Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Prophetic Imagination

I am currently reading Walter Bruegemann's The Prophetic Imagination at the recommendation of two priests (or one priest and one soon-to-be priest). I spoke with them about the Bible class I teach and they said he was the pre-eminent mind at work today concerning issues of the Hebrew Bible. Certainly this may be true if you look at it from a Christian priest standpoint, which both of them are, and the book is really geared toward the current church community rather than toward the secular world, as much of the work I have already done is (Karen Armstrong, Jonathan Kirsch, Elaine Pagels, Stephen Mitchell, etc.).

Bruegemann states his hypothesis in the preface:
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.
And he also acknowledges his general paradigm when he says "I have brought to the text my own hermeneutic of suspicion." This is valuable to me, as is his emphasis on criticism, because it prevents the argument from becoming too dogmatic. In fact, I might argue even at this early stage that his work is the opposite of dogmatic, though, since it is concerned with modern prophecy (not equated with fortune-telling for him, though distantly related), it opposes any oppression by the status-quo.

Here are some passages I found intriguing:
...texts--in particular biblical texts--are acts of imagination that offer and purpose "alternative worlds" that exist because of and in the act of utterance. ... Imagination is indeed a legitimate way of knowing. ... biblical texts, in particular prophetic texts, could be seen as poetic scenarios of alternative reality that might lead to direct confrontation with "presumed, taken-for-granted worlds."
Since it is a book for the ministry, he brings home the current need for prophecy in America:
...consumerism is ... likely the foremost circumstance of prophetic faith in the United States.
Contrasting our situation in America to the much worse situations of torture, war, and famine in other parts of the globe:
Numbness does not hurt like torture, but in a quite parallel way, numbness robs us of our capability for humanity. ... Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric. ... Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope.
I find this personally compelling, and have often felt that the demons of our day are far more subtle than the ones of biblical times, or the ones going on in other parts of the world. The credit card is really the oppressor in America today, and politicians typically do everything they can to continue the status quo rather than effect any radical change. Bruegemann looks both forward and back here:
It is the task of prophetic ministry to bring the claims of the tradition and the situation of enculturation into an effective interface. That is, the prophet is called to be the child of the tradition, one who has taken it seriously in the shaping of his or her own field of perception and system of language, who is so at home in that memory that the points of contact and incongruity with the situation of the church in culture can be discerned and articulated with proper urgency.
The other great oppressor today (and I say this as an English teacher) is language. But my job as an English teacher is to help students examine the underpinnings of their language and recognize words for the false idols they are. Only then can language become a catapult into a deeper reality, rather than a hollow container for an even hollower fiction.

Bruegemann sees that the task of dismantling the current system of oppression will be difficult, as it always has been:
...the dominant culture, now and in every time, is grossly uncritical, cannot tolerate serious and fundamental criticism, and will go to great lengths to stop it.
He then heads into his examination of Moses. In the past, I have felt highly conflicted about Moses, since on the one hand, he liberated the Israelite slaves, but on the other hand, his compassion and sense of justice extended only to his own tribe, and even then only to the faithful. I have seen the Hebrew Bible as three main narratives that serve as a progression. Genesis charts the journey to spiritual maturity of an individual (culminating, after many mis-steps in Joseph or Judah, depending on your viewpoint), Exodus shows the spiritual journey of a tribe, and the story of David is about creating a nation. One could go one step further and see Jesus as transcending national boundaries and making spirituality something intensely personal again (as in Genesis), but extending the compassion universally. The journey for him is both inward and outward - but that's a subject for another time.

Moses - in my view a stepping stone in this process - has always been problematic since his compassion extends only to his tribe. Even in his punishment of his tribe for its manifold transgressions, he is acting from compassion since he wants to bring them closer to God.

But Bruegemann takes a different view, looking at the Exodus entirely from the point of view of the dismantling of Empire. For him, the Egyptians are equated with Pharaoh, and I suppose as long as we view the Bible as literature rather than history (which I do), then this is a useful viewpoint. In my mythology class, we study the Mahabharata, and since the work is so fantastical, it is not even tempting to discover the historical impulses behind it, so the Pandavas and Kauravas become alternative metaphors rather than individuals. The Bhagavad Gita was Gandhi's favorite book, which is mind-boggling until you realize that for him the characters are not human beings, but rather qualities within ourselves. As a spiritual seeker, nonviolence is paramount in dealings with others, but we need to attack our own inner demons with all the vehemence we can muster. As one of my favorite modern gurus - Lama Marut, who lives in Las Vegas and posts daily on twitter - once said, "We should not be playing footsie with samsara under the table. We should be kicking samsara in the groin."

So Bruegemann seems to have no problem with the destruction of the Egyptians, even the ones who weren't in the government. In addition, he sees the royal reign (Solomon in particular) as a return to the ways of the Egyptians, proving the impossibility of institutionalizing what is essentially a nomadic God. He says,
Moses dismantled the religion of static triumphalism by exposing the gods and showing that in fact they had no power and were not gods. ... Moses dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion [though again this is only for his tribe]
He makes clear why theology is important in a concise sentence that I find profoundly important:
Our sociology is predictably derived from, legitimated by, and reflective of our theology.
I can't say how often I have felt that to be true, but since we leave our theology unexamined and unquestioned, we end up being slaves to it, even though we don't really pay any attention to it. It is those who accept religion uncritically and pay lip service to it in church on Sundays who are in the most precarious position in terms of their faith and in terms of their relationship with those around them. One tragedy can destroy such an unexamined faith, but at the same time, it influences our tiniest actions, which are entirely unconscious.

Bruegemann is truly compelling in his examination of how the need for a prophet comes about.
...the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right--either in the dean's office or in our marriage or in the hospital room. And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.
He brings this home to the Israelites, and makes a point that counters my traditional view of them. I had always viewed them as unbearably prone to complaining. I think perhaps the biblical authors intended it this way, but Bruegemann sees a virtue in complaining: is characteristic of Israel to complain rather than lament; that is, Israel does not voice resignation but instead expresses a militant sense of being wronged with the powerful expectation that it will be heard and answered. Thus the history of Israel begins on the day when its people no longer address the Egyptian gods who will not listen and cannot answer. ,,, The grieving of Israel--perhaps self-pity and surely complaint but never resignation--is the beginning of criticism.
I wonder how the complaints of Israel against Moses and Yahweh figure in to this vision...

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