Poetry, Prose and the Prophetic Re-Imagining of Alternative Possibilities
OK... I'm back... My lack of blog output over recent months was partly by design (taking a break) and circumstances (requiring the prioritisation of other things in the real world). However, I'm back on the beat again, and fully intend getting back on the blog.
Those who are fortunate enough to be my friends on facebook or followers (makes me sound like some sort of guru) on twitter (which I still don't really understand), will probably have noticed the unending stream of complete rubbish that I have been reading over the summer. Generally on holiday I go for a blend of trash fiction, usually of the historical or detective-type, some biography and a bit of history with a single theological book thrown in there to allow me to keep my mind from going totally flabby.
Well this summer my theological work-out was Walter Brueggemann's "The Prophetic Imagination" a book which I first read 20 years ago as part of a 3rd year theology degree "Prophecy and Apocalyptic" reading list. At that time it wasn't much help as the issues Brueggemann covers are much bigger than those that could easily be addressed in a 30 minute essay question in an exam. The note on the back cover of this book suggests that Brueggeman writes in a “popular, conversational style” but there are not many conversations I have had that are as profound as the ideas discussed in this book… and indeed I would argue that Brueggemann’s prose has a poetic tone to it, reflecting the nature of the prophetic texts that he wrestles with in this brief but important book.
He originally wrote this over 30 years ago, building his thesis on an academically rigorous, textual criticism approach to scripture, whilst still retaining a practical/pastoral emphasis – indeed this book in itself is a prophetic work, but sadly, as with most prophets, those at the heart of the prevailing culture of the western church have ignored his words.
My excuse for missing what he was saying 20 years ago was that I was so interested in the minutiae of the prophetic texts that I didn't really see the broader landscape they were describing. Nor was I fully aware that the terrain described by the prophets in the years before Christ, still describes the world in which people live today and in which I was being trained to pastor.
He speaks of a dual calling: to criticise and to energise:
- Critiquing the Royal Consciousness which is based upon the politics of power and coercion. and giving voice to the voiceless - grieving for those who are crushed under the wheels of progress and find themselves buried beneath the pyramids of power and
- Creating an Alternative (or Covenant) Consciousness of mutual, sacrificial service, rather than one where the poor and marginalised are made into sacrificial lambs, or even scapegoats, for the benefit of those further up the greasy pole; a new order where the church is freed from the compromises that the exercise of earthly political power involves in any age.
The Contemporary Royal Consciousness takes different forms - western democracy, global capitalism, secular humanism - and the church consistently makes the mistake of either cosy-ing up to the prevailing mindset, acting as a tame chaplain to it, or taking it on on its own ground... standing toe to toe with the current King of the Castle, slugging it out in the public sphere. But to what end? So that the church (in whatever form) will be at the top table, the centre of power? Is that really the way of the Kingdom of God?
Is that not simply a revisiting of the failed models of Solomonic Kingship, or Christendom? Is the more authentic place not for the church to be speaking from the margins, for the marginalised? Yes there are those who manage to hold together, with integrity, their citizenship in God's Kingdom whilst walking the corridors of power in the kingdoms of this world. But they are not in the majority... You don't need to exercise absolute power to know the truth of Lord Acton's dictum that power tends to corrupt... And where we pursue power within the prevailing system, even for good ends, the very pursuit of power can warp our thinking and actions...
This weekend I was reflecting on the nature of God's love with my congregation, and came across the following quote from the unlikely source of guitarist, Jimi Hendrix:
"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace."
The church, all too often has exhibited a love of power, rather than the power of love, leaving the promise of the angels on the birth of Christ unfulfilled.
As a church we need to speak and subsequently act prophetically... But for that to happen we need preachers and pastors who will preach and teach prophetically, shaping the imaginations of their people so that they can see a different set of possibilities to those touted by the powers that be.
- A world which doesn't take the myth of scientific progress and economic growth as a given - but which considers the possibility of resetting the clock in jubilee - or even more radically, with a new heaven and a new earth...
- A world which doesn't buy into the mentality of survival of the fittest, or "devil take the hindmost" - but which articulates the revolutionary idea that the poor, meek and mourning might be blessed.
- A world which doesn't ignore injustice and institutionalise division - but which challenges inequality, injustice and bigotry in whatever form it takes, affirming that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free...
I am not someone who is an ivory tower dreamer. I pride myself on knowing what is happening on the ground, and I am an activist by inclination. But re-reading this book has reminded me once more of my calling - to be a pastor, ordained to word and sacrament... shaping the hearts and minds of others... And to do that prophetically. It may seem pretentious and somewhat unrealistic, but it has made me want to be a pastor and preacher who paints pictures with brighter colours and stronger contrasts, sings songs with more memorable melodies and haunting harmonies and speaks prophetically in parables and poems of a world of possibilities that pure prose can never hope to capture.
To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom...
(ps. I've only just come across Walter Breuggemann's more recent "The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word" - If any fellow preachers would like to do a "bookgroup" read on this I'd be delighted.)