A New Challenge to #ReimagineSCRIPTURE...
A Prophetic Imagination
The Bible Is Not Enough: Imagination and Making Peace in the Modern World
From my new book, The Bible Is Not Enough: Imagination and Making Peace in the Modern World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2023).
What is so clear to me today is that the world leaders and anti-leaders have lost their imagination. War takes no imagination. Peace does.
The prophets of the Bible cast powerful images of the future. Their eschatology is an imagination, and their images require an imagination to understand. The literalist interpreters burble on and on about international events and moments, fashioning each image of the prophets into a timeline of real events, in real history, in a real future. Literalism has no imagination. Not only do literalists fail to catch the vision the prophetic imagination offers, their fixation to fit the prophetic word to some modern event or person or nation has proven wrong every time. One could hope one of their own would stand up and announce they’ve been wrong all along and it’s time to abandon the literalistic reading of the Bible’s prophets. Such interpretations lack the imagination of the prophet, and so they blunt the power of a Spirit-prompted improvisation.
Prophets of the biblical tradition (Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, John the seer) operate with a theopoetic and theopolitical scenario of what is about to happen, graphic in description, and then cast a foreground with images evoking an imagined future. And they do so as if the next event would be immediately followed by the end of history. The critics’ obsession with proving that the prophets got it wrong, because the end of history didn’t arrive, is hung up on the same literalism as the fundamentalists. Prophetic language is dramatic, fictive, rhetorically shaped imagination meant to provoke a response of repentance, justice, and peace. Imagination stimulating improvisation. Not predictions demanding closer readings of newspapers or websites.
Prophets stimulate a peaceful imagination. To enter their imaginations requires an aesthetic, if not an ecstatic, sensibility as their images turn words into vision as music turns words into sound. The prophet’s peaceful imagination is not a flight of fancy, it is not fantasy or marvel or even fiction as we might know it. The prophet is inspired by the prophetic Spirit to speak a word from God to the people, and so cast a vision for the transformation of society. Yet, a prophetic imagination expresses and appeals to the hope of the oppressed, the exiled, the marginalized. A peaceful imagination is a counterfactual of the present world. Imagination is required for what transcends the mundane, and few can doubt the need for transcendence when it comes to peace. Imagination is faith and, when a person steps in the direction of peace out of the mundane, faith becomes action. As such, the peaceful imagination is an act of resistance and becomes the natural language of dissidents. The words of the prophets are not so much prediction as imagination, but it is the kind of faith-inspired imagination that stimulates humans to live into that imagined, alternative world—or at least enter it. The prophet’s language is like the wardrobe into Narnia.
Among the Bible’s prophets peace is so broad one must contend that peace involves salvation and liberation, justice and material blessing, interpersonal harmony and health and economic justice . . . one could go on. Peace is an imagined reality that inspires a person to improvise, in her specific situation and location, a way of life that counters the way of violence and death. The reason we are stuck in the “humane” war and white Christian nationalism is in part because those who claim most to follow Jesus lack a peaceful imagination that can shake systemic structures of violence and war to the ground.
But for a Christian to form such an imagination, a renewed commitment must be made to Jesus’s kingdom, which in turn gives rise to an improvisation of peace.