Review of The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

In his The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann attempts to unite the Old Testament evidence with our contemporary situation in order that the Church may seriously consider the role of the prophetic in ministry (xxiii, 1). According to his own definition of prophetic, Brueggemann’s book is itself prophetic in that its poetic language seeks to excite the reader about the hope for the prophetic in ministry (energizing) and to criticize—mostly implicitly—the old ways, both liberal and conservative (critical). Yet, despite—or maybe because of—his poetic flourish, the book is far from lucid.

Brueggemann follows in the steps of many contemporary writers who prefer rhetorical flourish to clarity or profundity (e.g. 17). This obscurity goes beyond style: Brueggemann appears to employ catch phrases from Neo-Orthodox theology (“freedom of God”) and idealist philosophy (“Jesus is the real king [2:11], and the real king stands as a decisive negation of the no-king” 83) without explanation, importing—intentionally or not—much content only familiar to the well-educated. In this response I intend only to provide a brief summary of the book’s contents and address a few of the problems I identified in his argument.

Summary of the Prophetic Imagination

The Prophetic Imagination consists of seven short chapters; the first six seek to establish his vision of the prophetic from an interaction with the OT prophets (1-4) and then Jesus (5-6). After identifying our situation as analogous to the Old Testament’s, a stagnant royal-consciousness in need of criticism and energizing by the prophetic counter-consciousness, Brueggemann, in chapter 1, dialogues with the Exodus account to present Moses as the first and model prophet. Moses presents us with the model of prophetic counter-culture. In the face of the oppressive Egyptian royal consciousness, Moses engages in a counter-culture ministry by criticizing the Egyptian Empire through his introduction of the “freedom of God” (6) and the “politics of justice and compassion” (6-7). That is, against the dead and manipulated religion of the Egyptians (“static religion”), Moses introduces a radically free God. In the place of oppressive politics, a counter-culture of compassionate-justice is established. We see, then, that Moses criticizes the Egyptian socio-economic structures and energizes his people with a new vision of God. This, we are assured, is the purpose of the Exodus and, indeed, the whole of prophetic ministry (115).

The rest of the chapters follow in this general picture. Chapter 2 outlines the royal-consciousness; that is, the anti-prophetic, socially oppressive, structure against which prophetic ministry strives, which defined Egypt and came to define the Jewish monarchy—at least from Solomon on but probably including David (23-25). The royal-consciousness preaches a static, changeless, god, oppresses people through rigid socio-economic policy, and pushes conformity that edges out all hope.

Using the example of Jeremiah, Brueggemann in Chapter 3 looks at the prophetic role of criticizing, how it uses metaphor and grief to counter the royal-consciousness. In Chapter 4, Isaiah is an example of energizing. The re-introduction of old symbols, the presentation of something to hope and yearn for, and the giving of a newness that could redefine the dead royal-consciousness, with astounding language to cut through oppressive despair, are the tools the prophet uses to counter the reigning culture.

In Chapters 5-6, Brueggemann attempts to show these same features in the ministry of Jesus, criticism in chapter 5 and energizing in chapter 6. The last chapter concludes by bringing these insights to bear on our contemporary situation, suggesting how we can and should bring these prophetic insights into our ministries.

Argument of the Prophetic Imagination

To conclude this response, I would like to address the argument of the book. Brueggemann makes clear his own presuppositions: he is attempting to provide a social criticism of the texts, to approach the text with a hermeneutics of suspicion (xiii). He adopts modern critical scholarship and so is willing to see much discontinuity between the so-called “royal” and “Mosaic” traditions (e.g. 28). However, this response will focus not on the internal consistency of his views but his argumentation and use of the text. Turning to the argument, I suggest that the biggest problem with Brueggemann’s argument is the lack of argument. In both of my readings of the book, I was struck by the lack of significant argumentation in favour of his many pointed and rhetorically sharp assertions. If one is previously inclined towards liberation theology and Marxist economic-social criticism, Brueggemann’s exegesis and points will ring true, but there is no substance to convince those with a more conservative bias.

Beyond the lack of substantial argument, Brueggemann frequently employs selective use of the evidence (though this is consistent with his critical biases, he never argues for these biases). The first is the shocking lack of any mention of God as essential to prophetic ministry. To be sure, God is considered the content of the prophetic message, He is the free God against the static religion, yet Brueggemann never discusses the prophets as covenant lawyers or spokesman for God. Early on, he starts “to think from the human side of the matter” and never gets to the divine side (xvi).

The result is a serious skewing of the Biblical data. For example, in his hands, the Exodus becomes the ex nihilo creation of a new subversive counter-community: it is an act of God’s absolute freedom (Ch. 1)—an underived community (pg. 111). The Exodus is particularly aimed at deconstructing the royal-consciousness of Egypt. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is identified as “Yahweh’s peculiar way of bringing the empire to an end” (14). Yet this reading drastically misses the point of the narrative. In brief, Yahweh delivers his people because He hears their cries and responds as the God who is obliged to act towards them because of the promises He has made to the patriarchs—this community is already the Abrahamic covenant community. Furthermore, the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart was not God’s means of toppling the Empire but His intervention to bring Himself glory through the display of His power in fulfilling His promises to Israel and crushing Egypt with its gods. More so, God instructed Moses and Aaron to go repeatedly to Pharaoh for this very reason, contrary to Brueggemann’s assertion that their request for freedom demonstrates dependence upon the empire for help and relief (12).

This sort of criticism could extend for pages. He fails to mention that the prophet Nathan was instrumental in the building of the temple, Samuel in the institution of the monarchy; that the tabernacle prefigures the temple and demonstrates God’s desire to be in the midst of His people—that is, the temple is not a fetter on God’s freedom but a blessing conveyed by their Covenant God. His vision of the prophetic cannot do justice to Habakkuk, where God’s inaction is decried in verses 1-4 and His response is to bring what appears to be further oppression (1:5-11, cf. 3:14). God’s command here is to do exactly what Bruegemann thinks is wrong (42-44, passim), turn to God in confession that “all is well” and to trust completely in Him despite the unbelievable (Hab. 1:5-6, 2:2-4, 3:16-19). Concerning the New Testament, he fails to mention that in addition to shepherds, Magi also visited Jesus and that Zechariah was not just “an old man struck dumb” but a leading priest (103) —so it was not only the marginalized. He also identifies Jesus as a nazirite, which He was not (he drank, touched the dead…) (81).

Despite Brueggemann’s beautiful prose, the book fails to argue for its thesis, never transcends a Liberal emphasis on social action—despite aiming at the root and not the symptom—and does not do justice to the biblical picture of the prophetic.

(This review was originally prepared for Prof. Tremper Longman to fulfill the requirements of BIBLE 529: Jeremiah, at Regent College)

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