The Prophetic Imagination
(Second Edition)

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 04/10/2010 by Chad Vandervalk.

Recommended. Despite a misplaced focus and an over-reliance on critical-historical method, this scholarly treatise speaks a prophetic word to the Church.

In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann examines the witness of the prophets toward the nation of Israel (specifically the monarchy) and applies that critique to our contemporary situation in the church, recognizing that Jesus has fulfilled this role and passed on the ministry to us. He argues for a 'prophetic ministry' which is fueled by a 'prophetic imagination' that creates and nurtures an alternative consciousness, which in turn creates and nurtures an alternative community.

Brueggemann views the radical break of Israel from Egypt through the actions of God through Moses as the framing consideration of this alternative consciousness and community. He views the drift in Israelite community toward the monarchy as a drift to a pre-Exodus consciousness, a reversal of the liberating act of God in their past. The role of the prophet, then, was to constantly recreate and nurture the new consciousness defined by Moses and the Exodus.

Prophetic ministry, according to Brueggemann, is characterized by two actions; critique and energizing. Critique is not simply aiming darts at something that we disagree with, but it is engaging the dominant powers of the day and declaring them to be unable to provide what they claim to provide.

Prophetic criticism is not carping and denouncing. It is asserting that false claims to authority and power cannot keep their promises, which they could not in the face of the free God. It is only a matter of time until they are dead on the seashore. (11)

This critique consists, primarily, with eliminating our numbness to the death of the organizing principles of our world. It creates space to grieve.

It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering and death. (41)

This grieving, however, can easily lead to despair and so prophetic ministry must also be energizing. Energizing is closely linked to hope. It is creating an alternative vision where oppression and injustice need not continue forever. The prophet must bring hope to break through the despair left after grief and the primary way to do this is through doxology, words which defy explanation and move simply to praise.

The question facing ministry is whether there is anything that can be said, done, or acted in the face of the ideology of hopelessness...The task of prophetic ministry and imagination...is to cut through the despair and to penetrate the dissatisfied coping that seems to have no end or resolution. (63)

For Brueggemann, both of these aspects of prophetic ministry contain three tasks:

  1. Provide symbols that confront the horror of experience that leads to denial and that are adequate to contradict a situation of hopelessness.
  2. Bring public expression to the fears and terrors that are denied and suppressed, and also the hopes and yearnings of the community.
  3. Speak metaphorically and concretely about the real "deathliness" that hovers over us and gnaws within us as a critique of the current consciousness, and speak metaphorically about hope but concretely about the newness that comes to us and redefines our situation as a energizing force for the new consciousness.

In all of this, Brueggemann urges a presentation of the God who is free from all powers of control and who offers a new way of life which can only be received.

The only serious energizing needed or offered is the discernment of God in all his freedom, the dismantling of the structures of weariness, and the dethronement of the powers of fatigue. (71-2)

Brueggemann moves on to explain how Jesus embodies these aspects of prophetic critique and energizing in his own life and ministry, the epitome of both being his death (criticism) and resurrection (energizing). In conclusion, Brueggemann offers up some notes of the practice of ministry with the aim of creating and sustaining this alternative consciousness and community.

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...In a society that knows about initiative and self-actualization and countless other things, the capacity to lament the death of the old world is nearly lost. In a society strong on self-congratulation, the capacity to receive in doxology the new world being given is nearly lost. Grief and praise are ways of prophetic criticism and energy, which can be more intentional even in our age. (116-7)

The main area of question that this book raises for me is the extent to which the monarchy of Israel moved away from God's original intention simply by being a monarchy. Brueggemann does not only admit that there was opportunity for the royal consciousness to not return to a pre-Exodus reality, he assumes that in reality that is exactly what the monarchy did.

There are times that Brueggemann relies primarily on a historical critical approach to Biblical interpretation, and this leads to missing some of the overarching message of the gospel. From a historical-critical viewpoint, the beginning story of the scriptures is not creation, but the Exodus. The stories of the patriarchs and creation were added by Moses (or later) as the experience of the Exodus began to sink into this new community brought out of Egypt. This focus on the Exodus causes Brueggemann to begin at the wrong place. He begins with humanity entrapped in the social, political, spiritual system that is Egypt, but he does not refer to the fact that this is not our original condition. We were created in a system of wholeness and goodness in the garden. We chose to rebel, and as a result humanity entrapped itself in its own selfish search for control. The power of the Exodus, and ultimately the cross, is that the liberating power of God liberates us from the consequences of our own sin. This liberation has an ultimate destination which is a renewal of the original communion between God, his people, and his creation.

Brueggemann's emphasis on the Exodus as the decisive point of discontinuity in the history of the world also misses the importance of the cross. He seems to see Jesus' death and resurrection as the ultimate example of the kind of prophetic ministry and imagination that comes out of a proper focus on the Exodus. This, however, is to get things backwards. The Exodus is so powerful because it prefigured what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus' death and resurrection was the ultimate Exodus from the negative powers that we have enslaved ourselves with.

This being said, there are things within this book which our current church culture needs to rediscover. The critiquing and energizing ministry of the prophets is something that is desperately needed in an age which is thoroughly mired in denial and distraction.

We need to recognize the failure of our human inventions, whatever they are, to create the wholeness we dream of, and rediscover the wholeness that is offered through Jesus on the cross.