This phrase “prophetic imagination” comes from Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. His academic writings often come across as poetic and his exploration of ancient texts informs current understandings of our modern world. Unpacking the prophetic imagination is especially helpful as our Living in The Story readings lead us through the works of the Hebrew prophets as well as the bold, prophetic vision of The Revelation.
Prophets counter conventional wisdom and status quo.
Even in ancient Israel, the sacred traditions of Mosaic Law became dry bones, needing fresh breath and new life. Prophets see from a heavenly perspective; they name both the human brokenness and the divine remedies. “Speaking truth to power” is the vocation of the prophet. Brueggemann says it this way:
Prophetic speech is so daring as to specify concrete places where the presence, purpose, and reality of God’s “otherness” make decisive inroads on the human process in either friendly or hostile ways. It names the places where intrusion, gift, ambiguity, and newness are present, and it gives to those happenings the name of holiness, either holy graciousness or holy judgment.
While we moderns debate whether God “intrudes” into human affairs or not, the prophets assume God has, does and ever will break into our worldly reality in order to inject a healthy dose of heavenly reality; real reality. This divine corrective attends to our human bentness and offers realignment with real Truth.
The prophetic voice proclaims newness and liberation.
The prophetic tradition of Israel is the offspring of both the narrative that tells of the “newness” bestowed on Abraham and Sarah and the Mosaic event of liberation.
In Israel there arose a series of human speakers, prophets, who were emboldened by holiness and who conceived of scenarios of possibility that “the rulers of this age” had declared to be impossible. On the one hand, these prophets dared to envision a terrible impossibility, namely that God’s own people would answer for they cynical, willful disobedience and come to a suffering end. On the other hand, these prophets dared to imagine a totally new beginning, whereby God would re-form God’s people in exile so as to create, as there had not been before, a people after God’s own heart. These prophets dared to speak of “plucking up and tearing down, of planting and building.” They dared to speak what their contemporaries regarded as either craziness (cf. Hosea 9:7) or treason (cf. Jeremiah 38:4). They dared to voice what imperial power had nullified and fate had settled. And in their speaking, they worked a newness.
“In their speaking, they worked a newness.”
The biblical prophets were not simply future tellers, as some conservative theologies understand. Although their insightful seeing envisioned how the future would and could look based on human and divine activity. And the prophets were not simply social justice advocates, as some liberal theologies have suggested.
Prophets, from within their divine orientation, can work a newness within the orientation of those with eyes to see and ears to hear. History does not have to be ‘written by the winners’ where ‘might makes right.’ Rather The Story offers new possibilities. Even impossible possibilities. Brueggemann says:
It is through this tradition of new possibilities that the early church understood Jesus. In him, it saw wonders worked and impossibilities enacted. Power for newness swirled about him that establishment authority could neither resist nor nullify. Through his presence, the lame walked, the deaf heard, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, and the poor had their debts canceled (Luke 7:22-23). In the end, the church was persuaded and confessed that even death could not hold him (Acts 2:24).
It seems clear that lying at the foundation of the church is the claim that Jesus is a full embodiment of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. Jesus speaks and enacts the holy word of God in ways that “pluck up and tear down,” that “plant and build.” It is equally clear that the church’s discernment and story of Jesus do not stop with this characteristically Jewish understanding. The church has gone further, to confess that Jesus is not only an utterer of the word but is himself the uttered word. Jesus’ own person is God’s word of life that shatters all idolatrous forms of life and makes new community possible.
Jesus: “the Word made flesh.”
Jesus: “a full embodiment of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament.”
In Jesus: newness and liberation.
Then Brueggemann quotes the insightful theologian John Caputo:
“The voice of the prophet interrupts the self-assured voices of the powerful, of the arche, the princes of this world, bringing them up short, calling them to account for themselves. That is why the prophet had a habit of getting themselves killed, a most serious occupational hazard. They were perhaps a little mad, mad for justice, mad about injustice and maybe, just a little, plain mad.”
The prophetic tradition preserves for us these staggering enactments of redemptive madness. The madness lingers in and through the text. That is why the text has been kept until now. When the text is re-surfaced, re-voiced, re-uttered, re-experienced, it sometimes turns out to be the only sanity in town.
Referenced works by Walter Brueggemann:
The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978).
Texts That Linger Words That Explode (Fortress Press, 2000).
Like Fire in the Bones (Fortress Press, 2006).
The John D. Caputo quote comes from Demythologizing Heidegger (Indiana University Press, 1993).