on the place of prophets in the modern day

“I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” — Elijah (1 Kings 19.10)

One of the tragic things about modern American Christianity is the bastardization of the prophet’s office. Myriad late-night infomercial lunatics and scores more with crude, minimal HTML/WYSIWYG skills out there, claiming the title of prophet with little, if any actual understanding of what it means to be a prophet, or what it means to operate prophetically.

Prophets do not see the future; they see, in the current moment, abrogations of responsibility: injustice. The Hebrew Bible demonstrates this pretty clearly: when Israel’s leadership became less interested in Torah and more in their self-interest and whoring themselves out to regional powers and alien deities, the prophet (judges can be included here, too) showed up, speaking truth to power and sometimes getting the crap kicked out of them in the process. John the Baptist acted as a prophet heavily influence by the  prophetic-protest sect of Judaism, the Essenes, preaching repentance for the impending kingdom of God. His message wasn’t one of future-orientation, it was of taking care of business in the moment. And given all the talk of the kingdom with the spectre of a vassal monarchy in Jerusalem looming overhead, it wasn’t surprising that the response to JtB, amongst others, was to do so with coup d’etat in the back of their minds. John was later arrested and executed for his rabble-rousing, and we ought not forget that he, too, demonstrated existential anxiety in the message God entrusted to him.

Elijah, too, wasn’t exactly the knight in shining armor we typically think of when we think of the protagonists of the Biblical accounts. Several years ago, I spent a few weeks in my campus ministry going through the aforementioned passage in 1 Kings, showing that great and mighty acts of divine intervention do not a holy man make. In fact, it’s not beyond the imagination to see Elijah getting his ego stroked with the reanimation of the widow’s son, the vial of oil that never ran dry, and his mouthing off at Mt. Carmel. We love these stories for our propensity toward finding a “God wins!” moral in every Bible story. Such thinking is not just simplistic, but misses entirely the power of the account to remind us of exactly how frail we are. It is, in a very real sense, self-delusion.

This account, one of my favorites in the scripture, takes place just after what we typically think of as Elijah’s magnum opus, showing up the hundreds of false prophets at Mt. Carmel. But what happens in the face of such a victory? Israel doesn’t see the light or have a tent meeting: they call for Elijah’s head. With all these miracles and demonstrations of power, one would think Elijah would have turned into Neo or something, unleashing holy vengeance against a reprobate Israelite administration. After all, this is the same guy who saw the chariots of fire in the sky, right?

What really happened? He, with tail firmly tucked between legs, ran for his life. The other prophets had either been slaughtered or hidden away (as seen in the passage, unbeknownst to Elijah) and he found, in the wake of his most notable success, that it made more sense to fly than fight. It is his greatest mistake, and when God calls him out on it, Elijah makes up a half-hearted justification about how he’s the last one and that he’s done so much already and that he really, really, really, really loves God.

And of course, God is unimpressed, kicks him in the pants and tells him to get back to work.

As long as people and institutions are, well, people and institutions, they will inexorably and fantastically fail. They will fail as much as they succeed, if not more. They will from time to time become more interested in themselves. You see, they’re people and institutions–surprise!–and entropy will do what entropy does. And, when they become big and/or successful and/or powerful and/or influential, they will rest on their laurels and coast toward disorder and decay, just like Elijah. When communities or institutions do this, a prophet comes on the scene to upend the status quo. And this is not necessarily strictly for the religious, either: anyone who comes on the scene seeking reform and restoration takes up Elijah’s mantle. Thomas Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions acts as the perfect blueprint for how systems codify, die and petrify without voices that challenge the status quo. Where would the West be without Copernicus? The Church without a Tyndale, Gutenberg or Luther? Economics without Adam Smith? Rock and roll without Sam Phillips? What if Bob Dylan didn’t plug in at Newport in 1965? Or baseball without Billy Beane’s Moneyball approach?

What can be said of the church now? I don’t see anyone seriously suggesting that everything is a-ok in the ranks. In fact, I see a lot of clamoring for divine intervention via revival and a lot of sincere believers who have abandoned the faith in favor of escaping a suffocating and homogenized subculture.

The West, that great civilization of constitutional government, vigilant vanguard of reason and the inheritors of the ancient Greco-Roman dialectical traditions, is systematically killing the prophets. Unsurprisingly, the church and its colonies of believers are doing the exact same thing. Those fringe Pentecostal folks who lately were complaining about the spirit of Jezebel in the ranks weren’t that far off the mark, after all. Of course, broken clocks are right twice a day, too. Those who are in the rank-and-file are compelled to keep their mouths shut or hide behind the usual platitudes: unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials; a twisted perspective on ‘speaking the truth in love’; and one that I heard in my own upbringing, that the kingdom of God is bigger than the Assemblies of God.

They might as well be handing Elijah a last cigarette and asking what he’d like for dinner.

And to all of those ready-made cop-outs, I offer a prophetic middle finger.

The time has come for those who have a prophetic knack for denouncing injustice and mediocrity to take up the mantle and find their voices once more. It’s not rebellion we’re going for, but reform. There are doctrines to be challenged with the authority of scripture and the force of rhetorical integrity. There are social ills that must be denounced and treated. There are dramatic moves in the halls of power against liberty and justice (and they’ve been going that way for some time.) And there is no more time to waste, for there is nothing left for us now but now. One of history’s most powerful forces for reform sits in an easy chair in a church lobby-turned-cafe, drinking bad coffee, listening to the same four chords, waiting for Gabriel to blow that trumpet.

All things, when left to themselves, tend toward disorder. Pretty well sums up our state of affairs, no? And what will we do with a civilization in cardiac arrest, dying from years of sloth and self-concern?

As long as there are prophets in the caves, there is hope. As recent history has shown us, though, hope does us no favors, provides us no relief and can be easily manipulated against those who hold onto it. Hope is worthless when it is placed in an ethereal notion of escape or in the hands of smooth-operating politicians. That hope needs to translate into salvation, and that will only happen when the prophets come back from the caves and speak clearly to a system–any system–that has come off its moorings.

When Elijah ran from his anxieties, God asked him a very simple question. And God was unimpressed with Elijah’s whiny, self-righteous response. That question continues to echo throughout the (p)ages, and is asked of us now.

What are you doing here?


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