Walter Brueggemann is a very special voice. He is one of those figures — another being Jaroslav Pelikan — who is not a household name but is revered in his universe of knowledge and accomplishment. He’s 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. That’s my explanation for why the live video stream of our conversation is one of On Being’s most-watched online interviews.

The Prophetic Imagination by Walter BrueggemannI too was thrilled to meet this man whose writings I have admired up close; he more than fulfills the promise of those writings. Walter Brueggemann is not merely an expert. He 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.

He helps me understand that part of a prophet’s 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.

“I have a dream” is the line we all remember from Martin Luther King Jr., whom Walter Brueggemann identifies as a prophet of living memory. King wasn’t talking about “enacting a civil rights bill,” Brueggemann says, “except that he was.” He points out that 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. Prophets tend to emerge in moments of chaos and change, and this is surely a description of our age as of the 1960s or of the era of the biblical fall of Jerusalem. Walter Brueggemann helps us reclaim some important language for being people of change and chaos: the healing necessity of “lamentations,” the difference between being bold and being strident, the hard and life-giving work of letting go of comfort for the sake of what is important. That work, he says to Christian preachers and teachers, has to happen in the pulpit as in life.

Yet, even as he challenges, Walter Brueggemann calls upon mercy, another word he recovers in all its usefulness and beauty. Indeed, he shows how the two are meaningfully fused. He reminds us 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 with the well-being of another. And it comes with an extreme amount of discomfort.

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 this point 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; Walter Brueggemann shows us that while this is difficult and terrifying it is can also be exhilarating and life-giving. I’m very happy to bring Walter Brueggemann’s voice to the air in this season, at this moment in time.

Image of Walter Brueggemann courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press.

Share Your Reflection



Yesterday I read a post in @HuffPostReligion by @ChrisDStedman. He began by saying he is an atheist but his essay was a criticism of "strident" atheist activists. Somewhere around the middle of his essay he said he wanted to promote critical thinking, compassion and a few more "ideal" human characteristics. My tweet to him was, "Promote critical thinking..." without saying you're an atheist and you will contribute to our solution.

As I said in a post here yesterday I listened to your interview with Brueggemann and I am quite sure "Christian" was not mentioned once. You broke the spell today by mentioning "Christian" right after writing "the hard and life-giving work of letting go of comfort for the sake of what is important."

I am an life analyst. I don't know how long I will continue to promote the "ideal reaction to the void" before I conclude it's a waste of time and money. Until I quit I I will promote it here as long as I am tolerated. In the spirit of the season and your interview with Brueggemann I offer this Christmas wish:

May God bring learning up to speed
So tolerance we do not need.

Merry Christmas.

Krista, if we follow WB in this interview and replace Spirit with "imagination" and "culture" and reduce the prophets to poets with a therapeutic concern for remaking our lives together have we taken God and God's living (not written) voice out of the picture? Or is God now some abstract process theological notion of loving creativity? How does this method differ from a kind of secular functionalist anthropological take? thanks, d.

As always, Krista Tippett's style and nudging are wonderful for the interviews.  In response to her invitation to respond to something in what Mr. Brueggeman offered, I think right away of his characterization of the prophets as uncredentialed and from the "common folk".  It
 reinforces my desire and effort to honor all of those with whom I come in contact in my work in public schools.
Of course, the young will always offer the truth if we can listen; otherwise, remembering that great and important thought/inspiration can come from almost anyone comes out as well.

Thank you for sharing wonderful interview. As a lesbian who attended seminary life has never been very "settled" and faith has been my eternal hope in the now. Blessing to you all.

I always appreciate your wonderful conversations with inspiring people.  In this interview I particularly admired Mr. Bruggeman's sharing that he appreciates the phrases and thought fragments that come out of him even if they're not part of a complete theological narrative. Like him, many of us are made up of parts that don't easily fit together but accepting the gifts from those parts is a good approach to take. Thank you.

This has been a few years back, I see, but I have just listened to this on youtube now and found it very interesting. I have read WB's book Journey for the Common Good as well. I am responding to the prior reflections shared below. I agree with the lady who reminds me that we can learn something from everybody. If that is a truth, it has certainly got to be true of WB. I don't want to categorize him, I want to feel supported and enriched by his insights. When he calls the prophets poets, I think he is encouraging us to appreciate and feel empowered by to the power and inspirational force of the very langugage that they use. It's not just their lives that model for us, or just their message,or just their responses to their unique situations, it is even the very choices of the words they use and the artist power of their literary style. WB does not reduce them to ONLY poets. Beyond everything else that they are, they are also literary artists. In the past I have breezed through Isaiah and Jeremiah, for instance, without really letting the beautiful and multi-layered language inspire me and bring me closer to God. Gratefully, that will not be true in the future.