Book Excerpts and Notes

The Prophetic Imagination

Walter Brueggemann

The Power of grief, the gift of amazement

“Here it is argued that [the prophets] were concerned with the most elemental changes in human society, and that they understood a great deal about how change is effected. The prophets understood the possibility of change as linked to emotional extremities of life. They understood the strange incongruence between public conviction and personal yearning. Most of all, they understood the distinctive power of language, the capacity to speak in ways that evoke newness “fresh from the word”... all social reality does spring fresh from the word.”

    “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act.”
    “Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric.”
    “The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition.”

    “The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way out of enculturation.... The church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity.”
    “It is the task of prophetic ministry to bring the claims of the tradition and the situation of enculturation into an effective interface.”
    “The dominant conservative misconception... is that the prophet is a future-teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous), usually with specific reference to Jesus.... They are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present.”

    “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.”
    “The alternative consciousness to be nurtured...1)serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness, to engage in a rejection and delegitimizing of the present ordering of things” (liberal tendency). 2)”it serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move.... It attempts to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give” (conservative tendency)

    “How does on present and act out alternatives in a community of faith which on the whole does not understand that there are any alternatives, or is not prepared to embrace such if they come along?
    “My programmatic urging is that every act of a minister who would be prophetic is part of a way of evoking, forming, and reforming an alternative community.”
    “None of us relishes criticism, but... none of us much relishes energizing either, for that would demand something of us. The task of prophetic ministry is to hold together criticism and energizing.”
    “To choose between criticizing and energizing is the temptation, respectively, of liberalism and conservatism. Liberals are good at criticism but often have no word of promise to speak; conservatives tend to future well and invite to alternative visions, but a germane criticism by the prophet is often not forthcoming.”

    “the shaping of Israel took place from inside its own experience and confession of faith and not through external appropriate from somewhere else.” “if the church is to be faithful it must be formed and ordered from the inside of its experience and confession and not by borrowing from sources external to its own life.” “we are on sound ground if we take as our beginning point Moses as the paradigmatic prophet who sought to evoke in Israel an alternative consciousness.”
    Moses represents a radical break with the social reality of Pharoah’s Egypt. Radical and revolutionary social reality emerged because of Moses.

    “The radical break of Moses and Israel from imperial reality is a two-dimensional break from both the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation. Moses dismantled the religion of static triumphalism.”
    Counters triumphalism with alternative religion of freedom of God. Dismantles politics of oppression and exploitation with politics of justice and compassion.

    Gods of Egypt were immovable gods of order. served the interests of the people in charge.
    Marx?- we will not have a politics of justice and compassion unless we have a religion of God’s freedom.
    “If we gather around a static god of order who only guards the interests of the “haves,” oppression cannot be far behind.”
    “The point that prophetic imagination must ponder is that there is no freedom of God without the politics of justice and compassion, and there is no politics of justice and compassion without a religion of the freedom of God.

    Moses “work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions.”
    I could think and believe in the realm of the liberals, but act in the realm of the conservatives. Liberals don’t accomplish much in action. Conservatives are all about action but don’t think or critique what they do. Could I live in both realms, by thinking like a liberal and acting like a conservative?
    The ultimate criticism is that the assured and alleged power of the dominant culture is shown to FAIL and be FRAUDULENT. “Criticism is asserting that false claims to authority and power cannot keep their promises, which they could not in the face of a free God.”
    “Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.”
    “The history of Israel begins on the day when its people no longer address the Egyptian gods who will not listen and cannot answer. The life of freedom and justice comes when they risk the freedom of the free God against the regime.”
    “The grieving of Israel, perhaps self-pity and surely complaint but never resignation, is the beginning of criticism.”
    “Prophetic criticism... consists in mobilizing people to their real restless grief and in nurturing them away from cry-hearers who are inept at listening and indifferent in response.” “If the task of prophecy is to empower people to engage in history, then it means evoking cries that expect answers, learning to address them where they will be taken seriously, and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire that never intended to answer in the first place.”
    ENERGIZING - closely linked to hope. “We are energized not by that which we already possess but by that which is promised and about to be given.”
    “Egypt was without energy precisely because it did not believe anything was promised and about to be given. They believed everything was already given, contained, and possessed.”

    Energy comes from 1) embrace of “the darkness” - the hardness of the heart. God is at work on both sides of the street. The darkness is entrusted to God, because it surely can’t be entrusted to “Pharoah.” The alternative community dares to affirm how it will turn out. “there is new energy in finding one who can be trusted with the darkness and who can be trusted to be more powerful than the one who ostensibly rules the light.
    Energy comes from 2) Knowing that God is not wishy-washy. He takes a side, fully and completely. The prophet is admittedly polemic.  We are energized in knowing - GOD IS FOR US - not for the empire, in the empire God is for no one.
    Energy comes from 3) the doxology, the song of Moses, the song of freedom and liberation.
    The Mosaic tradition affirms 3 things:
    the alternative life is lived in this very particular historical and historicizing community
    This community criticizes and energizes by its special memories that embrace discontinuity and genuine breaks from imperial reality.
    This community, gathered around the memories, knows it is defined by and is at the disposal of a God who as yet is unco-opted and uncontained by the empire.

The prophetic tradition suggests and transforms a community towards an alternate reality based on God’s Freedom rather than Pharoah’s rule of order and law. It replaces the politics that keep people exploited and oppressed with justice and compassion. Instead of protecting one’s own and what one “deserves,” all is given freely to people and we act out of concern for others and in complete freedom and confidence of God’s provision and care in doing so.

This is worked out through Criticism and Energizing.

Criticism is rooted in the capacity to truly grieve. It begins with looking internally within our own history and experience, and recognizing our shortcomings and tightly held misconceptions. To grieve is to repent in the fullest sense of the word, to recognize our OWN sins and verbalize confession. This sets a foundation for instituting change.

Energizing is rooted in the capacity to truly hope. We aren’t energized by what we have, we are energized by the hope of what is promised to come. Energizing involves grasping the mystery of what lies beyond what we know. It involves believing and hoping that a new reality in God is possible, and taking the step to embrace that new reality in Him. Energizing occurs when we recognize that God takes sides. He picks teams and he lifts up those who turn to him for help. This isn’t something the “regime” approves of, and it’s quite an abrasive realization. But God is not answerable to the demands of the regime, he acts on behalf of his people. The side he chooses is always “our” side, and we can rest and be assured in that. And finally, the energizing comes from “doxology,” or the praise song of freedom and liberation.

Ch. 2 The Royal Conscious: Countering the Counter-culture

    [Moses] “was not engaged in a struggle to transform a regime; rather, his concern was with the consciousness that undergirded and made such a regime possible.” - 28
    “The notion of God’s freedom probably is more than any religious movement can sustain for very long.” -29
    “The economics of affluence and the politics of oppression are the most characteristic marks of the Solomonic achievement.” -34
    “the establishment of a controlled, static religion in which the God and his temple have become part of the royal landscape, in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king.” -34
    “It takes little imagination to see ourselves in this same royal tradition -
    Ourselves in an economics of affluence in which we we are so well off that pain is not noticed and we can eat our way around it.
    Ourselves in a politics of oppression in which the cries of the marginal are not heard or are dismissed as the noises of kooks and traitors.
    Ourselves in a religion of immanence and accessibility, in which God is so present to us that his abrasiveness, his absence, his banishment are not noticed, and the problem is reduced to psychology.” -41

Ch. 3 - Prophetic criticizing and the embrace of Pathos

    “We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” -44
    “the characteristic way of a prophet in Israel is that of POETRY and LYRIC” -45
    “Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing” -45
    “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of the prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their their experiences of suffering to death.”
    The royal consciousness = numbness, apathy, and loss of passion. It carries the inability to care or suffer. - 46 (Solomonic tradition)
    “Clearly the regime is interested not in what people experience but in their behavior, which can be managed.” - 46
    “Kings need to assign the notion of ‘forever’ to every historical accident over which they preside.” -47
    “There is no place in the public domain where failure can be faced.” -47
    All is well because things will change
    “we do not have symbols that are deep or strong enough to match the terror of reality.” - 48
    “The task of prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord. Notice that I suggest for the prophet in a really numbed situation a quite elemental and modest task. That task has three parts.
    Offer symbols that are adequate to the horror and massiveness of the experience which evokes numbness and requires denial
    Bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we don not know they are there. - The language of metaphor
    To speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us. 50-51

Ch. 4 - Prophetic energizing and the emergence of amazement

    Jeremiah - criticism - this will end
    Second Isaiah (40-55), hope
    “The most radical criticism of the prophet is in grief over death.”
    “The royal consciousness leads people to despair about the power of new life. It is the task of prophetic imagination and the ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”  -62
    Royal consciousness militates against hope (not found in itself) - 63
    We fear to ask, and conceive, that what we “deserve” and secure may disappear. Thus, we place trust in the brokenness of the present rather than hope of totality and fullness.
    Prophet first critiques by warning - this will end. Then energizes by saying there is hope, in God. Comic?
    “The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there. Hope, on the one hand, is an absurdity....” -67
    “It is the business of the poet to drive the exiles to a decision about sovereignty because exiles do not want to choose; depressed people do not want to act, and despairing people think it does not matter.” -73
    78-79: Isaiah 40:30-31 “Youths grow tired and weary...”
    The poet contrasts us in our waiting and in our going ahead. For those who take initiative into their own hands, either in the atheism of pride or in the atheism of despair, the words are weary, faint, and exhausted. The inverse comes with waiting: renewed strength, mounting up, running, and walking. But that is in waiting. It is in receiving and not grasping, in inheriting and not possessing, in praising and not seizing. It is in knowing that initiative has passed from our hands and we are safer for it. Obviously this becomes more than a critique of Babylon. It is also a critique of every effort to reorganize on our own and it is a warning about settling in any exile as home.
    The newness from God is the only serious source of energy. And that energy for which people yearn is precisely what the royal consciousness, either of Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar, cannot give. The prophet must not underestimate his or her urgent calling, for there are no other sources of newness. I am aware that this runs dangerously close to passivity, as trust often does, and that it stands at the brink of cheap grace, as grace must always do. But that risk must be run because exiles must always learn that our hope is never generated among us but always given to us. And whenever it is given we are amazed.
    Jeremiah and second Isaiah together, poets of pathos and amazement, speak of laments and doxologies. They cannot be torn from each other. Jeremiah along leaves faith in death where God finally will not stay. And Second Isaiah alone leads us to imagine that there is comfort without tears and tearing. Cleraly, only those who anguish will sing new songs. Without anguish the new song is likely to be strident and just more royal fakery.

Ch. 5 - Criticism and pathos in Jesus of Nazareth

    “The birth of Jesus itself represents a decisive criticism of the dominant consciousness” -81
    Forgiving sins was a threat to present religious sanctions. If society doesn’t have an apparatus for forgiveness, members are fated to live forever with consequences of their violation. -83
    Threatened morality of society by eating with outcasts -84
    Law can be a social convention to protect the current distribution of economic and political power
    “Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.” -85

Ch. 6 - Energizing and Amazement in Jesus of Nazareth

Ch. 7

    “Prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Rather, prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice.” -110
    Radical faith isn’t an achievement, it’s a gift. Otherwise we’d will it and be done. -112