Walter Brueggemann is one of the world’s great teachers about the prophets who both anchor the Hebrew Bible and have transcended it across history. He translates their imagination from the chaos of ancient times to our own. He somehow also embodies this tradition’s fearless truth-telling together with fierce hope — and how it conveys ideas with disarming language. “The task is reframing,” he says, “so that we can re-experience the social realities that are right in front of us, from a different angle.”
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.
The effectiveness of action depends on the source from which it springs. If it is coming out of the false self with its shadow side, it is severely limited. If it is coming out of a person who is immersed in God, it is extremely effective. The contemplative state, like the vocation of Our Lady, brings Christ into the world. —Thomas Keating 
.. I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987 because I saw a deep need for the integration of both action and contemplation. Over the years, I met many social activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, the need to look good—attached to a superior, politically correct self-image.
They might have the answer, but they are not themselves the answer. In fact, they are often part of the problem. That’s one reason that most revolutions fail and too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Without inner transformation, there is no grounded or lasting reform or revolution. When subjugated people rise to power, they often become as dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power hasn’t been exorcised in them.
We are easily allured by the next new thing, a new agenda that looks like enlightenment. And then we discover it’s run by unenlightened people who, in fact, love themselves first of all but do not love God or others. They do not really love the Big Truth, but they often love control. Too often, they do not love freedom for everybody but just freedom for their own ideas.
Untransformed liberals often lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create foundations that last. They can’t let go of their own need for change and cannot stand still in a patient, compassionate, and humble way. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Untransformed conservatives, on the other hand, tend to idolize anything that lasts, but then avoid the question, “Is it actually bearing any fruit?” This is the perennial battle between idealism and pragmatism, or romanticism and rationalism.
If we are going to have truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach them some way to integrate their needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart. I’m convinced that once you learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, your politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to teach you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias from the bottom instead of the top, you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do—and what is not yours to do—almost naturally.
Jordan has studied and understands authoritarian demagogic leaders. They know how to attract a following. In an interview with Ethan Klein in an H3 Podcast, Jordan describes how such leaders learn to repeat those things which make the crowd roar, and not repeat those things that do not. The crowd roared the first time Jordan opposed the so-called “transgender agenda.” Perhaps they would roar again, whether it made sense or not.
.. Jordan cites Carl Jung, who talked about the effectiveness of powerful emotional oratorical skills to tap into the collective unconscious of a people, and into their anger, resentment, fear of chaos and need for order. He talked about how those demagogic leaders led by acting out the dark desires of the mob.
.. Consciously or not, Jordan may have understood that transgender people tap into society’s “collective unconscious” and would become a lightning rod for attention loaded with anger and resentment. And it did.
.. when questioned about the merits of 12 Rules for Life, Jordan answered that he must be doing something right because of the huge response the book has received. How odd given what he said in that same interview about demagogues and cheering crowds.
.. I have no way of knowing whether Jordan is aware that he is playing out of the same authoritarian demagogue handbook that he himself has described. If he is unaware, then his ironic failure, unwillingness, or inability to see in himself what he attributes to them is very disconcerting.
.. Calling Marxism, a respectable political and philosophical tradition, “murderous” conflates it with the perversion of those ideas in Stalinist Russia and elsewhere where they were. That is like calling Christianity a murderous ideology because of the blood that was shed in its name during the Inquisition, the Crusades and the great wars of Europe. That is ridiculous.
.. Jordan, our “free speech warrior,” decided to launch a website that listed “postmodern neo-Marxist” professors and “corrupt” academic disciplines, warning students and their parents to avoid them. Those disciplines, postmodern or not, included women’s, ethnic and racial studies. Those “left-wing” professors were trying to “indoctrinate their students into a cult” and, worse, create “anarchical social revolutionaries.”
.. I do think Jordan believes what he says, but it’s not clear from the language he uses whether he is being manipulative and trying to induce fear, or whether he is walking a fine line between concern and paranoia.
.. Jordan has a complex relationship to freedom of speech. He wants to effectively silence those left-wing professors by keeping students away from their courses because the students may one day become “anarchical social revolutionaries” who may bring upon us disruption and violence.
At the same time he was advocating cutting funds to universities that did not protect free speech on their campuses.
He defended the rights of “alt right” voices to speak at universities even though their presence has given rise to disruption and violence. For Jordan, it appears, not all speech is equal, and not all disruption and violence are equal, either.
If Jordan is not a true free speech warrior, then what is he?
.. What same-sex families and transgender people have in common is their upset of the social order. In Maps of Meaning, Jordan’s first book, he is exercised by the breakdown of the social order and the chaos that he believes would result. Jordan is fighting to maintain the status quo to keep chaos at bay, or so he believes. He is not a free speech warrior. He is a social order warrior.
.. In the end, Jordan postponed his plan to blacklist courses after many of his colleagues signed a petition objecting to it. He said it was too polarizing. Curiously, that had never stopped him before. He appears to thrive on polarization.
.. He cheapens the intellectual life with self-serving misrepresentations of important ideas and scientific findings. He has also done disservice to the institutions which have supported him. He plays to “victimhood” but also plays the victim.
.. Jordan may have, however, welcomed being fired, which would have made him a martyr in the battle for free speech. He certainly presented himself as prepared to do that. A true warrior, of whatever.
.. Jordan is seen here to be emotionally explosive when faced with legitimate criticism, in contrast to his being so self-possessed at other times. He is erratic.
.. Jordan exhibits a great range of emotional states, from anger and abusive speech to evangelical fierceness, ministerial solemnity and avuncular charm. It is misleading to come to quick conclusions about who he is, and potentially dangerous if you have seen only the good and thoughtful Jordan, and not seen the bad.
.. “Bernie. Tammy had a dream, and sometimes her dreams are prophetic. She dreamed that it was five minutes to midnight.”
.. He was playing out the ideas that appeared in his first book. The social order is coming apart. We are on the edge of chaos. He is the prophet, and he would be the martyr. Jordan would be our saviour. I think he believes that.
.. He may be driven by a great and genuine fear of our impending doom, and a passionate conviction that he can save us from it. He may believe that his ends justify his questionable means, and he may not be aware that he mimics those figures from whom he wants to protect us.
.. “What they do have in common is … that they have the answers and that their instincts are good, that they are smarter than everybody else and can do things by themselves.” This was Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state in an recent interview with the New York Times referring to the authoritarian leaders discussed in her new book, Fascism: A Warning.
.. Jordan is not part of the alt-right. He fits no mould. But he should be concerned about what the “dark desires” of the alt-right might be. He could be, perhaps unwittingly, activating “the dark desires” of that mob.
.. I discovered while writing this essay a shocking climate of fear among women writers and academics who would not attach their names to opinions or data which were critical of Jordan. All of Jordan’s critics receive nasty feedback from some of his followers, but women writers have felt personally threatened.
.. Given Jordan’s tendency toward grandiosity, it should not be surprising to learn that he is politically ambitious. He would have run for the leadership of the federal Conservative party but was dissuaded by influential friends. He has not, however, lost interest in the political life.
.. cut University funding by 25 per cent until politically correct cult at schools reined in.
.. On March 19, Jordan was in the Toronto Sun saying that Premier Kathleen Wynne “is the most dangerous woman in Canada.”
.. There was nothing new in the article, but those words are signature Jordan, the language of fear.
.. Jordan is a powerful orator. He is smart, compelling and convincing. His messages can be strong and clear, oversimplified as they often are, to be very accessible.
.. He has studied demagogues and authoritarians and understands the power of their methods. Fear and danger were their fertile soil. He frightens by invoking murderous bogeymen on the left and warning they are out to destroy the social order, which will bring chaos and destruction.
Jordan’s view of the social order is now well known.
He is a biological and Darwinian determinist. Gender, gender roles, dominance hierarchies, parenthood, all firmly entrenched in our biological heritage and not to be toyed with. Years ago when he was living in my house, he said children are little monkeys trying to clamber up the dominance hierarchy and need to be kept in their place. I thought he was being ironic. Apparently, not.
He is also very much like the classic Social Darwinists who believe that “attempts to reform society through state intervention or other means would … interfere with natural processes; unrestricted competition and defence of the status quo were in accord with biological selection.”
.. Social Darwinism declined during the 20th century as an expanded knowledge of biological, social and cultural phenomena undermined, rather than supported, its basic tenets.” Jordan remains stuck in and enthralled by The Call of the Wild.
.. What I am seeing now is a darker, angrier Jordan than the man I knew.
.. In Karen Heller’s recent profile in the Washington Post he is candid about his long history of depression.
.. It is a cognitive disorder that casts a dark shadow over everything. His view of life, as nasty and brutish, may very well not be an idea, but a description of his experience, which became for him the truth.
.. “You have an evil heart — like the person next to you,” she quotes him as telling a sold-out crowd. “Kids are not innately good — and neither are you.” This from the loving and attentive father I knew? That makes no sense at all.
.. It could be his dark view of life, wherever it comes from, that the aggressive group of young men among his followers identify with. They may feel recognized, affirmed, justified and enabled. By validating them he does indeed save them, and little wonder they then fall into line enthusiastically, marching lockstep behind him.
.. These devoted followers are notorious for attacking Jordan’s critics, but this was different. It was more persistent and more intense. That was not outrage in defence of their leader who needed none; she was the fallen victim and it was as if they had come in for the final kill
.. “When someone claims to be acting from the highest principles for the good of others, there is no reason to assume that the person’s motives are genuine. People motivated to make things better usually aren’t concerned with changing other people — or if they are they take responsibility for making the same changes to themselves (and first).”
.. I believe that Jordan has not lived up to at least four of his rules.
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
Prophets, by their very nature, cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are “on the edge of the inside.” They cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. They must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non- essential or not so important.
.. Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value. A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice. This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside.
.. For the next 1700 or so years, most of the preaching and interpretation of Scripture was from the perspective of power, from primarily European, educated, quite comfortable, and presumably celibate males.
The Hebrew prophets are in a category of their own. Within the canonical, sacred scriptures of other world religions we do not find major texts that are largely critical of that very religion. The Hebrew prophets were free to love their tradition and to profoundly criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. In fact, it is their love of its depths that forces them to criticize their own religion.
One of the most common complaints I hear from some Catholics is, “You criticize the Church too much.” But criticizing the Church is just being faithful to the very clear pattern set by the prophets and Jesus (just read Matthew 23). I would not bother criticizing organized Christianity if I did not also love it.
.. The dualistic mind presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite. The Hebrew prophets were radical precisely because they were traditionalists. Institutions prefer loyalists and “company men” to prophets.
.. I have never heard of a church called “Jesus the Prophet” in all the world. We do not like prophets too much.
.. Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness. People who learn to expose, name, and still thrive inside the contradictions are people I would call prophets.
.. As I reflected after the United States presidential election last fall, it seems we are in need of courageous prophetic teaching at this time. Both parties showed little or no ability to criticize their own duplicitous game of power. I suspect that we get the leaders who mirror what we have become as a nation. They are our shadow self for all to see.
.. There is every indication that the U.S., and much of the world, is in a period of exile now. The mystics would call it a collective “ dark night.”
The books of the Prophets represent the birth of good and necessary critical thinking. Without it, we remain far too self-enclosed and smug. The lack of healthy self-criticism within both Judaism and Christianity shows how little attention we’ve paid to this part of Scripture. (We read the prophets as if their only function was to “foretell Jesus” which is really not their direct message!) The Roman Catholic Church did not allow prophetic/critical thinking for almost 500 years after the Reformation, nor did the United States for most of its 200-year history (slavery and segregation are the most obvious examples).
.. While critical thinking typically arises in human development in the teens and early adulthood, it is usually oriented outwardly, in criticizing others. But honest and humble self-critical thinking is necessary to see one’s own shadow and usually well-hidden narcissism. Only when I encounter my shadow do I realize that my biggest problem is me!
.. We have to go through interior deaths to reach the third stage of wisdom. Only here does contemplation and nondual thinking become possible; we can begin to learn to live with mystery and paradox and to develop true compassion. If stage one is order and stage two is disorder, then stage three is the final goal of reorder. There is no way around stage two! It is what Paul calls “the folly of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Conservatives tend to stop at stage one, liberals tend to get trapped in stage two, but only stage three is the full risen life of Christ.