Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.
There are few roles in Scripture as misunderstood as that of the prophet. In conservative circles, “prophecy” is shrunken down to telling the future, usually by studying arcane tables and charts relating Daniel and Revelation to try and figure out when “the end” is coming. These people are usually tying to sell you something. In progressive Christian circles, being “prophetic” is essentially a baptized form of activism. Both of these miss the mark substantially.
First, a Definition
Michael Coogan notes,
“The English word ‘prophet’ comes from Greek and literally means ‘spokesperson.’ It expresses the understanding that the prophets were delivering divinely sent messages. The primary content of these messages…was interpretation of phenomena and events from a divine perspective.” (300)
As we will see, this definition precludes both of the popular distortions of the prophetic vocation in the church today.
Prophecy is Not About the Future
Note the definition above. The primary content of prophetic utterance was interpretation of the here and now. The future may be involved, but it is to render change in the present. As Abraham Heschel puts it, “The prominent theme is exhortation, not mere prediction…his essential task is to declare the word of God to the here and now.” (14-15) Thus, fundamentalist and/or dispensationalist obsessions with prophecy as Biblical keys to the future or present are sorely missing the mark, no matter how many Mayan calendars or blood moons are there for the taking.
Prophecy is Not About Activism
One of the most inane tropes in Mainline Protestantism is the ease with which every Tom, Dick, or Harriet with an M.Div. will claim the prophetic mantle for themselves. Far too often we see well-meaning progressives high-five each other ad nauseam as if they were the new incarnation of Jeremiah himself. But the prophets rarely smiled (look at the Rembrandt above), and they certainly weren’t excited about being prophetic. “None of the prophets seems enamored with being a prophet,” says Heschel, “nor proud of his attainment.” (20)
This is quite contrary to how many would-be prophets actually comport themselves. In North Carolina, I recently watched the spectacle of colleagues gleefully taking selfies at the State House every Monday for weeks on end, part of the “Moral Monday” protests that dominated the headlines for quite some time. (I am no fan of the Republican-ruled state legislature at present, but it’s preposterous to assume that there was not immorality going on before the GOP took over.) That is, we don’t see many joyful prophets lighting up Instagram in the Bible. Thus Heschel gravely concludes, “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction.” (21)
Moreover, the problem with identifying prophetic work with any kind of activism or truth-telling (whether in church or society) is that it cuts both ways on the ideological spectrum. If one talks to enough folks on the left and the right – and this is especially true the UMC at present – you learn that both sides feel like besieged, risk-taking prophets standing up to a stiff-necked church. Both sides, to use a hackneyed phrase, believe they are “speaking truth the power.” Heschel was certainly right when he notes, “God is raging in the prophet’s voice.” (6) But what if the prophets are self-selected? Therein lies the perennial danger: we too quickly assume our own fury for that of the Divine.
A Solution: From Power to Reflection
In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions. He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.” In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power. Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown. In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts). Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.
For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.” He concludes,
“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)
Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once). This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic. Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education. The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his. Instead, says Newbigin,
“The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.” (17)
In other words, what we consider “prophetic” may in reality unleash something more horrific than that which we speak out against. Or, on the other hand, our obsession with seeing the future may blind us to the needs of the present. We are all still afflicted by the fall, and this side of the eschaton we must be wary of confusing our mouth with the mouth of God, or to conflating our will with the will of Christ. A steady discipline of theological reflection, done with and through the church and her teachers – and including those with whom we disagree – is the only way that the prophetic task can escape the hubris of either future-casting or banal activism. The prophetic task (as noted at the top) of interpreting events and phenomena from a Divine perspective is an awesome and humbling vocation, and one that none of us should assume too quickly nor hold lightly.
I’ll let Nouwen have the last word:
“I think we are only half aware of how secular even theological schools have become. Formation in the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is not what most seminaries are about. Everything in our competitive and ambitious world militates against it. But to the degree that such formation is being sought and realized, there is hope for the Church of the next century.” (69-70)
P.S. My apologies to those who had trouble viewing this before. I had severe problems with WordPress continuing to revert it to a draft after publishing. I think I have fixed it now. Thanks for your patience.
Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press 2006).
Newbigin, Lesslie. Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003).
Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroads 1989).