"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, August 12, 2011

Finally comes the prophet

To start, we have to begin here:

The prophets understood the possibility of change as linked to emotional extremities of life. They understood the strange incongruence [sic] between public convictions and personal yearning. Most of all, they understood the distinctive power of language, the capacity to speak in ways that evoke newness "fresh from the word." It is argued here that a prophetic understanding of reality is based in the notion that all social reality does spring fresh from the word. It is the aim of every totalitarian effort to stop the language of newness, and we are now learning that where such language stops we find our humanness diminished.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press, 1978, p. 9. The strange incongruity between public convictions and personal yearning. Aye, there's the rub:

"Ladies and gentleman, we desperately need our own miracle of Dunkirk today," he said. "Our nation is surrounded by forces that we don't control, and we have problems that none of our leaders can solve. We've come to end of our rope, and we've come here today to call on our Lord for a miracle, a miracle of Dunkirk to occur in this great nation.
The idea that America is a shining city on a hill set in a world of corruption and evil, especially when we look to Europe, is an idea almost as old as America itself. It is the source of our greatest inspiration; it is also the source of our greatest corruption, as even the "Founding Fathers" understood:

John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.
The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Charles Scribners' Sons, New York, 1952. The incongruity between public convictions and personal yearning. Hmmm....

That incongruity grows wider as we fail to realize we, any one of us, is not us; never all of us.

"We confess that we are still a Judeo-Christian nation," said Hagee, drawing cheers. "We confess that we are still one nation under God. We confess that you are a creator of heaven and earth."
First, the theologian in me wants to know: "a creator"? There was more than one? Is this some new brand of Marcionism? Or just the old, familiar strain of know-nothingism? But are we a Judeo-Christian nation? Are we still one nation, under God? Which God, then? A creator? Or the Creator? And my Christianity, theology, christology, ecclesiology? Or Hagee's?

Inquiring minds want to know.

And in what ways is Hagee interested in what is "fresh from the word"? Or in what ways does he only want to reinforce his blinkered and gnarled and puny view of existence? In this context, Rick Perry offers a prayer that is almost enlightening:

“Father, our heart breaks for America,” he said, leading the crowd in a prayer. “We see discord at home, we see fear in the marketplace, we see anger in the halls of government. As a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us, and for that we cry out for your forgiveness. We pray for our nation’s leaders, for parents, for pastors, for generals, for governors, that you would inspire them.”
Yes, but again, inspire them to do what? And if you think this talk of prophecy has little to do with Rick Perry or American politics, think again:
On September 28, 2009, at 1:40 p.m., God’s messengers visited Rick Perry.

On this day, the Lord’s messengers arrived in the form of two Texas pastors, Tom Schlueter of Arlington and Bob Long of San Marcos, who called on Perry in the governor’s office inside the state Capitol. Schlueter and Long both oversee small congregations, but they are more than just pastors. They consider themselves modern-day apostles and prophets, blessed with the same gifts as Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles.

The pastors told Perry of God’s grand plan for Texas. A chain of powerful prophecies had proclaimed that Texas was “The Prophet State,” anointed by God to lead the United States into revival and Godly government. And the governor would have a special role.

The day before the meeting, Schlueter had received a prophetic message from Chuck Pierce, an influential prophet from Denton, Texas. God had apparently commanded Schlueter—through Pierce—to “pray by lifting the hand of the one I show you that is in the place of civil rule.”

Gov. Perry, it seemed.

Schlueter had prayed before his congregation: “Lord Jesus I bring to you today Gov. Perry. ... I am just bringing you his hand and I pray Lord that he will grasp ahold of it. For if he does you will use him mightily.”

And grasp ahold the governor did. At the end of their meeting, Perry asked the two pastors to pray over him. As the pastors would later recount, the Lord spoke prophetically as Schlueter laid his hands on Perry, their heads bowed before a painting of the Battle of the Alamo. Schlueter “declared over [Perry] that there was a leadership role beyond Texas and that Texas had a role beyond what people understand,” Long later told his congregation.
Let me say, before I go further, that I agree with the Republican strategist on Meet the Press recently, who said Perry represented the politics of W. redux, or maybe just louder and funnier. He presents, said this strategist, the GOP that lost in 2008; and that's an analysis I agree with. Perry may make a splash in the GOP primaries, but I don't think he will get very far, especially if he wins the party's nomination. In fact, Barack Obama, like W. before him, may well turn out to be very fortunate in his opponents for the Presidency.

So this isn't about politics; it is about theology; more specifically, about public theology. So let's ignore the bizarre in the New Apostolic Reformation (which, as Howland Owl said of nuclear physics, ain't so new, and it ain't so clear) and focus on the idea of prophecy it presents. As Brueggemann says: "The following discussion is an attempt to understand what the prophets were up to, if we can be freed from our usual stereotypes of foretellers or social protesters." Or of stuff like this:

Schlueter, Long and other prayer warriors in a little-known but increasingly influential movement at the periphery of American Christianity seem to think so. The movement is called the New Apostolic Reformation. Believers fashion themselves modern-day prophets and apostles. They have taken Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on ecstatic worship and the supernatural, and given it an adrenaline shot.

The movement’s top prophets and apostles believe they have a direct line to God. Through them, they say, He communicates specific instructions and warnings. When mankind fails to heed the prophecies, the results can be catastrophic: earthquakes in Japan, terrorist attacks in New York, and economic collapse. On the other hand, they believe their God-given decrees have ended mad cow disease in Germany and produced rain in drought-stricken Texas.
The prophets in the Hebrew scriptures never foretold earthquakes, terrorist attacks, or economic collapse. That baldly apocalyptic stuff comes from Jesus, and in Luke, at least, it's pretty clearly meant as a joke (mocking the perception of the prophets as forecasters of gloom and doom began early), and a rejection of worrying about the eschaton. Despite what John Hagee might think, America has never had nor claimed a covenant with God such as Israel had (and has, as the children of Abraham). And that very idea of a covenant is the problem with a "direct line" to God.

It seems like a minor theological quibble, and it certainly looks like the sharp dividing line between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (or, more broadly, all the rest of Christianity), but the line isn't really drawn there between Rome and Protestants: that sharp line is drawn between fundamentalist non-denominational and even anti-denominational, Christians, and the rest of practicing Christianity. It isn't just a theological quibble, and it is a distinction worth paying some attention to.

The covenant, you see, is with a group, not an individual. Even Abraham is promised blessings for his descendants, blessings Abraham cannot possibly live to enjoy. The blessings are for the many, not the one, and the one who receives the word from God is always the one caught between the people and the Creator: it's never a pretty position to be in, in other words. Abraham is forced to renounce all social order on Moriah; Moses wonders why people will listen to him when he follows the directives of a burning bush, and later is so angry with the Israelites he smashes the first copy of the Ten Commandments; and finally, he's the one who, like Abraham, pronounces the blessing he won't live to see fulfilled. Jeremiah weeps and argues with God about what will happen to Israel, and what God is telling him to say to Israel. Hosea and Ezekiel must have appeared as madmen, not revered leaders. Amos never claimed to be more than a dresser of sycamore trees. Being a prophet never put one in a position of power with respect to the community, so the first rule of prophets is: beware those who think their status as "prophets" elevates them to positions of any privilege whatsoever. If you claim the status of "prophet" in the Biblical sense, but you aren't in friction with the world around you, especially with those who should agree with you, then you aren't doing it right.

Prophets are most commonly recognized and admired after the fact. That's the first test. The second is: the prophet is proclaimed by the community, not by the prophet's followers. As Jesus says in Luke: "Did you go into the wilderness to see a reed bending in the wind?" It wasn't the followers and fellow Essenes who made John the Baptist a prophet: it was the people drawn to his message, people as diverse (according to Luke) as Jews and Roman soldiers. I don't present that as an historical fact, but as a sign, a signifier, that a prophet is one whose message is important. And it is the response to the message that makes the prophet. When Moses asks the burning bush what authority he is to give, who he is to say has sent him (knowing the Israelites won't listen to Moses, a Hebrew raised as an Egyptian, just because he says so), it's a question directed at the status of Moses. A very human question, but the wrong question: the status of the prophet is not proven by invoking the formula "The Word of the Lord" (a common trope in liturgical worship, but one that dates back to many of the prophets), it is a status recognized by the people when they hear in the prophet's words "the word of the Lord." When the Synoptic writers introduce John the Baptist, they place him in the pantheon of Hebrew prophets by what he says, and by the people (from Jews to Gentiles) who recognize in his words the words of the Creator. John does not proclaim himself a prophet; his message, and its reception by the people, does that. So there is the second rule: the prophet is known by the community, and made a prophet because the people recognize the truth of his words.

The third rule is that the prophet doesn't try to make his words come true; they are the word of God, they will be as God wills. The prophet doesn't need to take action, doesn't need to direct kings and rulers and bureaucracies: the prophet needs to proclaim the word. What happens after that is up to the people, and in on small sense, to God. The prophet does not acquire glory from the message; if anything, the prophet encounters doubt, rejection, confusion, and anger. What the prophet doesn't get is hands on the levers of power sufficient to make the prophecy "come true." That is where the great weakness of most modern day would be prophets comes in: they seek authority, rather than truth.

Consider the example of Jonah, the one prophet in the Hebrew scriptures who tries really hard to escape his fate as a prophet, not because he cares for Nineveh, but because he is afraid God will relent if Nineveh repents. When Nineveh does repent and God does relent, Jonah is angry: he wanted the fire and brimstone to happen, probably because he wanted to both proclaim the word of God, and be the agent of God's anger and violence. Denied the latter, he pouts. Jonah is the very figure of the prophet who wants God's power along with God's word. The community responds to Jonah's message, they recognize him as a prophet, but for Jonah that isn't enough. And the story of Jonah is as much about Jonah, as it is about Jonah's dire warning. So his story presents a powerful rebuke to would-be prophets who want to proclaim God's judgment and reap a benefit from that proclamation: be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

This is lost, of course, on those who worship power, as well as those who still think the lesson is: power is okay, so long as it is used correctly. The message of the cross, of the crucifixion, of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is the power of powerlessness; not that the right application of power just in time will provide salvation. One of the temptations in the desert was for Jesus to step off the pinnacle of the Temple, because the Psalmist said that God won't allow you to come to harm. That is the final temptation, and Jesus rejects it by rejecting the path that requires one to tempt God to act, to exert power. It is a very hard lesson. A very, very hard lesson. But it is the lesson at the still point of the turning world. It is the lesson at the very heart of Christian teaching. Otherwise it is just a nice set of ethics and moral rules, or a bunch of "do's" and "don'ts" from a vengeful cosmic thunderer.

Thinking about this, I don't have a conclusion so much as a final comment, and that not even my own. The words are those of T.S. Eliot, and I add them because they are so apt, and because I stumbled across them at Wounded Bird:

That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.


Blogger June Butler said...

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

The final two lines of the quote sum it all up rather well, don't they?

Thanks for the link.

5:45 PM  

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