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Coat thieves operate in this area

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
        or like vinegar poured on a wound,
        is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. (Proverbs 25:20)
A particularly low point of the particularly dark advent just gone was finding myself in the middle of a particularly jolly Christmas carol knees-up at one of the bigger, shinier, more musically polished churches in my local area. Don't get me wrong; it was an excellent evening on all objective counts. There was dancing, and whooping, and banjos, and mulled wine, and affable friends of friends I don't get to see very often. Only, to me, this was all so much coat theft and vinegar the way I was feeling, and I shivered and winced my way through just enough of the service to justify taking up a much-sought-after seat before heading for the quiet and solitude of my comfortingly un-festive house.

My annual set-to with the season is more than adequately documented already. Part of it's personal: Christmas boasts a variety of devices for ramping up anxiety whilst at the same time removing the framework of routine that helps me to manage it. But there's another aspect to my melancholy ... one that is less self-focused and feels increasingly legitimate. For example, only five days before this particular celebratory gathering another bunch of Christians had been collectively lamenting the failure of a vocal homophobe and alleged child-abuser to win the US Senate seat they'd set their sights on for him. Meanwhile, the evangelically-appointed President, when he wasn't joining his own voice to the cause of this good Christian candidate, was congratulating himself on "bringing Christmas back". Add to this current epidemic of triumphalism the usual long-cherished festive traditions of consumerism, norm-enforcement and excess and you've got yourself an occasion that is so far removed from the power-structure-inverting intervention of self-emptying love that is the Incarnation that I struggle to see what everyone else is finding to sing and dance about [1]. Excuse me if I just sit this one out and, like the plain sister in a costume drama, bury my head in a book until it's all over.

Inadvertently, the book I chose – The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann (1978) [2] – turned out to be perfect for advent generally and for me just then especially. It traces the theme of dominance versus resistance from the time of the exodus to the resurrection of Jesus. The overbearing regimes of Egypt and later the (united and divided) Kingdoms of Israel and Judah represent the 'dominant consciousness', while Moses envisions an alternative community of freedom, the principles of which are cast aside in preference for "a king to judge us like all the nations" (see 1 Samuel 8), but continue to find expression and fragmentary realisation via the Old Testament prophets and later (and most fully) in the ministry and person of Jesus.

According to Brueggemann, the dominant consciousness combines an economics of affluence (for a privileged few), a politics of oppression, and a 'static', order-preserving religion in which God is essentially held to be in service to the royal regime (any of that sound familiar?!) The alternative community is organised around an economics of equality, a politics of justice and compassion, and a religion of freedom, in which God is rightly understood to be over and against the ruling ideology rather than captive to it. The prophets are those who are able to picture and (poetically) articulate this alternative...to keep the possibilities alive in the face of the apparent "forever" of the kings of the age...
That is not to ask [...] if this freedom is realistic or politically practical or economically viable. To begin with such questions is to concede everything to the royal consciousness even before we begin. We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. [...] Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978), p40)
Prophetic ministry holds together criticising and energising. To criticise, by Brueggemann's understanding, is to publicly grieve [3] the dominant consciousness and the oppression that it imposes, by way of awakening anguish in those numbed by satiation and by triumphalist religion. To energise is to evoke possibilities of newness, by way of awakening hope among those excluded from affluence and afflicted by oppression.

Brueggemann elaborates on Jeremiah as a notable critic, operating at a point in Israel's history when exile was coming and the royal regime persisted in denial and optimism – "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying 'Peace, peace' when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14, ESVUK). Meanwhile Second Isaiah [4] energises hope among a now-exiled people, proclaiming liberation, restoration and the re-enthronement of Yahweh as King. "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned..." (Isaiah 40:1-2)
The poet [Isaiah] brings Israel to an enthronement festival, even as Jeremiah had brought Israel to a funeral. Whereas that scenario left Israel in consuming grief, Second Isaiah brought Israel to a new buoyancy. Whereas Jeremiah tried to penetrate the numbness, Second Isaiah had to deal with despair. Both had to speak out of Moses' liberating tradition against the royal mentality that would not let people grieve or hope. (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978), p70)
And then, all of a sudden, the book gets Christmassy. Jesus may be much more than a prophet, but that's not to deny that his earthly life and ministry had clear prophetic functions; Brueggemann argues that his birth itself represents a "decisive criticism of the dominant consciousness" and the energising of a real alternative. The story is set against the back-drop of a census – a classic act of regal management (Luke 2:1-3). Among its characters is a raging pseudo-king (Herod) who will kill to hold on to the old way and his position in it (Matt 2:16-18). Here enters a new king, recognised as such right from infancy (Matt 2:11). He is the ultimate alternative: marginal, and identifying with the marginal. The new beginning "is not among those who operate the old order; rather, it emerges among the victims of the old order. It comes among a barren old woman (Elizabeth), an innocent but believing young woman (Mary), an old man struck dumb (Zechariah), and societies rejects (shepherds)." (p103) The new king is announced with song – the song of angels (Luke 2:8-20), the songs of his mother Mary (Luke 1:46-56) and of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79), proclaiming "new possibilities given late, but not too late, possibilities of deliverance/forgiveness/mercy/light/peace. The old order had left nothing but enslavement/guilt/judgment/darkness and hostility, and no one could see how that could ever change. It will not be explained but only sung about, for the song penetrates royal reason." (p104)

Jesus' propensity to criticise and energise continues into his adult life, in his teaching, his announcement of a new kingdom, his challenge to the system of religious sanctions which had become tools of control in service to the status quo, his capacity to compassionately enter into the grief of others, and his consistent identification with marginalised people. But it is his death by crucifixion that, Brueggemann suggests, represents "the ultimate act of prophetic criticism in which Jesus announces the end of a world of death [...] and takes the death into his own person" (p94). Jesus' willing self-surrender counters the dominant way of control and self-preservation. His resurrection, meanwhile, is the "ultimate act of prophetic energizing in which a new history is initiated" (p113); the new king's royal authority is legitimated and those disinherited under the old order are offered the hope of an alternative future.

There's a saying too cliché for Brueggemann but which nonetheless fits his premise quite nicely: "God comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable" [5]. It's fair to say I felt both comforted and disturbed (that is, challenged) reading this book. Comforted, that I am not alone; that the problem is (maybe) not just in my head, nor is it a new one, nor is it one that God does not have resources to address. Christians within affluent cultures can be liable to numbness: "Grief?! That's not what we signed up for. I'm pretty sure that no-one mentioned anguish on the Alpha course. Why start lamenting when we've got so many worship songs that make us feel good? Why preach on Jeremiah 7 (which can't possibly be about us) when Jeremiah 29:11-13 (which can't possibly not be) is just a few page turns away?" We want things to be nice; we want to feel secure, fulfilled; we lovingly want this for other people too, and so we pull out all the stops (and wheel out the celebs) in our efforts to 'sell' what we've got, measuring our 'success' by the numbers who 'buy in' to it. And, however well-intentioned (and I don't doubt that, by the grace of God, it can be fruitful) it still serves to assimilate and reproduce the ruling ideologies that we should be rejecting, domesticating our vocation to embody an alternative.

So if, for whatever reason, I have an instinct and a capacity for grief that is lacking more widely, perhaps that is not so regrettable after all. Perhaps it is even a thing that God can do something with, one day. However, before I get carried away reassuring myself, there's that discomforting aspect I mentioned. The key challenge of the book to me was that, actually, newness requires energy as well as criticism – hope, as well as grief. And whilst it might be tempting to specialise in the latter (which does, after all, suit my self-styled image quite nicely), like many tempting prospects this would not be wise. So maybe a good thing to be thinking about at the beginning of this new year is how (prayer? study? service?) I might grow in hope and learn to energise.

There's definitely worse avenues to explore, in that pursuit, than poetry – the language of prophecy, according to Brueggemann. It seems appropriate that the other piece of writing I've kept coming back to these past few weeks is a poem by Tennyson [6] which, for me, expresses lament and evokes hope in equal measure. Verse 6 especially resonates (I can't think why...!)



In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 106 

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1850.



[1] Not that I find your average, non-seasonal Sunday morning much less of a struggle. Instructions to "Come On And Dance With Joy In Your Heart," on occasions when the week's news has been full of Christians celebrating all manner of joyless achievements, produce something very unlike joy in me, while jubilant proclamations that "Our God Is Greater, Our God Is Stronger" have me nearly interrupting services with special announcements to the effect that we don't 'own' God and that He typically seems to be interested in more and other than making us winners.

[2] The recommendation came from this also very thought-provoking and timely blog post by David Benjamin Blower.

[3] "If we are to understand prophetic criticism, we must see that its characteristic idiom is anguish and not anger. The point of the idiom is to permit the community to engage its own anguish, which it prefers to deny." (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978), p81)

[4] The book of Isaiah falls naturally into three parts, and it is generally understood that the first of these was written by Isaiah ben Amoz, while the others were later additions by anonymous writers with shared theological concerns – a practice that would not have been considered odd or inappropriate in that cultural context (see Wikipedia).

[5] With unexpected-if-true origins.

[6] The fitting choice for the 1st January installment in Malcolm Guite's rather lovely Advent poetry devotional, Waiting on the Word.


[Thumbnail image cc from Pixabay.]

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