So, it’s moving day.Amid all the packing and sorting—outside the regular 9 to 5—I realized that this was the first move I’ve made outside the constraints of academia.Well, maybe not strictly so, but I left Nashotah House in the summer, and I was unemployed when I moved to New Jersey to start in the publishing world, so there was no office work involved.The move without changing a job is a tricky thing.And exhausting.
I didn’t write about the process early on, in case it didn’t happen.Buying a house is an exercise fraught with peril and it can collapse at several junctures over the three-or-so months it takes to finalize things.Then there’s the move itself.Back in January I found myself setting books aside that I thought I might not need again in the next few months.We started hauling boxes down from the attic to pack those books in February and March.We finally made an offer on a house in May, and now, seven months after the process began, we’re ready to move.Or so I tell myself.
Our last move didn’t go exactly as planned.Like Bartleby and Loki, we were moving from Wisconsin to New Jersey, perhaps seeking our destiny.Who knows—maybe undoing the universe?We hired Two Men and a Truck to move us.My brother in New Jersey said he’d meet the truck since it was going to take us a little longer to get there.On arrival day, no truck.We called the company to find that the said Two Men had actually abandoned said Truck in a parking lot in Chicago.Although embarrassed, the big Two Men upstairs made no offer of a discount on the move, even if it cost my brother an extra day of work.We’re hoping for better things this time around.
International Van Lines didn’t call the night before, like they said they would.After a somewhat restless night (should I stay or should I go?) my usual 3 a.m. internal alarm kicked in.An email, like a thief in the middle of the night, told us when to expect the big guys and their vehicle.Moving is kind of like prophecy in that regard.In any case, for those accustomed to early posts, there will be a delay tomorrow since the internet people are finishing the virtual move around 11 a.m.Church time on Sunday.If we pull this move off, I might have to admit there are miracles after all.
Prophetic is a word I seldom use for movies. Prophetic, by the way, doesn’t mean predicting the future. Prophecy was about establishing rightness on the earth. Dress it up with God or dress it down to a girl being shot for wanting an education, prophecy is a necessary ingredient in being human. Black Panther is a prophetic movie. I don’t keep up with comic books, and many regions of the Marvel Universe are unexplored by me. I have no idea if the comics bear the strong message of social justice that this film does, but I left the theater blown away. If those who have the power could only be interested in good rather than personal gain, what a world we could have.
The message of not making race, but humanity, central is one that we have yet to learn. It is so basic, so simple that a child understands it. Somehow world leaders don’t. Any secret advantage is kept in order to make things better for ourselves. To make us feel more secure. To put us in the place of making decisions for others. In Black Panther even the enemy isn’t evil. Humanity is it’s own enemy. We sometimes forget that we have it within our ability to make life fair and equitable. We can share what we have and end jealousy. The Gospel of Adam Smith, however, has supplanted that of Jesus Christ. Just ask the one-percent. The one percent who haven’t most assuredly seen this movie.
I had no idea what to expect when I walked into that theater, but it was nothing short of an epiphany. As it has been from ancient times, one can always tell when they’ve been in the company of a prophet. We’ve come to dislike prophets because they make us uncomfortable. They possess something we can’t have. Integrity. The dignity of the conviction of what anyone can see is rightness. Such things can’t simply be taken, crammed onto a boat, and sold. Prophets bear the burden of speaking the truth. Black Panther may be unlike most prophets in that it is reaching a huge audience. And rightfully so. It is the antidote to the poison that’s surging through the veins of this country for far too long. Even those who will dismiss it simply as another fantasy—it’s a superhero movie—need to see this vision of what a world can be. It’s not very often that a prophetic movie appears, but the days of prophecy, it seems, aren’t over yet.
Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.
Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons
This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.
Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.
Words. They can be slippery sometimes. Take for example the word “revelation.” It can be secular or sacred, and if the latter, general or specific. Many recognize it as the title of the final book of the Bible, and some can’t even get enough of it and make it plural—Revelations. “Revelation” is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, the “original” title of the book. It has been a source of contention as well as fascination just about since John—whoever he was—put quill to parchment. Elaine Pagels, whose work is always rewarding to read, plays on the singular/plural convention that raises the ire of many a biblical scholar. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is a refreshing change from what I read in college and seminary. No book exists without a history and that of the Apocalypse is colorful indeed. And it revolves around what has been traditionally taught about “revelation.”
The current final book of the New Testament presents itself as a revelation. It isn’t, however, the only book from this time period to do so. Many revelations existed, as did many gospels, in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. Some early leaders of the Christian movement who became inordinately influential decided that John’s revelation would be okay to keep but the rest should be destroyed. And they very nearly were. Some were recovered by the fortuitous discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. These texts have preserved some of the other gospels and revelations that rivaled those of the current canon. It is in her close observations about their continuities and the motivations behind the politics of early Christians that Pagels sheds fascinating light on how Revelation became a tool of manipulation in a power struggle, primarily for centralized religious control of Egypt. Looking at headlines even now we know that it never really worked.
Revelation very nearly didn’t make the canonical cut. Many church leaders of the fourth century believed it spurious and not entirely helpful. It has, however, arguably become the most influential book of the Bible. Evangelicalism is hard to imagine without some kind of end times dispensational viewpoint that owes its existence to John of Patmos. Reformers, while not caring for the book, saw Revelation’s usefulness as a cudgel to strike at Rome. The papacy likewise saw it as a vivid threat against reformers. Those who took sola scriptura a little too literally used Revelation as the focal point of their hope and practice. Today we’re left with Left Behind and the Rapture and the Antichrist, whether they occur in Revelation or not. (They don’t, but who’s counting?) Pagels will give anyone plenty to think about here, and she’ll do it in surprisingly few words.
My edition of 1984 contains an afterword by Erich Fromm. I’m afraid I’ve been in publishing long enough to be somewhat cynical about “value-added content” that’s used to sell subsequent printings. Those who buy a book off the shelf want the text of George Orwell’s classic, not the comments of some academic, right? The intended market, however, is for classroom use—the sweet spot for academic publishers. A few adoptions at major university and what is otherwise any old tome from the used book market becomes a profitable venture. My edition of 1984 is a 62nd impression with a copyright of 1961. The class I took where it had to be read was two decades later than that. In any case, Erich Fromm. I first learned about him in college, and given the underlining in his essay I know I read it back when I took the class. In rereading it decades later, an un-remembered point came clearly to me—Fromm’s brief essay is on prophecy.
In the popular mindset, prophecy is predicting the future. While there’s some element of that in the Bible, by far the majority of prophetic texts serve as a warning to change how things are done before it’s too late. There’s a contingency about it. “Or else.” If there’s no possibility of change, why castigate people you’re only going to destroy anyway? Prophecy, despite its often dire outlook, is ultimately hopeful. Wrote Fromm “it was quite obviously [Orwell’s] intention to sound a warning by showing where we are headed.” But more important are the next words: “for unless we succeed in a renaissance of the spirit of humanism and dignity” all will be lost. The spirit of humanism.
Fromm was writing during the nuclear fear that I recall very well from childhood. As soon as I was old enough to comprehend what we had created, I feared we would eventually loose it upon ourselves. I was hardly a humanist at the time, but I was, even in my young days, an unwitting advocate of its spirit. I believed all people had a chance, or should have a chance. Foreign evil, as it was being presented by Ronald Reagan, seemed more fictional than Orwell. The average person didn’t want war. It was the Party that needed our fear. I graduated from college, seminary, and my doctoral program, eventually forgetting Fromm’s words. The Whitehouse had finally found its way out of the Bushes and into moderate humanism. Then Fromm came back.
Prognostication used to be the remit of oversized rodents and individuals we’d now classify as mad. And news used to be stories about things that had already happened. Past tense things. I don’t read any daily newspapers—a personality flaw, I know—but I do read stories that are sent my way, even if it takes some time. One of the things I’ve noticed, particularly in this election year, is the amount of prediction that passes as news. Future tense reporting. And the future is very tense.
Always one to assume that others know more than I do, I consider the opinions of experts as more valid than my own. After all, they are paid for what they think. Nobody spends good money on amateur opinion, which is one of the cheapest resources available in the civilized world. So when I read the headlines about what to expect this fall I see that the prophets and anti-prophets are lined up along party lines and, if democracy holds up, we’ll find out which group is which, come November. This makes me wonder what life would’ve been like under biblical prophets. No, their job was not primarily foretelling—future prediction was a small percentage of their job description—but they occasionally made political predictions when the boss told them to. Some people think they were primarily concerned with a future political figure, even if Messiah isn’t exactly an elected position. Hoi polloi must have been in a state of high anxiety. Who’s right? We know that for every prophet, according to the laws of rhetoric, there must be an anti-prophet. If a message is coming from on high we don’t know from whom.
Long ago media moguls learned that anxiety sells papers. Or news broadcasts. Sales boom after disasters. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! I’ve seen it in movies and televisions shows, so I know it must be true. As if real life events don’t generate enough trauma, we speculate about a future that tends towards the bleak. What’s a polis to do? The dilemma hasn’t changed in the millennia since we’ve outgrown prophecy—there’s no way to know who’s right. It’s all speculation. As for me, I wonder what the local groundhog thinks. And while we’re at it, could we get a bit nicer weather for a while? I thought the prophecy was April showers bring May flowers, not the other way around. But then again, my opinion is a decidedly amateur one.
Nothing encourages sleeping in like a blizzard. Although it’s a talent I’ve largely lost over the years, hearing the bellows of the wind and seeing the white reflecting through the blinds, and being a Saturday morning form the perfect recipe for letting my brain relax enough to fall back asleep after I’ve awoken. It’s a guilty pleasure that I had, quite honestly, nearly forgotten. Unlike several winter storms predicted last year, this one has actually come to pass. Prediction of the future may be one of those “God-of-the-gap” things, but meteorologists are modern-day prophets. In a society driven by work uniformity, days off are unwelcome, so a weekend blizzard might just seem to come from God. The highly anticipated list of school closings simply doesn’t apply. Many businesses still recognize the sanctity of the weekend, and we can just roll over and go back to sleep.
In ancient times the weather was anything but natural. The sky—so large and so far away—was purely the realm of the divine. The only way to impact it from down here was to pray and sacrifice and hope that it would behave. Getting back to that view of the world is nearly impossible here in the twenty-first century. We are so accustomed to natural causation that it is just one of those “butterfly effect” things. In truth, though, we know that human activity also has to share some blame with the butterfly.
Winter storms in January are not uncommon in the northern hemisphere, of course. January hurricanes, however, are. And as political rhetoric heats up and we once again ponder what it would be like to have another clown in the White House, global warming is dismissed as just another bad joke. As a nation we’ve been enamored of those who can provide the most entertaining gaffs and still claim they know enough to lead the nation. I have a hard time believing those who voted for Reagan had any success at separating fiction from fact. I still can’t convince myself that W was legitimately elected. The second term of both of these actors freezes me as much as the chill draft making its way through my apartment. The meteorologists nailed this one with their predictions. I’ll stay inside and huddle under my blankets until the all clear. And that may not be until well after November.