Book Review: The Prophetic Imagination at 40

Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is perhaps the best-known of the seemingly countless books of a writing and publishing career that has seen him established as one of the most prolific of contemporary Old Testament theologians. In its second edition, The Prophetic Imagination has sold more than 1 million copies, but this year marks the 40th anniversary of its initial publication—which seems as good a reason as any to revisit this remarkable work. However, it is also a book that still speaks powerfully to the role of faith and imagination in responding to the cultural and political powers that so dominate our consciousness and actions.

.. The Prophetic Imagination is a survey of the deeper role of the prophetic voice found in the leadership, action, and teaching of the key protagonists in the biblical stories of Moses, Jeremiah, and Jesus. As Brueggemann describes it in his original preface, this small book is “an attempt to understand what the prophets were up to, if we can be freed from our usual stereotypes of foretellers or social protestors”

.. Brueggemann thus dismisses the two most common approaches to the prophetic voice among Bible readers, instead seeking a deeper reading than that often adopted in conversations about biblical justice. But this is not to ignore the practical implications of the message of the Bible’s prophets, rather it prompts a more profound response—and in that sense, more practical response—to the powers that perpetuate injustice and destroy imagination

Beginning with the story of Moses and his call to lead his people out of slavery and oppression in the land of Egypt, Brueggemann establishes a sketch of the powers that oppress all people and work to entrench and perpetuate that power. He describes this as a “royal consciousness” but one that is not only held by the ruling class but also presented to and insisted upon even among those it oppresses. As well as seeking to be all pervading, part of its mythology is the assumption of its inevitability, by which it seeks to preclude any alternative imagination or possibility. Thus, Moses’ call to the enslaved people was not merely to escape from Egypt and slavery but to begin to think that such freedom might even be possible. While this might seem less dramatic than a slaves’ revolt, this is actually the larger work: Moses’ “work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions” (page 9).

.. Brueggemann also uses the narrative of Moses’ confrontation with the oppressive powers of Egypt to emphasize the necessary link between faith and social justice. He does this by critiquing both extremes:

  1. first, that social radicalism by itself is a “cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions” (page 8); but,
  2. second, that an unprophetic conservative faith offers a “God of well-being and good order” that too easily becomes “precisely the source of social oppression” (page 8).

.. Despite the seeming success of Moses’ project and the significant detail to which the biblical text goes to establish an alternative society among the newly freed Hebrew slaves in preparation for the establishment of a new nation, the perennial temptations of the royal consciousness is demonstrated by its re-emergence in the nation under the reign of Solomon. The lavishness of Solomon’s household, lifestyle, and building projects—including the Temple—contrast starkly with the oppression, forced labor, and poverty of the people. Although primarily enjoyed by only a privileged few, the growing affluence is built upon but also reinforces political oppression, and the “static religion” Moses confronted is employed to give a theological justification for the political and economic status quo. The king—and those who constitute the ruling class—comes to be regarded as having a unique access to and favor from the divine, and many religious leaders are willing to endorse this political theology as a way of incorporating themselves into the power structure.

.. This loop of power, oppression, and theological self-justification leads to a failure of imagination among both the powerful and the powerless. Focused so much on maintaining their power and privilege, the powerful are unable to conceive of the end of their power, as inevitable as that might be. But what had been unimaginable was becoming reality, which renders a double loss to those who have been comfortable in the collapsing order. As a way of surviving seemingly unalterable circumstances, the powerless were reduced to numbness, unable to feel the ongoing insults, injuries, and even death. Amid this numbness—and partially in answer to this status quo—comes the cry of the prophet Jeremiah, calling the people to grieve both the end of their empire and the losses that have been experienced by so many of its people.

.. While the temptation is to avoid the pain of grief, Jeremiah insists it is the only real and faithful response. As such, it is the prophets’ role to call people to the genuine experience of grief as a first step in the prophetic act of imagining other ways of being and living in the world. However, such grief brings the risk of despair. While grief is necessary, Brueggemann contrasts the lament of Jeremiah with the hope proclaimed by Second Isaiah “as a prophet of hope to kings in despair” (page 68). In the scriptural narrative, the prophetic role is responsive to the national circumstances. Amid attack, exile and ongoing subjugation—in the context of grief—hope becomes the primary task of prophetic imagination.

.. In the Christian reading of the Hebrew prophets, this hopeful imagination always points forward to Jesus as the coming Messiah. But when Brueggemann’s attention turns to Jesus, he also argues that the ministry of Jesus can also be read and understood in the context of the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He identifies the same progression of

  1. numbness and
  2. grief,
  3. despair and
  4. hope

played out in the ministry and ultimately in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ life and ministry unmask and critique the oppressive powers of his day. From His birth, His healing miracles, His teaching, and His acts of resurrection, there are many examples of Jesus working to undermine the sense of assumption and inevitability that must be overcome before the status quo can be challenged. While Jesus focused primarily on the oppressed with whom He identified in so many aspects of His life and experience, “there are never oppressed without oppressors” (page 84). In turn, He challenged each of the powers that maintained the political, economic, and religious oppression of the people. In place of numbness, Jesus practiced a compassion that was all-encompassing and “a radical form of criticism, for it announces that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (page 88).

But Jesus was not merely a social or political critic. He demonstrated the prophetic imagination to which the previous Hebrew prophets had pointed. Despite the context in which He and most of His hearers lived and suffered, He insisted on a new and different kind of kingdom that was, even then, growing among them. While Jesus’ ultimate critique—even judgment—of the oppressors came in the context and process of His death by crucifixion, He re-energized the possibilities of transformative hope by His resurrection. In Brueggemann’s language, “the resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God, whose province is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair” (page 112). While this is radically new, for Brueggemann, it is best understood in the context of the promises and hopes of the prophets who came before, as “the ultimate act of prophetic energizing” (page 113) that made space for life and newness, wonder and possibility.

.. “It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing future alternatives to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one” (page 40). Using the biblical narratives and Hebrew prophets as models and mentors, as well as sources of teaching and inspiration, leaders in these communities are called to speak and act with prophetic imagination.

.. Prompted by one of his students, Brueggemann’s focus is sharpened in “A Postscript on Practice” in the second edition, bringing together specific examples of what prophetic imagination looks like in contemporary culture. Key to faithfully living out the call to prophetic imagination is resistance to the dominant culture, its assumptions, and its supposed inevitability. Prophetic imagination will insist on

  1. seeing,
  2. feeling, and
  3. responding differently

to people and society around us. And leaders with prophetic imagination will seek to build communities in which this imagination is shared, fostered, and lived out in ways that change society and culture.


Krista Tippet: The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now

she says, if you can’t have that inner dialogue, then you can’t speak and act with others either because it’s part of — if you’re already divided in yourself because you’re having this conversation with yourself, and that’s the passion of your being, people who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what she called “the banality of evil” was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.

.. And one of the first things she pointed out is that what was exposed by the refugee crisis of the last century was how so-called human rights were actually political and national rights. So you were only — you only had as many rights as were guarded by the country in which you happened to be born.

Once that country decided to decitizenize you, once it decided that you were no longer a citizen, once it decided that it had no more responsibilities towards you, you were rightless. She said very famously, “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

MS. TIPPETT: And that is where we are, and it’s interesting — interesting in a terrible way — I think that with globalization, which is not necessarily a word she would have used or predicted — but with globalization, there was this assumption, which actually didn’t rest on a very sophisticated examination of the human condition — but there was this assumption that we would just grow out of that, right?


MS. TIPPETT: But what she understood, because she was looking at the human condition, and taking that seriously, is that, as you say, that “dark background,” that this would become a crisis again.

.. But she says globalization is about the accumulation of capital. It’s expansion for expansion’s sake. It will not produce more equality. It will produce more inequality, hence the background of difference. So trying to work for a worldliness that’s genuinely worldly, as against a worldliness, which is actually about accumulation and expansion for expansion’s sake, which will increase the divides between people.


.. here’s her essay “Lying in Politics.” She says that “factual truths,” here’s that. “Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life. It is always in danger of being perforated by single lies, or torn to shreds. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy domain of human affairs. From this it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” Take us inside that and what that means for us now.

MS. STONEBRIDGE: For Arendt, I think why the idea of thinking and speaking as a form of action are important to her is that what she’s saying there is, you can throw enough facts, you can throw all the facts you like at people, and they will not stick. We had this, in the U.K., and I know you have, too, that it’s — “OK, against the false news we’ll have fact-finding, and we’ll tell you.

And we’ll have a team of researchers, and you just have to look on our website, and we’ll tell you which of those are lies.” And you can scream facts at people until you’re blue in the face, and a lot of colleagues and universities and journalists have been doing exactly that very hard, working tirelessly. And it’s not making any difference. And I think what she’s talking about there is the ability through thinking and communal discourse, to make truth meaningful in the world, it has to happen between people. Which is not saying we just make up our own reality. She’s not saying that. It means that this is why…

MS. TIPPETT: When she says testimony, it needs…


MS. TIPPETT: It needs experience. It needs human experience around it.

MS. STONEBRIDGE: Yeah. And so I think she — that was why testimony was important to her. It’s why history and the sense of a myth were all important to her because it’s what makes truth meaningful to people together in a community. If you want a culture that’s going to take on fake news, and the political lie, I say as someone who teaches literature and history, what you need is a culture of the arts and humanity. What you need is more storytelling. What you need is more discourse. What you need is more imagination. What you need is more creation in that way, and more of a sense of what it is that ties us to those words and ties us to those stories.

We Used to Build Things

When you look back at that era, you are struck by how many civic institutions were founded to address the nation’s problems. Not only the Forest Service, but also the Food and Drug Administration, the municipal reform movement, the suffrage movement, the Federal Reserve System, the Boy Scouts, the 4-H clubs, the settlement house movement, the compulsory schooling movement, and on and on. Four amendments to the Constitution were passed in those years.

In fact, when you look back on most periods of American history you see a rash of new organizations being created. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin helped build the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Fire Department, The Pennsylvania Gazette, The American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Hospital and much else.

.. In the 1930s, the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies were created. The late 1940s saw the creation of the big multinational institutions: the U.N., NATO, the World Bank, the I.M.F., the beginnings of the European market.

When you look around today, you see a lot of history-making new companies being created, but you don’t see too many big civic organizations.

.. I wonder if there is also a malaise, a loss of faith in the future and a loss of expertise in institution building, a sense of general fragmentation and isolation. American foreign policy, which used to be about building positive coalitions to make life better, now seems to be based on the idea that we should defensively withdraw from things. There has been a loss of civic imagination.
.. one could have said the same thing in 1890, when politics was steeped in corruption and the economy wracked by crisis. But by 1910 the landscape was transformed. There were new organizations, new movements, a new mentality and a new burst of optimism.

Even the worst fires clear the way for new growth.

The Trump-Putin Fallacy

And now, with the release of nearly 20,000 emails apparently stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s email server by Russian hackers, has come the suggestion that Putin may actually be interfering in the US election to help get Trump elected. These ideas—that Trump is like Putin and that he is Putin’s agent—are deeply flawed.

Imagine that your teenage child has built a bomb and has just set it off in your house. The house is falling down all around you—and you are blaming the neighbor’s kid, who threw a pebble at your window. That’s what the recent Putin fixation is like—a way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy.

..  The man is uninterested in anything he doesn’t understand. He is incapable of strategic planning, and he has a particular distaste for paying debts. Of course he doesn’t see any reason for the United States to fulfill its obligations to other countries and organizations—just as Trump personally wouldn’t fulfill his obligations to other people, or to organizations. Yes, that happens to be exactly what Putin would want him to say. But the idea that Putin is somehow making or even encouraging him to say these things is a work-around for the inability to imagine that the Republican Party’s nominee is saying them of his own accord.

.. “Putin is the real world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television.”

.. In such different books as Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Theodor Adorno and his group’s The Authoritarian Personality, and Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, the great European exiles warned that modern capitalist society creates the preconditions for the rise of fascism.

.. Lack of imagination is one of our greatest handicaps as humans and as citizens. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in the world, could not imagine that Putin would put him in jail, and this was one of the reasons he ignored repeated warnings and stayed in Russia. Then he spent ten years in a Russian prison. David Cameron could not imagine that his fellow citizens would vote to secede from the European Union, so he called for a referendum.

.. But a lack of imagination is not an argument

..  A fascist leader needs mobilization. The slow and deliberative passage of even the most heinous legislation is unlikely to supply that. Wars do

.. my money is actually on the LGBT community because its acceptance is the most clear and drastic social change in America of the last decade, so an antigay campaign would capture the desire to return to a time in which Trump’s constituency felt comfortable. But there are also Jews, bicyclists, people who studied a foreign language in college—the possibilities are limitless.

.. Trump will pose an impossible dilemma for the institutions of democracy: because they are too slow and complicated for him, he will seek to bypass them.

.. First, Trump will ban The Washington Post from the White House pool. That will be ridiculous and even invigorating at first, but in a little while, once he has kicked out every media outlet that he perceives as critical, we will learn that there is no good way to cover a presidency that is a black box.