Walter Brueggemann and Scripture as Counter-Imagination to the Empires of Man

Walter Brueggemann and Scripture as Counter-Imagination to the Empires of Man May 1, 2012

This past weekend I took part in a conference at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh, PA, sponsered by St. Thomas and the Center for Biblical Studies and by a generous gift from the Philadelphia Theological Insitute.

The conference was on Making Sense of the Old Testament. The main speaker was Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, author of, as of this weekend, 58 books (though who knows what he did on the plane ride home–ha ha). He is perhaps best know for The Prophetic Imagination and his Theology of the Old Testament. Brueggeman gave five substantive talks ranging from the nature of the Old Testament as a whole to the prophetic role of truth-telling and hope-telling.

Carolyn Sharpe from Yale Divinity School gave two talks, one on irony in the Old Testament and the other on the Psalms 44 and 46 and spiritual transformation. Sharpe also teaches a course at Yale on Brueggemann’s theology.

I was there as a respondent to both speakers, offering alternate points of view on some very controversial subjects, as well as connecting some of the ideas we heard to the New Testament.

If you have ever heard Brueggemann speak or preach, you will already know that his enthusiasm and passion for Old Testament theology is contagious. He is a riveting teacher and bids his audience to enter into his own narrative of what the Old Testament is about and how it is to be “performed” in today’s world.

I took pages of notes, and I thought I’d give a sketch only three of the more salient points he made over the weekend, and that I know I will take with me.

The heart of the Bible is not the presentation of history but a font of imagination that hosts a world other than the one in front of us. By “imagination” Brueggemann does not mean “irreal” but quite the opposite. He claims that the world we live in, the world where the empires of man rule, is the parody. All empires are acts of imagination: they present a world that lures humanity into its false hopes and lays claim to our hearts and souls as the unquestioned status quo.

Before you know it, you are duped. You take what the world offers–commodities, prejudices, fears, injustices, violence, false gods–and you accept it all as a given.

To this tired life, accepted as unquestioned reality, scripture offers another world, another way of being, that is both unsettling and comforting as it stands in prophetic judgment over the empires of the world. Scripture, in other words, is counter-imagination, a “rival eschatology,” as N. T. Wright puts it, to any system that claims “we have now arrived.” Empires do not like the promise of scripture because promise implies the the present is inadequate. Counter-imagination makes empires nervous.

Scripture itself demonstrates the clash of empires. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt takes the Israelites from a world of slavery to Pharaoh, where all they do is never enough and they are enslaved to producing “banks” (storehouses) where the king of that empire can keep his excess wealth. God delivers Israel to a world where their God is not a task master but a deliverer and where their world is not defined by “commodities” but by “fidelities” (i.e., the covenant).

The God of Scripture is not the “omni” god of the Enlightenment  (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient) or of nineteenth century higher criticism (to which both liberals and fundamentalists ironically bow), but a God who is embedded as a character in narrative, the subject of active verbs, the God who is on your side and fights for you. Brueggemann finds both the pre-critical (literalistic reading of scripture) and critical (dis-integration of scripture) spiritually unhealthy. The former is naive and the latter is suspicious of scripture. A post-critical attitude is a way forward that retrieves pre-critical devotion in conversation with true critical insights.

For example, he argues that the prophetic corpus was assembled to speak to the realities of the exile (a critical insight of the last two centuries), which helps us today see the urgency of speaking God’s word into analogous situations. He referred to 587 BC (when the exile began) as the “9/11 of the Old Testament,” meaning the moment when Israel became utterly disoriented, for “such a thing should not happen.” Likewise, Good Friday is the 9/11 of the New Testament, for a crucified King of the Jews, a slain Messiah, is unthinkable.

Both events, though utterly disorienting, are transformative events that further God’s purposes in the world. Against all expectations, God was on the move in both cases, and delivered a blow against the claims of false empires to define how God is supposed to appear (comfortably in support of empire).

Prophets are truth-tellers and the hope-tellers. The role of biblical prophets is to deconstruct the world of power through poetic rhetoric. Power structures are in a state of denial, meaning they hold on to power at all costs. By his truth-telling poetic critique, the prophet introduces despair to the halls of power and to those who place their hope in them. Once such despair is fully embraced and lamented, the prophet declares a word of hope, envisioning a time when God will bring something utterly new and counterintuitive out of despair.

This stuff preaches, and the line between preaching and teaching was thin indeed for Brueggemann.

Brueggemann also talked about Exodus, divine violence, and a few other smaller topics. I hope to blog about them as well in the coming days. In the meantime, tells us what you think about these ideas, especially if you are familiar with Brueggemann’s writings.


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  • Neil

    I wish I could have been there! I am wondering if Brueggemann ever hinted at more than simply Political Empires, such as Ecclesiastical of even Theoretical (read Marxism/Capoitalism/Socialism etc.)? It would seem to me that there could be a case made for Israel entering into the Covenants in a completely vulnerable state, and in that vulnerability seeing God act individualy and communally. Is this why in the West we rarely see God act? Are we that unwilling to be vulnerable and recognize our need of something far better, something far greater than our Free Market Economy, Social Welfare Programs, or even our National Defense?

    • peteenns

      He talked a lot of about economic issues of justice. As for the west, that is the dominant false empire that the church needs to speak against with the prophetic voice of the prophets. What I kept trying to add to the discussion was the prophetic voice of the Gospel, which transforms and reframes the OT prophetic voice.

  • Richard Wattenbarger

    I found the second point you mentioned particularly intriguing: that God is not the “omni” god of the Enlightenment. Is W.B. referring to the god conceived, say in terms of Robespierre’s “Supreme Being” during the French Revolution, where god is characterized as superhistorical and in terms of these “omni” attributes? Or is he (also) referring to these characterizations as they’ve been understood and used in Western Christianity since the Enlightenment (e.g., perhaps in certain corners of Reformed traditions)?

    • peteenns

      The latter. Oh, most definitely the latter.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Yes, the prophetic voice of the church needs constantly to address the injustice inherent in the oppressive economic empire of contemporary consumerist capitalism. But I was particularly interested in your oblique comment about the Gospel: “I kept trying to add to the discussion was the prophetic voice of the Gospel, which transforms and reframes the OT prophetic voice.” Right, when I have listened to Brueggemann what I hear is a lot about prophetic imagination and very little about Jesus the Messiah and all that can be imagined prophetically as having been brought to a climax as the prophetically conceived consummation in his life and teaching and death and resurrection and sending of the Spirit to enable and create the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. In short, what I hear from Bruggemann is not the Gospel but an “imagined” prophetic critique of the social, economic, and political world around us now. Inspiring, but perhaps powerless?? So, if you would care to expand on your comment I’d appreciate it.

  • Steve Meidahl

    Thank you! Great summary!

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Steve. I had a good time. Very energizing. In another post I might offer more of a critique, though. I am hesitating b/c I don’t want people to forget the many positive challenges.

  • Norman

    Well it looks like I need to pick up one or both of Brueggemann’s works. Pete if I’m reading you correctly he offers a synthesis of the OT and NT that should be able to compliment your work. The OT theme that rails against the Nations including Israel finds its conclusions in the NT where Christ rules the Nations with an iron scepter by delivering the faithful away from physical empires. However the church as the specific body of Christ rules through service and becomes the healing for the Nations that we see in Rev 22.

    I’m hoping your penchant for reducing scholarly language into the vernacular of the “normal people” will perhaps take his concepts and make them coherent to the masses.

    This clash of empires gets to the point that I have made previously that exilic literature IMO isn’t as focused upon their ancient history as much as it is upon fomenting revolution for Israel and the Nations. The proof is the end result we have in the NT of messianic fulfillment which assimilates their narrative as what has been propagated all along. The NT authors like Paul through new eyes of the messianic reality quit reading the story as literal but began grasping the poetic inferences that pointed that direction all along. (perhaps the Alexandrians had it right) It seems perhaps Brueggemann is positing similar concepts.

    IMO recognizing the exilic nature of the OT was an important step but we need to mature this realization into what really was their ultimate intended purpose in their prophetic writings. That is where someone like you who knows 2T literature should have an edge in bridging the gap because 2T literature is nothing if not Revolutionary in the extreme and compliments the OT. They were sick and tired of the systems that they were caught under with the present form of Religious theocracy including pagan Nations forms. The classic chapter in the bible which lays it out in no uncertain terms is Ezekiel 34 which is a good narrative synthesis of the big picture. Its framed in poetic language but even the casual reader should grasp its targeting toward the messianic coming of Christ as the payoff.

    It’s hard to imagine the author of Ezekiel 34 not grasping the implications of what he was writing.

    Just my two cents worth.

  • John Franklin

    I find your comments interesting – and am left wondering with regard to thinking of the bible as a “font of imagination” hosting a world other than the one we inhabit. If what we have is simply imagination at work what keeps the final product from being like the work of Homer, Dante or Shakespeare – a story in which history is not an essential component. I ask this believing that history is important for you – and in many wasys for Brueggemann as well – but want to find a way to articulate the difference between what is being said about scripture and what we might say about literature.

    I greatly value the place of imagination in the life of faith and am inclined to think that faith is one context in which imagination does its work – faith is a case of imagining. But I think there are different sorts of imaginings or at least different ways of understanding what we do when we imagine.

    Finally a comment about “God as a charcter embedded in a narrative” actively engaged in the world. One could say this about Hamlet I think or the Warden in Trollope. But in these cases there is no actual link with history. Jack Miles (perhaps an extreme example) in his God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God would say what you have said about a “character embedded in a narrative” but I expect there is a great gulf between your meanings and your assumptions. So all of this as a request for clarity in the language used.

    • peteenns

      John, by imagination, Brueggemannn just means the ability to create a world of meaning for someone. As literature the Bible certainly does share that property with any other pice of literature, potentially, but Brueggemann does not put the Bible on the same place as all literature.

      • John Franklin

        Peter: Thank you for your response. To be clear I was not so much concerned with Brueggemann and his position regarding the bible as I am with trying to find a way to articulate the difference between scripture and literature. The bible does share much with literature to be sure. There is great value in creating a world of meaning as you put it. Myth has been doing that for centuries and fantasy is able to do it as well. One might also note the work of Charles Taylor on modern “social imaginaries” that help us make sense of social practices. So creating a world of meaning is good -but worlds of meaning are a dime a dozen, film, novels, celebrities, Oprah and so on – but is there anything distinctive about how scripture does that? If so what is distinctive or perhaps unique to the biblical imaginative engagement?
        Perhaps an interesting treatment of what you (and Brueggemann) are saying about alternatives to the empire can be found in Eugene Petersen’s Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination.
        Sorry if this is not clear…. the effort is to find an alternative to selecting (or creating) narratives and worlds of meaning that provide me with opportunity to be at the controls shaping the world I desire. Or those that simply domesticate the story (of scripture) and diffuse it power. (I think of the work of the late Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman for whom imagination was central).