Will the Real Christianity Please Stand Up!: Part 5, The Prophetic Imagination

Last post in this series. 

How do you know when Christianity is good or bad? 

And how do you know if the bad Christianity isn't the real Christianity?

In my own faith journey one of the most important books I've ever read, and one I keep going back over and over again, is Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination. I was once visiting with Walter about the influence of this book on my life and he quipped, "I've only ever written one book, The Prophetic Imagination. Everything I've written since has been just repeating that book." Walter was joking, but the grain of truth in the joke is how "the prophetic imagination" has been a central, guiding, recurrent theme in his work. 

What is the prophetic imagination? In my book The Slavery of Death, I describe the prophetic imagination this way. The prophetic imagination is the capacity to imagine that God can speak--and is speaking!--a word of indictment against you. 

When we lack this capacity God is "captured" by the status quo. God comes to endorse, baptize, sacralize, legitimize, and spiritually underwrite your political party, church, tribe, social position, and nation. This is how, for example, Constantinianism leads to idolatry. An identity relationship is formed between God and Country. Speak against America and you're speaking against God. 

The prophetic imagination, by contrast, is the capacity to imagine that America stands under God's judgment. It's an imagination that has some moral daylight between God and your nation, the ability to weigh your country in the moral balance and find it wanting. And beyond your country, the ability to weigh yourself, your tribe, your church, and your politics and declare it all broken, wrong, and failing. 

Basically, the prophetic imagination is the ability, in the language of the Twelve Step program, to take a "searching and fearless moral inventory" of our lives, our politics, our churches, and our nation. 

This isn't the post to walk through all the evidence that the prophetic imagination is a central, defining aspect of both the Old and New Testaments. Moral self-criticism is Holy Writ. Suffice it to say, I think the prophetic imagination is, perhaps, the key feature that separates good versus bad Christianity. When "Christianity" is behaving badly the prophetic imagination has been lost. What you see is group of Christians who think they are speaking for God. That God is 100% on their side of an election. That God legitimizes a social hierarchy that keeps me on top. That God loves my nation above all others. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, to wrap this series up, what is the real Christianity? And how to you separate the good from the bad? I think a central thing to attend to, along with everything else mentioned in this series, is the presence of the prophetic imagination among a group of Christians, the willingness or unwillingness to see ourselves as standing under the judgment of God. Is the prophetic voice speaking against you confessed as the Voice of God?

Or, stated concisely, are we capable of damning ourselves?

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