By Brian Keepers
Last Wednesday I defended my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program at Western Seminary, and tonight I will robe up and walk across the stage in Dimnent Chapel to receive my diploma. It’s been a long journey getting to the finish line, but I’m grateful to have made it. It’s a strange feeling being done. I’m relieved but also haunted by a sense of loss after living all these years with a project that has preoccupied so much of my thought.
The focus of my D.Min. program centered on exploring what kind of preaching cultivates the missional imagination of God’s people (within a Reformed perspective). It’s been a great process, and I’ve learned so much. My deepest conviction is that preaching that forms us as a missional people is the kind that draws us into the biblical narrative where our lives get re-scripted in Christ. Only then are we able to improvise our part (by the Spirit) in the ongoing drama of God’s mission here and now.
Let me explain a bit more what I mean by this whole “re-scripted” thing. In his thought-provoking book Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann argues that everybody has a script—and this is true not just of individuals but of entire communities. Human beings are narrative creatures who live their lives by a script (or multiple scripts), often without even being aware of it. The script provides a dominant story (or stories) that we take to be true and filters the way we see the world and act in it.
Brueggemann goes on to diagnose the dominant script in the United States as what he calls “therapeutic, technological, consumer militarism.”* It’s a mouthful, I know. But let’s break it down. By “therapeutic” Brueggemann means “the assumption that there is a product or a treatment to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without any inconvenience.” This script is betrayed by society’s neurotic fear of aging and mortality and its zealous pursuit of youth and beauty.
By “technological” Brueggemann means “the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right according to human ingenuity.” This script assumes that there is no issue too remote or too complex for the limitless bounds of human potential (residue of modernism).
The script is also “consumerist” because “we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all of its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor.” This script, fueled by the advertising industry, screams, “Bigger! Better! More!” and “You deserve whatever you desire!”
Finally, “militarism” is the part of the script that plays to the myth of U.S. exceptionalism and “serves to protect and maintain a monopoly that can deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic, technological consumerism.” This dominant script of therapeutic, technological, consumer militarism is pervasive in our society, says Brueggemann, and allures us with its promise to make us safe, secure and happy.
You may not agree with the specifics of Brueggemann’s diagnosis, but it’s hard to argue with his main point that everybody has a script (or scripts) that form us and shape the way we live. These scripts may come from outside in the broader culture, and/or from the inside—within family systems and the personal psyche (e.g., the voice of the inner critic which says, “You are not enough, you are unworthy of love.”). Whatever these false scripts are and from whence they come, it is the church’s task, and especially the task of the missional preacher, to name, expose and confront these false scripts. We help our congregations see how these scripts that have a hold on our lives are not only lies but ultimately bankrupt. In the end, they do not deliver the safety, security and happiness they promise; and they only keep us from the way of the Cross.
How does the missional preacher do this? By preaching the counter-script of God’s story in Scripture—a script that is really “an alternative and not an echo” to all the false scripts. The offer of this alternative script, at its heart, is an invitation to repentance–to switch stories, wherein we embrace more fully our baptismal identity and vocation as a peculiar people who live by a different script “in Christ.”
Early in his ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon titled “How the Christian Overcomes Evil” in which he used an illustration from Greek mythology. The Sirens, as you recall, were attractive creatures who lured sailors traveling by into shipwreck by their singing. There were two Greek heroes, however, who managed to navigate those treacherous waters successfully, and Dr. King contrasted their techniques. Ulysses stuffed wax into the ears of his rowers and strapped himself to the mast of the ship, and by sheer determination he managed to stay clear of peril. But Orpheus, as his ship drew near the Sirens, simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than theirs, so his sailors listened to him instead of to them.**
This is what the missional preacher does Sunday after Sunday. We expose and confront the false stories of the world by bearing witness to a song—a drama—that is more beautiful and truer than all the failed scripts which, in the end, only ring hallow. And we invite the congregation to ongoing conversion by living into this more beautiful song, this more truthful and hopeful script of God’s kingdom of peace, healing and justice present in Jesus Christ.
*The quotes that follow can be found in Mandate to Difference (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp.191-193.
** Cited by James Howell in The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p.6.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.