A review of Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination
Referencing: Revised Second Addition, 2001 Augsburg Fortress
A classic in the field of Biblical Studies and homiletics for years, Brueggemann's 1978 magnum opus still is rich with material for consideration and reflection. Composed of a series of lectures, the contents of this small book are so well-cited in progressive Christian academia that sometimes reading it can feel clichéd. This, however, is not a mark of dull and reused writing on behalf of Brueggemann, but rather a testament to the degree that his text has been influential in the field. As such, it bears reconsideration in its own right, not held to our vague sense of it as a useful book, but to the particulars that the text offers.
Early in the book Brueggemann articulates his claim: "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. Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated” (3). In this short paragraph Brueggemann lifts up profoundly consequential aspects of the prophetic message: it helps to imaginatively craft a new world, speaks directly to contemporary (dis)ease, and is emboldening and subversive.
Brueggemann understands the Biblical prophet's task to be is the same as today's preacher: we are called to prophetic imagination, not just Biblical education or Christian vocabulary appropriation. For him, it is our task to shake people from their anesthetized state of numbing acquiescence to Empire; accept the reality of pain, suffering, and death; realize that this is a means beyond this darkness; and energize people to envision and enact anti-Imperial change. Key to Brueggemann's subversion though is a core of joy. This is not Battle in Seattle Anarcho-Socialists throwing bricks through the windows of Starbucks, it is a "hope-filled language of prophecy, [which cuts] through the royal despair and hopelessness, [with] the language of amazement. It is a language that engages the community in new discernments and celebrations just when it had nearly given up and had nothing to celebrate" (67).
In a day and age when most of what we do – including a very significant portion of theological training and education – is focused on occupation and application instead of innovation and inspired vocation, Brueggemann's conceptualization of the prophet subverts even this, with prophetic work being akin to that of a capital "A" Artist. Our task as prophets is to insist that "imagination must come before implementation" (40), acknowledging that the "poetic imagination is the last way left in which to challenge and conflict the dominant reality" (40). Here I find myself breaking somewhat with Brueggemann in the minor sense that I do not think there was ever any other way to liberatively challenge oppressive systems than with acknowledgement, imagination, and action.
Brueggemann's treatment of the texts from which he draws, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, is clear on the importance of emotional connection to situations, the revelatory power of accepted anguish and amazement, and joy and grief (e.g. 79). Brueggemann comes to the conclusion that prophetic work "brings together the internalization of pain with external transformation" (91), and that "all functions of the church can and should be prophetic voices that serve to criticize the dominant culture around us while energizing the faithful" (125). This commitment to acknowledging anguish seems much stronger in the text then when I had last worked with it, and it is a useful thing to consider. Moreover, it is essential for Brueggemann that we not remain in some mire of pure pathos either: the act of acknowledging suffering is part of the same gesture which wakes us to the reality that there are cites of someday subversion everywhere that find ourselves participating in injustice. Bruggemann's prophet points us toward that day and encourages us along the way until we arrive.