Brueggemann, Walter. Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
Brueggemann’s Biblical Methodology
One can appreciate the way Brueggemann reads the Bible. For all of Evangelicalism’s rejection of Plato and its (rightful, if not always self-understood) suspicion of Hellenism, Evangelicals are thoroughly Platonic when it comes to thinking about the Biblical text. Evangelicals see the Old Testament as one seamless unity in which all texts[i] have equal applicatory power to the life of the believer. Brueggemann shows how untenable that view is. While sensitive to the fact this is God’s word, these texts reveal a highly dynamic sitz em leben. Not only do many texts of the Old Testament—moral and civil texts at that—not easily apply to today’s life, they didn’t even apply to the life of the “Old Testament” believer in many cases.[ii]
Brueggemann’s thesis is helpfully summarized in the final pages of the book: Jeremiah urged “grief” in order for newness to come out of brokenness, a brokenness caused by idolatry. Ezekiel posited God’s holiness as the only ground of hope, for only God’s holiness remains “undeconstructed.” 2nd Isaiah points the way back from exile with new community, new hope, and both by way of a “new memory” (131-133).[iii]
Brueggemann argues that 587 B.C. is a break in Israel’s prophetic history (2). After the Babylonian exile, the Prophets had Israel’s text—or better her “collective memory”—in a different way. For example, it would not have done any good to preach the covenant promises of Deuteronomy 28-30 to the captive community without radically altering the way they are applied. Therefore, the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—had to draw upon new applications of Israel’s older memories. The older stories still work, but they have to work in a new way.
An Hegelian on Crack?
There are some difficulties with Brueggemann’s project. Brueggemann sets forth the prophet as the critic of the Bourgeois. The prophet calls against the moral and theological compromise in the power circles. That is good and there is no problem with that. It appears, though, that there must always be a prophet who is critiquing a system that is always corrupt and is calling forth a new system which, too, will soon become corrupt.
It is not fair to critique an argument simply based on the implications of how some will apply the argument—and I largely agree with what Brueggemann is saying. However, it would have been interesting to see how he develops the same true insights in a new setting. In other words, it would have been helpful for him to “imagine” a more normative, yet morally just setting in which these prophetic insights could play.
Unlike other academic, Brueggemann writes with a rare passion for the “church” (leave that word undefined for the moment). He rightfully points out the liberal compromise (prostitution) with modernity and the conservative compromise with the status quo. He calls attention to our idols: sexual myopia, technology, and power. Following the early critics of modernity, he sees economics, justice, and sex as interconnected.[iv] Unfortunately, while Brueggemann is interacting with the text at all times, he is rarely doing exegesis. He is giving the reader excellent applications of certain texts, but is not always interpreting the text.
[i] Or depending on one’s perspective in the Theonomy debate, all texts under a certain subset of “the law” (e.g., moral, ceremonial, civil).
[iii] While it remains outside the focus of Brueggemann’s project, N. T. Wright’s “return from exile” theology is a helpful supplement to Brueggemann’s correct insights.
[iv] For a conservative analysis of the above triad, see E. Michael Jones’ works.