a reviewing incorporation of new perspectives that are beyond the easy conventions previously assumed. What is called forth goes beyond the strictures of relevance. What we take for granted shouldn’t be a determining factor in how sermons are designed and presented.

1 comment:

David Herbert said...

The idea of sub-versions and even contra-versions is really helpful. Relevance does not appeal and divergent thinking will find a subject's relevance by finding inter-connections and inter-actions. Relevance as a starting point may just result in ever decreasing circles - I reckon.