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Stick to the Text

By November 7, 2014 No Comments


In class today I showed this youtube clip of Walter Bruggemann discussing the power of preaching. The class is on worship—the book we’re reading focuses on the role of the arts in worship. The part we read for today is a presentation by Eugene Peterson that discusses the difference between the role of pastor as a job and the pastor as a vocation. I thought I’d bring in the voices of other excellent preachers and pastors reflecting on the art of preaching and pastoral work. What I love about Bruggemann is his emphasis on imagination. Imagination is a tricky thing to talk about in the context of theology and worship. Some students can’t get beyond an understanding of imagination as “make believe.” They get stuck thinking that Bruggemann wants us to make up stuff. Today, however, students seemed to get it. I could tell they were engaged with the question: How does a preacher, a worship leader, a pastor, cultivate an alternative way of seeing the world?

For Bruggemann the answer is “stick to the text.” Don’t get cute…don’t give illustrations or stories. Just give them the text. In the freshman core theology class this year I’ve tried to take Bruggemann’s advice. Rather than spend so much time telling students what the bible does I decided to let the bible do the work. So we read biblical stories together. One day in particular I was trying to make the point that the bible isn’t concerned with our moralistic hang ups; I was trying to show them the covenantal nature of the Old Testament stories, so we read the account of Judah and Tamar. Out loud. A few students had heard it before, but there were others who were shocked. When I finished reading one student gasped, “Why does God talk to us this way?” What got many of them was Judah’s declaration that Tamar is “more righteous than I.” We spent some time unpacking the story, showing the covenantal nature of the text, connecting it to the New Testament story of Jesus.

What I enjoy about teaching the bible is how often I’m surprised by what I read. Every time I read scripture together with students I’m confronted with something new—the biblical story is always messing with my nice tidy worldview. It’s interesting to watch student’s faces—especially their eyes—looking for twitches and contortions that betray the Spirit at work. More and more I’m realizing that my job isn’t to give them information, it’s to create a space for the images, symbols, and language of the text to be heard. More and more I’m realizing that I just need to get out of the way.  


Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at

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