Book Review: Theologian describes need for ‘prophetic imagination’

By David N. Mosser, Special Contributor…

The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word
Walter Brueggemann
Fortress Press, 2012
Hardcover, 192 pages

An inquisitive layperson recently asked about Josephus, and then Tacitus, as he was trying to track down the “historical Jesus.” Finally I suggested that he read about the Jesus of history in Albert Schweitzer’s 1910 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus. He bought it, invested considerable time with the book, and then remarked: “It is very tough going. Thank you for the suggestion, but I am giving up my quest.”

Walter Brueggemann

No doubt many persons could say the same of Walter Brueggemann’s The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. Dr. Brueggemann has written scores of excellent, deeply challenging books, and they sometimes can be tough going. Yet in my experience of reading his books over the past 35 years, it has always been worth the effort.

This time, the author extends the insights he shared in his 1978 book, The Prophetic Imagination. He suggests that believers practice such theological imagination by preaching—one of the practical theological arts to be sure. Early on Dr. Brueggemann states his guiding thesis, that “prophetic proclamation is an effort to imagine the world as though YHWH—the creator of the world, the deliverer of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whom we Christians come to name as Father, Son and Spirit—were a real character and an effective agent in the world.”

Dr. Brueggemann uses scores of prophetic texts to which he pins his thesis. Among the examples we see the so-called Minor Prophets such as Amos, Micah, Zephaniah and Hosea, and most plentifully the major prophetic voices of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The author even employs the Psalms when a text from the Psalter helps illustrate his central theme. Dr. Brueggemann’s work points toward preachers and pulpits who try to tell words of truth—which is one of his watchwords: “truth-telling.”

The first chapter is titled “The Narrative Embedment of Prophetic Preaching.” Prophetic preaching is not simply a predicting of the future, nor is it merely social activism to establish social justice. Instead Dr. Brueggemann makes the case that prophetic preaching is a way to imagine God and God’s purpose as something that is neither “an irrelevant transcendence” nor “a cozy immanence.” A third way between both of these options is an imagination that can question our human proximity to power—and this question at times makes modern Americans anxious and fretful.

In the second chapter Dr. Brueggemann reminds readers that, following Deuteronomy 30:15-20, “prophetic imagination is about deciding and re-deciding.” Then he turns to the important theme of chapter three, which is titled “Loss Imagined as Divine Judgment.” He writes much about loss, using texts that speak to the loss Jacob experiences with respect to Joseph (Genesis 37) and, later, Rachel weeping at Ramah (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:17-18). Dr. Brueggemann notes, “I linger so long over loss because I propose that prophetic preaching in our time and place fundamentally faces the reality of loss among us that dominant imagination could never, in its wildest imagination, imagine. That, I submit, is why 9/11 continues to move us so deeply.”

The author continues to help us see how the prophets help us name and claim those things over which we grieve. Dr. Brueggemann begs the question: Can we as moderns understand divine judgment in our losses as did the ancients?

The remainder of The Practice of Prophetic Imagination explores why prophetic preaching can only be executed effectively when it is foisted upon a people who not only discern that they are not really “in control,” but grieve the loss of their previous fictitious sense of reality. The conduit between losing what we thought we had and gaining what we need from YHWH is a sense of waiting in hope. Perhaps this is why the Revised Common Lectionary texts for Advent speak to the human condition—we wait in hope for that which we ourselves cannot create. We certainly grieve what we lose, but there is something coming—“Behold I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

If one does not read the book to its conclusion, Dr. Brueggemann may seem inordinately dour. Yet there is a deep optimism in his commentary on the prophets. It seems that the prophets do more than just tear down the human project, but instead give us an expectation that if that project is built upon a solid foundation—adhering to the principles of YHWH—then what the author calls “the burst of newness amid waiting” is possible.

However, in the midst of this, Dr. Brueggemann describes a “continuing mandate” for those who wait. The mandate calls for active waiting, living in the hope that with YHWH anything is possible. As the Rev. John Buchanan succinctly states in his foreword to the book: “It is never to deny or hurry past loss and grief. It is to remember—always—that ‘weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning’ (Ps. 30:5).”

The Rev. Mosser is senior pastor at First UMC in Arlington, Texas. He’s the author/editor of 17 books including The Stewardship Companion and Prayers for Advent and Christmas.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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