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.

 

A Bigger, Inclusive Table

Jesus’ most consistent social action was eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. A great number of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms take place while he’s entering or leaving a house for a meal. In the process he redefines power and the kingdom of God. Jesus shows us that spiritual power is primarily exercised outside the structure of temple and synagogue.

As Christianity developed, the Church moved from Jesus’ meal with open table fellowship to its continuance in the relatively safe ritual meal we call the Eucharist. Unfortunately, that ritual itself came to redefine social reality in a negative way, in terms of worthiness and unworthiness—the opposite of Jesus’ intention! Even if we deny that our intention is to define membership, it is clearly the practical message people hear today. It is strange and inconsistent that sins of marriage and sexuality seem to be the only ones that exclude people from the table when other sins like greed and hatefulness are more of a public scandal.

Notice how Jesus is accused by his contemporaries. By one side, he’s criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, for example); by the other side, he’s judged for eating too much (Luke 7:34) or with the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 7:36-50, 11: 37-54, 14:1). He ate with both sides. He ate with lepers (Mark 14:3), he received a woman with a bad reputation at a men’s dinner (Luke 7:36-37), and he even invited himself over to a “sinner’s” house (Luke 19:1-10). He didn’t please anybody, it seems, always breaking the rules and making a bigger table.

During Jesus’ time, religious law was being interpreted almost exclusively through the Book of Leviticus, particularly chapters 17-24, the Law of Holiness. Jesus critiques his own tradition. He refuses to interpret the Mosaic law in terms of inclusion/exclusion, the symbolic self-identification of Judaism as the righteous, pure, elite group. Jesus continually interprets the Law of Holiness in terms of the God whom he has met—and that God is always compassion and mercy.

Richard Rohr: Every Being Is of God’s Making

If you would learn more, ask the cattle,
Seek information from the birds of the air.
The creeping things of earth will give you lessons,
And the fishes of the sea will tell you all.
There is not a single creature that does not know
That everything is of God’s making. 

God holds in power the soul of every living thing,
And the breath of every human body.

—Book of Job 12:7-10

.. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, it is clear that a loving God includes all of creation in God’s Kingdom.

.. In the Genesis story, God’s love, beauty, and goodness overflow into creation; and all creatures, including humans, are living peacefully in God’s presence. Isaiah prophesies the “peaceable kingdom” to come (11:1-9; 65:17-25), which is symbolized by animals living in peace. In Revelation, John hears “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe” giving God “blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13). Finally, John sees “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1) and the Bible ends with a new garden, complete with “the river of life-giving water” and “the tree of life” (22:1-2).

God shows authentic, primal concern for all animals by directing Noah to take a male and female of every species onto the ark to be saved (see Genesis 7:2-3).  Apparently, animals matter and are worth “saving.” After the flood, God makes a covenant, not just with people but with all of creation (stated five times in 9:10-17). How did we miss that? Sadly, if we are self-centered, even if we say the Bible is the “inerrant” word of God, we will hear only what we want to hear! God’s salvation—and every biblical covenant—is clearly a social, historical, and universal concept rather than the merely human and individualistic version of salvation that most of us were taught.

This made Christianity into a largely ineffective religion. The notion of salvation became so guarded and so stingy it was finally not available to the vast majority of humans!

Evangelicals defend Trump’s alleged marital infidelity. But his infidelity to America is worse.

The infidelity that we must concern ourselves with is called “whoring after other gods” in the Bible (see Hosea 9:1 or Amos 7:17).

.. Whenever a nation chooses to hurt the poor, oppress the stranger, mistreat the weak and corrupt the courts in the Bible, prophets accuse political leaders of public infidelity. Unlike in a marriage, such adultery is not a private matter; it must be challenged and called out in the public square.

.. Jerry Falwell, Jr., responding to critics, claimed Jesus’ teachings are about private morality, not public policy: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome,” he wrote on Twitter.

..  It’s hard to imagine someone who proclaimed the “kingdom of God” in the first century not having a vision for the transformation of society.

.. It’s hard to imagine, that is, unless your whole faith has been built upon the justification of systemic evil. Falwell’s distinctly American reading of the Bible is not new. It was passed down to him by generations of so-called Christians who learned to read the Bible in the 19th century as a text that did not condemn, but rather affirmed race-based chattel slavery.

.. For those moral activists, the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision and the Missouri Compromise were deeply moral issues — inseparable from one’s personal relationship with God.
.. After the Civil War, when federal troops enforced the Reconstruction amendments for a brief period in the South, slaveholder religion did not go away. Instead, it developed a way of using scripture to criticize “Northern corruption” and black political power. In a word, slaveholder religion framed the attempt to expand democracy in the 1870s as immorality.
.. We cannot understand the “Moral Majority” that Falwell’s father helped organize to counter the policies of the civil rights movement apart from this history.
.. This strand of slaveholder religion has always been primarily concerned with the consolidation of power and the justification of systemic injustice. The Trumpvangelicals are not forsaking their god to defend Trump. They are showing us that their god is cash, not Christ.

Richard Rohr: Sermon on Mount: Description of a Free Life

 For ancient people, salt was an important preservative, seasoning, and symbol of healing. What does Jesus mean by such an image?

First, he’s not saying that those who live this way are going to heaven. He is saying that they will be gift for the earth. We think of Jesus’ teaching as prescriptions for getting to heaven (even though we haven’t followed them). Instead, the Sermon on the Mount is a set of descriptions of a free life.

Jesus’ moral teaching is very often a description of the final product rather than a detailed process for getting there. When you can weep, when you can identify with the little ones, when you can make peace, when you can be persecuted and still be joyful . . . then you’re doing it right. He is saying, as it were, this is what holiness looks like. When you act this way, “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned about control, enforcement, or uniformity.

.. If Christians—Jesus’ self-proclaimed followers—no longer believe the Gospel, if we no longer believe in nonviolence and powerlessness, then who’s going to convert us? We’re supposed to be the leaven of the world, yet if we no longer believe in the Gospel, what hope do we have of offering anything new to anyone?

.. “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better” is one of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s core principles.