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:
- 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,
- 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
- numbness and
- despair and
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
- feeling, and
- 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.
.. Peterson, formerly an obscure professor, is now one of the most influential—and polarizing—public intellectuals in the English-speaking world.
.. His central message is a thoroughgoing critique of modern liberal culture, which he views as suicidal in its eagerness to upend age-old verities
.. he has learned to distill his wide-ranging theories into pithy sentences, including one that has become his de facto catchphrase, a possibly spurious quote that nevertheless captures his style and his substance: “Sort yourself out, bucko.”
.. For a few years, in the nineteen-nineties, he taught psychology at Harvard;
.. His fame grew in 2016, during the debate over a Canadian bill known as C-16.
.. Peterson resented the idea that the government might force him to use what he called neologisms of politically correct “authoritarians.”
.. “I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest.” Then he folded his arms, adding, “And that’s that!”
.. To many people disturbed by reports of intolerant radicals on campus, Peterson was a rallying figure: a fearsomely self-assured debater, unintimidated by liberal condemnation.
.. Last fall, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, was reprimanded by professors for showing her class a clip of one of Peterson’s debates.
.. Cathy Newman, asked what gave him the right to offend transgender people. He asked, cheerfully, what gave her the right to risk offending him.
.. David Brooks, in the Times, said that Peterson reminded him of “a young William F. Buckley.”
.. Peterson’s goal is less to help his readers change the world than to help them find a stable place within it.
.. “You should do what other people do, unless you have a very good reason not to.”
.. he is famous today precisely because he has determined that, in a range of circumstances, there are good reasons to buck the popular tide.
.. He is, by turns, a defender of conformity and a critic of it, and he thinks that if readers pay close attention, they, too, can learn when to be which... “Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious,”.. To ward off mental breakdown, he resolved not to say anything unless he was sure he believed it; this practice calmed the inner voice, and in time it shaped his rhetorical style, which is forceful but careful... a client diagnosed with paranoia. He says that such patients are “almost uncanny in their ability to detect mixed motives, judgment, and falsehood,”.. “You have to listen very carefully and tell the truth if you are going to get a paranoid person to open up to you,”
.. Peterson sometimes assumes the role of a strident anti-feminist, intent on ending the oppression of males by destroying the myth of male oppression.
.. much of the advice he offers unobjectionable, if old-fashioned: he wants young men to be better fathers, better husbands, better community members.
.. Peterson is an heir, too, to the professional pickup artists who proliferated in the aughts
.. “The highly functional infrastructure that surrounds us, particularly in the West,” he writes, “is a gift from our ancestors: the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom, the luxury, and the opportunity.”
.. Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau, who seems to strike Peterson as the embodiment of wimpy and fraudulent liberalism.
.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.
.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.
.. Peterson sometimes asks audiences to view him as an alternative to political excesses on both sides.
.. “I’ve had thousands of letters from people who were tempted by the blandishments of the radical right, who’ve moved towards the reasonable center as a consequence of watching my videos.”
.. he typically sees liberals, or leftists, or “postmodernists,” as aggressors—which leads him, rather ironically, to frame some of those on the “radical right” as victims.
.. Postmodernists, he says, are obsessed with the idea of oppression, and, by waging war on oppressors real and imagined, they become oppressors themselves.
.. When he lampoons “made-up pronouns,” he sometimes seems to be lampooning the people who use them, encouraging his fans to view transgender or gender-nonbinary people as confused, or deluded.
Once, after a lecture, he was approached on campus by a critic who wanted to know why he would not use nonbinary pronouns. “I don’t believe that using your pronouns will do you any good, in the long run,” he replied.
.. “If our society comes to some sort of consensus over the next while about how we’ll solve the pronoun problem,” he said, “and that becomes part of popular parlance, and it seems to solve the problem properly, without sacrificing the distinction between singular and plural, and without requiring me to memorize an impossible list of an indefinite number of pronouns, then I would be willing to reconsider my position.”
.. In the case of gender identity, Peterson’s judgment is that “our society” has not yet agreed to adopt nontraditional pronouns, which isn’t quite an argument that we shouldn’t.
.. He reveres the Bible for its stories, reasoning that any stories that we have been telling ourselves for so long must be, in some important sense, true.
.. a conviction that good and evil exist, and that we can discern them without recourse to any particular religious authority