If you didn’t catch Krista Tippet’s recent interview with theologian Walter Brueggeman from On Being, you should give it a listen.
Brueggeman, a powerhouse American theologian (and ordained UCC minister!) is the inspiration for our January Adult Forum class on the prophetic tradition. In this interview and throughout his life and scholarship, Brueggeman has inspired deep appreciation for the poetry and politics of the biblical prophets — and consistently asked what they mean for us today.
After Mark Steiner mentioned the interview at Adult Forum in December, I knew that a series jumping off of that last question would be a fascinating exploration for our community at Old First. What kinds of prophets have called to us throughout American history, and who is speaking now?
On Sunday, we spoke of what we know about the biblical prophets and dove into some prophetic language from Isaiah, Hosea, and Lamentations. As we reflected on how these texts sound on our lips, a lot of “D” words came up in response. The prophets are usually pretty dismal. They are – or claim to be – divinely inspired. And above all, they are dramatic, oscillating between sweeping proclamations of society’s guilt with severe longing for repentance and promise for a different reality.
One of the other themes that Brueggeman writes about and that one small group discussed was the prophets’ use of grief. True grief isn’t channeled through complaining, he writes – which is what the prophets accuse the Israelites of – but through lament. “As long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are alright, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism,” Brueggeman wrote in his 1978 book The Prophetic Imagination. “But think what happens if the Exodus is the primal scream that permits the beginning of history.”
What do you think? How do we “keep the pretense alive that things are alright” in American culture? What’s the difference between complaining and lamenting? What kinds of covenant norms do we need to return to? And what about a primal scream?
I hope you will join us this week as we continue with these questions and consider our first figure from American history as we ask them: Frederick Douglass.
— Margaret Ernst