Tag Archives: prophets

Informed Deceit

I sign a lot of petitions. That’s because the job of prophet doesn’t pay well enough to support a family any more. What it does mean is that I get a lot of emails from causes looking for supporters. I don’t sign blindly. That was brought home to me the other day when I had an email from the “White House.” A more obvious effort at trying to scramble for table scraps of respectability I cannot imagine. Already since January our government has swooped to new lows of deception and now false news comes right to your inbox. This email informed me that Neil Gorsuch has overwhelming bipartisan support for his Supreme Court nomination. Being an individual with a working brain, I know that’s not true. The “White House” wanted me to sign a petition supporting Gorsuch when I’ve already signed several protesting his candidacy. It’s clear that our government wants a court prophet.

Isn’t it odd, I mused, that a government that has no intention of listening to the majority is sending a petition to support one of its own? We know that the Russian Party (formerly known as the GOP) will support anything Thurston Howell the President hands them. Such a petition is only a way of saying “I told you so.” I miss the days when Isaiah could walk right into king Hezekiah’s bedroom and say “Thus saith the Lord…” These days the Lord tweets and the chirplings in the nest beg for more worms. You see, court prophets know which side their palms are crossed on. This isn’t Ash Wednesday, it’s Ash Administration.

Court prophets, in ancient times, were those paid by the government to support what the king wanted to do. It was a cushy job. What the reigning Trump wants at the moment he or she (for the modern court prophet can double-cross her own gender) proclaims it as God’s will. No experience necessary. The thing about the Bible, though, is that court prophets are pretty roundly condemned. The real prophet could generally be told by the fact that he (less commonly she in those days) was dead. Or soon to be. Those in power seldom care for criticism. Especially when skeletons are fighting each other for elbow room in their closets. Even so, Holy Writ says, figuratively, that it’s better to be a living politician than a dead prophet. If that doesn’t sound biblical, read the words of the prophet: “Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp… and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.”

Blizzard Warning

The dangers of prognostication were well known in antiquity. Most prophets, who didn’t so much tell the future as warn about probable outcomes, weren’t the most popular of people. They knew that feeling of walking into a crowded room and announcing their career had something to do with religion only to have the place fall silent. Cricket chirps. We all have our secret sins we’d rather not have some stranger judge. So it is with the weather. Something like this must’ve been in the back of my mind as I was trying to write Weathering the Psalms. I lived in Wisconsin in the days before Paul Ryan and, like said Ryan, tornados could strike at any time, unannounced. My family and I spent an anxious afternoon or two in the spider-infested basement based on the inherently uncertain predictions of how a nearby tornado might move.

Those of us in the northwest are sitting here wondering about this monster nor’easter. It’s been in the making for several days and the forecasters, unlike the prophets of old, have been hedging their bets. If this massive cold front from the midwest fails to meet up with the intense storm off the east coast we could end up with only a smattering of snow. If the two collide, well, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel together can’t help us. It’ll be like the book of Revelation. Only colder and with far more snow. Oh to be able to predict the future! It would certainly help when it comes to deciding whether to climb onto that bus or not. I mean a simple rainstorm can add two hours to the homeward commute without the threat of a meteorological Trump coming our way. I thought Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow.

Although predicting the future wasn’t really what prophets did, it didn’t take long before people thought that’s what they were up to. People have always wanted to have the advantage of being able to see disasters before they arrived. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to know the results of 11/9 before Thurston Howell the President was elected? We could’ve bought our Russian grammars and dictionaries before there was a run on the local Barnes and Noble. At the same time I politely dispute the saying that hindsight is 20/20. If we could see anything that clearly we would be such Untied States at the moment. Right now the glass seems to be falling and the wind’s picking up from the northeast. What does it mean? Nobody really knows.

Prophetic Shaman

Lewis EcstaticDon’t complain. So I’m told. Work with the system (i.e., the privileged), do your part, and most of all, don’t complain. What would Jeremiah do? Or any of the prophets? It seems to me that prophets had the job of calling out where society had gone wrong and doing so with a healthy dose of complaint. If you don’t call out evil, it only grows. Prophets come to mind because I’ve just finished reading I. M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. Spirit possession is chic, at least in the horror movie industry, but if you get beyond the stereotypes, you soon learn that inspired, or ecstatic, religion is largely based on good possession. The gods can temporarily inhabit the shaman, and, as Lewis points out, there is often an element of the underprivileged being those who are visited by the gods. Interestingly enough, indigenous cultures that feature shamans—or shaman-like practitioners—accept the rebuke of the gods, even when it may be a thinly veiled attempt to right an obvious wrong.

Shamanism is a bit of a misnomer. Not really a religion, but a set of spiritual practices originating among the Tungus of Siberia, shamanism is now conveniently applied to native peoples around the world. In our love of easy classification, we like to say this belief is similar to that belief, so they must be a type of religion. In fact, however, “religion” is much more integrated into the daily lives of indigenous peoples and specific beliefs vary widely. Nevertheless, we understand possession and shamanism, and we apply them as categories to try to make sense of it all. Lewis does so with an anthropologist’s eye, finally in the last chapter addressing the psychological questions. It is often claimed, for instance, that shamanism is a form of mental illness. What seems clear to me is that shamans are responsible for preventing injustice from getting too far established.

And that brings me back to prophets. Prophets, particularly among those who study the Bible, are often seen as religious authorities. It seems to me that prophets, as opposed to priests, grew out of the untamed concern for justice typically exhibited by shamans. Priests are establishment religionists. They support the government and the government supports them. Temples are built. Religion is regularized. Prophets, however, can come from anywhere. They are liminal figures, complaining, in God’s name, when injustice appears. They don’t support the status quo just because it makes people comfortable. In other words, complaint is often the only way to make the divine will known. They are the heirs of the shamans. One thing that’s pretty obvious—whether you live in Siberia, Israel, or America—shamans are still sorely needed.

Being Sheepish

Being among the animals at the fair, you begin to notice things that are foreign to those of us with exposure only to the house-pet variety of fellow creatures. Up close, for example, sheep are bigger than you might think they are. Since they’re domesticated and wooly, I tend to think of them as little—maybe knee-high—and in need of constant attention. The truth gives the lie to such false constructs. It was in the course of seeing sheep that I found out about Shrek. Shrek the sheep, now unfortunately deceased, has his own Wikipedia page. This was a single-minded ungulate who decided that the ’70’s lifestyle wasn’t truly over. The New Zealander took off from his heard, to avoid shearing, so the story goes, and hid in a cave for six years. With echoes of Odysseus, the ruminant survived just fine without human help and grew a serious coat of wool. When finally discovered and, of course, sheared, he gave enough wool to make suits for twenty men. Shrek had to be euthanized four years ago.

The story might have ended there. Shrek, however, fueled the imagination of several Christian writers who saw all kinds of parables in the lifestyle of this prodigal sheep. After all, in the pastoral culture of first-century Palestine, sheep suggested themselves as the fodder for the original set of Christian parables. Sheep wander, get lost, and get saved. They need someone to look after them. A good shepherd, preferably. In fact, sheep tales go further back in time, even to the Hebrew Bible. Perceptive prophets noticed how similar we are to our distant, quadruped cousins. It would be very odd, in hindsight, if nobody had picked up on the story. The mental picture is simply too appropriate.

394px-Flock_of_sheep

Metaphors, some have argued, are what make us human. We can see ourselves projected into just about any part of nature, and looking at nature, we can spy ourselves. Parables, by their definition, are never literal. We have to peer into them and find truths that gainsay the obvious. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit to being very much like Shrek. Who doesn’t want to run away and hide from what “the man” instructs us to do, against our own will? Yes, sheep have wills. Like any sentient creature, they have a sense of what they want and the best way to survive. With our fancy neocortex, we’ve domesticated sheep and bred many of their natural tendencies out of them forever. Still, I’m heartened to learn of Shrek the sheep. The lesson I draw from his story may not be the same as many Christian websites, but it will be no less true, I should think, for being such.

Theomockracy

“From Santorum to Graham, the ferociously religious are doing religion no favors at the moment, and it’s beginning to feel as though we may need to save faith from the extreme pronouncements of the faithful,” so writes Jon Meacham in this week’s issue of Time. Theocracy is a scary word. It didn’t work in ancient Israel, and it is difficult to believe that our society is morally more advanced than things were back then. I mean, they had Moses looking over their shoulders, and Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah to point out each misstep. We have Santorum, Bachmann, Palin, and Gingrich. This playing field would be an abattoir, and I have no doubts that the true prophets would be the only ones left standing should it come to blows. The odd thing is, the ancient Israelites, evolving into the Jewish faith, came to recognize that maybe they misunderstood some of what their stellar, if mythic, founders were saying. Rule by God is great in theory, but in practice it leaves a nation hungry.

It is difficult to assess the sincerity of modern day theocrats. We know that politicians are seldom literate or coherent enough to write their own speeches, and we know that they tell their would-be constituents what they want to hear. It shouldn’t surprise us that they belch forth juvenile pietism and call it God’s will, for we have taught them that elections are won that way. My real fear is that one of them might mean what they say. Could our nation actually survive even half a term with a true theocrat at the helm? W may have played that role, but there was a Cheney pulling the strings behind the curtain. Some guys like the God-talk, others prefer to shoot their friends in the faces. Either way it’s politics.

I take Meacham’s point. In all this posturing and pretending, the would-be theocrats are making a mockery of what the honestly religious take very seriously. If they want to get right with God there are conventional channels to do so. The White House is not one of them. They swear to uphold the ideals of the Constitution that, with considerable foresight, protects us from theocracy. The history they prefer, however, is revisionist and their constitution begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Their use of the Bible offends those who take the document seriously. Theocracies have never worked in the entire history of the world. Those who ascribe to mythology as the basis for sound government should add Thor, Quetalcoatl, and Baal to their cabinet and pray for a miracle.

The implacable face of politics

One Percent Solution

A colleague just pointed out an article in Vanity Fair that should be required reading for all Americans and it should be offered with a generous quaff of nepenthe. Please pardon any excess indignation you may find in today’s post. Whenever I’m teaching my course on the Hebrew Prophets I tend to get swept into the spirit of their oracular outrage. The latest statistics reveal that 40 percent of American income goes to only 1 percent of the population. Despite protests to the contrary, wealth does not trickle down like milk and honey (even though the latter takes its sweet time). The disparity between the ultra-wealthy and the middle class, as suggested by the article, has its closest analogues in Russia and Iran. Once the top is reached all political systems begin to look the same. Even President Obama’s budget will continue the legacy of tax cuts to the wealthy.

Where is the outrage? Americans are among the most complacent people in the world. Kept at the cusp of sufficiency, most people will not complain. Louis XVI himself could waltz into congress and be heartily greeted by his peers. All things being equal, if we the bottom 99 percent have enough then complaint is only sour grapes. All things being equal, however, is always hypothetical. All things are not equal. While many hard-working people are caught in a cycle of diminishing returns the bloated oligarchs help themselves to performance bonuses lofty enough to support hundreds of suffering families for a year. “Let them eat fake,” one can almost hear them say.

In the idealistic world of the Bible a pipe-dream was touted. Wealth itself is not evil, but it comes with an obligation. Trickle-down is a dried wadi in summertime. The wealthy are obligated to make certain that their fellow citizens all have enough. No one gets two houses before everyone has one. Once this level of fairness is reached, go ahead and get stinking rich. But that principle has never been realized. Those who have always require more. From those in such stratospheric positions magnanimity cannot be expected; for others to benefit some of their astronomic wealth must be taken. What are taxes for? Josef Stalin is laughing in his grave and shaking hearty hands with P. T. Barnum. They share a cigar and neither one of them need speak the motto they both know to be as true as the gospel.

Trickle-down economics

The Sign of Jonah

The Sign of Jonah?

Each year during the spring semester my Prophets class brings new levels of fixation on those familiar characters that so few actually know. The process began early this year. With several students of eastern Christian persuasion, Jonah became an issue based on the folkloristic nature of the tale. Jonah is particularly prone to a literal interpretation because of the “sign of Jonah” trope cited by none other than Jesus himself. Also, as I learned in my doleful days at Gorgias Press, many eastern Christians understand Jonah as a special favor to them, sent by Yahweh well before Christianity began. Even with the full weight of history against them, the students are unwilling to relinquish Jonah to his native literary genre. Then came Isaiah.

Isaiah is the most heavily co-opted prophet in the canon. Well, one might put Elijah in the running, and it would be a Chariots of Fire finish I’m sure, but as the most quoted prophet in the Christian Scriptures, Isaiah would come out on the Liddell end. So massive is this sense of ownership that Isaiah’s direct prophecy concerning the Syro-Ephramite Crisis in 7.13-17 is incapable of being understood as anything other than a prediction of a virgin birth some seven centuries down the road. Interestingly enough, it is the literal sense of this passage that is generally overlooked in favor of a later interpretation.

Even the sense of what prophecy was in the ancient world has been altered to an unrecognizable jumble by later agendas. Prophets spoke out regarding current issues (“the two kings you dread”), occasionally providing future, generally conditional, remarks. In our apocalypse-hungry society, pundits are eager for the culmination of all things and the more fireworks the better. If old Jonah and Isaiah were sitting together in a bar I can imagine the stories they’d exchange. And it wouldn’t be a whale (excuse me, “big fish”) that would be doing most of the swallowing.