Tuesday, July 12, 2011

what is a biblical prophet?

I was reminded today of some interesting observations in Walter Brueggemann's classic book, The Prophetic Imagination. Brueggemann opens the first chapter with a description of the "tired misconceptions" that plague study of the Old Testament prophets.
The dominant conservative misconception, evident in manifold bumper stickers, is that the prophet is a fortune-teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous), usually with specific reference to Jesus. While one would not want to deny totally those facets of the practice of prophecy, there tends to be a kind of reductionism that is mechanical and therefore untenable. While the prophets are in a way future-tellers, they are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present.

'Conservative' readers of the Bible, Brueggemann suggests, think of a prophet exclusively in terms of prophesying about the future. This is the reductionism he's talking about, and he insists that this is a mischaracterization of the Old Testament prophets. After all, the prophetic words quoted by the New Testament authors make up just the tiniest bit of the enormous books of prophecy in the Old Testament. The prophets have other intentions.

Brueggemann continues:
Conversely, liberals who abdicated and turned all futuring over to conservatives have settled for a focus on the present. Thus prophecy is alternatively reduced to righteous indignation and, in circles where I move, prophecy is understood as social action...

'Liberals', on the other hand, reduce prophecy to a call to social justice. Yes, social action does loom large in the prophetic books (a fact some conservative readers may not be aware of--I know, because I remember the shock of learning it myself), but it is not the whole of biblical prophecy.
It's not surprising that this Old Testament scholar thinks both approaches fail to really grasp the ancient Israelite understanding of prophecy.

Do either of these camps sound familiar to you? While I know what he's talking about, I have never moved in the liberal circles Brueggemann did. My upbringing tended in the other direction.
In the church I grew up in, 'the prophets' were limited--unintentionally, of course--to Jonah and Daniel. They might also pop up around Christmas, heralding the coming of Christ through the words of Isaiah. This left me, and probably many others, with an odd picture of the prophet: he is one called to deliver the word of God, which is usually a cryptic word that can only be deciphered by a look to the future: the time of Jesus, or even to the present. And occasionally prophets are swallowed by big fish. Prophecy was "futuring," describing coming events in God's work, whether that's the incarnation or the crucifixion, or the international, political maneuvers that will trigger Jesus' return.

Unfortunately, this idea of a prophet sends you back to scripture with some odd reading glasses on. Daniel, Revelation, and some spots here and there in the other prophets fit your mold; the rest don't, and they usually get ignored because of it. In the end you're left with wrong-headed way of reading a few books, and the others you don't read at all. That was my experience, at least, and maybe it will sound familiar to you.

Brueggemann wrote these words over thirty years ago, but his descriptions still hold true in a lot of ways. Perhaps then we should pay some attention to the alternative he suggests:
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.

The people of God are called to live as an "alternative community" in the midst of the world. At times that people loses sight of this vocation, though, and their faith, their distinctiveness, is domesticated. They cease to offer an alternative to the ways of the world. This is where the voice of the prophet is needed, reminding the people that the order of the present world is illegitimate and must be rejected. God has promised a newness that they are to live in anticipation of. Thus the word of the prophet is, as he said, about the future "as it impinges on the present." The prophet's words are meant to reorient us towards God's coming kingdom, so that we can live as God's people in the world now.

How does that image of the prophet sound to you? Does it seem to capture well what the ministries and Ezekiel and Isaiah are aiming at--not just Daniel? Does it give the prophets more of a word for the church today? After all, if they're only speaking about the end of the world, their word to us might not seem too important unless that end is very near.

How are you reading the prophets? What kind of preconceptions are you bringing to scripture here? How has it hindered (or helped) your hearing of God's word?


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I wonder what (if anything) he has to say about prophesying as it is done in Pentecostal and charismatic churches of all stripes today, who understand themselves to be functioning just as the prophets of the New Testament church (see 1 Cor. 11, etc) did. In my (rather limited) experience, the person speaking has a sense that "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me" (which appears to be quite overwhelming at times) and they speak "a word from the Lord" which might be one of challenge or of reassurance or exhortation and so on.
While my (self-described) "non-charismatic" but evangelical friends tended to say that Prophecy=Preaching.

Nance said...

I didn't see anywhere that he addressed that question--it seems like he was interested in the import of biblical prophecy for today more than a biblical evaluation of prophecy today. It sounds to me like what you're describing could go along well with Brueggemann's vision, though: insofar as prophecy (or preaching) emphasizes the peculiar nature of the people of God qua God's people, over against any of narrative of 'being a person' out there, I think it would be prophetic in his sense. That's my impression.