THE BLOG
12/22/2011 02:12 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

The Prophetic Imagination of Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is a kind of theological rock star. His name has been synonymous with the phrase "prophetic imagination" for three decades of preachers and Christian teachers. Students in all kinds of seminaries read him. And they are captivated by the man as much as his ideas, though most never experience more than his words on a page. That's my explanation for why our live-streamed video of my conversation was Walter Brueggemann has been the most-watched session we've ever done.

I too was thrilled to meet this man whose writings I'd admired up close, and I found that he more than fulfills the promise of those writings. Walter Brueggemann somehow embodies this tradition of the prophets that he knows as well as anyone living. He is wise and forceful, quick to laugh, passionately challenging and fiercely hopeful. He demonstrates as much as teaches the way the prophets of the ages are disruptive of politics and culture as usual.

And he helps me understand that part of their power is in wielding language poetically rather than stridently. Beginning with the words they choose, they transcend ideological splits that actually inhibit us from seizing the great challenges and problems of our time. So "I have a dream" is the line we all remember from Martin Luther King Jr., a prophet of living memory. The prophetic voice is not issues-based. It accomplishes the harder, more necessary work of reframing the big picture of what is at stake, so that we can take in the reality of our moment in a new way, with a new sense of what might be possible.

Prophets help us connect the dots between the world as it is and the world as it might be.

They also tend to emerge in moments and chaos and change. Walter Brueggemann helps me reclaim some important language for being a person of this historical moment of change and chaos: the healing necessity of "lamentations"; the difference between being bold and being strident; the hard, life-giving work of letting go of comfort for the sake of what is important.

Yet even as he challenges, Brueggemann walks back and forth between challenge and mercy, another word he recovers in all its usefulness and beauty. Indeed, he shows how the two are meaningfully fused. He points out that the Hebrew word (like the Arabic word) for "mercy" is derived from the word for "womb." It is the ultimate image of knowing one's own well-being to be bound up -- existentially, uncomfortably, life-givingly -- with the well-being of another.

How refreshing to experience a voice that is at once deeply disruptive and beautiful and critical and hopeful without any of these qualities clashing. In Walter Brueggemann's prophetic imagination, we experience a new way of being, of living and of faithfulness. He reminds us too -- and I find it essential -- that alongside our pantheon of prophets across time and cultures, there are countless prophets of the everyday in communities everywhere who are not and will never be famous. So many of us long to transcend what he calls "the managed prose" around us; Brueggemann shows that while this is difficult and terrifying it is can also be exhilarating and must be pursued as possible. What a message for this season, at this moment time.