Awaken Series: Technical Considerations of Prophetic Prophecy [2 of 2]
(one of Antler’s goals is to foster discussion about poetry in religious life–offering content for faith communities to discuss, share, and contemplate. in that vein, we also give careful consideration to ministers who are thinking about using poetry and creative writing as a tool for spiritual formation. to that end, we’re going to be hearing from ministers and members of congregations as part of our “Awaken Series.” before reading this post, it this post is part two of a serial article about poetry and prophetic imagination in a contemporary context. in this post, Rod Dixon outlines issues that could jeopardize the ministry of the poet-prophet and some suggestions on living as a minister. for part one of this serial, please click here: The Shape of Poetic Prophecy)
Technical Considerations of Poetic Prophecy
The conclusion to Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (which I have encapsulated and expanded upon in The Shape of Poetic Prophecy) makes a compelling argument that a poetic prophecy is needed as much today as it was in the past. The frustrating thing about that book, however, was coming to the end and thinking: Okay, great. I feel called to be a poet-prophet. But how?
To partially answer that question of how, I want to turn to a seemingly unlikely source: ethics. In their book Kingdom Ethics, Glen Stassen and David Gushee identify four distinct elements that form our ethical character and thus determine how we interact with the world. In order for a prophetic message to have an effect, it must necessarily speak to or challenge one or more of these elements within its audience. As prophetic authors, we would do well to understand these elements and craft our words with them in mind.
The way we reason
Stassen and Gushee write, “Character requires consistency, and character without reason is likely to be highly inconsistent.” This is true, reason in indispensable in weighing and properly applying our moral principles. However, humans are amazingly skilled at suppressing awareness of any facts that are contrary to the narrative they want to believe about themselves. We are all susceptible to skewing our reason in favor of our own biases. The poet-prophet must identify these inconsistencies and make us painfully aware of the internal disharmony we otherwise naturally avoid, thereby calling us to greater integrity.
Our basic convictions
We all operate under a narrative. Parts of it may conflict, and we probably couldn’t put it all into words, but we all have beliefs about existence and our place in it. Whether it comes from our families, our culture, our friends, or our personal experience, we all have a worldview that shapes the way we think about human nature, good and evil, divinity, our life purpose, and so on.
It is often the prophet’s task to reveal the truth as best they can, and this involves naming and dispelling false narratives.
We see this throughout the Gospel. The people of Jesus’ time expected a messiah of privileged birth who would ride in on a war horse and violently take revenge on their enemies. Instead the messiah was cradled in a feeding trough, arrived riding a donkey he had to borrow, and embodied a message of peace and reconciliation. Jesus challenged the story of his time—which in many ways continues to be the dominant narrative of our time as well—and offered the Truth. His is the same story we must live with our lives and proclaim with our words.
Our loyalties are as much as product of our convictions as they are our sense of self-interest. Stassen and Gushee write that it is no surprise that military leaders put such high stock in strength, or that pastors believe “sermons change the world.” The economic necessity of some of our actions often keeps us from viewing them objectively.
The prophet’s of old were often called to speak out against idolatry, which in many ways is an issue of misplaced loyalty. Our idols may no longer be made of wood and stone, but we still today chose security over faithfulness, comfort over mercy, and self-interest over sacrificial loving kindness. Christ said we cannot serve two masters, and it is up to our prophets to ask who it is we are really serving.
The way we perceive
Perception is largely a creature of habit. We tend to see things the way we expect to see them. The poet-prophet can counteract this in two ways: 1. By shocking us into a new way of envisioning reality. 2. Encouraging participation in the kinds of communities and practices that shape positive habits and discourage those that do not. The latter may be the more important, as epiphanies have a notoriously short effect if they aren’t quickly grounded in something more substantial. Think Jesus in Matthew 13:20-21.
The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. (NASB)
Our prophetic witness, then, isn’t just about scattering seeds, but developing better soil. Perhaps by keeping these four elements of character in mind, the poet-prophet can do both a little more skill.
Rod Dixon is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), though he often gets mistaken for an old order Mennonite. His short-stories have appeared in several journals, most recently Red Rock Review, Euphony, and The Louisville Review. For fun he is the non-fiction editor of Ontologica: A Journal of Art and Thought. For money he researches and develops manufacturing procedures for a non-profit serving the blind and visually impaired. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.