Chapter 6: Reading the Prophets Again

I was introduced to the Biblical prophets after living in a 60’s communal context that considered Marx, Mao, Dylan and Andrew Lloyd Weber as profoundly prophetic. I understood prophetic to mean offering an entirely different and countercultural way to communicate and live. Street theatre, radical action and speech were part and parcel of being prophetic. Living in this context over time, I realized that the countercultural movement was not prophetic enough, and the fruits of the movement were ambiguous.

The sharp message of prophetic discontent was dulled by the blurring effect of psychedelic drugs and free speech that devolved into childish rage with little constructive critique. Burned out and just plain burned by this lifestyle, I turned to spiritual faith but found there only a return to the status quo, a relatively blind obedience to authority, rejection of the music of protest, and obliviousness to social injustice.

It was during this time I met Amos, an eighth century BCE sheepherder, fruit-picker from Tekoa. His message cut through the dull halls of the religious college I was attending and revived my older hopes and dreams for a different life and a different speech. While I was busy getting credentialed I learned of this non-credentialed farmer, who never attended the formal schools of the prophets. While I was safe in the cocoon of the like-minded, Amos spoke bluntly and honestly to a foreign and hostile environment of Samaria in the far North. While I was going cap in hand for scholarships from wealthy foundations, he was subjecting himself to danger insulting the cultural elites and their wives for their luxurious living. He spoke truthfully concerning God’s disapproval of the practices of foreign governments (war crimes, etc.) but slowly revealed that those who saw themselves as his people were the true foreigners to God’s way; they would be judged by a even higher standard.

Amos, unlike the so-called counterculture, didn’t allow me to preen myself on the mere knowledge of how it ought to be. He exposed me as the hypocrite that I was. At the same time Amos gave me hope. My hope became that I would hear a word that would propel me into a prophetic ministry, empowered not by my own strength, or knowledge, but a primary experience with God. Amos’ message and life turned me back to some of my earlier aspirations for personal renewal, social justice and building an alternative community.

Over the years since meeting Amos and others like him, I have waxed and waned in regard to their message. Undoubtedly, I have compromised and turned away from their striking at the root of culture and personal egocentrism, but their voices ever remind me of God’s desire for shalom. There have also been times when I misread, as prophetic inspiration, my immature rage at the way things are. My punitive harshness and self-righteousness has counterfeited for the love these individuals had for those they warned and encouraged. It is easy to attach the message of God to our own personal agendas and repressed emotional issues. An antidote to this inflation has come through the repeated ministration of the healing message of the greatest prophet-radical Jesus Christ, reminding me to love my enemy and expand the circle of inclusion as widely as possible. I am so grateful that I met Amos, Habakkuk, and Isaiah whose example and message have helped build our local community at Watershed.

Marcus Borg’s chapter on re-reading the prophets spells out the insights I mention above. He summarizes the various prophet personages, writings and rhetoric as well as warning modern readers to steer clear of what he calls the blinkers of the prediction-fulfillment modes of interpretation. He reminds us that instead of being foretellers the prophets were forth-tellers, human moral compasses pointing toward justice and peace. His distinction between the prophetic task of judgment and energizing is particularly pertinent to our times. There is much to critique in our society but there are resources to energize our communities of faith to live prophetically faithful lives. The message of the prophets is not primarily angry judgment but hopeful reconstruction. The prophets offer more than deconstruction. They offer a life in the presence of God.