Friday, May 11, 2012

Four Books that Changed My Life, Episode 3: The Prophetic Imagination

I wonder how many students have had this experience. You encounter an author or idea and as you read the book, you immediately disagree. Clearly, this individual is wrong. Clearly, they don't see the world the way you do. Clearly, they aren't as enlightened.

Then you realize that their argument makes logical sense, answers questions you're position didn't, and seems to better fit the acknowledged facts. Soon, you move from skeptic to apologist--from doubter to disciple. That summarizes my experience with Walter Brueggemann.

Fortunately, I had worked through my struggles when I encountered The Prophetic Imagination. It came in a time when I was ready to hear it, and it forever changed the way I think about prophets.

"Prophets" and "prophecy" are concepts that can provoke strong reactions in contemporary Christianity. I know Christians who argue that it is a spiritual gift that existed in the early church but no longer is relevant. And I know Christians who argue that it is an absolutely necessary spiritual gift that it is accessible to every Christian who will take the time to be open to it. Part of our difficulty is probably vocabulary. I am not 100% sure that the gift of prophecy spoken of on and after Pentecost is exactly the same kind of "prophecy" that is spoken of in the Hebrew Bible. I don't think that what people often call "prophecy" in contemporary settings is always the same "prophecy" of Amos and Jeremiah.

Brueggemann is approaching "prophets" clearly from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible. These prophets care far more about the immediate needs of the people than the distant future. These prophets shout at the establishment. They are heretical by suggesting that God doesn't care about sacrifices (Amos 5, Micah 6). They are heretical by marrying pagan prostitutes (Hosea 1-3). They are treasoness by suggesting that God is on the side of the Babylonians and is using Nebuchadnezzar for divine purpose, rather than the "chosen" people of Judah (Jeremiah 25:9). Society sees them as odd--for eating scrolls (Ezekiel), preaching naked for three years (Isaiah 20), or marrying prostitutes. But always, these prophets are working for God's purposes in this world. They fight against government and cultural appropriation of faith concerns to their own purposes.

They don't just criticize, however. In the Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann shows how prophets must be equal parts critics of culture and energizers of faith. They look like crazy outcasts--contrarians who rail against the accepted static faith, but their angst doesn't come simply from observing the imperfections in this world. Their angst comes from frustration. In the musical 1776, John Adams stands at the front of Independence Hall after the southern delegates have walked out over the issue of slavery, and he sings in frustration, "Does anybody see what I see?!" Prophets understand this frustration. Prophets are "cursed" with the ability to see what is possible AND the ability to see what is. They see what the world would be like if God's purposes were manifest. They see the potential this world possesses, and they see us squander it. So the prophets do criticize, but part of the message of all the prophets is always hope. They give us a vision of what happens when we don't squander our potential.  The last word of a prophet is always an oracle which shows God's purposes realized in the world. 

I once heard Brueggemann say that no one REALLY wants to be a prophet. They are ostracized and often killed. He felt it was aiming high for followers of God to aspire to be scribes--to be willing to tell the story well. Performing the story was a little much to ask. Even so, the Prophetic Imagination inspired me to be more aware of prophets in the world around me, and it inspired me to be more prophetic in the way I live...even if it makes me a little weird. I'm in good company.