Walter Brueggemann Shook My Hand ... and My Head and Spirit

April 15, 2015

Over a decade ago, I randomly walked into a bookstore in Minneapolis during a conference in the Twin Cities. A book caught my eye, especially the haunting image of a tree on the cover and its intriguing title. After looking it over, I decided to buy it. That book, The Prophetic Imagination, served as my introduction to the brilliant Walter Brueggemann. Since then I've read other Brueggemann books (though I still have a lot more to go since he's so prolific). Each one spurs me to think differently about biblical texts and themes.

So I took an opportunity to hear him speak in person this week.

The 2015 Faith & Culture Conference at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, included two speakers: Brueggemann and Brian Zahnd. Both of them ended up on my top ten books of 2014 list (with Zahnd in 4th and Brueggemann snagging the top spot). So I have been thrilled at the opportunity to hear the two of them and join the dialogue. (I'll write about Zahnd's remarks in separate post.)

Brueggemann gave three presentations at the conference: "The Prophetic Imagination," "Behold the Man," and "Out of Babylon." The first and third were lectures followed with question-and-answer times. The second was a chance to hear a Brueggemann sermon.

As in his books, Brueggemann is brilliant and dangerous. He's also hilarious! He nicely plays the old curmudgeon role to spice up his delivery.

Brueggemann's words currently rattle around in my head, creating a mix of inspirational, challenging, unsettling, and radical thoughts. I'll continue to chew on his comments for quite some time. Here are a sprinkling of some of the comments that particularly grabbed my attention and sparked my imagination.

Totalizing powers seek to "silence alternative opinions," but "silences kill." Thus, a prophetic "word from elsewhere" is needed to bring both a "word of judgment" and a "word of hope."

"Prophetic imagination is breaking the silence, saying the unsayable, thinking the unthinkable, imagining the unimaginable."

"People try to silence artists because they speak and think and draw outside the box and they're dangerous."

"The church is the meeting that hosts the words from elsewhere. If the church is not this, it's just a chaplain to the empire." Churches should be "subversive" as a place for prophetic imagination, not just "privatized gospel."

"The church can articulate a version of reality that subverts the dominant reality of power and wealth."

"The prophets are not so much angry as they are sad. They are sad because they can see where this is going."

"Baptism calls us beyond our conservatism or liberalism."

"Prophetic consciousness cannot leave politics alone. It is all about exposing truth and falsehood of political practice poetically."

"The Empire wants us to vote for the status quo."

Pharaoh's not named in Bible "because if you've seen one Pharaoh you've seen them all."

"Totalism exists in a culture of amnesia, where there is no past and no future."

"In a culture of self-indulgence, the baptismal community is under discipline."

"That's the empire's way of thinking: no free lunch for anyone; we made ours the old-fashioned way - we inherited it."

Israelites wanted to return to Egypt because "Totalism has a huge grip on our imaginations."

"The script of the dominant empire is 'make more bricks, make more bricks.' But you can never make enough bricks."

... and much, much more!

After his two lectures, Brueggemann took questions. And he hung around to chat with conference-goers. One of the things I appreciated about the conference was the dialogic approach, which fits nicely with Brueggemann's way of reading scripture.

We need less certainty in scripture reading, less authoritarian interpretation from preachers, less flattening of scripture to ignore divergent voices.

I recommend Brueggemann's books. I've not read them all, but I can't imagine him writing a bad one. I look forward to reading more of his books - both old ones I haven't gotten to yet and new ones on which he's working. He pushes me to be a better reader, writer, and Christian. 

Me with Brueggemann and my friend Beau Underwood.