Prophecy and Imagination

Originally written in 1978 and revised in 2000, Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been. Here, he accurately describes the environment in which we languish and the prophetic idiom that provides a critical and energizing alternative.

The most disheartening thing about Brueggemann’s book is that from 1978 to 2000 to today (indeed from the time of Pharaoh), nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. Throughout his book, Brueggemann articulates the “royal consciousness” that plagues the human experience from Pharaoh to Jeremiah to Jesus and finally through the repetitive cycles of history leading to the twenty-first century. Brueggemann characterizes the worldview (prevailing culture) against which prophets must speak and act. This royal consciousness is blatantly uncritical and wearied, “unable to be seriously energized to new promises from God.” It is affluent, oppressive, and theologically static. A chief problem is that much of the church in the United States has so bought into the dominant consciousness that genuine prophetic action is nigh impossible. Brueggemann writes, “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act.” He throws this down on the first page of the first chapter! As a result, Brueggemann writes, “[…The[ church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity.” Our increasing “technologization,” consumerism, digitization, etc. only heighten the levels of corruption and apathy.

To counter this, the prophet is called to proclaim an alternative consciousness, one that draws from the rich tradition of Christian scripture and history. Prophets are not primarily lone, independent voices but rather individuals that emerge from sub-communities suffering under the oppression of the dominant consciousness. Like Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus, and all the known and unknown prophets since, they are called to critique and energize. A chief element of criticism, for Brueggemann, is participating in grief, which is the first move in proclaiming that things are not as they should be. Energizing is linked with proclaiming hope and bringing about the ability to do so. It is the ability to hope that things can be different/better/as promised…to essentially have faith in the new gifts of God.

The prophetic paradigm for Brueggemann is Moses, who leads an alternative community out of bondage, against that royal consciousness of Pharaoh, which was both triumphant and oppressive. Moses, Brueggemann argues, dismantled the “religion of static triumphalism,” with “the alternative religion of the freedom of God.” Moses dismantled the “politics of oppression and exploitation” with a “politics of justice and compassion.” As central as Moses is to his writing, Jesus is not only a prophet, but Jesus did present the “ultimate criticism of the royal consciousness” in his life, death, and resurrection.

Brueggemann recognizes the importance of the artist and the imagination in prophetic practice…hence his title, The Prophetic Imagination. He lays out a challenge for contemporary prophets (and artists): “[…Whatever] is ‘prophetic’ must be more cunning and more nuanced and perhaps more ironic.” He gives much attention to the role of symbols, imagery, and doxology in the act of prophecy. The problem with our world is that our imagination has failed us…or we have failed it. We un-creatively resort to violence and recycle tired narratives or metaphors that leave us as hungry as we were before we turned on the television or walked into the theater…so to speak. This is because the world deals in the temporal…in the contemporary…and not in the eternal. Brueggemann argues that prophets must rediscover images from the rich history of the Christian tradition and, like Serene Jones does in Trauma and Grace, uncovers the treasure trove of examples in scripture. Again, it is not a matter of putting fresh faces on old images, making them palpable for the masses, but rather properly interpreting those extant images that will most likely put off the masses and energize sub-communities of faith and the oppressed.

I’m tempted to go on and on in this review…I highlighted something on almost every page in my Kindle version of the book. Brueggemann offers insightful (and scathing?) readings of Old Testament scripture, specifically the Solomonic return to Pharaoh’s royal consciousness, that make it impossible to ever read these texts the same way again. To conclude his text, he gives examples of prophetic ministry in action, and his dedication of the book to “sisters in ministry” is even more prophetic given the current tensions in the Catholic Church today between nuns and male leadership. I do have one point of contention with Brueggemann’s assessment of our technological and digital culture, and that is the reality that our technological and communication advancements can serve prophetic ends, giving greater voice to oppressed sub-communities.

In the end, however, The Prophetic Imagination is one of the most important texts available for communities of faith that desire to have greater influence on our contemporary culture and for people of faith engaged in a variety of acts and organizations seeking to speak truth to power. It is available in both digital and print forms. If you haven’t read it, get it!