The following is the latest in our series of brief comments by authors about their latest work. This week’s contribution is by Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and a member of the editorial board of Political Theology. His attention to the politics of the biblical text and its theological implications in light of the world’s situation has instructed a generation.
The Practice of Prophetic Imagination (Fortress. 2011)
This new book is for me a continuation of my earlier book, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 1978). It is an attempt to think about “prophetic preaching” in the context of the US church where any prophetic dimension to evangelical faith is mostly unwelcome.
I have wanted at the outset to correct two most unfortunate caricatures of the prophetic. On the one hand, there is a conservative tradition that thinks that the prophets are primarily in the business of “predicting Christ.” Of course there is no such thing in this context. On the other hand, liberals regularly associate “the prophetic” with social justice and social action. But it strikes me how rarely the ancient prophets take up any specific issue of social justice.
Thus I asked: if the prophets are not predictors and if they are not social activists, what are they doing? I take my defining clue from the fact that the prophets characteristically uttered poetry, playful, elusive talk saturated with a rich variety of images and metaphors. I have drawn the conclusion from which this book works, that their task is to imagine the world as though YHWH, the God of Israel and the creator of heaven and earth, were a real character and a lively agent in the life of the world. I believe that such a claim, then and now, has to be articulated poetically in order not to be co-opted by political absolutism or theological orthodoxy. The dominant power arrangements of society characteristically imagine the world without god, at best with thin, irrelevant idols. In that context prophetic utterance aims to contradict power arrangements and their supporting ideologies through thick poetic playfulness.
Two sub points are pressed in the book. First, I have considered prophetic judgment as a way of speaking, in covenantal parlance, about loss. Loss comes when life is out of sync with the reality of God. This is pertinent for us, I suggest, because we live in a society of deep loss that comes from “being out of sync.” Such loss includes the loss of international hegemony, loss of moral compass, loss of economic possibility. The prophets seek to penetrate denial in order to deal with the world as it really is.
Second, the prophets articulate hope that is grounded in the promissory resolve of God. Thus Kings “I have a dream” is rooted in the dreaming of the prophets about social possibility in the wake of God’s own visioning of new worldly possibility.
I intend that focus on loss and on hope might be a way out of the conservative and liberal mistakes about the prophets. The sum of such a legacy is to subvert and delegitimate the dominant narrative. In the ancient world that dominant narrative was carried by king and temple. In our world it is carried by the National Security State and its allies. In both cases, that narrative is lethal. The prophets invite to an alternative that witnesses and responds to the claim of the God of life who opposes the kingdom of death.
Columbia Theological Seminary