That word means so much and yet so little to so many. I grew up in an environment that largely talks about prophecy as being fortune-telling about the End Times – except where it somehow or another points to Jesus. Now I’m more apt to align myself with a movement that largely equates prophecy with speaking harsh truths to the powerful. However, in my denomination and in some other charismatic churches, we tend to use the word to mean highly individualized, personal words of God to people within the church – usually words of encouragement, but words that are highly symbolic, spiritual, and yet real and tangible as well.
And then a gander at the Hebrew Scriptures leaves us with something altogether different itself: The actual prophets. Men who lived with and fell in love with whores. Who despised their captors and wanted to see them burn. Who dared kings and queens to their faces. Who mocked foreign gods. Who were killed by the hundreds. Who prayed for bears. Who demanded justice for the poor from the merchants and nobility. Whose tongues burned with the fire of the word of the Lord.
These men (and women) were enigmatic. But they said God’s near-impossible truths because they seemed to have no option but to do so. Some of them (Micah) were fueled by righteous indignation right out of the gate due to their state or circumstance in life. Yet others (Jonah) burned with self-righteous bitterness to the end of their story – although probably not without some justification.
Wanting to know more about prophecy and how relevant it is to this day and age, I’ve turned to a couple scholars – men of courage who’ve made it their life’s ambition to speak the prophetic into current times and against the current. One of those was a hero himself to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I’ve written about him extensively here before. Another one is revered Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann (incidentally, my old friend Carson Clark is also writing about him on his blog and makes note that WB is nearly single-handedly responsible for invigorating his love for the Old Testament. That is no small feat for nearly ANY Christian…)
The following are a couple paragraphs from Brueggemann’s primal work, “The Prophetic Imagination”
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the conciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us… Prophetic ministry has to do not with primarily with addressing specific public crises but with adressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated. It may be, of course, that this enduring crisis manifests itself in any given time around concrete issues, but it concerns the enduring crisis that runs from concrete issue to concrete issue. That point is particularly important to ad hoc liberals who run from issue to issue witout discerning the enduring domesticaton of vision in all of them.
The alternative conciousness to be nurtured, on the one hand, serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness. To that extent, it attempts to do what the liberal tendency has done: engage in a rejection and delegitimizing of the present ordering of things. On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move.
I can’t help but notice that this is always relevant, but that perhaps now a good portion of society is ready to hear it. Even as the Powers of the Air are as ready as ever to drown out the prophetic imagination with their own temptations, noises, images, it is the time for the Church to get prophetic.
The Christian church, I am convinced, is at a crossroads – no different really than a million other crossroads put before her in her its history. She can acknowledge her historical and present short-comings and be a counter-cultural agent, voice and visionary for change. Or she can continue to be co-opted and disempowered by the Powers of the Air and continue their religious but ultimately dead languages. Not that the songs, the rituals, the prayers are bereft of meaning or life, but that they aren’t. They are very much alive but serve within a holistic purpose. “For if we have the tongues of angels but refuse to love…”
We have, sadly, the gift of healing but we do nothing with it but advertise it. And when the people show up for wellness, we put on a dog and pony show and wonder where the people go.
Maybe what they need is to hear the voice of God rushing through the people of God, in all its bizarre and devestating – and freeing – manifestations.