Book review: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

I have been intending for a while to post book reviews on here, particularly of books that I would like to encourage others to read… I just don’t seem to have got around to it yet.

Take this book, for example, I actually read this book in the summer, and wrote the review then, I just forgot to post it… So here it is… [I hope you like it, I don’t know when there might be another one]

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The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggeman.

This book is an excellent text exploring the role of the prophetic in the Bible and how it relates to our lives today. I would recommend it to people who have already had some experience of prophetic ministry in church, as it is quite dense in places, but it will greatly increase the reader’s understanding of the purpose of prophecy.

The aim of the book is to use the example of the Old Testment prophets to help us to challenge the consumer culture that surrounds us today and has begun to seep into the church. The first couple of chapters establish the role of the prophets in the Old Testament – first Moses as a voice against the oppression of the Pharoah, then the later prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah who spoke against the corrupt Kings of Israel and Judah. They were not just telling the future, but explaining what that meant for the present. They had two main purposes: they were trying to counter the numbness and apathy of the people by bringing to expression the fear and grief the people should be feeling over the state of their nation and their future, and they were presenting an alternative new world promised by God to free the people from their hopelessness. The second half of the book explains how these two tasks were fulfilled and continued in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – the criticism of the current system and the energising power of the new Kingdom that was emerging. The final chapter gave more detail on how this relates to our situation in the present day and its impact on our prophetic ministry.

This book has been inspiring and also quite challenging for me. It has helped my understanding of the Old Testament context and purpose of the prophets and how their situation relates to our society today. I have been struck by Brueggemann’s explanation of the Kingship of Solomon not as a fulfilment of the Promised Land, but instead as a return for the Israelites to their situation in Egypt under the Pharaohs – a time of affluence for the few which led to complacency, oppressive social policy and “the establishment of a controlled, static religion in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king”[1] – where people are numb to experience and devoid of hope that things can change. In many ways it is easy to see the parallels with modern society, where wealth determines who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ and there is much hopelessness. Unfortunately, this also seems to be the situation of the Western Church, where the comfort of its members, the protection of tradition and maintenance of the status quo often seem to have taken precedence over love or justice. This has led to the consumerist culture invading the church, with it becoming more about what the individual wants than a community worshipping God. I wonder if one reason many people leave the church is its unwillingness to change, its protection of “the royal consciousness” to use Brueggemann’s term[2] – the status quo that tell us that nothing can or should change. In this situation, as in ancient times, we need prophets to remind us of the faithfulness of God and the reality of our situation, and to help us hope for a better world, because bringing that world into reality begins with our imagining it.

On a personal level, I became more aware of areas in my own life where I was falling prey to the royal consciousness – lacking hope and thinking that having more things could satisfy my need for God. I also have become more hungry again for the touch of the prophetic in my life, and have started to seek out more opportunities to receive prayer but also to prayer and prophesy over people to bless them too. It has also fed my passion to see a better world than what we currently experience, and to take opportunities to speak out for the oppressed, those suffering under the royal consciousness, and to encourage others to wake up to the truth of their situation and the newness that will come and is coming with God’s Kingdom. More practically, the book has helped me to get back into reading more Christian books, and reading them more deeply. I really wanted to spend time over this book and remember and reflect on what I was reading, so I decided to make detailed notes and copy down my favourite quotes from each chapter to help the book stay with me. This meant that I took longer to read the book than I would usually spend reading a novel, for instance, but that meant the joy of reading it lasted longer. It is definitely a book that I will return to and reread many times in the future. It is a deep text, but so worth persevering with, and will greatly enrich anyone’s understanding of the prophetic and help them towards a more spiritual life.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Fortress Press (Minneapolis, 2001) p28

[2] Ibid., p21

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