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Saturday, May 24, 2008

My prophet's better than your prophet

There's another interesting discussion going on over at HOB/D - the House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv. One writer laments that it is time for the church to be more prophetic. Another argues that the church, as an institution, cannot be prophetic. It’s an interesting discussion.

I have often joked that the book I will write about this time in our common lives of faith will be titled, “On being a prophet in a not-for-prophet church.”

Which begs the question: What does it mean to be a prophet? More specifically, what does it mean, today, to be ‘prophetic’?

I suppose it should come as no surprise that, in this time of schism, we use the term a lot these days. Everyone who says or does an unpopular or counter-cultural thing which is seen to be bold or courageous, or makes a sincere attempt to discover or interpret the will of God is said to be ‘prophetic’.

The term is so subjective that it can describe someone who is simultaneously a ‘true’ and a ‘false’ prophet, depending on one’s particular perspective. What is ‘prophetic’ to one is ‘rebellion’ to another.

Postmoderns often use the term ‘prophet’ when we mean social commentators who are particularly successful in an analysis of culture and economics, such as “prophets of doom” and “prophets of greed.” Thirty years ago, Simon and Garfunkle sang, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”

I’m not in my office, so I don’t have access to my OED to look up the word. However, I do happen to have here Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book “The Prophets,” given to me years ago as an ordination present, now all dog-eared and marked, which I still treasure.

According to Heschel the Hebrew prophets are characterized by their experience of what he calls theotropism — God turning towards humanity. Heschel argues for the view of Hebrew prophets as receivers of the "Divine Pathos," of the wrath and sorrow of God over his nation that has forsaken him.

He writes: “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words.”

That is, unarguably, a standard which delivers a cold slap in the face to those who bandy the term about in much the same way that we often use the word ‘truth’.

I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s gripping performance on the witness stand in the film, “A Few Good Men”: “The truth?” he thunders. “You can’t handle the truth.”

And, in the situation he was describing, he was absolutely right. His words didn’t dignify what was right, but it was the truth – and it was, simultaneously, blasphemy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t handle the truth of what is happening, right now, in ‘Gitmo’.

Were those who died defending this nation, whom we honor this weekend, recipients of a ‘Divine Pathos’? Were they doing God’s will? Did they lay down their lives at the crossing point of God and humanity? Is war – any war, not just the one now raging in Iraq and Afghanistan – a ‘manifest destiny’ or participation in an act of supreme hubris?

Are the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) as adopted by this church prophetic, or would we give a more urgent, clearer voice to ‘the silent agony” of “the plundered poor” if we follow more nearly Christ’s imperative to the rich young man to “sell everything you have and give it to the poor”?

Is my prophet better than your prophet?

As much as I know ‘my side’ is being prophetic, I have no doubt that ‘their side’ holds out the same conviction. The truth? Can we handle the truth?

I think the truth is that we need, first, to agree on what we mean when we say we want the church and/or her people to be prophetic. If we use Heschel’s standard, do we not, to a person and position, all fall woefully short?

I grew up in Massachusetts listening to the likes of Tip O’Neil and the Kennedy boys who would always begin a discussion or debate with the request to ‘define your terms.’

So, I’ll ask the questions again: What are we talking about when we call someone a ‘prophet’? What do we mean when we call the church to be ‘prophetic’?


Ed said...

"we want the church and/or her people to be prophetic." I think Heschel would say what "we" want is not on point: the initiative comes from God, not from us. Our job is to be, and remain attentive. Our response may or may not be to speak or initiate an action.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I think where our fundie counterparts get it all mixed up is this: "Prophecy ain't prognostication."

In other words, prophecy is not a "done deal". At least the way I understand the OT prophets, there's an opportunity in prophecy to change the destiny of things.

I think many of us have been given prophetic dreams. Take for instance, the ubiquitous "exam dream." Anyone who ever stressed out in college or grad school has had this one. There are all kinds of variations: Didn't study all semester, can't find the room, realizing you're taking the exam naked, etc.

My funniest version of the exam dream was right before I took my boards. I dreamed I was in the exam room, tore the seal on the test book open w/my pencil, and the test was in HEBREW. I was thinking in the dream, "Do I take this from right to left?" Never mind I can't read Hebrew! Then in the dream, I said, "Ma nish ha na ha lila ha'zed." ("Why is this night different from all the rest?" from the Passover seder. Ok, I don't read Hebrew, but I've been the token shiksa at a lot of seders, ok?)

I now realize that dream was prophetic. It was telling me, "There are things in the exam, you will have no friggin' clue over. Just be practical about it and don't freak out." I took that advice and came out fine.

Jon M. Richardson said...

Ed writes: "I think Heschel would say what "we" want is not on point"

yes... As today's lesson reminds us, don't worry about the stuff. Strive, instead, for the vision of God to be made real in the world. Then all the "things" that we tend to find ourselves worrying about will fall into place.

Of course that doesn't answer the question of what it means to be a prophet. But maybe worrying over that is one of the "things" that would be left behind if we turned our attention instead to fulfilling God's vision as best as we can discern it.

MadPriest said...

I knew all along that you were going to write something like this.

Jim said...

I have been thinking of a slightly different book with the title, "Radically Christian for Fun and Prophet." :=) Not a history exactly but rather some ideas on what it means to follow the drinking gourd in our times.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, Madpriest. The true prophet of Cyberspace.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

An even more puzzling and certainly more revolting question: who gets to be the mad prophet, lying on his or her side, eating food cooked over human (or cow) excrement?

A prophet is never honored among his or her own people.