Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination

I haven’t written much on the blog lately, so I thought I’d include a review I did  for school on Walter Brueggemann’s, The Prophetic Imagination.  So, here ya go:

“I can’t explain, you would not understand. This is not how I am. I have become comfortably numb.

Comfortably Numb, by Pink Floyd.

These words by Pink Floyd provide a deep insight into the cultural milieu to which Walter Brueggemann speaks in his work, The Prophetic Imagination. In his own words, “the cultural situation in the United States, satiated by consumer goods and propelled by electronic technology, is one of narcotized insensibility to human reality.” Throughout the book, we find that Brueggemann’s powerful reflections on the world and work of the biblical prophets are more than a simple study of an ancient past. Instead, they are reflections which are relevant to the world in which we live, a world which Brueggemann believes is so enculturated to an ethos of consumerism that it has lost the ability to act.

In the opening chapter, the author examines the alternative community of Moses as a paradigm for the community built on the foundation of the biblical prophet’s work and ministry. Altogether, as Bruggemann proposes,

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

This alternative community who lives in a different imaginative world is nurtured by the twofold work of the prophet to criticize the dominant consciousness and energize communities by a teleological promise toward which the community is encouraged to move. This is exemplified in the community of Israel in Egyptian exile. Moses’ mission and ministry as a prophet criticized the Egyptian empire and helped energize the Hebrew people to embody a new community based on the notion of the utter freedom of God. This community would stand in stark contrast to the static imperial religion of Egypt and encourage justice and compassion rather than the imperial preference for oppression.

The criticism embodied by Moses, and the prophet in general, isn’t mere carping or complaining. It is instead an authentic experience of grief at the troubling social paradigms being faced by the community under oppression by the imperial imagination. This prophetic criticism helped begin to mobilize the Hebrew community away from Egypt and toward a new alternative community. The prophet then helps this newly minted community become organized to move to the new reality of God. Using symbolic imagery, poetry, and even freeform dance, the prophet helps people learn to trust in the new reality that is birthed. We can begin to see the possibility of living in a new way only when the old realities leave us hopeless or numb.

Although Moses helped criticize the empire and helped energize Israel to move to a new and preferred reality, the alternative community didn’t last forever. In chapter two, Brueggemann discusses the “royal consciousness,” which makes an appearance under the Davidic dynasty and then reaches its pinnacle under Solomon’s leadership. Solomon’s reign tended toward self-serving leadership with the primary hope of securing his own reign. Unfortunately, sustained taxation, syncretism, conscription, and excessive beauracracy were the fruits of Solomonic labor! In many ways, this new approach was simply a Hebraic version of the Egyptian empire. As Brueggemann writes, with a significant tip-of-the-hat to modern America, “It is difficult to keep a revolution of freedom and justice under way when there is satiation.” Within this kind of regime, God’s freedom is limited. Instead of an utterly free God, we find that empire seeks to present God as a soother of the royal consciousness, satiation, and aspirations. Altogether, this leads to the same “comfortably numb” feeling described in the opening section of this review.

Jeremiah’s ministry is then lifted up as a paradigm of radical criticism and the embrace of pathos. The ministry of grief over what was lost and what is missing becomes a crucial task for the would-be prophet. Brueggemann writes,

“The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering and death.”

Jeremiah takes up this task, in spite of his misgivings! He helps cut through the numbness by offering tangible symbols, bringing public expressions to the fear and terrors ignored in the royal consciousness, and speaking metaphorically, yet concretely, about the hovering specter of death. Again, this ministry embraces the reality of negativity and grieves over which future has been chosen in order to help people reach a place where they can be energized by the alternative imagination.

In the next chapter, we find the energizing enterprise of Jeremiah as he seeks to mine the stories of the people and give expression to the hope of God in their midst. Hope, then, becomes a subversive expectation that subverts the message of empire that “all is OK.”

Finally, we find two chapters on Jesus of Nazareth. Here Brueggemann explores the criticizing and energizing ministries of Jesus to be a strongly prophetic ministry. Although the historical and theological narrative of Jesus cannot be contained by this one category, we certainly can see how he lived out these callings. First, he subverted all empires by announcing the ultimate alternative consciousness, the Kingdom of God. He also offered the ultimate critique of the royal consciousness as he embraced a death sentence, a passionate man in the midst of numbed Jerusalem, passionately penetrating the numbness through this vocational embrace of grief and sorrow. In fact,

“The cross is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism because it means the death of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone. The crucifixion articulates God’s odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power. It is this freedom (read religion of God’s freedom), justice (read economics of sharing), and power (read politics of justice) that break the power of the old age and bring it to death.”

The cross is the ultimate critique of the royal consciousness and clears the way for a newly imagined community.

The purpose of the new community is to enable a new human beginning. In Brueggemann’s words, “The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate energizing for the new future…” The resurrection initiates a new future, a new community, a new way to imagine the world, and a new Kingdom ruled by Jesus rather than whatever Pharaoh or Caesar that happens to be in power at the time. Out of this model we are called to participate in this alternative consciousness and this newfound community. Any time the royal imperial consciousness starts to anesthetize us, God will use prophets. According to Brueggemann, this takes a particular practical shape:

1.) Prophetic ministry evokes an alternative community that knows it is about different things in different ways.

2.) The practice of prophetic ministry is not some special thing done two days a week.

3.) Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we get caught.

4.) Prophetic ministry penetrates despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced.

Where are these communities today? How can we penetrate the numbness of our world symbolically and concretely? Only then will we be able to embrace the ultimate hope that God has in store in the future to which we are called.

9 thoughts on “Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination

  1. I have this book but it is in the “read soon – but not right now” stack in the pastoral study (which our Bishop called “cozy” when visiting). Thanks for your review, Matt.

    The last book I read for pleasure was recommended to me by my wife Brenda: “When I Lay My Isaac Down: Unshakable Faith in Unthinkable Circumstances” – by Carol Kent. Short book and deeply touching.

    How I wish you were here to ask questions as I prepare for this year’s Summer COSS at Perkins, Matt. About Ernst Troelsch; about deontology; about Kate Turabian’s style manual. It has not helped me to have learned to prepare term papers in the APA style for my Master’s degree at East Central State University (Ada, OK), then to teach term papers in the MLS style at Murray State College (Tishomingo, OK), then to have to learn over again with the Turabian and Chicago styles for Perkins/SMU. What style do they want at Drew?

  2. Pingback: Walter Brueggemann on the ‘Prophetic Imagination’ for our Political Situation: Homebrewed Christianity ep.27 | Homebrewed Christianity

  3. Matt-

    I ran across your review just today. I am preparing for teaching my Drew D.Min. summer elective course on Restorative Leadership and will use Bruggemann as one of the texts. I was shaking the bushes a bit to see what others out there have said about Prophetic Imagination. As you might surmise, I read the 1978 version years ago. Thanks for a great summary and comments.

    Good wishes,

  4. Though I have yet to read this book, I have recently attended a discussion group centred on a DVD lecture series called “Countering Pharaoh.” In it we see Dr. Brueggemann giving five lectures on what appears to be The Propheteic Imagination’s first chapter.
    Seeing Brueggemann’s work in the light of the present economic collapse, I am amazed how few responses your blog has generated over the past year.

  5. Though I have yet to read this book, I have recently attended a discussion group centred on a DVD lecture series called “Countering Pharaoh.” In it we see Dr. Brueggemann giving five lectures on what appears to be The Prophetic Imagination’s first chapter.
    Seeing Brueggemann’s work in the light of the present economic collapse, I am amazed how few responses your blog has generated over the past year.

  6. I once heard WB say that he struggles mightily with third year divinity students to lead them to an understanding that
    prophetic ministry does not mean your s–t all over your first congregation for two or three years until you are forced to move!!

  7. Thank really enjoyed your preveiw.I related so well with those living and vibratant words.I see I am not in a dellusion in my inspired appeal to get christian to become spiritually marinated in the living word.A need for prevailing intimacie that is lacken in the present church order.Be blessed.CDhuggins

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