Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001)
The Old Testament has become so much more fascinating for me in recent years. And not the parts of the Old Testament little boys and girls learn in Sunday School growing up about arks and whales and slaying giants. Thanks in part to a spectacular Old Testament professor at seminary (Dr. Delamarter) as well as some books and articles I’ve read in recent years, I’ve discovered a lot of depth in the OT prophetic writings.
Whereas before I would often skim over these sections, either bored by the ranting and negativity, or puzzled by what seemed like an angry God, or just confused by what to do with these “future-predictors,” I have more recently found a great deal of inspiration in these writings.
Scholars like Brueggemann have helped make a lot more sense out of what it was the prophets were trying to do and have made those often ignored sections of the Old Testament seem more relevant than ever to life today. And they've helped me synthesize a bit better what at times had seemed like two different Gods in the Old and New Testaments, or maybe a God who had a sort of mid-life crisis and decided to, evidenced in Jesus, change his whole attitude toward humans.
I’ve become dissatisfied with the dichotomy of Old Testament angry God equals versus New Testament loving God. I see in the Old Testament a very inspiring vision of God’s relationship with and hopes for God’s people. I see God’s desire to bring justice. Not justice in the sense of an eagerness to punish “evildoers” or those who oppose “God’s people” but justice in the sense of setting right economic imbalances, dethroning oppressive regimes, and creating a world free of suffering and conflict...a God committed to setting things right.
I see God’s eagerness for a community that is a light to others. Not a community that is legalistic in a way where people feel bound, un-free, like life is about constant restraint, but a community with rules and guidelines set up for the good and health of the whole community, guidelines that will lead to full life, healthy relationships, and will enable that community to be a source of hope and love to the world in all its tragedy and injustice.
And I see a God who, because of such devotion to this community, does not simply tell these people, “well, it’s alright that you’re not perfect, because I love you.” I hear something much more like “you people need to get it together because your actions are such a far cry from what you could be, from what I hope for you, and you are destroying yourselves by the choices you are making…the world needs you to be better.” Yes, wrath…but wrath not as an end, but as a means of energizing people toward right living and obedience to God.
I think in the past I’ve felt a tendency to be a bit about shy about the God seen in the Old Testament (am I alone?), like I need to apologize for God. But I’ve come to see the continuity between the God of Israel and the God of the Church, even discovering more deeply how truly prophetic Jesus was.
For as tender and compassionate as Jesus was, Jesus had the fire of a prophet, willing to name sin and evil for what it is…but always out of a desire to see people become more self-aware, repentant, and eager to the live the kind of life that can truly be called good, fulfilling, compassionate, and a life that contributes to the greater community rather than harms it.
Brueggemann continues this conversation about the nature of God and the purpose of prophecy in the Old Testament. He observes that:
- We don’t necessarily enjoy criticism, nor do we really enjoy “energizing,” for “that would demand something of us” (4). I think the scary thing about listening to the prophets is that one is likely to conclude that God expects a lot out of people. And that means effort on our part, a willingness to consider how our habits, commitments, preferences, whatever, might actually—though they might not seem evil—be doing harm to others or ourselves. Being criticized or “energized” means I might have to change. And that’s often not very fun, or pain-free.
- Hope is essential, even if hope seems a little silly and unproductive at times in light of the reality before us: “Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we’ve all made commitments is now called into question.” (65) And later, “The hope that must be spoken is hope rooted in the assurance that God does not quit even when the evidence warrants his quitting.” (67). We hope that things can and will be better, and we base this hope in part on the fact that we believe God has not abandoned us, even if life at times might lead us to think so.
- Jesus’ compassion is not just about emotions: “The compassion of Jesus is to be understand not just as an emotional reaction but a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context. Empires live by numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact. Jesus penetrates the numbness by his compassion and with his compassion takes the first step by making visible the odd abnormality that had become business as usual.” (88) This seems relevant to a variety of “empires” over the two millennia since Jesus’ ministry. I can be "numb" at times, maybe unaware of it because I don't feel guilty of directly murdering anyone or stealing anyone’s wallet. I nervously write this as the thought of becoming more awake and less numb to the evil around me feels demanding and confusing—what can I actually do about it? What can we do about it?