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‘Prophetic Imagination’ challenges believers’ complacency of faith

  • By Tom Schaefer
  • Published Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, at 7:47 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, at 4:50 p.m.

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“The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word” by Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press, 149 pages, $25)

Don’t read this book if you’re a pastor, priest or rabbi uninterested in prophetic preaching.

Avoid it if you’re a layperson comfortable in the pew and unwilling to be challenged by the breadth and depth of the Bible as it relates not only to the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, but to the current political, economic and cultural state of affairs in our nation.

If you are willing to be challenged — and have a solid grounding in theology — then one of the pre-eminent scholars of the Bible will not disappoint.

Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., shows how the historical significance of ancient Israel’s themes — creation, covenant, exile, restoration — provide insight to contemporary Western civilization with its popular beliefs in unbridled economic competition, endless consumption, and U.S. “exceptionalism” over against other nations. Does that touch a nerve? Well, that’s what prophetic preaching does.

Here’s how Brueggemann, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, sets the agenda in this compact but carefully thought-out book: “The key term in my thesis is ‘imagine,’ that is, to utter, entertain, describe, and construe a world other than the one that is manifest in front of us. . . .” It’s what the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures “imagined” when they called to task those who thought safety and power resided in Jerusalem or Samaria.

In contradistinction to the prophets, Brueggemann contends, 21st-century people imagine a world without God, or a remote God who is not directly involved in the world, or a “pet God” who is preoccupied with their well-being, including the well-being of their nation, party, race, gender or ideology. And, writes Brueggemann, those take-for-granted images of God — by liberal — and conservative-minded alike — are what prophetic preaching must address.

Brueggemann contends that the prophet and the hearer are to imagine a world “. . . as though YHWH [Hebrew letters for God] were a real character and the defining agent in the life of the world.” He is not suggesting a game of make-believe about God; rather, he is holding up the faith that sustained prophets of old and today. They recognized how the reigning God continues the story of faith through loss, grief, exile, death and restoration, a God who will create a new world where new possibilities arise. Here the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection takes on fresh meaning in Brueggemann’s account.

With theological acumen, Brueggemann analyzes the role the ancient prophets — Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Jeremiah, et al. — played in confronting the powers of Israel and Judah who saw nation as the primary focus of God’s favor. Their world was turned upside down by powers that led them into exile and left their land devastated. It was the prophets’ task to help them imagine a new way with hope.

Prophetic preaching, he says, is what is needed by those attuned to the message of the Scriptures, who understand that its themes and narratives are applicable to us in the 21st century living “in an ocean of anxiety that is now scarcely bearable.”

Of course it will be up to the reader to decide whether prophetic imagination proposed by Brueggemann opens new vistas to the message of Scripture.

As the prophets persistently proclaimed, the choice is yours.

Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.

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