“The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act.” These words are written in some of the very first pages of Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. If one year of seminary has done anything for me, it has made me conclude that the American way of life, our focus on consumerism, materialism, and greed, is wrong.
Bruggemann talks in detail about what he calls “The Royal Consciousness,” going in detail first of all about the alternative community that Moses portrayed, breaking away from Egyptian consciousness, and then the days of Solomon. The reign of Solomon was the embodiment of the royal consciousness because it contained sexual immorality, a large bureaucratic government, an army that no longer acted on authentic national interest, a fascination with wisdom (which Bruggemann argues was an effort to rationalize reality), and conscripted labor. Although the Solomic empire was one of affluence, it also led to an oppressive social policy and static religion. These three things, according to Bruggemann, embody the royal consciousness. No longer did Solomon stand in the Mosaic tradition of equality, but affluence gained the upper hand. Justice was replaced with oppression. When criticism came, he silenced it through prohibition or imperviousness.
So what is the prophetic imagination? Bruggemann says that it is the task of prophetic imagination “to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord.” The prophet offers symbols that confront the numbness. The prophet brings to the surface those fears which we no longer even admit that we have. The prophet speaks metaphorically about the death we feel around us with anger and passion. Bruggemann says, “The riddle and insight of biblical faith is the awareness that only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings.”
As I read this book, I was struck at how the comparisons between the Solomic empire and America today. I commented to my professor that the books he assigned to read were “really screwing my world up.” Dr. Hawk smiled in that fantastic smile he has and his eyes lit up and he said, “Heaven forbid you should be forced to think in seminary.”
One of the more interesting things about going to an evangelical seminary that has seventy different denominations represented is the frequency you will run into someone who disagrees with you. This has been the case this year at the Brethren-sponsored school that I attend. Although the school is sponsored by Brethren Church, it also has a large United Methodist influence. Being the “questioning Calvinist” that I am, I’ve had some interesting conversations. The funny thing is though that I now count among some of my very best friends a member of the PCUSA, several Anglicans (broken off from the Episcopal Diocese), several United Methodists, a Quaker, and at least one American Baptist. There are others who I do not consider my friends, in particular, one man who likes to spout his borderline prosperity theology and even had the guts to try and use this book to support it. (You ever met one of those guys that when he talks, he is so wrong, you do not know even where to start?) With this consortium of people sitting in our Old Testament class the last day of class, we discussed this book. While others were tip-toeing around the tulips, and my very wrong colleague spewing venomous thoughts, I finally had to say something. Below is a paraphrase:
“As I read this book, I found it hard not to compare the culture of Solomon to American culture. The American church has slid so far downhill that it has embraced the philosophies of the culture and replaced the gospel with marketing strategies and feel-good theology and the [I raised my voice a bit here] the absolute heresy of prosperity theology. We want to sit back in our comfortable chairs and watch life get better while out brothers and sisters in other countries are being persecuted and discovering what it really means to be Christ-followers. I find it hard not to believe that very soon, the American church will soon fall under persecution.”
There were audible gasps. And then there was silence. Until my professor finally broke up the silence and said, “Well on that note…” At that point, a nervous laughter escaped from the class. “…we’ll dismiss the class.” Suddenly, and only for a moment, I was a celebrity. I was getting pats on the back and handshakes. People were saying, “I have been thinking that and wanted to say it all year.” I gingerly approached Dr. Hawk who greeted me with a smile. “I didn’t ruffle too many feathers, did I?” I asked him.
“It’s ok. I was trying to get someone to speak up and contribute to the conversation and you did and you said exactly what I was thinking.”
After class, I was a little dismayed. I did not consider myself a prophet at that moment, but I thought of Jeremiah and his weeping. I did not want pats on the back or handshakes. I wanted someone to say it before I had to. I wanted to turn around and look at all my friends and scream at them, “Why can’t you see this? You are all good students of God’s Word and good student theologians. Why can’t you see this?” I admit, I was even a bit angry. For someone to congratulate me that I had announced that I thought that this country would fall under judgment some day just seemed to not leave me. I really did hurt for my country and I still do.
This is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to give concluding thoughts and wrap up this nice little story in a neat package and serve it to you. The problem is that I can’t. I do not what to say or what to write that will make you or me feel as sense of conclusion, nor do I think that you should. I will say that I am finally learning what it means to be called to ministry and it is a burden that I would not wish on anyone.