BRUEGGEMANN, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press, 1978.

A review by Robert Brow     December 1999.

When this book first appeared twenty one years ago, it was an assault from within on the pervasive social activism of mainline churches. It is even more relevant to us now. Brueggemann reminds us that our ministry "does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation." Our task is to offer "an alternative perception of reality" (110).

He begins with the Exodus. The oppressive empire of Pharaoh's consumerism (only for the rich and powerful) is contrasted with the liberation that God had in mind (Chap. 1). When Israel itself became a self-serving monarchy under Solomon, its instruments were the harem, the bureaucracy, the army, a static religion, and a fascination with wisdom to justify it all. The prophets continued to contrast the consumerism of the few (based on massive oppression of the poor) with a hope for the future. (Chap.2).

The "paradigm for prophetic imagination" is for people who "have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought" (44). This is done by poetry, lyric and future fantasy (45). And the assumption is that imagination must come before implementation. This is why "every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist" (45). Brueggemann brilliantly illustrates how for the freeing of their people the prophets began by articulating their experiences of suffering, fear, death, grieving, and despair (Chap.3).

There is then the task of energizing by offering symbols of hope in an alternative future. "Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion" (67). This astonishing model shift cannot be achieved by scientific argumentation, but by picturing the sovereign faithfulness of God. And that God must be free to come and go, hear and answer slave cries (18), intervene and topple the present situation in any way He chooses. (Chap.4)

Having laid this Old Testament foundation it is easy to see how all this is exemplified in Jesus' birth, life, ministry, and crucifixion. Brueggemann notes the Magnificat, the beatitudes, "his decisive solidarity with marginal people" (81), the unconditional forgiving of sin, eating with outcasts, compassion ("empires are never built on the basis of compassion"), and his proclamation of death and resurrection in our family communion meal (Chap 5 & 6).

How does this relate to preaching? Most of our congregations are gripped by a bourgeois acceptance of the status quo (110). "The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act" (11). "Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing" (45) So our task is deceptively simple : "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" (110).

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