Where are the Prophets? How Shall We Hear Them?

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


worship-planning-where-are-the-prophetsThose of us in the northern hemisphere who use the Revised Common Lectionary for worship planning and study in our settings are now in the midst of a "summer of prophets." This is one of those occasions where the lectionary may seem more suited to the southern hemisphere at this time of year, where a "winter of discontent" seems to be a more fitting backdrop to much of what we will be hearing in these months.

That's because the readings we get from the prophets during these months aren't the "foretelling" of better days to come, but rather the forthtelling of inevitable judgment and destruction. These are the prophets in full apocalyptic array. Read their words, and you might think (in our culture, at least) that someone has gone off his meds, or now needs some new ones, desperately. And maybe a week or two under close observation at Bellevue.

And it leads me to wonder-- as the worship planning helps I've been working on to accompany these texts this summer occasionally reflect-- is such a voice as what these prophets bring something we have any capacity to hear anymore? Does our immediate, culturally reinforced, visceral reaction to consider these folks out of their minds and potentially a danger to themselves and others make us, in essence, immune to any truth they may have to convey, then or now?

I find myself wondering this particularly in light of the ongoing destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, a sea turning to blood, earth's blood, more and more every day for the past two months. I find apocalpytic language of judgment about the only way to express the immensity of the tragedy of what's going on there.

And yet, in so many places I look, when folks actually "take that tone" they are "shot down" by the more "mainstream" or "progressive" among us, including some of us who identify with the emerging missional way. The content of the critique is pretty much predictable. Such people are "backwater fundamentalists" or "crazed extremists" or "biblical literalists."

We have all sorts of ways of defending ourselves or fending off words like the following I just received in an email this morning:

My Little One, do you see what I have done? Do you see? For, I have taken My axe to a dry tree and I have hewn it down!I have taken My axe to an unproductive tree and I have hewn it down! Great is the fall of this tree, a place, where many dark and evil, black birds have nested!

Wickedness and gross wickedness has continually spewed forth from this tree until it has killed itself; for the whole tree has made itself a haven for what is evil and abominable in My sight! A foul stench has continually come up into My face from the wickedness of this evil tree; and I have hewn it down!

My Lord, what is this evil tree and where is this evil tree?

My Little One, this evil tree is the whole coastal region of the Gulf States! This tree is but one offshoot of a greater tree; and this greater tree is the whole of the United States of America! What you do not see from this vision is that this hewn tree is but one very large branch of a large tree; but to you it will surely appear to be a very great tree! And, it is a tree, unto itself, but still a branch of something much larger!

Okay, so I'm not buying this as a genuine prophecy, either. (It goes on and gets weirder!).

But I have to admit, the kind of language used here is completely consistent with that of the biblical prophets. It sounds just like the "almond tree" or the "plumb line" discourses in Amos. The interaction between prophet and the voice of YHWH is in the same mode as we see in Jeremiah, Exekiel, Amos, parts of Isaiah, Daniel and Revelation. And the almost sarcastic wrath in the "voice" of God is about the same, too.

Yet my immediate, visceral response, is to dismiss this as crazy-talk.

Which leads me to wonder how it is that I do not dismiss the biblical words of prophets themselves, who say almost exactly the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways, as crazy-talk, too.

Or how anyone really listening to them but with no prior exposure to such speech and no pre-disposition to consider what is in scripture as in any way authoritative for their lives or anything else could come to any conclusion other than, "These people, and their God, are dangerously insane!"

Maybe this is part of why we needed a canon-- a container as it were, that could protect such wild speech, which is all over the prophets and even attributed to Jesus at times, from utter dismissal?

I'd be interested in your thoughts on this-- if this matters to you. (It is mattering a lot to me at this time, as I suppose this post makes clear!).