This volume is the third in a series of Walter Brueggemanns biblical and theological essays. The careful reader will have noted a similar cover on each of the volumes, marking them as a series. The first book, The Covenanted Self (1999), deals with covenant and the commandments and their significance for human existence. The second, Texts that Linger, Words that Explode (2000), takes up a part of the biblical corpus that has been to the forefront of Brueggemanns writing and speaking for many years: the prophets. Now in this last of the series, a further dimension of Brueggemanns work comes to the fore in a collection of essays whose primary focus is upon speech and rhetoric.
In an almost unique way, Brueggemann combines a passionate awareness of the nature and character of speech in Scripture with a demonstrated skill in rhetoric that permeates his own writing and speaking. That is, while focusing upon rhetoric and the power of language, he demonstrates both in all his writing as well as in his lecturing. There are few if any major lectureships in the field of biblical studies in this country to which he has not been invited. But his interest and skill in speech and rhetoric is well evidenced by the number of times he has been invited to lecture on preaching, for example, at the Academy of Homiletics meetings or the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale (Finally Comes the Poet). Those who hear him learn by his teaching and his example that the medium really is the message, that communication with powerdivine and humanpersuades the hearers of the truthfulness of the word that is conveyed and that the form of communication participates significantly with the material to produce the whole word of truth. And I know nobody who teaches better by the way he answers questions from his listeners than does Walter Brueggemann.
This deep concern for communication of Scripture and its meaning is reflected in the essays in this volume of the series in a very forthright way. In these pages, Brueggemann turns directly to his largest audience, pastors of congregations who week by week take up the word to preach it faithfully and who regularly find that this Old Testament scholar brings it to life for them and does so in ways that signal what it can mean to those disparate folk who sit in their sanctuaries on a Sunday morning. His slant is not typical of books on preaching. There is little optimism and no triumphalism about preaching. It is a demanding and difficult task, and Brueggemanns intention is not to provide homiletical helpsthough such are never to be scorned (as any regular preacher knows well)but to suggest a style of preaching, a style that is more substance and stance than it is technique. His lack of optimism is about the situation in which preaching takes place, about the world we live in and the tenor of our times (consumerist, militarist, secular, violent, and the like); but he knows the power of the gospel, and those who sit at his feet find their own convictions about that power renewed and their preaching invigorated.
For Brueggemann, however, the speech act of Christian belief, the rhetorical activity of communicating the word of God, is not confined to the pulpit but happens in the acts of listening to the Scriptures taught and interpreted and in the reading of them. His well-known popularity as a lecturer is a manifestation of the power of his words and the rhetorical skill with which he draws in listeners and readers to hear hard words and see hopeful visions. He is unflinching in tackling the disturbing dimensions of our cultural life, such as, consumerism and greed, militarism and violence, and he refuses to accept the often assumed dichotomy between piety and justice. The community of faith is in the foreground in his writing and in his speaking. The power of the Scriptures to speak truth to power and comfort to the comfortless is a prominent dimension of most of his writing.
In this final section, the power of rhetoric arises often out of the interpretation of the prophets, more specifically and frequently one of those prophets who has caught Brueggemanns mind and heart, the unknown prophet of the exile whom we dub Second Isaiah. Brueggemann himself would never be presumptuous enough to align himself with those earlier prophetic voices, but their ancient texts do indeed explode with power afresh in his own gift of prophetic speech. His own power of communication turns his lectures/essays into genuine speech acts that accomplish in their hearers a responsive reaction. Careful readers (and listeners) will observe at least three ways in which Brueggemann accomplishes this. One is in his frequent use of words as identifiable signs of his own idiom, for example, odd, daring, subversive, Saturday, disputatious, and the likeall of which are common and loaded words in his rhetoric, expressing a sense about biblical literature that is Brueggemanns own angle of vision but one that makes sense to those who encounter it. Yet a second medium of proclamation is his love of dialectical rhetoric, for example, the certitude of autonomy and the certitude of absolutism or fearful conformity and troubled autonomy or the myth of scarcity and the lyric of abundance. Finally his emphatic syntax expressed in accented speech and underlined words forces the reader/listener to sit up and pay attention. These words matter!
There is one further contribution of these essays that will interest many readers. In various ways, they lay the groundwork for Brueggemanns magisterial Theology of the Old Testament.
Patrick D. Miller is Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey. His Fortress books include Interpreting the Psalms (1987) and They Cried to the Lord (1994).