Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination

The Prophetic Imagination
Walter Brueggemann
Fortress Press, 2001. 151 pp.

Imagination in Place
Wendell Berry
Counterpoint Press, 2010. 196 pp.

Recently, I was disappointed by a book I had high expectations of. Now, as someone who willingly plunges into book after book with the aims of (often) writing critical reviews, one might say that I have set myself up for this very sort of disappointment. Sure. And that has truly been the case of books that are even well-liked by certain influential critics.

But I was surprised by my disappointment of this particular book because I actually loved it. It revealed a whole mode of thought regarding a major theme of the Scriptures that, for me, was insightful, provocative, and, as a freshly-minted pastor, theologically resourceful and useful.

This was the case with me and Walter Brueggemann’s classic treatise The Prophetic Imagination. I had previously engaged one Brueggemann’s more minor works, Israel’s Praise on the Psalms, so I was familiar (and ready for) his non-evangelical modernist engagements with the Old Testament. But what I had loved about that work I was also expectant to find The Prophetic Imagination too: a willingness to engage the prophets (especially Jeremiah) as social creatives, voices of social dissent and biblical engagement, as denouncers of the status quo. While I found Brueggemann’s assertion that the Davidic (re: “royal”) worldview is correlative with even our modern powers-that-be to be revisionistic and overly simple-minded (not to mention inconsistent with the Scriptural confession of the Davidic world; see also: Isaiah on the Davidic Messiah), I found his description of the prophetic office of Jeremiah and Isaiah to be refreshing and empowering. In short, I was willing to parse through certain common unfounded modernist assumptions regarding the Old Testament in order to access Brueggemann’s profound and poignant engagement with two difficult Old Testament texts (Jeremiah and Isaiah).

And the engagement is profound. Brueggemann sets up an incredible description of the prophets as sociologists, something that I find, as a pastor, incredibly helpful, especially when one considers the sociological aspects of pastoral ministry.

But then the book flounders. It simply fails to bring the theory into real life. It stays out in the realms of floating “high theology,” and it never lands. Or, to make my critique even more pointed: Brueggemann takes so much pains in dismantling a “royal consciousness” that sees the world from “theory down” that he never dismantles his own royal assumptions; he never writes a “practice up” theology that he so commends the prophets for doing! For all of Brueggemann’s brilliant theological-critical work on the prophets, he does not himself rise to the difficult task of the prophetic imagination. The work, as it were, is left half-undone.

 

By providential occurrence, I have found the solution to the problem posed by Brueggemann’s theory-rich-but-praxis-poor work: the poetry and literary criticism of Wendell Berry. Berry, a Kentucky farmer, conservationist, and poet, is a recent discovery of mine, even though I had heard whispers and rumors of his work through other sources (mainly the Fuller Seminary-type evangelical circles).

In Berry’s work, I have found, for the first time it seems!, an artist whose preoccupation is more Aristotelian than Platonic, more particular and less idealistic. Maybe my predilection for the latter proves that I’ve hung out with far too many German Romantics and their descendants (see: George MacDonald). For instance, Berry speaks of the individuality and particularity of place in his essay “Imagination in Place”:

The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm. Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of creatures that lives there.

For Berry, this is both an utterly serious knowledge (in that knowing it affects the success or failure of a farm) and an utterly high art (in that performing upon that knowledge demands both skill and beautiful wisdom). More crucially, for Berry his work as a poet and his work as a farmer both demand these epistemological and aesthetic expectations, and they both feed into the same larger work of re-imaging and re-imagining what human life, human living, human flourishing look like.

Here is where Berry answers the problem poised by Brueggemann’s incomplete and all-too-lofty theology: he actually understands the process of transforming the imagination with a prophetic vision. In his poems (I recommend the Collected Poems via North Point Press), his essays (I’ve quoted Imagination in Place, but Citizenship Papers is also very good), and his novels (I recently finished Jayber Crow, and it was a masterwork), Berry regularly and continually destabilizes the “royal consciousness” that Brueggemann so loathes and prophetically replaces it with an imagination of a world-that-can-be, a world of reverence and holiness, which is far beyond our current paradigms and understanding.

And this literary work is not simply left to attempt on its own; Berry combines his literary endeavors with real-world physical labor: the art of farming. All of Berry’s work smells like the soil that he has been tilling for years outside of Port Royal, KY. It is earthy. And with that earthiness comes an incredible practicality that provides precisely the answer to the problem of Brueggemann’s airy, sometimes nonsensically so, theology.

As to the precise and specific ways in which Berry’s “prophetic imagination” ought to manifest… Well, I would encourage one to read his poems and essays, and watch as the places in which you dwell suddenly gain a greater light, become more real. And then, once you have a sense for what your “place” looks like, change it. Brueggemann provides the theory for how such prophetic imagination works, but Berry’s work actually has the power to unlock the prophetic imagination. That, in my opinion, is a far more effective work of practical theology.

 

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