A classic text in biblical theology--still relevant for today and tomorrow. In this 40th anniversary edition of the classic text from one of the most influential biblical scholars of our time, Walter Brueggemann, offers a theological and ethical reading of the Hebrew Bible. He finds there a vision for the community of God whose words and practices of lament, protest and complain give rise to an alternative social order that opposes the "totalism" of the day. Brueggemann traces the lines from the radical vision of Moses to the solidification of royal power in Solomon to the prophetic critique of that power with a new vision of freedom in the prophets. Linking Exodus to Kings to Jeremiah to Jesus, he argues that the prophetic vision not only embraces the pain of the people, but creates an energy and amazement based on the new thing that God is doing. This edition builds off the revised and updated 2001 edition and includes a new afterword by Brueggemann and a new foreword by Davis Hankins.
The Prophetic Imagination is about the intersection of courage and creativity necessary to be a civil dissenter. In the quote above, ‘royal consciousness’ may stand in for ‘capitalism’ or ‘consumerism’ or even just ‘ease of complacency.’ Prophetic figures step out – break out – in order to critique the oppressive but self-perpetuating systems of domination upon which societies are built. This is not without consequences. Like, for example, crucifixion.
This isn’t exactly a book about Jesus, nor really formal theology. But it does consider Jesus’ ministry alongside other social movements in order to think through the political responsibilities of Christianity today. Our namesake was a radical who led people into a compelling but terrifying alternative vision of destabilizing society, and was enough of a threat to the system to be executed by the state. And with this understanding of the origins of the faith, Brueggemann argues, Christians today should feel compelled to face ongoing injustices even (especially!) at the expense of upsetting comfortable but corrupt regimes.
A Review by Joseph Esposito
Tracing the Thesis:
“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. ”
Packed within this small statement there is
This alternative consciousness serves a twofold purpose in the community of faith. It “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness” , and therefore engages “in a rejection and delegitimizing of the present ordering of things” . It also “serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” . It is criticism that opens up the possibility of a new future which can be ultimately observed in the “grieving cry” of the oppressed. This desperate act has moved away from voicing anguish toward the ‘listeners’ within the royal consciousness, where it can only be drowned out by those with power, who will do whatever it takes to preserve that power, and have begun to “turn toward the one who can help” . In turn, it is energizing persons to imagine a reality where God is king and to enact that reality through doxology made manifest by an act of human freedom and a commitment to God’s own justice. Indeed, “doxology is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality” . In turn, it is also doxology that is subversively Eucharistic. As we refuse to acknowledge the royal consciousness and proclaim it a “no God”, we are free to turn toward God and offer thanksgiving for the possibility of a different future. “What the prophetic tradition knows is that it could be different, and the difference can be enacted. ”
But even once the turn has been made toward God, we must admit the sinful human desire to slowly move away from doxology and toward controlling and managing the dispensation of God’s promise. Certainly, this arises at least in part out of the desire to ‘guarantee’ salvation for ourselves, but this produces a new royal consciousness that has simply replaced the old. Brueggemann shows us this very movement as we observe the God who is free in the Mosaic tradition toward a managed deity in the Solomonic tradition. Solomon, he says, countered “the economics of equality with the economics of affluence”, “the politics of justice with the politics of oppression” and “the religion of God’s freedom with the religion of God’s accessibility” . It is precisely these movements that produce a satiation that is in turn secured through the further development of a royal consciousness bent on preserving power and disallowing imagination. This movement becomes necessary since “‘imagination’ leads inescapably in an artistic direction in which truth is told in a way and at an angle that assures it will not be readily coopted or domesticated by hegemonic interpretive power. ”The final result of this movement is the replacement of “covenant with consuming” in which all “promises had been reduced to tradable commodities” . Brueggemann refers to this as “imperial history”.
The task of the prophetic then, is to “show that the dominant consciousness… will indeed end and that is has no final claim upon us.” In turn, the prophetic community must “present an alternative consciousness that can energize the community to fresh forms of faithfulness and vitality. ” However, numb people cannot sufficiently discern this reality, nor can despairing persons anticipate or be receptive of newness . This is not an unfortunate circumstance characterized by chance, but rather is a calculated move by the powers to exclude hope and new beginnings which in turn produces the aforementioned numbness and despair.
But, “the hope-filled language of prophecy, in cutting through the royal despair and hopelessness, is 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. ” It is the language of amazement that moves against despair in much the same way that grief, spoken through the cry of the oppressed moves against numbness . We see that in the face of hopelessness, “hope is created by speech” .
Yet, if this speech does not both dismantle and energize, it will either dismantle by challenging the dominant structures at a systemic level without rooting a new reality in the freedom of God, thus leaving a vacuum in which a new power will just take the place of the old, or conversely, will seek to energize persons by speaking of the freedom of God. Yet it would be as if many seeds had been sown in a barren desert, full of potential to become a forest, yet destined to remain but seeds for lack of water (systemic). These examples represent both the liberal and conservative tendencies within this conversation respectively. It is in Christ that we see the embodiment of both of these necessary elements of the prophetic:
“On the one hand, he practiced criticism of the deathly world around him. The dismantling was fully wrought in his crucifixion, in which he himself embodied the thing dismantled. On the other hand, he practiced the energizing of the new future given by God. This energizing was fully manifested in his resurrection, in which he embodied the new future given by God.”
“The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act.” This satiation pervades every area of life, so that (and perhaps most of all?) our faith is radically affected. The royal consciousness is especially seen in Durkheim’s model exploring the collective conscience. He gives 3 areas that are mutually derived: individualism, materialism and nationalism.
Certainly, we can agree that in many ways, Durkheim’s model makes sense of much of the dominant consciousness of civil religion in America. But would we be willing to go one step farther and suggest that insofar as denominations do not directly challenge the royal consciousness and empower adherents to imagine a different future, they become complicit in the liturgy of self? The prophetic imagination shows, however, that there is an alternative to this abysmal obfuscation of reality. Yet, in most cases, do not the structures themselves ally themselves with power in such a way so as to virtually eliminate their possibility of true prophetic witness? Do they not seek to manage and control the gospel and thereby render the good news something that plays right back into the hand of the “royal consciousness” over against the freedom of God? These are just a few of the many questions that arise in my own mind after having read this text. One of the most challenging questions I have is to wonder whether or not the American church can speak prophetically at all given the market segmentation that produces a virtual religious marketplace wherein one may find a religion that essentially affirms their current sitz im leben and will not challenge the dominant consciousness for need to compete in the marketplace of cheap grace? This is troubling, and I do not have an appropriate answer except to understand each local church as a potential “alternative community” to that of the world and its royal consciousness. That, it seems to me is the only real hope of recovering our splintered witness.