As the great theologian Walter Brueggemann uses the term, the royal imagination basically stands for the insistence (usually against all evidence) that everything is fine.
Don’t believe your eyes: look on my works — and these fabulous new clothes.
The prophetic imagination, which always stands in opposition to the royal one, says that everything is in fact not fine: that this is not who we are, or how we meant (or were meant) to live.
According to Brueggemann, the royal imagination is rooted in and insistent upon the eternal now. This is all there is, or was, or ever could be. The prophetic imagination, in contrast, always reaches back to a lost past to project a renewed future.
There’s another imagination, though, that I’m not sure Brueggemann ever named. Let’s call it (with all due irony) the millennial imagination. That imagination starts in the future and extrapolates from there: once some desired event happens — a favorite candidate’s election, say, or some policy proposal becoming law — then it’ll all be fine. Onwards and upwards forevermore.
There are two obvious dangers to this imagination. First, Pharaoh’s objection: “Not in a million years!” (Remember, this and now is all there is or will be.) Second, some would-be Pharaoh might actually believe the hype. And the imperial imagination may beggar the royal one.
Goodness knows we can and must shake off the stupor of the royal imagination.
But the prophetic imagination might be a better guide than the millennial one.