Review The Prophetic Imagination
by Walter Brueggemann Fortress Press, 1978
Reviewed by Tom Smith
(Walter Brueggemann is a widely published author, United Church
of Christ minister, and professor of Old Testament at Columbia
Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.)
presents a classic study of the prophet as a change agent in the
face of a recalcitrant power structure that exploits the weak.
He uses Moses as the paradigmatic prophet, and the pharaoh and
his hierarchy as the governing power elite. To the extent that
the Israelites were brought from freedom into slavery, the power
elite have a need to suppress memory of truth and historical freedom
and to ridicule hope. The elite replace Yaweh with the religion
of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.
Thus, Egypt organizes against history, which means everything
must be frozen in the now, either in urgent now or an eternal
now. Energizing memories or radical hope is held to be a curiosity
and a threat. As the Egyptians gather around the static god of
order who only guards the interests of the "haves," oppression
cannot be far behind. Brueggemann reminds us that it is the aim
of every totalitarian effort to stop the language of newness,
and we are now learning that where such language stops we find
our humanness diminished.
offered an alternative consciousness of a God who answers
the cries of the oppressed. This alternative consciousness is
characterized by criticizing and energizing. Real criticism begins
in the capacity to grieve. Grieving is the most visceral announcement
that things are not right. Bringing criticism to public expression,
in the primal scream of grieving, began a new history of the Jewish
people in the Exodus. Energizing is launched through the prophet
who retains the memory of things the way they used to be, and
understands the power of language - the ability to speak in ways
that evoke newness, amazement and, above all, hope. In Moses'
case, the newness and hope sprang fresh from "the Word." All of
these factors must precede the action it takes to effect change.
Real change begins then, when the prophet imagines how things
should be. Brueggemann offers three parts to the prophetic imagination:
the use of symbols adequate to the horror of the situation, bringing
public expression to the suppressed emotions that need visibility,
and to speak metaphorically but concretely about the deathliness
that hovers over them and gnaws within them.
is much more to this book beyond this short review. Brueggemann
shows how the prophetic imagination can transform the present
in powerful and unexpected ways. He describes the prophetic imagination
as a force which brings traditions together with the realities
of our society.
Smith is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Boston.