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Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism
Living in a Three-Storied Universe
By Walter Brueggemann
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Evangelism in Three Unfinished Scenes
For all our confusion and disagreement about the meaning of evangelism, it is important to identify, as best we can, the structure, sequence, and elements of the "news event," in the Bible itself. I shall argue in this chapter that acts of evangelism have a characteristic structure and recurring pattern which are worth noticing. That structure and pattern are in part shaped by the material claim that "God has triumphed," a claim made repeatedly in various ways. But the structure and pattern are also part of a determined rhetorical intentionality. This is the way in which the community within these texts speaks about what is most crucial and transformative in its life and identity. The material claim can never be separated from rhetorical intentionality. Part of the task concerning evangelism is to recover nerve about our modes of speech in church traditions that have debased our speech, either by conservative reductionism or by liberal embarrassment.
The noun "gospel," which means "message," is linked in the Bible to the verb "tell-the-news" (one word, bissar, in Hebrew). At the center of the act of evangelism is the message announced, a verbal, out-loud assertion of something decisive not known until this moment of utterance. There is no way that anyone, including an embarrassed liberal, can avoid this lean, decisive assertion which is at the core of evangelism.
The act of announcement, however, is not barren and contextless. I argue here that the announcement itself is the middle term of a three-part dramatic sequence. No reductionist conservative can faithfully treat evangelism as though it were only "naming the name." We are required to notice that behind (prior to) the announcement is an "event" of mythic proportion to which we have no direct access. And after the proclamation comes the difficult, demanding work of reordering all of life according to the claim of the proclaimed verdict.
It is clear then, that the taxonomy I suggest here concerning evangelism intends to critique and reject many popular notions of evangelism. The reader is urged not to assume that this taxonomy will accommodate many of our careless and ill-thought notions and practices of evangelism. This way of understanding evangelism is a challenge to the epistemology of many culture-accommodating Christians. Conversely it is a challenge as well to the ecclesial, economic practice of Christians who have spiritualized and privatized the gospel away from its demanding social, this-worldly dimension.
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The parable was enacted in St. Louis about a decade ago. The then St. Louis football Cardinals were playing the much despised Washington Redskins, coached by the wondrously hated George Allen. As the clock ran out, with the Redskins leading by less than six points, the Cardinals made their last play. Jim Hart threw a pass to Mel Gray in the end-zone. The ball settled into Gray's hands, and through, and on to the turf. One official signaled a touchdown that gave the Cardinals a victory. An official on the other side of the end-zone signaled an incomplete, dropped pass, and thus a defeat. It could not be both ways. The two officials saw it differently.
It was a disputed call on which much was at stake, a lot of money, some reputations, pride, a different future. The six officials huddled at mid-field. It was like a meeting of the gods, "fixing the destinies" of the earth. The packed stadium was very quiet, for over five minutes. "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given." Even the radio announcers stopped their chatter. Then, in a moment of epiphany, perhaps conceding home-field advantage and bias, the referee raised his hands — a completed pass for the Cardinals, a touchdown, a victory! The Cardinals had won, the despised Redskins were defeated, and the hated George Allen was given his just deserts. This really is a moral universe! You know, do you not, that the stadium and the media and the city went wild. (Nobody at that time was moving the Cardinals to Phoenix.)
Of course, I was not at the game. I saw none of the action. I only stayed glued to the radio. I saw none of it in person. I relied completely on the trustworthiness of Jack Buck and the other announcers whom I had learned to trust. I listened to and loved their overstated, imaginative rendering and reconstruction of the drama of the game. I took them at their word, believed them, and knew for sure what had happened. I learned second hand, but it was good enough for me.
It was only a football game at second hand; for that day, however, it was a transformative event. I promptly phoned my son to be sure he knew. I treated myself to extra popcorn, and I went to my study, vindicated, energized, convinced that all was right in the world. I was indeed pleased to be living in such a triumphant place as St. Louis. Many others, both in St. Louis and in Washington, were getting used to the new reality that was variously good news and bad news.
You will forgive such a partisan and commonplace tale. I tell it because it offers all the ingredients of the drama of salvation. I propose that the signal of a touchdown was something like an "evangelical" announcement. That "event" provides a way to identify the ingredients that belong to such news.
THE DRAMA IN THREE SCENES
Evangelism is a drama, a narrative account that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is not an isolated event or simply a decision. It is a process that has many characters. For the drama to work properly, each character must play a proper role.
This drama, in its narrative shape, has three scenes. In the first scene, there is combat, struggle, and conflict between powerful forces who battle for control of the turf, control of the payoffs, control of the future. Evangelism makes no sense unless the drama is understood agonistically, i.e., as combat and struggle. In my tale, the combat concerned the Cardinals and the Redskins, George Allen and one of the many, constantly changing Cardinal coaches. I myself was not even present to the event that mattered most. In this first scene, there is not only struggle, but there are third-party voices (the officials) who render a clean and decisive verdict about the data which itself may be ambiguous. One cannot report that the pass was thrown, perhaps dropped, perhaps held. There must be an adjudication that overrides the ambiguity and makes the outcome clear. So the stadium is filled with silent waiting, until the judges flash their verdicts. When the scores are given, then, only then do we know.
In the second scene, there is an additional character not present in the first scene. It is the announcer, the proclaimer, the witness who gives testimony and tells the outcome he has watched. If you have listened to any of these football announcers, it will not bother you when they speak in stylized cliches, for all the announcers speak in cliches. The purpose of the announcer is to make the outcome available, credible, significant, and present tense to those who were not there and who saw nothing, but who receive what happened at second hand. (My image of myself is as a young boy, crowded with the family around the radio at night, hearing the shrieking voice of Harry Cary, projecting over the static, so that the outcome of Cardinal baseball mattered in Blackburn, Missouri, as much as it mattered in St. Louis.)
It is of the essence of announcing, of being a messenger, of doing the work of an evangelist, that events that happened in one place matter decisively in another place, that victories won in one time continue to count decisively in another time. The transferral of significance from one time to another, from one place to another, depends utterly on the effectiveness, trustworthiness, and artistic, imaginative capacity of the announcer. It is the announcer who retells, reconstructs, and reenacts for new listeners. When I heard Jack Buck that day against the Redskins, I imagined that I was present, that I had seen the pass completed, that I had watched face-to-face, with utter delight, the ritual humiliation of George Allen.
In the third scene, the announcer has now spoken and the listener has heard. The conflict is over, the announcing has ended. Now the listener must make an appropriate response to the new situation, letting the newly announced reality reshape life in new ways. In the football game, response to the new reality might have been collecting the office pool, or buying season tickets for next year, or taking the kids out to play football, letting Jim Hart for now be the model and fantasy for young futures.
The sequence of the drama has changed reality: the conflict is cleanly resolved, the conflict is credibly announced, the conflict is seriously appropriated. The news of the game has impinged upon the lives of those not present.
This drama in three scenes is not finished. Each scene must be endlessly reenacted. The first scene of actual conflict must always be done over again, because the Washington Redskins do not stay defeated. The victory must be re-won and reenacted each year, once in St. Louis (or now Phoenix) and once in Washington, and there is always "next year." Moreover, George Allen does not stay sufficiently hated in St. Louis. That hate must be reenacted as well. The players, coaches, fans, and announcers have long memories and grudges concerning heroes and bums, who must be "renamed" all over again. Each time over, the outcome again and again is placed in jeopardy, until the scene is completed again. Each time completed, the observers and benefactors regard this one as the real one, until it must be done again next time.
The second scene of credible announcement and proclamation can never be done only once. The need for replication is for two reasons. First, there are always new participants in the enterprise who were not present in the first telling, so that the event from that time and place must always again be moved to new times and places. The announcer knows that the event retold continues to be an event of transformative significance in each new retelling. The other reason for the endless retelling is that the announcers, even in the off-season of the sport, continue to retell, to find better phrases, to grasp the finer nuances, to devise better artistry, so that the primal agonistic event can be reentered and entered again, each time with more discernment and more awed mystery. What father does not want to "re-announce" to his son the events when there were "real players" of a promethean kind?
The third scene of appropriation of the news is never finished. The serious listener must continue to ponder, process, explore, decide, and risk to see what else this transformative news touches that was not at first evident. The ripple effect of a football victory might in the long run be changed urban economic development, the building of hotels, the scheduling of flights, and the creation of jobs. At the same time, such a victory, rightly announced, might seduce a kid's fantasy away from baseball and toward football. The announcer, in artistically announcing the outcome which in each telling is new, does not know what odd and demanding appropriations are authorized by the news. In what follows, I will explicate these three dramatic scenes, always unfinished, and then draw some conclusions for our own practice of evangelism.
THE THEOLOGICAL CONFLICT
The first scene of evangelism is a theological conflict hidden from our eyes, to which we have no direct access. That struggle is beyond our horizon; we have access to it only through the long narrative process of imagination, whereby we accept an agonistic rendering of cosmic reality. We have no single normative shape for the rendering to which we can make ontological appeal. We have only many variant artistic tellings, none of which has logical priority:
good vs. evil;
life vs. death;
Yahweh vs. Pharaoh;
Jesus vs. Satan, sin, and death.
These oppositions are all bold attempts to portray lived reality according to a partisan set of memories, metaphors, and symbols which shape reality in a certain way. There are two matters at issue in these characteristic renderings by the community of faith. On the one hand, we do indeed want to claim a victory. Of course, the news is good news. On the other hand, however, before a victory can be claimed, we must establish the metaphor of a ground of conflict, i.e., that there really is a massive, albeit hidden, struggle for the shape, governance, and future of the world. That struggle has had some decisive turns in our favor, but it is not yet finally and fully resolved.
The Bible gives us no single event which dominates this drama of conflict and victory, but many alternative enactments and retellings, one as significant as another. I do not suggest that every text or all texts follow the dramatic sequence outlined here. I suggest only that this taxonomy is one predominant pattern in scripture. This patterning is important on two accounts. On the one hand, this pattern seems to recur in what are pivotal turning points in the larger text. On the other hand, these texts are the texts that the Jewish and Christian communities of interpretation characteristically treat as decisive for the theological "meat" of scripture. I readily acknowledge that there are many texts which fall outside this grid, and some which directly controvert it. In communities of faith which practice something like "canonical reading" (which I am prepared to do), it is clear that these same texts exercise paramount authority within the Bible, an authority established by use and by conviction. Thus my presentation is an act of advocacy and not of disinterested neutrality. It is an advocacy, I suggest, that is congruent with the practice of these communities. My sense of texts follows that rough consensus of use and conviction. Consider these several versions of the first scene, the scene of conflict in which powerful forces battle to control the future. This scene is decisive for all that follows; this scene is at the same time the most difficult for our general theme of evangelism.
One telling of this first scene is that the conflict is a struggle among the gods, the God of life and the powerful gods of death. Such a telling is found in the old myths behind the Bible and in the late developments of biblical apocalyptic This is the most elemental, comprehensive, and primitive telling of the first scene. There is a battle or a contest among the gods. Then there is a meeting of the gods to adjudicate the struggle, much like the football officials adjudicated at Busch Stadium. The larger gallery of the gods wait for a verdict and the outcome of the conflict.
There is a hush in heaven until the verdict is given, much like the waiting at the Olympics after the ice skating events. Then there is a vote given by the several gods, 9.1 for Yahweh, 9.6, 9.4, 8.9, 4.3 [Romania!], and the stands are filled with applause. In the Israelite telling, Yahweh is declared the winner:
For great is YHWH, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but YHWH made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
The verdict is announced by the managers of the ritual; the world is freshly entrusted to the rule of Yahweh.
A second telling of the same news from the conflict is the Exodus narrative. Now the struggle invades political reality. The conflict is between Yahweh and Pharaoh, the guarantor of freedom versus the lord of social oppression. The combat is carried out through the agency of Moses in the plague cycle, but Yahweh's will for freedom is the driving power of the narrative. As one moves through the narrative, the outcome is not clear until the very end, until we are able to see the Egyptians dead upon the seashore (Exod. 14:30-31). Only then do we know that the deathly power of the empire has been overcome.
Excerpted from Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism by Walter Brueggemann. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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