The Prophetic Imagination: Not quite a book review…


Krista Tippett interviewed Walter Brueggemann on her show, “On Being”. That was my first real taste of this brilliant man’s insight into the Biblical Prophets as well as his wisdom about life in general. I was so moved by the interview that I decided I wanted to read his most popular book–The Prophetic Imagination. Luckily my friend had an extra copy.

My first impression of the book was overwhelming. It had been quite a while since I had picked up a book that felt scholarly. Brueggemann is a scholar and theologian, and his writing reflects his field. It only took a few pages, though, for me to fall captive to his brilliant insight into the Prophets. It also only took a few pages to see the strong parallels between ancient Israel and our modern world.

Criticism and energizing. This is what Brueggemann identifies as the heart of the prophetic tradition. Criticism, piercing the heart of what he calls the Royal Consciousness and exposing it for the fraud that it is. Jeremiah does this through words and images of deep grief. Grief has the potential to pierce the community’s numbness and expose the Royal Consciousness for what it truly is–a return to the ways of Egypt rather than the Alternative Community God invited Israel into through Moses. The rich and powerful had become gluttons of wealth and resources while the marginalized poor suffered. God was seen as an agent of Israel as opposed to the Free God that dismantled the Egyptian Empire and invited an enslaved people into a dramatically different reality.

Isaiah offers a brilliant example of energizing. Hope is something that is lost in the Royal Consciousness. It threatens the system of power when hope of a different reality is introduced. It serves the Royal Consciousness to extinguish any sign of hope. Isaiah dared to sing songs of hope in the midst of deep despair–the exile of Israel. The death spoken of by Jeremiah had taken place. The people wallowed in despair with no belief of hope. It is in this setting that Isaiah dares to remind the people of the Alternative Consciousness–a new awareness of life given by the Free God who will not be co-opted by anyone…even Israel.

Brueggemann identifies Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic tradition. His birth, life, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection offer the ultimate criticism of the Royal Consciousness and Energizing toward a new future. Among other things, Jesus was most certainly a prophet.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but think about my reality. I couldn’t help but think of my own consciousness as being precisely what Brueggemann calls the Royal Consciousness. I couldn’t help but find this to be true for the vast majority of our world. Just like ancient Israel, we are quick to ignore those on the margins of our society while we idolize the rich and powerful. Just like ancient Israel, we have tolerated the dehumanization of people among us. Just like ancient Israel, we have grown numb to this reality. Just like ancient Israel, we have attempted to co-opt God in an effort to justify it all.

This book has inspired me to listen with intentionality. Who among us is offering criticism like Jeremiah or Amos? Who among us is singing songs of grief that make us uncomfortable as they pierce right through our numbness? Who among us is offering an energizing like Isaiah? Who among us is dreaming of a world of justice and beauty? Who among us is inviting us into an Alternative Consciousness? Who among us is revealing the Free God who refuses to be co-opted?

The need for prophesy has not faded. The reality of the Royal Consciousness is not ancient history. The presence of the Alternative Consciousness–the Kingdom of God–might just be at hand. Walter Brueggemann has illuminated for me the invitation to hear the words of prophets–Biblical and modern–with ears that dare to listen and eyes that dare to see.

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