I met Walter Brueggemann before I ever read one of his books. He came to Louisville, where I was in school, to participate in a local church’s weekend peacemaking event. Hearing him preach and attending his workshop, I was impressed that here is a scholar who is both brilliant and practical.
Brueggemann’s guiding principle is How do we as contemporary Christians embody what the Bible is teaching?
Years after I met him in Louisville, our paths crossed in Richmond. Walter was to give the commencement address for Union Presbyterian Seminary (which is 3 blocks from Northminster). My friend Annie Hall, wife of the president of Union Seminary at the time, invited Lynda and me, and our friends Roscoe and Krista Cooper, to a dinner party honoring their commencement speaker. I found myself next to Walter in the buffet line, and I asked him about his connection with a church I knew in DC—I was aware that he regularly preached and taught at the church, and that his books were used in their Servant Leadership School. “Tell me about your connection with the Church of the Saviour,” I asked. “Those people are amazing,” he replied. “I just write about this stuff. They live it.”
Brilliance and humility are a rare combination in my experience. Here is a world-class scholar who recognizes that biblical scholarship exists to serve the church, that is, to help Christians learn to live the truth.
Brueggemann wrote The Prophetic Imagination in 1982 and it is still in print—a remarkable accomplishment.
I learned about the book 1987, while we were at the beach with some of our dearest friends. Sometime during that week, Ken Sehested, who founded the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, commented that The Prophetic Imagination was the most important book he had ever read. On his recommendation I read it. And it blew me away. Here is the second paragraph of the book:
The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act. This enculturation is in some way true across the spectrum of church life, both liberal and conservative. It may not be a new situation, but it is one that seems especially urgent and pressing at the present time. That enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons.
One review of The Prophetic Imagination begins with a quotation from, of all things, the Pink Floyd song Comfortably Numb and then connects Brueggemann’s assessment of current Christian practice to the picture in the song:
I cannot explain, you would not understand. This is not how I am. I have become comfortably numb.
Brueggemann observes that “the cultural situation in the United States, satiated by consumer goods and propelled by electronic technology, is one of narcotized insensibility to human reality.” We are comfortably numb.
He argues that the church has been co-opted by the culture. Enculturated is the word he uses over and over. He then examines the lives of Moses, Jeremiah and Jesus to demonstrate that the church’s biblical mandate is to be prophetic—that is, to speak truth to power, to be in the world but not of it, to be a catalyst for cultural change, not an imitator of the culture in which it exists. In short, just as God through Moses imagined-into-being freedom in a land filled with promise, our task as Christ-followers is to allow the Spirit of God to imagine in us and through us new, faithful realities (BTW this is my best shot at writing a Brueggemann-esque sentence).
The Prophetic Imagination is a difficult book. It’s criticism of me and my church is hard to hear. But I am absolutely convinced Brueggemann is correct in his criticism. My goodness is he biblical! And on those rare occasions when we manage to catch the Spirit’s imagination, it is a beautiful thing to see.