Monday, December 11, 2017

Imagination without historicality tends to turn to undisciplined fantasy

Continuing on where I left off Saturday,  Brueggemann wrote a paragraph about how a biblical model of facing reality through a covenantal-historical  framework needs both imagination and historical rigor,

But the imagination of an insider is always an historical imagination.  It is not just any innovative thinking;  it is inventiveness driven and shaped by particular historical experiences  It is the capacity to return again and again to the concreteness of the past of this historical group,  Israel/the church, and to discern there new meanings.  The notions of “historical” (which means rooted in the meanings of a particular community) and “imagination” (which means open to surging pulses of meaning) are dialectical to each other.  That is,  the ideas of historical and imagination seem to move in opposite directions.  “Historical” points back to precise, concrete, identifiable experiences   “Imagination”  means to move out into new and fresh symbolic overlays from the experience.  Historical keeps the articulation concrete and particular, and the imagination loses it in unexpected directions.  But they are dialectical in that the two must be kept in tension, always correcting each other.  Historical without imagination tends to be arid and not compelling.  Imagination without historicality tends to turn to undisciplined fantasy.  

I will break in here to say that the rise of Trumpist fascism in the United States is nothing if not a product of undisciplined fantasy about history and the present.  It is a product of show-business presentations of a pseudo-historical narrative and contemporary events, that plague the United States.  The one Trumpists hold is based firmly on movie and fictional treatments of American history, in which white men, "rugged individualists" with guns are always the heroes, various others, Black people, Native people, Latinos are criminals that the heroic trail boss or some hired gun or Dirty Harry or C.O.P. S. has to eliminate.  It is one in which people with the most privileges, white males but who lack the privileges of rich white males are encouraged to focus their grievances and anger on those others with even less and to turn aspirations of equality into an attack on them when the rich deprive them of even what they once had.  Or what they imagine their fathers and grandfathers had through the nostalgic fiction of movies and TVs.  And that isn't when the movies present the KKK, the Confederacy and the slave owning - commercial pirates of the "founding fathers" in a false, heroic cinematic fabric of lies, encouraged by TV, the movies and hate-talk radio.

The war on reality, the attack on the truth decried even within the media that mounted that attack and by the professional writers and talkers on whose behalf the media was freed to lie with abandon is an inevitable result of the total freedom to fabricate a fictionalized reality, the reality that Trump supporters not only choose to inhabit but, when they are shown the truth, they feel freed by the American mythos of total and absolute freedom to reject reality.

The contrast is also in content - none of the pseudo-Christian entities that are part of the Republican-fascist, Trump-fascist or, for that matter Putin crime regime in Russia focus on the history that disciplines the kind of biblical view that Brueggemann advocates which was always centered on slaves being freed, the destitute being fed, of the common good instead of the accumulation of wealth by those who could set themselves up as Pharaohs in their own little world.  Keep in mind that the decisive difference in what is imagined must be disciplined by the right kind of historical memory or it quickly gets seduced by either a willingness to enslave yourself in the security promised by a strong man or by the temptation to try to be of the ruling class.  That accounts for way, way too much of what gets called "Christian" in the United States and other affluent countries, even by some of those who make the loudest professions of a faith they betray by their actions

It is imagination which keeps the biblical past from being one-dimensional,  dull and closed, so that it is only a boring recital from long gone days.   When handled with imagination the tradition is seen to be a live memory always pressing into the present as a demand and a resource.  It is a resource because the liberating energies given by God are found to be still given by God to the same confessing community.  It is a demand because in that tradition we always discern in new ways the expectations of God to which we are called.  Conversely,  it is history which keeps imagination rooted and particular and under the discipline appropriate to this particular community.  That discipline means that all imagination in the community of faith must be measured by the events and experiences remembers by us.  The Exodus event, for example, requires that our perception be shaped by the gift of freedom and the protest against oppression, and this community is not free to think otherwise.  Thus the imagination of Israel and the church is not any fanciful ruminating on any theme in any way;  it is reflection on a defined stock of memories which shape and inform our present perception, attitudes,  and behavior.  Being an insider means nurturing a sense of the historical imagination of this community so that we begin to perceive and reflect and act as this community has always done.

The next few paragraphs give the quintessential example of what he is talking about, centered around feeding hungry people, which is the condition we are all a few hours away from no matter how much we have, the dependency that we are all mere days away from at any given time.  I'm giving it becaue it is such a good example of what the previous material describes.

Bread In The Wilderness

Here we shall consider one such dimension of historical imagination as an illustration of how such a practice might help us understand the Bible and let us be insiders to it faith and power.  While we focus on one such dimension,  a variety of others might equally well be chosen.  Exodus 16 is the story of Israel being led and fed in the wilderness  It is a story which is very old and long treasured by Israel.  And we may believe it was an important one in Israel's historical imagination, i.e., in her inventive meditation on her particular past.  It is clear that the process of the Bible itself is a process of historical imagining exercised on stories like this one,  so that fresh nuances are continually discerned in the old story.  The narrative of Exodus 16 concerns this people having left the slavery of Egypt on the way to a land of promise  But between departure from slavery and the entry to secure,  good land, there is this long, demanding wilderness stay. 

Wilderness, a central Biblical image, is a place of precariousness without food, without defense or resource.  The center of this memory is in the wonder that,  in this place, where death seemed certain,  God himself is present,  having submitted himself also to the conditions of the desert.  He is there with surprising,  unexpected,  and unexplained food.  The Bible does not try to explain but only articulates amazement  Out of that event Israel formed a central focus on historical imagination:  the bread of the wilderness is the bread of heaven.  

That bread is contrasted with the bread of slavery which is safe but gives neither life nor freedom.  That bread is contrasted with the bread of the promised land which will be good but which we do not yet possess.  That bread is contrasted with the starvation of the desert, for Israel feared she would die and yet she lived!  Out of that event Israel learned something crucial about the Lord her God,  that he is a very present help in times of Trouble (cf Psalm. 46:1)* in order to do the strange life giving thing when it seems impossible. 

Israel learned about the wilderness of life,  that though it seems forlorn and hopeless, it is a place of nourishment because the LORD is there.  She learned something about her own life,  that she is to live in fragile dependence, not by submitting to secure slaveries nor by owning the predictable bakeries,  but by being present to the LORD eve in the wilderness and living by his remarkable bread.

That event has become a prism through which Israel and the church understand life.   It is not the only such prism,  but it is a central one among the several offered in the Bible.  The gift of manna is such an elemental event because of of us hunger and yearn to be filled:  all of us crave nourishment and sometimes receive and sometimes do not.  All of us have a chance to give food to others or withhold it.  And each time Israel/the church faced the event of feeding or being fed, this elemental story was turned to be seen in yet another way.  Israel and the church have been enormously inventive in handling this memory  but the community is disciplined and limited by the original prism :  that in a place of death,  life was given amazingly by the Lord.  This story with always new nuances is told from generation to generation among the faithful.  We live as insiders in a history in which feeding and being fed is a sign and a focus for faith.  Outside of this historical imagination,  such acts might be experienced but not loaded with these particular meanings.  But insiders discern in such moments that which is denied to and hidden from outsiders. 

will remind you that the Children of Israel got out of the wilderness after forty years, the American left has been led farther and farther into the political wilderness, led by the cult of absolute freedom from the requirement to tell the truth, the requirement to take responsibility, the requirements of The Torah and the Prophets, the responsibilities of moral, serious adulthood for half a century and counting.  The consequences of the cult of absolute freedom for even responsible, realistic, moral politicians is that they are severely limited in what they can possibly accomplish because the moral center that allowed compromised politicians to do great things in 1964 has shifted through people being entertained out of it since then.

*  Psalm 46:1 
God is our refuge and strength,  a very present help in trouble.

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