SBL Review (3): Brueggemann and Johnson on Prophecy image

SBL Review (3): Brueggemann and Johnson on Prophecy

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Walter Brueggemann and Luke Timothy Johnson are two amazing minds, so I was excited to hear them both on the subject of biblical prophecy at SBL. Johnson was talking specifically about the book of James; Brueggemann was talking more generally about the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Johnson was very good. Brueggemann was unforgettable (which anyone who has heard him speak, in his gravelly, finger-pointy, rage-at-injustice-welling-up-from-within sort of voice, will understand).

Walter Brueggemann

The words of woundedness at injustice, and indignation at idolatry, are what drive prophetic utterances, and insofar as they reject totalism, they unequivocally represent the voice of God. It doesn’t matter whether they come from above (from God) or below (from wounded or indignant humanity), because this is the destabilising God, who dwells with the humble and the contrite. The prophets knew whereof they spoke, “from elsewhere,” and it was the regime who confused speech, not the prophets. Judgment and hope come from elsewhere, beyond the totalism, reminding us that there are non-transgressible limits within God’s ordering of creation.

The prophetic voice is a cry of pain, which comes from the lips of God. “The cry is a small door though which the Messiah may enter”: sex trafficking, violence, exclusion, oppression. It is the poet who is able to utter the cry without directing it to anyone in particular, because it is too raw, too urgent. From the ground up, the human body and the body politic are never intended to bear such depths as the aim of totalism. The prophetic voice bears witness to the stirrings of divine finality, based on divine fidelity beyond all human explanation, which opens all sorts of possibilities. Prophetic ministry has often been seen as scolding people; but what if it was about calling attention to the stirrings of divine fidelity? It is in the midst of liturgies of despair that divine stirrings come, in maternal cadence: “shall a woman forget her nursing child?”

Divine resolve can expose arrogant empire as futile and impotent. Prophecy is daring utterance from those who have no grounds from which to hope. “Who knew that apartheid could not be sustained by dogs? Who knew hat there were not enough tanks to keep the Iron Curtain intact? Who knew that the 1% could not keep its place in our society? Who knew indeed?” This prophetic voice outflanks the legitimated reasonableness of despair; this voice says, time and again, “I have a dream.” A new covenant. A river of life. A dream grounded in divine fidelity that will not yield to totalism.

Idolatrous empires last as long as they can maintain silence that precludes a voice from elsewhere. The prophetic voice keeps sounding, in person, in text, in poetry, always from elsewhere, always incredible, always unwelcome, always inexplicable. What does the prophetic voice look like in our generation? All you have to do is think about the ideological commitments of our national security state, and then imagine the alternatives. None of that will happen unless the venues of poetry and liturgy produce voices from elsewhere.

Luke Timothy Johnson

The spirit of prophecy manifests itself in the capacity to predict the events of the future. But it can also mean challenging humans in the present from God’s perspective. James is usually disregarded from a prophetic perspective: it is usually classified as wisdom literature, and he only mentions prophets once, and Jesus twice. But James is concerned with morals not manners (conformity), and lacks entirely the language of honour and shame, except the paradoxical 2:5.

And there are some oddities in seeing James as wisdom:

1) He is concerned with confronting the world as it is, not living happily within it.
2) He’s concerned with a new community, the ekklÄ“sia not the oikos.
3) He is egalitarian rather than authoritarian. Elders are summoned by the sick. All are responsible for mutual correction. He himself is a doulos. He is hostile towards the oppressive rich, and rejects all forms of slander (which implies superiority).
4) James is communitarian rather than individualistic. The choice for James is between envy (leading to murder) and gift (leading to service). So the wisdom of James is profoundly countercultural, and grounded in a theological and moral dualism. It is not the sapiential murmuring of Sirach, but the shout of Amos, that issues forth in James’s denunciations of the rich (echoing his brother).

In addition, there are three further clues that James is prophetic:

1) He offers a vision of human existence that is based on God’s availability to all of humanity.
2) James targets those who say the right thing but do not do it.
3) He says that the desire to be friends with the world makes them enemies of God, and calls them to lower themselves before God, that he may lift them up - and calls them “adulterous” in the process, which is the prophetic trope par excellence. It is not the style, but the stance, which makes James a prophetic witness within the NT.

Guys: if you ever get a chance to hear Brueggemann in person, take it.

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