Brueggemann and the Beanstalk

At momentous times of unveiling, it’s not a bad idea to see what theologian Walter Brueggemann has to say. He wrote a useful book called The Prophetic Imagination, which I return to now and again for an alternative perspective on what’s in the news. Much of the book deals with the birth and development of alternative communities. Not merely “restoration,” or “progress” or even “transformation,” but nothing less than the bringing down of an old world and the establishment of a completely new community.

The proposed Phase II of the DestiNY USA complex deserves a look in this light. Its backers obviously mean it to be a greatly meaningful building. Bob Congel and other prominent figures in Syracuse believe they have prophetic work to do, and for now, perhaps we should take them seriously. Brueggemann has much to say about how vital the communication of meaning is for such work.

When the hotel drawings were revealed last week, people immediately tried to parse what the building “really meant.” A hotel — but what else is it? Green blades of grass, some sort of other plant, new economic vitality rising from industrial decay? Or a giant beanstalk grown from magic beans, the Emerald City of Oz… an embodiment of escapist fantasy (and maybe some humbug), where our ultimate solution is not to be found?

Clearly the architect intended the design to be received as a proclamation of commitment to green building practices, but perhaps as much more. Writing in The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann comments, “The task of prophetic imagination and ministry… is to cut through the despair and to penetrate the dissatisfied coping that seems to have no end or solution.” He goes on to suggest that the first order of business for this ministry is

the offering of symbols that are adequate to contradict a situation of hopelessness in which newness is unthinkable. The prophet has only the means of word, spoken word and acted word, to contradict the presumed reality of his or her community.

What does Brueggemann mean by “acted word”? Surely the creation of monumental buildings is a way to bring a prophetic word into acted-out, actual physical being. And this is perhaps why these days Syracuse is besotted with visions of exciting new architectural projects, and with talk about them. Buildings are the largest physical creations that can be imagined by a single prophet at a drafting table, and in a place like Syracuse there is now much empty space for dreams.

The new hotel is undeniably a striking and deeply evocative word of a building, if the sketches are accurate and possible. Congel’s symbol makers understand the real problem here very well. The design is not just about bragging to the world about adherence to the ideals of eco-friendly development practices. It also speaks directly and forcefully to Syracusans’ barely-expressed fears — of the loss of potency, loss of children, of an economic and spiritual autumn-falling-into-winter that never hits bottom; to a fear of death that no one elsewhere in the nation notices or cares about. Green itself is a symbol of survival, fecundity and renewal — and who could possibly be against that?

A good symbol, then, a good word. Have the naysayers become, as Brueggemann writes of our society’s presiding “kings,” “illiterate in the language of hope”?

Maybe we should allow for that (sad) possibility. But in his discussion of symbolism, Brueggemann goes on to warn about the use of prophetic words in a way which speaks to reservations about Congel’s planned project. These reservations perhaps run deeper than concerns that a town like Syracuse can’t support a 1,300-room hotel, or that the building clashes with the current skyline:

Hope requires a very careful symbolization. It must not be expressed too fully in the present tense, because hope one can touch and handle is not likely to retain its promissory call to a new future. Hope expressed only in the present tense will no doubt be co-opted by the managers of this age.

Brueggemann does not use the word “idol” here, but this is what he is talking about. Earlier in The Prophetic Imagination, he begins with the story of the Exodus as the genesis of an alternative community that develops out of a soul-crushing, stage-managed world of exploitation (slavery in Egypt). In the story of Exodus, there comes a moment when the newly freed people backslide into idolatry. No doubt the golden calf represents real, vital, physical hope for the truly desperate wandering in a wilderness… but perhaps too much “hope expressed only in the present tense.”

Is the new DestiNY hotel just a plan for a great green idol to be raised by a fearful, suffering and superstitious people (“the power of Green-ness will save us”)? That’s only one way of looking at it. The line between spiritual construction work and idolatry may be blurry, and I’m not certain which side this city is poised to step into. If this building is meant to be a prophetic word, however, it has to not be an empty word. Or, for that matter, an empty hotel.

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