Monday, 5 December 2016

The Prophetic Imagination

A few weeks ago I reviewed Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith.  Volf suggests that Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is a prophetic faith, be bearer of a message from God to the world.  As such we are obliged to be neither passive, neglecting to deliver our message at all, not coercive, trying to force people to heed.

I agreed with him, but found myself frustrated that his book was short on specifics.  Given his emphasis on prophetic mission, the place I turned to next for more ideas was Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination.

Brueggemann is Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Western world's leading Old Testament scholars and a renowned preacher.  The Prophetic Imagination is one of his early works, first published in 1978 and re-released in a second edition in 2001.  He describes it as "my first publication in which I more or less found my own voice as a teacher in the church".

His writing is rather dense and the reader has to concentrate.  The book seems to contain a lot of mistakes which make it seem that he is sometimes contradicting himself.  It's a shame these things weren't fixed or made a little clearer in this second edition given that by 2001 he was much more celebrated than he had been in 1978.

Still, despite the density Brueggemann's basic argument is quite simple.  He contrasts two concepts - "prophetic consciousness" and "royal consciousness".  The paradigmatic conflict in which this contrast is expressed is that between Pharaoh and Moses.  Pharaoh's concern is to preserve his own power and so he wants nothing to change, because any change threatens his position.  Not only his ministers and soldiers but his priests and gods are dedicated to keeping things as they are, to denying that change is desirable or even possible.  Even those he enslaves, like the children of Israel, are expected to accept that their oppression is the will of these gods and powers.

Moses, bringing the message of Yahweh from the desert, gives the lie to this royal consciousness, promising (and delivering) liberation to the Israelites.  He doesn't merely shift them from place to place, he creates a new kind of community in which each family possesses it own land by right, wealth is regularly redistributed, justice is administered according to clear laws, the poor are protected and the powerful are reined in.  The result is three centuries of this new community.

However, in the end the Israelites got their own form of royal consciousness, typified and personified by King Solomon.  Solomon effectively dismantled the egalitarian, decentralised and redistributive polity of Moses in favour of a centralised monarchy.  He amassed wealth and power in his own hands, built a large standing army with chariots, and made alliances with the surrounding nations.

This was not simply a political move - he enlisted Yahweh into this royal project, turning him symbolically from a mobile god in a tent to the sedentary resident (perhaps even prisoner) of an elaborate temple, conveniently located near the king's own palace.  All of these measures were designed to preserve a new status quo in which the king ruled and the subjects obeyed, in which wealth flowed to the top.  The system he initiated survived, despite the dangers of the surrounding empires, for the next five centuries.

The tools of royal consciousness are numbness and despair,  We learn not to notice our suffering and fear, and we learn to despair of any alternative.  This numbness and despair is graphically illustrated in the most famous writing attributed to Solomon, the Book of Ecclesiastes.  The reader is assured that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new under the sun, so he or she should simply obey God and get on with life.

The later Old Testament prophets were the primary critics of this royal consciousness.  In this task, Brueggemann identifies that they used two main tools - pathos and amazement.  Both of these are tools for opening up the awareness of new possibilities, for helping people to see that all is not as it should be and that it could be better.

"The task of pathos," he says, "is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self deception, so that the God of endings can be confessed as Lord".  This task has three parts:  "To offer symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes numbness and denial."  "To bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there".  "To speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us, and to speak neither in rage nor in cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion."  The great exponent of this pathos is Jeremiah, whose weeping over Judah was the only truthful voice to be heard as the last of its kings were trying desperately to convince everyone that the regime would live on.

The language of amazement, on the other hand, penetrates the despair with new hope.  The prophet is "to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there."  "The prophet must speak metaphorically about hope but concretely about the real newness that comes to us and redefines our situation."  He goes on:

The hope-filled language of prophecy, in cutting through the royal despair and hopelessness, is the language of amazement.  It is the language that engages the community in new discernments and celebrations just when it had nearly given up and had nothing to celebrate.  The language of amazement is against the despair just as the language of grief is against the numbness.

He illustrates this language of amazement primarily from Second Isaiah (generally understood to begin at Isaiah 40 in our bibles), with its visions of restoration, hope, peace and triumph for troubled and oppressed Israel.  The language of amazement provides us with a vision that things can indeed be different to, and infinitely better than, what they are now, that God can bring forth a new song and can bring new nourishment to his people.

Finally, he describes how Jesus of Nazareth practiced both the the language of criticism and pathos, and the language of amazement.  He taught his disciples and the crowds that followed him both to see and mourn the state of the society they lived in, and to see the advent of the newly-instituted Kingdom of God.  His message founded a new type of community which it is our duty to renew and re-energise against the royal consciousness of our own day.

There is a lot of crossover between Brueggemann and Volf, but Brueggemann dives in deep where Volf skates across the surface.  In naming both our numbness and our despair, and in offering both mourning and hope as alternatives, he urges us to confront the issues of our times.

Since reading this book, I can see royal consciousness all around us.  I can see it in the way our political leaders rush to defend and facilitate the fossil fuel industries even as all the evidence points to an urgent need to stop using these fuels, because "we can't damage the economy".  I can see it in Malcolm Turnbull lecturing State Governments that "energy security must be their number one priority" because even a single day's disruption of "business as usual" is seen as disastrous.

I can see it in the way we brutalise defenceless asylum seekers in order to "preserve the integrity of our borders", continuously ramp up anti-terrorism laws in order to "preserve our way of life" even as we help to wreak havoc in the Middle East, and get presented with the zero sum game that the only way to ensure future prosperity is to cut both services for the poor and taxes for the rich in the name of "jobs and growth".

I can see it in the way we vacillate between politicians who offer us "more of the same" like our steady, seemingly moderate mainstream parties and leaders, and those who offer us "much more of the same", our populist right-wing leaders who offer to "make America (or Australia) great again", to restore the full glories of empire which we fear we are already losing.

I can also feel it in myself.  I am more apt to despair, because things seem to be getting worse and those of us seeking change seem to be pushed further to the margins.  It is tempting to give up, to run away to some safe haven and stop trying to change the world.  This is the temptation of numbness, the temptation to anaesthetise myself and let whatever happens, happen.

Brueggemann encourages me to mourn, to allow that pain to be real, but also to hope.  Despite appearances, new ways are possible, new songs can be sung, new shoots can grow from seemingly dead stumps.  It can be hard, but we must keep going.

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