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The Prophetic Imagination
  • Walter Brueggemann

The Prophetic Imagination

The people we later recognize as prophets, says Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, are also poets. They reframe what is at stake in chaotic times. Hear a very special voice in conversation to address our changing lives and the deepest meaning of hope this season.
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  • Walter Brueggemann

    Walter Brueggemann

    is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. His books include The Prophetic Imagination.


December 19, 2013

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it's deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you're going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame. Which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power.

[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Walter Brueggemann is a distinctive and very special voice, a kind of rock star in his universe of knowledge. He is one of the world’s great Christian teachers about the prophets who both anchor the Hebrew Bible and have transcended it in many places across history. His name has been synonymous with the phrase "prophetic imagination" for three decades of preachers and teachers.I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.

I spoke with Walter Brueggemann in 2011. I was thrilled to meet this man, whose writings I have admired up close. He’s published dozens of books of theology, sermons and prayers over the past four decades.

But 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, quick to laugh, passionately challenging, and fiercely hopeful. In his classic 1978 book, The Prophetic Imagination, he described prophets of every age as poetic. The disarming use of language is a passion for Walter Brueggemann – key to the power prophets can have to translate between the world as it is and the world as it might be. And as I delved into his early life, I found a kind of parallel to this in the story of his own pastor father’s struggle to move his early 20th-century congregation in Missouri towards English.

MS. TIPPETT: I read somewhere that you remembered the conflict when your father urged his congregation to abandon German?


MS. TIPPETT: So it was a German-speaking congregation?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, that crisis really came in the Second World War when you didn't want to speak German anymore, but my father …

MS. TIPPETT: OK. That wasn't a theological decision.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: But it's like every immigrant community. The older people really thought that true theological talk could only happen in your mother tongue. My father then preached once a month in German into the 1950s because the old people needed to hear those sounds. And his insistence was, if you don't move away from that, you will, like every immigrant community, lose the next generation.

MS. TIPPETT: This may be a stretch, but when I read that story, it made me wonder if that had anything to do with your later concern about, you know, the particularities of language, of the biblical text, the preaching voice, the church in the world. Did all of that inform you?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: I think I never thought of it that way, but I'm sure it does — how one moves from language to language. And I really think that Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, in whose tradition I stand, one of the things that made them great is that they could move back and forth between those languages and between those cultures. So I think that particularity has been very important to me, right, yep.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So your book The Prophetic Imagination continues to be such an important book.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: I think it's probably my fall-back position and sometimes I look at it now and I think either, gee, I already saw that then or I think, wow, I haven't moved at all (laughter).

MS. TIPPETT: Well, right. I mean, there is a sense in which everything you've done since then builds on that and flows from it.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, it does.

MS. TIPPETT: I guess I'm still kind of curious. You know, how did you get captured by that, the prophetic imagination, in particular in this text?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, my teacher in my doctoral work was James Muilenburg and Jeremiah was his thing. He's the one that really taught me to pay attention to the nuance of the language. You know, if you just keep looking at these same texts every day of your life year after year, you either give up on it or you get taken in by it. The force of their language is just kind of inexhaustible. So I would always tell my students as we were studying the prophets that this stuff sounds like it was written yesterday because the contemporaneity of it is so immediate.

MS. TIPPETT: And that was something that captured you about the prophets right away.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: It did indeed, yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, as you know, most people don't have theological education. Most Christians don't have theological educations. Most Christians don't even necessarily have really basic tools for reading those texts in a powerful and nuanced way. So if I ask you kind of the introductory question, I ask you to be a teacher, who were the prophets? What were they about and what's particular about that piece of the Bible?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, I think they were — the two things that are important, it seems to me, on the one hand, they were rooted in the covenantal traditions of whatever it was from Moses and Sinai and all of that. The other thing is that they are completely uncredentialed and without pedigree, so they just rise up in the landscape. The way I put it now is that they imagined their contemporary world differently according to that old tradition. So it's tradition and imagination.

There's no way to explain that, so we explain it by the work of the spirit, but I don't think you have to say that. I just think they are moved the way every good poet is moved to have to describe the world differently according to the gifts of their insight. And, of course, in their own time and every time since, the people that control the power structure do not know what to make of them, so they characteristically try to silence them. What power people always discover is that you cannot finally silence poets. They just keep coming at you in threatening and transformative ways.

MS. TIPPETT: So you have your Bible with you. I mean, if I asked you just to read what for you is a — I mean, I want to also step back and say there are a number of prophets, right? And they have very different characteristics, voices, themes. They were speaking to different times in the history of the Israelites, so there's not one prophet or one prophetic voice. But if I just ask you to choose kind of a quintessential passage, maybe Jeremiah, maybe Isaiah, or maybe just one that has remained especially meaningful to you over the years and just kind of …

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, since the prophets characteristically revolve around judgment and hope, I'll do two passages, one of each of them. The judgment passage that I'll read is in Jeremiah 4. It goes like this: "I looked" — and you don't know who I is — "I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid waste before the anger, before His fierce anger."

Well, you get the "I looked," "I looked," "I looked," and what that text really is is Creation in reversal, so you go from heaven and earth to mountains, to birds, to humans, and he's describing it all being taken away at one time. When I hear that kind of poetry, I get chill bumps because it seems to me so contemporary that I think that's how very many people are now experiencing the world. It is as though the ordered world is being taken away from us and it's just so powerfully exquisite.

[Music: "Guitar II" by The Kallikak Family]

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: The other text I'll read is Isaiah 43. It's a very much-used passage. "Do not remember the former things nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" And apparently, what he's telling his people is just forget about the Exodus, forget about all the ancient miracles, and pay attention to the new miracles of rebirth and new creation that God is enacting before your very eyes. I often wonder when I read that, what was it like the day the poet got those words and what did it feel like and how did he share that? Of course, we don't know any of that, so it just keeps ringing in our ears.

MS. TIPPETT: You and I were together this morning at a gathering of preachers. I think that both of those themes that you named, you know, what feels like chaos. But then the hope that — and I think even an insistence that this must somehow give rise to new forms. The fact that we don't know how the world is going to be structured differently — you know, what will survive that we recognize — makes it still stressful even if it's hopeful.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right. But the amazing contemporaneity of this material is that the issues are the same, that the world we have trusted in is vanishing before our eyes and the world that is coming at us feels like a threat to us and we can't quite see the shape of it. I think that is kind of where the church and the preachers of the church have to live, and people don't much want to hear either one of those words, that the world is vanishing or that a new world is coming to us, which is why this kind of poetry always leaves us uneasy, I think.

MS. TIPPETT: But I think that you also think that that unease is a holy thing, or can be a holy thing, that, in fact, the Bible calls the faithful not to be too settled and too comfortable.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: I think that's exactly right.

MS. TIPPETT: That's counter-cultural, though.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: It is counter-cultural because our consumer culture wants somehow to narcoticize us so that we just settle in on things. I think Kafka maybe said that a poet or a novelist is like a pick ax that attacks the way we've got things arranged, and I think these poems are like pick axes that are not welcome among us, but we're going to miss out on the reality of our life if we are narcoticized both about the loss and about the newness.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, here's some words from The Prophetic Imagination, your book set in 1978. They're very poetic too. Following on what you just said: "Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now."

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, I'm glad I said that. [laughter]

[Music: "Ink Blot: The Art of Peace" by Joan Jeanrenaud]

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with Walter Brueggemann. He's one of the greatest living interpreters of the prophetic tradition — the meaning of being a prophet from the Bible to our age.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you're naming something when you call the prophets poets. You're naming qualities of this text, this Bible that people think they know so well, but in fact and partly because of the way these things were translated and transmitted, I don't think I grew up realizing how much of the Bible is poetry. The reason that also matters, and that's true of the Hebrew Bible in particular, and also this realization which is very simple but not brought home very often is that this was the text of Jesus. This was his Scripture.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right. That's right. He obviously knew it so well. But even in the more liberal theological tradition that I was raised, we only talked about the prophets as moral teachers and there was no attention to the artistic, aesthetic quality of how they did that. But it is the only way in which you can think outside of the box. Otherwise, even liberal passion for justice just becomes another ideology, and it does not have transformative power. That's what's extraordinary about the poetry, that it's so elusive that it refuses to be reduced to a formula. I think that's a great temptation among liberals who care about justice is to reduce it to a formula and then …

MS. TIPPETT: … to create another ism.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right. And then the poetry comes and breaks that open again.

MS. TIPPETT: That's really interesting.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Yeah, yeah, right.

MS. TIPPETT: That's that power of language and forms of language.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, that's right, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, one thing I thought might be interesting is to walk through some of the words that are there in your writing that come from these prophetic texts that are not words that are really part of a modern vocabulary. You know, one of them is lamentations. Tell me about lamentations.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, lamentation is a big piece of my research and my passion. The Book of Lamentations is a collection of poems that grieve the loss of Jerusalem that's been destroyed. But the Book of Psalms, at least one third of the Book of Psalms, are songs or prayers of sadness and loss and grief and upset, so that very much the Old Testament experience of faith is having stuff taken away from us. What's so interesting is that, in the institutional church with the lectionary and the liturgies, the whole business of lamentations has been screened out because I think in …

MS. TIPPETT: Because we don't know what to do with those depressing passages (laughter).

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Yeah, and we don't want to. My way of teaching that is to say that the destruction of Jerusalem is the Old Testament equivalent to 9/11. That's their 9/11.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I just remembered that in the days after 9/11, I interviewed a bunch of people, including — I can't even remember who this was, but some pastor, theologian, biblical scholar, who read that first line of Lamentations, "How lonely sits the city."

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Yeah. Yeah. It just fit so well and because we have neglected the lament pieces, we are ill-equipped for the loss that we are facing in our society. So we keep pretending and denying that that's not happening to us.

MS. TIPPETT: A word you've used a lot recently, maybe you always used it, I think it echoes in what you wrote, but it's "disruptive."

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, that's more recent in my very limited vocabulary.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me about that evolution. Tell me about that word. Again, I don't think that's a word we associate in American culture with religion or the Bible or churches.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Yeah, well, I think we think in terms of systems and continuities and predictability and schemes and plans. I think the Bible is to some great extent focused on God's capacity to break those schemes open and to violate those formulae. When they are positive disruptions, the Bible calls them miracles. We tend not to use that word when they are negative, but what it means is that the reality of our life and the reality of God are not contained in most of our explanatory schemes.

And whether one wants to explain that in terms of God or not, it is nonetheless the truth of our life that our lives are arenas for all kinds of disruptions because it doesn't work out the way we planned. I think our recent economic collapse is a huge disruption for many people who had their retirement mapped out or whatever like that, and it isn't going to be like that. What the Bible pretty consistently does is to refer all of those disruptions to the hidden power of God.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I heard you speak very poignantly this morning to preachers about the fact that there are things that can't be said from the pulpit. Sometimes it feels like they should be said. You said there are silences that it's hard to break. Following on the way we're talking about, this is hard for preachers, religious leaders, to adopt this prophetic voice or draw on these prophetic themes. You know, I think even if you and I talk about this, it's kind of a difficult conversation to have in this culture, right?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: It's very difficult, and I think the difficulty is that all of us, liberals and conservatives, all of us are basically contained in the ideology of consumer capitalism. We want that to be our universe of meaning. And when you get a poetic articulation that moves outside of that, it's just too anxiety-producing for most of us, so we try to stop that kind of talk. In a local church, obviously people have a lot of leverage for being able to stop that kind of talk.

MS. TIPPETT: So what is it hard for preachers to talk about here?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, I think at the broadest level, it is hard to talk about the fact — I think it's a fact — that our society has chosen a path of death in which we have reduced everything to a commodity. We believe that there are technical solutions to everything, so it doesn't matter whether you talk about the over-reliance on technology, the mad pursuit of commodity goods, our passion for violence now expressed as our war policies. All of those are interrelated to each other and none of us, very few of us, really want to have that exposed as an inadequate and dehumanizing way to live. I think, if one is grounded in the truth of the gospel as a Christian, that's what we have to talk about. So preachers are really put in a very difficult fix of having been entrusted to talk about that stuff.

MS. TIPPETT: And they also belong to this culture.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right.

MS. TIPPETT: And we get that these characteristics are part of our birthright.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, they are. And preachers — we — are as deeply implicated in it as anyone else. That's exactly right, yeah.

[Music: "Ending Title: The Soul in Depression" by Steve Heitzeg]

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think that this larger point that you've been making about the aesthetic literary poetic sensibility of the prophetic tradition, that the very language is different and transformative, that it takes that voice out of political boxes because I'm really aware that a lot of words that religious people treasure and that are core, I mean, the word justice, the word peace. These words themselves are tarnished in our culture.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right.

MS. TIPPETT: They have all kinds of political association and baggage, right?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, they're liberal or they're conservative or they belong to some agenda.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, which is why a poetic preacher always has to try to find another way to say it. I've recently been thinking more and more that it's so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an issue. They don't discuss abortion, Panama Canal or anything like that. And I think what they're doing is they're going underneath the issues that preoccupy people to the more foundational assumptions that can only be got at in elusive language. Very much the institutional church has been preoccupied with issues, particularly …

MS. TIPPETT: … which automatically puts you on one side of an issue or on the other side of an issue.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's correct. And when we do that, we are robbed of transformative power because then it's ideology versus ideology that does not produce very good outcomes for anyone.

MS. TIPPETT: Can you think of an example where you've seen a religious leader or a community kind of subvert that? I mean, get outside that issue's based?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, I think Martin Luther King did sometimes. You know, I think at his best he was a biblical poet. If you just think of "I Have a dream," it just kind of soared away. He wasn't really talking about enacting a civil rights bill, except that he was, but it was language that was out beyond the chorals that we do. I think that happens from time to time like that.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you make the connection — I really enjoyed reading some of your sermons. You have a new book, a new collection of sermons? I have the galleys of that.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Oh, do you? I don't.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and I loved that book. I didn't correct it for you. But this, I think, was from one of your sermons. You were talking about the need for a city to care about injustice or poverty and despair is not liberalism or socialism or welfare or radicalism. I mean, after liberals and conservatives share those same biblical texts, right?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right.

MS. TIPPETT: But you said it is simply genuine humanness authorized by the god of the Bible, even circling back to the connection, then kind of reframes, well, what's at stake here.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: And I think very much it's so hard to do, but the task is reframing so that we can re-experience the social realities that are right in front of us from a different angle.

[Music: "Ending Title: The Soul in Depression" by Steve Heitzeg]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Walter Brueggemann through our website, There you can also watch a video of my conversation with him, one of our most popular, watched by thousands of online viewers.

I asked Walter Brueggemann to read me a favorite biblical passage, and here’s part of what he chose.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Part of Psalm 146. ‘The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous, the Lord watches over the stranger, He upholds the orphan of the widow.’ And then he adds this: ‘But the way of the wicked He will bring to ruin.’ (laughs) The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations, praise the Lord.’

MS. TIPPETT: Hear Walter Brueggemann’s intriguing explanation for his love of this psalm at Coming up, his take on the meaning of mercy; also, who are the prophets among us now; and how the words we use shape who God is for us.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[Music: "Ending Title: The Soul in Depression" by Steve Heitzeg]

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: "The Prophetic Imagination of Walter Brueggemann." He is one of the world's greatest living teachers about the prophets who both anchor the Hebrew Bible and have transcended it in many places across history — a figure like Isaiah, whose words also echo in churches at Christmastime. Sitting with Walter Brueggemann is to experience something of the fearless truth-telling and the fierce hope of this tradition he knows so well. And as we've been hearing, he brings the idea of "prophetic imagination" into our own complex and chaotic times.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, something else that comes up in my mind, you were introduced as someone who's strident, proudly strident, and the prophets were strident, right? They were uncomfortable?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right.

MS. TIPPETT: I think also — I've thought about this a lot because I've done a lot of conversations across the years about some historic figures. I mean, people who changed the world usually were not — they often started in their 20s and, before everyone realized they'd changed the world, they drove everyone around them crazy, right?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, that's right.

MS. TIPPETT: And that's what the prophets do in the Bible. That's the model. Then right now at this moment in time in our culture, we have this world which feels like it's been poisoned by giving so much attention to strident voices, only strident voices on every side of any issue. So do you struggle to champion the prophetic voice, or how do you define that over against righteous indignation — right — or stridency that really is toxic? Because it may not look so different, you know what I'm saying?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right. You know, I wouldn't choose to use the word strident for myself, but is deliberate on my part when I get to talk to clergy that I do a lot of, to do what I do as boldly as I can to try to model and energize preachers to be bold about what they do. But I think it is the courage that comes from the conviction that you've been entrusted with something important. If you do it that way rather than it being a self-announcement, the accent is on the message and not the messenger. It doesn't need to be strident in an alienating kind of way.

MS. TIPPETT: So that's one way to make a distinction.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right. What one would wish is that it is emancipatory for people who are hearing you rather than affrontive, but it is a very delicate line and I no doubt cross over that sometimes.

MS. TIPPETT: Who do you think of — do you think of people who you imagine as prophets among us today?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, King, obviously, Bishop Tutu. I read a biography of him and I had no idea how long he had been courageous before he became Bishop Tutu. [laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And I guess maybe it's in the nature of this that you don't recognize a prophet in their lifetime.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: I think that's right. It's kind of in retrospect. But I think if the prophets of the Old Testament really were uncredentialed people without pedigrees, then we ought not to expect people to arise primarily in the institutional church.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, or even maybe be famous people.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's correct, yeah. I think there are a lot of people who are not broadly famous who, in their own local circumstance, do transformative things.

MS. TIPPETT: Are those good life-giving disruptive forces.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's exactly right. [laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: You said somewhere in another interview — I'm always a little bit careful about quoting other interviews because they don't always get written down correctly. But I wanted to ask you about this because it's very intriguing, about some of these sexual issues that are so galvanizing and so polarizing in our time in churches and outside them. You said that you really don't think that's about particularities of guilt or sin, but about a sense of impending chaos.


MS. TIPPETT: Which kind of goes back to that first prophetic text you read.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: So are you saying that people have a sense of impending chaos and for some reason, maybe because these things are so intimate, this is what they latch onto?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's exactly what I think. I've asked myself why in the church does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline. And I've decided for myself that that means most of what we're arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is rather that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. I think what has happened is that we've taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing and we've dumped it all on that issue.

So I have concluded that it's almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians anymore because that's not what the argument's about. It is an amorphous anxiety that we are in freefall as a society, and I think we kind of are in freefall as a society, but I don't think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. You know, another one of those words that recurs a lot in your writing that comes also from the text is another word that we don't have in our culture very often. It's mercy. We talk about forgiveness, we talk about reconciliation. Mercy to me is something different, something bigger. Tell me about that.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: You may know that the Hebrew word for — Phyllis Trible has taught us that the Hebrew word for mercy is the word for womb with different vowel points. So mercy, she's suggested, is womb-like mother love. And it is the capacity of a mother to totally give one's self over to the need and reality and identity of the child. And mutatis mutandis then, mercy is the capacity to give one's self away for the sake of the neighborhood.

Now none of us do that completely, but it makes a difference if the quality of social transactions have to do with the willingness to give one's self away for the sake of the other rather than the need to always be drawing all of the resources to myself for my own well-being. So it is this kind of generous connectedness to others and then I think our task is to see how that translates into policy. I think that a community or a society finally cannot live without the quality of mercy. The problem for us is what will initiate that? What will break the pattern of self-preoccupation enough to notice that the others are out there and that we are attached to them?

[Music:"The Bridge of Sighs: The Soul in Depression" by The Winston Jazz Routine]

MS. TIPPETT: I think in Arabic that word merciful is also connected to womb.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, it wouldn't surprise me.

MS. TIPPETT: It would be the same, right. You know what? It takes me back to a conversation I had with a clinical psychologist who's studying forgiveness and revenge and how forgiveness is made more possible. I mean, studying what happens in the brain, right? Biologically, we become able to care in larger — wider and wider circles when we see other's well-being as linked to our own. Of course, the mother, the womb and the maternal love is an ultimate expression of that.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, because the whole womb process is a terrible inconvenience (laughter), but it's an inconvenience …

MS. TIPPETT: I know that better than you do. [laughter]

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: I bet you do. [laughter] But it's an inconvenience that finally is defining for our life as the mother lives into.

MS. TIPPETT: I'd love to talk about your image of God, and I want you to talk about that more personally. But I thought I might start, you know, for example, in one of your sermons, you are talking about some poetry, Isaiah, and you talk about that it offers five images for God. This is just one — [laughter] one passage in Isaiah: "A demolition squad, a safe place for poor people who have no other safe place, the giver of the biggest dinner party you ever heard of, the powerful sea monster he will swallow up death forever, a gentle nursemaid who will wipe away every tear from all faces." How are normal people, not biblical scholars, how are they to make sense of a text like that? Of a God — who God is?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, they're going to make sense of it if they have good preachers and teachers to help them pause long enough to take in the imagery. But you see, what the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it's deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you're going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame.

Otherwise, you're just going to be left with these dead formulation, which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening so more metaphors gives more access to God and one can work one metaphor awhile, but you can't treat that as though that's the last word. You got to move and have another and another. That's what I think. It's just amazing. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, there are just endless metaphors.

MS. TIPPETT: It is — dwelling with the images, again, is very different from memorizing Bible verses. And it's even different from reading the Bible.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right, that's right. I happen to think memorizing Bible verses is a good thing because then you have the text available that can yield this stuff. Because what a metaphor or image does is to invite you to keep walking around it and looking at it another way and noticing something else. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

[Music: "Keymaster" by Janus]

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: "The Prophetic Imagination of Walter Brueggemann."

MS. TIPPETT: So if I asked you this way in terms of your image of God, you know, are there metaphors that have spoken to you across time or that speak to you now that didn't before? Are there metaphors that have come to you in your life as a human being and in your study as a scholar and your work as a preacher to be more and more meaningful?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, I think they basically arise out of my continuing to look at the text and it depends on what text I'm looking at. Obviously, that is then related to what's going on in my life that day. For example, if I take the phrase — and I can't even remember where it is — "Let me be the apple of your eye." That's a very strange phrase, but what that pictures is a God who's a big eye that looks at you caringly and treasuring you. So what I imagine from that, it's like being a little kid that's lost in a department store and you finally go around the corner and there's your mother looking at you and you're safe again. So I want to have God look at me that way.

Now I don't want to construct the whole theology out of that phrase, but that's enough for that day and I'll find — I'll be given another phrase another day like that. So that's kind of how my mind works. It doesn't yield a doctrinal package; it just yields a bunch of fragments that are not easily fit together. But the reason that works for me is that I am aware that I as a person without entity, I am essentially a collection of fragments that do not fit very well together, so that's OK.

MS. TIPPETT: I did want to read this to you. This was from a sermon. I just want to read it because I thought it was beautiful. You wrote that "God is the map whereby we locate the setting of our life, that God is the water in which we launch our life raft, that God is the real thing from which and toward which we receive our being and identify ourselves. It follows that the kind of God at work in your life will determine the shape and quality and risk at the center of your existence. It matters who God is."

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: I'm glad I said that. [laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: But, you know, again, even just following on all of this, because of the very complex and, as you say, poetic way in which God finds expression in the text, there's a way in which God gets to evolve with us — right — through life, right?

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Right, yep, that's right. So God brought to speech is a very supple reality in which we exercise great freedom in whom God is now permitted to be among us. I learned that when my son was about seven. At our table prayers before I caught on to the gender problem of language, I always addressed God as Father. That night, I thought I would be Jewish and I addressed God as King of the Universe. I remember my son had his head bowed and he came up with eyes as big as saucers because he had never heard God said that way.

Well, in retrospect, it wasn't much of a move from Father to King, but you can make more moves the same way so that every time you find another way of saying it, the reality of God is opened very differently and that's what they did. Of course, Jesus' parables then worked that very much the same way.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Very interesting. I would love for you just to read a little bit more a psalm that you love right now.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: OK. The Book of Psalms ends with these sort of outrageous doxologies, but this is "Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire, hail, snow, frost, stirring wind filling his command, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds, kings of the earth, princes and all rulers, young men and women, all old and young together."

It's an image of all creatures joining in doxology. And I love that, to think that sea monsters — I don't know how sea monsters howl or how they express their faith, but it's an early form of [sings] all creatures of our God and King. The whole world is coming in doxology and I just think it's so wonderful.

I just read a book recently. I don't know whether it's right, but it says that Socrates said that all true speech ends in doxology to God. I hope he said that. If he didn't, he should've [laughter].

[Music: "All Creatures of Our God and King" by Christopher Parkening]

MS. TIPPETT: Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. His books include The Prophetic Imagination and Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann.

To listen again or share this show with Walter Brueggemann, go to our website And you can follow everything we do through our weekly email newsletter. Click the newsletter link on any page at to subscribe.

[Music: "Suite En Sol Majeur, BWV 816 Gigue and King" by Christophe Rousset]

MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, and Mikel Elcessor.


[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: We credit the internet with many things. But not, usually, with seeding our sense of mystery. For this season, here’s one of the most intriguing ideas ever offered to me, by Phyllis Tickle — over a decade ago — at the turn of this century.

PHYLLIS TICKLE: We’ve got a generation now of kids who never knew what it was not to move back and forth you know, like the children going through the back of the wardrobe in the closet to go in...

MS. TIPPETT: Narnia.

MS. TICKLE: Narnia. Exactly. And so they therefore are terribly comfortable in the spiritual world. They don’t have to talk about objective things to know that things are there. They don’t have to talk about location and spots on the compass to know that space is there. And so we’ve got a whole generation of spiritual travelers. And the trick is going to be to fashion the books or the leaders or the writers who can be cartographers if you will of that world.

MS. TIPPETT: Phyllis Tickle. Hear more at