Prophetic Imagination

I can’t decide between a soothing “aaaaaahhhhh” and a panicked “WHOA!”

Several years ago, I read Marva Dawn’s “Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God.” That experience was really unlike anything I’d gone through before. The words were challenging, harsh, and they turned the world upside down. But she was giving words to what was already inside me. She was giving shape to truth as I already knew it and lived it. It wasn’t new, but her words made possible a new appropriation, gave me a way to name and hold and live truth more deeply. Because it was such a great experience for me, I recommended the book to just about everyone I met.

Well, I’m having that experience again.

It’s Walter Brueggemann this time, with The Prophetic Imagination. Brueggemann is an old testament scholar, but this book merely uses that background as a foundation for exploring what the purpose of the church is. Rooting the purpose of followers of Jesus in the character of God (not a bad idea!), he begins with the foundational event of Israel’s history, the rescue and exodus from Egypt. He paints with meticulous beauty an utterly free God, constrained by nothing, whose character and task is to release the oppressed…release them from an oppressive royal regime that has co-opted and domesticated its gods to control and oppress and support the affluence of the status quo.

This, foundationally, is who God is. God is utterly free and beyond control by any human person or regime. And God stands with the oppressed always.

Moses is the quintessential prophet, and his task becomes ours: to criticize and dismantle the human royal regime, and to energize toward the new reality that God wants to bring in. This new reality existed more or less until the time of Solomon, when Solomon recreated within Israel the same conditions they experienced in Egypt: affluence of the ruling class at the expense of the poor, oppression and enslavement, and static religion, sanctioned and with access controlled by royalty.

Solomons and Pharoahs arise in every culture. The church becomes enculturated to the point where our affluence numbs us, our power structures silence the prophetic voice, and we domesticate God in order to keep our own status quo society. Brueggemann notes that the traditional “liberal” theological position has been excellent at the prophetic act of criticism, but has lost any real connection with God to allow for true hope of energizing change. The best the liberal prophet can do is critique. The traditional “conservative” theological position excels at holding on to hope of a future that energizes, but has lost any real distance from the dominating culture to offer a genuine challenge to what is. The best the conservative prophet can do is hope for heaven after a burned up earth.

Prophetic imagination is to criticize and to energize. Or, to use philosophical terms which have developed after Brueggemann originally wrote in 1978, the task is not done when we deconstruct, but only when we make space for God to create a new reality.

This is why we question. This is why we refuse to act as we have always done. This is why we should refuse to have our churches be market driven and to be consumers in our worship. This is why to truly, radically follow the way of Jesus Christ is upsetting not just to the dominant culture, but also to the dominant leadership of our churches and meetings. This is why I struggle.

I’ll close this post with a quote from the book:

I suggest that the dominant culture, now and in every time, is grossly uncritical, cannot tolerate serious and fundamental criticism, and will go to great lengths to stop it. Conversely, the dominant culture is a wearied culture, nearly unable to be seriously energized to new promises from God.

I’m sure you can fill in your own examples, from the strong reaction to the questions raised by the emerging church to the resigned futility of so many churches.

(I must close with a ht:Clint Baldwin, for asking me to join his group studying this book. Thanks, Clint. And “ht” means “hat tip”.)

5 thoughts on “Prophetic Imagination

  1. Likewise, I can’t decide whether to say “Ooooh!” or “Well, DUH.” I’m looking at stuff like that in my Bible class: good stuff!

    I give a HHT (half hat tip) to Clint: yay for including you so you could post; nay for forgetting to include me. 🙂


  2. I have loved this book for a long time and used it again recently in my prophetic writings course. The phrase that stuck with me especially this time is “the freedom of God.” God is sovereign, God is present, God acts decisively, though the specifics of that on any particular Tuesday don’t always seem clear to me. There are days I’d like to advise God about what needs to be done. On my better days, I trust that God is acting in keeping with compassion, liberation, and restoration and I am reminded that I need to be on board with that, both alert to what correction/judgment that might bring to me/us and alert to whatever kind of faithfulness/obedience it calls me/us to. HT to Clint and Gregg — and Walter (he’s got some other great stuff).


  3. Great thoughts Gregg!
    I have read Brueggemann’s book thanks to Howard Macy. (I took his Prophetic Writings course last term.) I am reminded of the verse in Isaiah 42:9:

    “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”

    The church is only as storng as our concept of God, and our concept of God is only as strong as our intamacy with God, and our intamacy with God is only as strong as our willingness to cross the line of ‘How we do it’ into ‘What’s He doing?’

    Brueggemann writes that the prophets of old were connected to God’s ‘Pathos’. This came not from a knowledge about God, but a participation with God and an understanding of who God was and where He was looking.


  4. Pingback: The Prophetic Imagination | Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising…

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