Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book Review: The Prophetic Imagination that Trumps Business-as-usual



The Prophetic Imagination, by Dr. Walter Brueggeman, has sold over one million copies in its second printing and deservedly so. Now, more than ever, we need to closely examine the biblically historical power of language to counter culture a status quo, populist mindset that abnegates an alternative reality which offers the Creator's freedom through anguish and energizing, unlimited force.

Students (and admirers) of language need not be theologically inclined in order to appreciate the Chomsky-like tone regarding the hegemony of cautionary and hopeful prophecy as outlined in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as pointed out by Brueggemann. It's still the articulate, anguished scream of the little man against the powers that be which foresee destruction yet offer visionary change in the face of, what the author labels, 'royal consciousness', as personified in the struggle between the Moses of Exodus and the Pharaoh of an oppressive Egypt against the Hebrews in the ancient Middle East and, to a final extant, Jesus Christ against the Jews and their failure to perceive the spirit behind the Law, the spirit of agape love, as given to Moses and the Israelites. In effect, it's a bold step out of the the Hegelian Dialectic, which modern philosophers such as Marx refer to, and a grand entrance into another dimensional geopolitical world tension that resolves itself solely through the Creator's will and purpose--a firmament long ago established outside of time and space before the foundations of kingdoms and governments where laid.

Some things will never change like absolute governmental power that inevitably trends toward blind and merciless oppression of society's marginalized. But Brueggeman, like Chomsky, examines the tour de force manifested by powerful (and prophetic) forces of imagination that wield language as a new construct versus reality in the everyday life of an established regime that necessarily must be deaf to the pleas of poverty and helplessness, because if rulers acknowledge the chinks in their armor of authority, they will be forced to admit that imperfection inevitably can and must lead to change and, quite often, revolution.


For fiction writers and lovers, Brueggeman references what he calls the 'savage artistry' of Flannery O'Connor and her Southern Gothic style of bringing hurt and (what the author herself calls) Christian Realism to the forefront of literary consciousness. Taking the interpretation of her work beyond the limited anti-capitalist vision of Chomsky and others, such as Canadian author and social activist, Naomi Klein who necessarily prescribe to a one world view of alternative realities, Brueggeman writes in his preface:

I am sure, nonetheless, that the joining of "prophetic" to "imagination' leads inescapably in an artistic direction in which truth is told in a way and at an angle that assures it will not be readily cooped or domesticated by hegemonic interpretive power.

This begs the question: How is it possible to limit God's power at all? (Matthew 19:26) Pharaoh tried and failed as Brueggeman reminds us of the events recorded in Exodus--Moses personally confronting the royal consciousness and speaking unseen kingdom truth to power. The idea was unthinkable, laughable and finally irritating beyond degree, these words from a lowly Hebrew shepherd demanding Egypt set God's people free and, consequently, upset the entire internal balance of economy--no more loathsome slave labor to sweat blood over a grandiose infrastructure. "And how many legions does the Pope in Rome have?" reportedly asks one long dead military commander at a command from the Holy See. But a swipe at Catholicism here must be left as an aside if we are to  press on with biblical truth and the alt-reality that comes with it.

Moses, indeed, was the first, and perhaps foremost, prophet in a long line of Old Testament prophets that continued, more often than not against the threat of execution, to remind the royal consciousnesses (both Jew and Gentile) that God uses His word to first create a New Other-world Order in the hearts and minds of mankind before backing it up with force if His message of justice towards the poor and marginalized is not recognized and acted upon. Only believers in the gospel can and will accept the anguish voiced by Isaiah and Jeremiah and others towards the Make Israel Great Again movement without leaning on the God that delivered them from slavery for help and guidance. Worshipping the might of men and country is as old as Methuselah and always prone to inevitable collapse, either by invasion or internal moral decay. After all, what's wrong with just following the Ten Commandments? Wouldn't everyone agree that the world would be a better place? But it can't be done, can it? Therefore, Brueggeman's submission that "prophetic must be imaginative because it is urgently out beyond the reasonable".

And, just because it is so, it is unpalatable for the powers that be to tolerate it simply for that reason--the heavenly language of hope and promise, coupled with the harsh condemnation of exposing business as usual--defies control. And without control, the royal consciousness smells chaos and a threat to its power. Indeed, things must go an as they are. Certain 'adjustments' in the body politic will be necessarily endured (drain the swamp, etc.), but the New Boss will always remain as the Old Boss unless he is replaced by the Lord himself. 

With respect to Western (and more specifically, American) status quo, Brueggeman states that:

It is evident that in our American society, as in those brutal contexts, there are two types of imagination, that of "the generals and their opponents," or that of consumer ideology and its resisters. The fact is that we in American society too easily live "inside this imagination" when prophetic imagination is capable of enabling us to live inside "God's imagination" Clearly, human transformative activity depends upon a transformed imagination. Numbness does not hurt like torture, but in a quite parallel way, numbness robs us of our capability for humanity.

This is exactly what the writing of such authors as Flannery O' Connor attempt to do--shock us back into a morality incapable of our own making and willpower. The first step towards believing is hearing and the voice of the Old Testament prophets remind us of that. (Romans 10:17) Or who can stand against the poetic, prophetical anguish of those like Jeremiah without having their consciousnesses pricked? Only the very hard of heart says Scripture:

"Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence,
and those who are for the sword, to the sword;
those who are for famine, to famine,
and those who are for captivity to captivity."

Or the uncovering of national sin and pride by the same prophet:

"This is your lot,
the portion I have measured out to you,
declares the Lord,
because you have forgotten me
and trusted in lies.
I myself will lift up your skirts over your face,
and your shame will be seen.
I have seen your abominations,
your adulteries and neighings, your lewd whorings,
on the hills in the field,
Woe to you, Jerusalem!
How long will it be before you are made clean?"

Of course, nobody likes to tell the emperor that he has no clothes, let alone that he will be metaphorically raped for his sins and the sins of his people, so it's no wonder that a prophet's life is always cut short. Yet the good news is that along with this brazen clarity of vision and warnings, the messenger offers a new reality, eternal and pure, which the established can never hope to aspire to--one that threatens the very fabric of man's immoral nature, even in the least wicked. It's is God's very own promise of salvation from, what the Buddhist's call, the Wheel of Life--a way out for good that comes only through hearing which leads to faith. This penultimate counter culture voice has never been originated by man in the truest sense. Utopian cults come and go, speculations and governmental promises offer hope and change, but only the Kingdom of God which was spoken of to the backwoods rebels of Galilee first, and which did not originate in the halls of the royal Congress amidst the hilltops of Jerusalem, can break the chains that bind. Divine imagination is the main ingredient and, without it, we will never be able to eat our way into a perfect world in this life as Brueggeman so colorfully explains. 

The Prophetic Imagination, is a book, not only for theologians, but one for those of us who admire the power of ideas and the utilization of poetic language to facilitate a crack in the universe of an otherwise prosaic existence that offers little in a world full of political speculation, limited goodwill and no meaning beyond that which is offered by decree... for God has spoken.