The Prophetic Imagination
by Jim Hutson
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"God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are." 1 Corinthians 1:25-28
The church in the US "is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act."
In such a setting, in a time when we have given in to "the royal consciousness", prophetic ministry is lifted up as the hope for transformation. Part of this prophetic calling is bound up with a critique of the way things are, with an essential piece of the prophetic being the ability to lift up the fact that things can be different than they are.
The Prophetic Imagination written by Walter Brueggemann in 1978 and revised in 2001 is the book in a course of study that I am taking part of. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary, is what another prolific author and minister Josh Graves calls "the Michael Jordan of Old Testament Theology" with over thirty years of theological thinking.
Brueggemann is a liberal theologian of the emergent culture that has gained so much prominence in that "Christian" movement today.
"...the church community in its 'mainline' expressions is increasingly decentered and disenfranchised since the time of my writing (1978)" states Brueggemann in his preface to the second edition, "..The likely 'explanation' is the long-term and deep force of secularization."
There is no doubt that Brueggemann has something to say, is articulate and concise with his opinions. With the wealth of experience in dealing with the Old Testament text, there is some nuggets to which even an evangelical can reclaim from the muds of time.
But he tends to leave the understanding of the text to the reader, as if to invite them to neither reject or accept his arguments, but struggle with a vague uneasiness throughout his ‘conversational book’, as if there is something insidious lurking beneath the surface of 'consciousness' and 'imaginative' scholarly text.
There is an mind-engaging experience reading about his understanding of Moses, Jesus, and the prophets Isaiah & Jeremiah.
If you filter out the 'emergent' and 'universalist' language of consciousness, alternative realities, and other catch phrases.
There is nothing 'conversational' about The Prophetic Imagination, in any style, and even though I don't believe the theology of polyphonic, Brueggemann makes the Old Testament come alive with 'alternative' views of widely circulated stories and figures.
Brueggemann said, "The bible is essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative of God's staggering care for the world, a narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man and woman."
Will Willimon makes a statement in his book, Shaped by the Bible: We are who we are, as we are shaped by the Bible so that not to be a biblically-formed people is to not be fully Christian. It is our source of identity and sustainable hope.
Because of that, it is important to understand the texts in the Bible, their relational aspects to the broader story context. One can’t claim to be radically changed and shaped by experiencing the Bible unless one knows what it says.
Brueggemann considers the three theological considerations within the American church inadequate to promote this prophetic imagination.
Foundationalism, where the epistemology of modernism should be used to bring the Bible into public debates; Canon criticism, the context of biblical theology that relies on systematic theological understanding and approaches; and “Seriatim reading” in which the texts are read one at a time without any inner relating.
Brueggemann, instead, points out that there are two historical and cultural distinct influences in the Old Testament visible through the "grammar and dialect of [the] textual tradition" that, in essence, creates a new and exciting "grammar of faith" which goes beyond a mere articulation as a linguistic matter.
This “polyphonic’ theology that is an affirmation of biblical theology that has many alternative understandings defies absolute authority. The voices of many outweigh the voice of the one.
Brueggemann advocates a theology of a "grammar of faith" where God is construed by the language of the Hebrew Test in its verb, noun, direct object, and adjective usage and not by historical acts or ontology (the constitution of divine being).
What I believe is the most tasty morsel of Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is not the unspecific authority of any other theology, but rather his identification of a ‘cult of culture’ which develops whenever religion validates culture and social justice without bringing them into accounting under the biblical authority expressed within the text.
It is the modern day ‘prophet’ that calls for a realistic alternative to the status quo. Unfortunately, in pursuit of this accounting, humanity allows itself the discretionary ability to rewrite this authority. Even Brueggemann seems to point this out, insists that the Bible requires "human interpretation that is inescapably subjective, necessarily provisional, and as [we] are living witnesses, inevitably disputatious."
This seems too much to me as humanism labeled Christianity, whereas humanity is the sole source of the biblical authority of God’s Word. Throughout the emergent movement, and this polyphonic theology, is a constant and continual reference to humanity’s ability to achieve ‘god-like’ qualities through the pursuit of universalistic humanism through a ‘revisiting’ of past humanistic and pagan pursuits.
I am convinced more and more each day that only the crucified Christ can lead us to change, inspire us to care, help us to love, and achieve the perfection of the kingdom and the original design through the working of the Holy Spirit and our own willful death of our own self interests.
Brueggemann states further that the church must reinvest in itself by exploring and understanding it's traditions of faith. But he doesn't endorse a fundamentalist view, referring to such thinking as "politics of the religionist." By trivializing the traditions of faith, we have increased man's exploration in his own methodology of spiritual truth. Contemplative prayer, yoga, and mystical chanting are the latest rage to 'discover oneself to discover God.'
Today, due to this secularization, or enculturation, the Christian church appears indifferent or in a state of defeat when it comes to answering the concerns of its congregation over the moral and ethical direction of America, and its spiritual health.
"Imagination [the third facet of Brueggemann's theology model] can indeed be a gift of the Spirit, but it is a gift used with immense subjective freedom which we would do better to concede, even if that concession makes it unmistakably clear that our imaginative interpretations cannot claim the shrillness of certainty but only the tentativeness of our best extrapolations," is Brueggemann’s description of the third point in his theological model. I agree with his statement, we would do better to concede this tendency within our communities to use our imagination to ‘fill in the holes’ in our theology to the one who can and promises to reveal it to us in time: God.
The church has forgotten its past, its traditions, and its faith in the scope of being 'culturally' sensitive to the world's unbelievers and in its complacency has furthered the illusion of Christian faith to those who subscribe to teachings watered down and less absolute.
Hence the theology of the postmodernist and most 'new age' Christian movements, "There are many paths. There is no absolutes."
"The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us," is Brueggemann's assertion in the first chapter, "Prophecy is born precisely in that moment when the emergence of social political reality is so radical and inexplicable that it has nothing less than a theological cause."
According to Ben Quash, who authored the prologue found in Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe (Hendrickson, 2007); we "have reason to be grateful to heresies because they have forced us to think our belief out more deeply and thoroughly." Too often, though, this 'forced thinking' has led men to supply their own reasoning to the theological pursuit of understanding God. What we cannot define is not left undefined and accepted by faith, but rather is redefined and reworked until it makes sense to our human perspectives.
Absolute authority has given way to a polyphonic theology of subjective authority. God is defined by the culture of the times rather than in a timeless definition that defies societal decrees.
Heretics, in the post-modern world, cause less of a deep and through ‘discovery’ of the Christian faith but rather shift cultural understanding to fit the doctrine they would espouse. This is nothing new, rather something that has existed throughout the history of mankind.
Athanasius dealt with this early in the church formation. This theologian, Church father, and Bishop of Alexandria faced the threats of salvation, biblical authority, and theological study in the form of Arius, who said Christ had a beginning and time existed prior to His existence;
"We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning." (Peters, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41)
This was the purpose of the Nicene Council, to affirm what was already known through the testimony of the eyewitnesses of Christ’s ministry. Not to ‘define’ the Christian faith into terms that would allow humanistic interpretations of what was truth:
Only one who was fully human could take upon themselves humanity’s sin and only one who was fully divine could assume to have the power necessary to save us. The logic of the New Testament assumes the duality of Jesus Christ; fully man, fully God.
Quash notes that heretics-to-be were just as concerned about staying true to Scripture as orthodox thinkers. The problem with such a statement isn’t the ‘human’ intention of staying true, but the ‘guaranteed’ distortion of a humanistic approach to defining Scripture.
I respect Dr. Brueggemann's expertise in the field of Old Testament theology and have garnered some insights from his discussion in The Prophetic Imagination that I will ponder and dig deeper into as I gain new understanding of the Biblical text. But, the emergent wordage and philosophical mantra that seems to be the language he uses makes me uneasy and alarmed.
Apparently I am alone.
Increasingly, due to the church's ineffectiveness or false teachings, many Christians are becoming lukewarm in their 'deeping and through beliefs'. To question the emerging theology is to be, yourself, labeled either a heretic, or intolerant.
There seems to be no return on Brueggemann's ideals that such theology must lead to a discussion between peers about the validity of such opinions. In a world where leading scholars and well-spoken authors are preening away from the traditions of the faith, many Christians are adopting the creed of ‘good works’ and ‘self-attainment’ as their faith expressions.
God created, defined, and spoke His creation and its word into being and it is only God, not man, that can allow the truth to be evident, standing beyond the ability of man to change and shape it.
Leigh Ford gives us some insight on how to discover God, "Focus on what God is doing instead of what you’re doing for Him. Become aware of what God is up to in your life and seek to cooperate with that work, rather than making your own plans and asking Him to bless them. Pattern your life on Jesus rather than your inner compulsions or outer expectations."
How do you know biblical authority?
As Polycarp of Smyrna once said, "Let us, therefore, forsake the vanity of the crowd and their false teachings, and turn back to the word delivered to us from the beginning."
By the authority and utterance of God.
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