So, I'm sitting in the backseat of a car, riding around Fort Worth with three other guys. I'm seventeen years old. The other guys are all older than me: one college student, one seminary student, and one guy in his thirties. The older guy has just been introduced to the college student earlier that day. We're all involved in low-grade chit-chat until the older guy looks at the college guy and says, "So, I hear you've got the gift of prophecy."
Okay, now I'm listening.
"Yeah," the other guy says casually. "I heard the same thing about you."
Apparently the seminary student had been playing the role of Prophecy-Gift Cupid and had introduced these two guys based primarily on their special little abilities. I was just in the car because someone said that we might go to Sonic, and I wanted a corn dog. I felt like I had just found myself on a ride with a bunch of spiritual weirdos.
"I hear you've got the gift of prophecy?" I thought to myself. "Did he really just say that?" In my experience, I had basically come to understand the gift of prophecy as something that didn't show up that much anymore. In my mind, it would have been basically the same thing as if the guy in the front seat had turned around to the guy in the back and said, "So, I hear you burn witches for a living. What's that like?"
I think my perspective on the concept of prophecy was the same as a lot of people. I was under the impression that a prophet was someone who could see into the future and predict when catastrophic events would happen. Nostradamus was a prophet. The guy sitting next to me eating onion rings probably wasn't.
As it turns out, I think I had it all wrong. That conversation ended up being a really helpful experience for me. The biblical role of the prophet was almost never to talk about specific future events. The prophet was not a fortune-teller. The prophet was someone who spoke truth in such a way as to subvert the status quo. The prophet is someone who seeks to alert his or her listeners that there is something in our world that is broken, and we as a people must seek its remedy.
American philosopher Cornell West writes a great deal about the role of the prophet in culture. As I read through West's description of prophecy, I realized that there are prophets all around us.
First, West discusses that a prophet must have discernment." What he means by this is that the prophet must be able to examine the world around us and clearly see who is bearing the greatest social cost among us. A prophet must see who is in pain and understand the source of that pain.
Second, a prophet must have "human connection," which places a great deal on the virtue of empathy, which West understands as "the capacity to get in contact with the anxieties and frustrations of others" (quoted from Beyond Eurocentrism and Multicultrualism, Vol. 1). A prophet must not only sense the suffering of others, but must be able to vicariously experience it on some emotional level. The prophet must bleed for others, never losing a sense of deep humanity.
Third, the prophet must "track hypocrisy," but be able to do so in a self-critical way. As West says, we have to recognize that "we are often complicit with the very thing we are criticizing." The prophet cannot simply take the high ground and condemn in a condescending way; the prophet must also recognize his or her role in the suffering that is being condemned. This leads to the condemnation existing as a lament rather than simply a harsh judgment between two people.
Fourth and finally, the prophet must possess hope. One of my favorite quotes from West's writing is this: "To talk about human hope is to engage in an audacious attempt to galvanize and energize, to inspire and invigorate world weary people."
With this new understanding of prophecy, not only can I affirm the gift of prophecy in those that I know, I am hopeful that prophets will continue to arise from within our own culture. I believe that one of the roles of the preacher is to serve as a prophet. Very often, people expect their pastors to simply preach out of complacency: "Here is something that I know you will agree with. So, please don't fire me." The role of the preacher as prophet is something completely foreign to this impulse. Sometimes, the preacher must dare his people to fire him.
As I think through it, I've known plenty of prophets. I would consider several of the authors that I have quoted on this blog to be prophets (two examples would be Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne). I have found that some of the most powerful prophets in our culture would probably not even consider themselves "Christians." Taylor Mali (the poet from the previous post) has quite a prophetic streak. Actually, Cornell West uses Bruce Springsteen as an example of a modern-day prophet (which I love).
When someone challenges us to consider the implications of our wealth in relation to the rest of the world's poverty, that is the voice of a prophet.
When someone points out that human trafficking is a global crime of unspeakable wickedness and that we must be aware of its implications in our own lives, that is the voice of a prophet.
When a pastor stands in front of his or her church and declares that this congregation must become a place of healing and restoration for people who are broken and empty, that is the voice of a prophet.
Thinking back on the moments in my life when I have been most challenged, I realize that the voice of encouragement that was pushing me to think or act in a new way was that of a prophet.
I wonder how different our lives would be if we were tuned in to the voices of the prophets all around us...