The Prophetic Imagination (2nd Edition)

Brueggemann, Walter
Fortress (2001)
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Walter Brueggemann, in spite of his avowed even-handedness between the different forms of church witness, inevitably flits about in a liberal Christian's studies and so it is with a sense of amazement and shame - akin to that experienced when I first heard Schubert’s last Piano Sonata, D 960, when I was forty - that I admit that the 1978 First Edition and even the 2001 Second Edition escaped my attention. It is therefore only now, having finished this tiny, volcanic book, that I can identify the impetus behind a re-calibration of prophesy during the last forty years.

The historical pivot of this book is the contrast between the prophetic uprising of Moses against Pharaoh in the name of God's justice and compassion, made credible by God's freedom, on the one hand and the assimilation of Pharaoh's imperial culture by King Solomon's managerial court on the other. Brueggemann is keen to emphasise that a recognition of God's freedom and the imperative of justice and compassion must be taken together in a prophetic tradition which first imagines an alternative world to that of the imperialists and then energises the people to hope. "It is the task of prophetic ministry," says Brueggemann, "to bring the claims of the tradition and the situation of enculturation into an effective interface" because liberals have forgotten our history and conservatives have forgotten our purpose. Conservatives are too apt to see The Prophets as fortune tellers in general and focused on Jesus in particular, ignoring the evidence that The Prophets were actually deeply concerned with their present, while liberals are only concerned with the present which reduces prophesy respectively on the one hand to righteous indignation and to social action on the other.

Going further, Brueggemann says: "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." Prophets must, through the poetic, lyric imagination, conjure up a different world and then energise us to hope.

Brueggemann's thesis is that the turning point in the consciousness of the Chosen People was the revolt of Moses against imperial culture, a revolt which, via Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, connects directly with the challenge of Jesus to political and religious control. It is surprising, in this context, to see how little the Moses/Exodus narrative informs most contemporary Christianity outside its natural dwelling place in the hearts of the oppressed to such an extent that many discussions of the Last Supper and the Eucharist fail to mention it; and it is even more surprising how often the Ministry and death of Jesus can be discussed without any mention of justice and compassion. Ultimately, although Brueggemann quite properly accuses liberals of not paying enough attention to the fundamental freedom of God, his bias towards practical, prophetic mission focused on the poor and the oppressed, in the name of Jesus, dominates the second half of the book.

The Resurrection of Jesus made a new world possible but we have become absorbed by the managerial culture just as Solomon embraced what Moses had rejected. We cannot commit because we cannot imagine.

All those involved in ministry of any kind should read (or re-read) this little book and be prepared to go out and shock colleagues and congregations.