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    Truth to Power

    What could the prophets of old reveal about today’s truth-tellers and false prophets?

    By Stephen Backhouse

    February 17, 2022
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    • Patrick Murray

      Thank you, Mr. Backhouse. This was a wonderful article addressing the role of prophets today in the Church. It is my hope that prophets within the Church today will have the courage to speak truth to power regardless of potential blowback from people claiming to be followers of Jesus while refusing to be shaped by Him.

    It has become a cliché that prophets speak truth to power, but like most clichés it has a basis in truth. Prophecy, it’s clear in the Old Testament, isn’t purely a theological matter – by its nature it has political and social ramifications.

    The matter of whether there is a universal, objective, and eternal truth or just subjective, changeable, and relative plural truths generates more heat than light in the noisy conversation between modern and post-modern commentators. So let me state my position clearly: the true prophet always conveys an objective truth. But the truth is not merely in the message; it resides in the stance prophets take toward their listeners. The true prophet reminds the self-satisfied of their flaws – that they are not good and that they are not God.

    In The Prophetic Imagination, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann sets out the task of prophecy: “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture.” The dominant culture of the Hebrew prophetic tradition was Egyptian and the paradigmatic prophet was Moses. Brueggemann describes how Moses, brought up to be a prince of Egypt, stood against it on behalf of the enslaved Hebrews. The royal consciousness knows it is dominant and thinks it is supreme. It believes it will never change and never be moved. But the Exodus story, with its protests, plagues, and miraculous manifestations, “dismantled the religion of static triumphalism by exposing the gods and showing that in fact they had no power and were not gods.”

    The program of Moses, Brueggemann is keen to remind us, is not merely “the freeing of a little band of slaves as an escape from the empire,” though that is important; rather, “his work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions.” It is an assault that does not end with Egypt. The role of the prophet does not disappear with the Exodus. Indeed, it grows in prominence in the scriptures precisely in those contexts where homegrown imperial consciousness arises – “the old history of Pharaoh is continued in the monarchy of Israel.” Wherever kings, priests, and princes establish themselves, Isaiah and Jeremiah are not far behind. “The prophets of Israel continue the radical movement of Moses in the face of royal reality.”

    The prophet argues the interests of the weak to the strong, sometimes represented by a single person: a queen, a boss, a president. In the Bible we often encounter prophets speaking to such grand eminences: Nathan to David, Amos to Jeroboam, John the Baptist to Herod. And yet often these prophets are also addressing the population the king represents; their message is directed at the actions, assumptions, and aspirations of an entire culture.

    ink drawing of a haggard looking man

    Emil Nolde, Prophet (Public domain)

    A closer look at the accepted narratives of any culture will reveal awkward facts ignored, histories revised, unheard voices. It’s the prophet’s job to require people to address their complacencies and assumptions; quite literally, the prophet intends to offend common sense. It’s the false prophet who confirms the powerful in their assumptions, reassures them that they’re as virtuous as they think, and perpetuates the lie that those with power are the purveyors of truth.

    Consider the following three examples drawn from different cultures, faiths, and political arrangements, which demonstrate that the role of “prophet,” in this limited sense, is not tied to any one ideology or religion, and that the question of true and false prophets is as relevant now as it was in the age of Moses, Amos, and John the Baptist.

    In June 2021 the Royal Academy of Arts in London withdrew the work of the textile artist Jess de Wahls from its gift shop. The academy explained itself in an online statement, claiming it had received numerous complaints for selling works “by an artist expressing transphobic views.” The complaints stemmed from a 2019 web post in which de Wahls featured an embroidery piece titled “Somewhere over the Rainbow, something went terribly wrong. …” De Wahls’s work is replete with LGBTQ+ iconography, and her art engages the feminist struggle for equal representation in conservative and patriarchal societies. And yet she finds troubling some entrenched ideas about gender and sex currently gripping her community. De Wahls’s concern is with the doctrine whereby self-identity is authoritative and sex is a social construct rather than a biological reality.“I have no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex (or in whatever way they please for that matter),” she writes. “However, I cannot accept people’s unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to when they were born and deserve to be extended the same rights as if they were born as such.” De Wahl is concerned that such attitudes undermine hard-won feminist progress. “I do not believe that these beliefs should override existing protections that are in place as a result of the biological realities of women, since their purpose is to relieve oppression based on women’s physicalities and reproductive functions (not identity or feelings).” As de Wahls herself predicted, when she published her views she was accused of “biological essentialism” by many of her former fans, and was branded a TERF, the pejorative term for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” The resulting controversy led to the removal of her works at the Royal Academy of Arts, accompanied by further recriminations within de Wahls’s own feminist artist community. She writes, “I find myself unable to go along with what now seems to be the only accepted narrative in ‘my circles.’” (She may not be crying entirely in the desert: within a matter of days the RAA reinstated her work and apologized to de Wahls, saying that its actions were “a ‘betrayal’ of its commitment to freedom of speech.”)

    On November 29, 2007, presidential hopeful Barack Obama held a fundraising event at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. One of his special guests and stage partners was Cornel West, a famous Black thinker, progressive spokesman, campaigner for racial justice, and professor of African American studies. According to commentator Michael Eric Dyson, Obama was drawn to West as “a juggernaut of the academy and an intellectual icon among the black masses” and praised him as “a genius, a public intellectual, a preacher, an oracle.” For his part, West dubbed Obama “my brother … companion, and comrade.” West went on to stump for Obama, contributing to at least sixty-five campaign appearances. The love affair was not to last long. By May 2011, West was publicly excoriating Obama in person and in print, bitterly describing him as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it. … I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone.” When challenged by fellow Black intellectuals and party stalwarts for abandoning the cause, West fired back: “We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful. … It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream.” Pushback to West’s stance came from former colleagues such as Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry, who published a rebuttal calling West’s diatribe “a self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness.”

    In December 2019, Kris Vallotton, lead pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, prophesied that Donald Trump would win a second term in 2020. Vallotton told his majority-Republican audience about a dream he had which he interpreted as divine revelation of Trump’s favored status. “The Lord wants it,” he said, to cheers from the crowd. On November 7, 2020, four days after Trump lost the election, Vallotton posted a video on his social media accounts apologizing for getting it wrong. Two days later, facing immense pressure from other Bethel leaders and from his thousands of followers, Vallotton retracted his apology. “After doing a lot more research, I decided to wait until the official vote count is complete as it appears that there is a significant amount of discrepancy in the process.” In January 2021, Vallotton reinstated the apology video.

    The Bethel brouhaha was one played out several times in Pentecostal and charismatic circles over the same period. By no means was Vallotton alone in confidently foretelling a Trump win, or in subsequently dithering over the right action to take when Trump lost. He was also not alone in facing a perfect storm of anger from an outraged, politically conservative audience – anger, it should be noted, that was not directed at the mistake, but at the apology. Christian “prophets” who predicted a Trump victory to adoring crowds that year include Paula White, Dutch Sheets, Shawn Bolz, Lance Wallnau, Johnny Enlow, and Jeremiah Johnson, whose high-profile prophecy predicting Trump’s first win in 2016 is seen by many as a watershed moment in charismatic nationalism. Many of these prophets continue to cling to their utterances. Johnson, like Vallotton, apologized for getting it wrong in 2020 and faced blowback as a result, including “multiple death threats and thousands upon thousands of emails from Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things I have ever heard toward my family and ministry.”

    Prophets speak not only to a specific group but from within it.

    The role of prophecy in American evangelical culture bears description. Here, a “prophet” is usually a self-appointed person who claims the ability to see, hear, or know the Lord’s will. Prophecies may take the form of foretelling the future or interpreting current events. Some, such as Vallotton, hold official positions in churches. Others, including Johnson, are freelance ministers, earning their livings through donations. One even assumed an official position in the government when Paula White served as special faith adviser to President Trump. Premier prophets attract tens of thousands of followers, command multimedia empires, and enjoy international platforms. Needless to say, this can be extremely lucrative. To people who are not Christians, and to Christians who are not part of the evangelical, charismatic culture, the whole enterprise can seem baffling at best, perverse at worst.

    And yet all groups – secular, religious, black, white, gay, straight, left, or right – have voices speaking in their midst that may be either true or false prophets. All groups have a common self-image that may be either coddled or challenged by those voices. When he issued (and reissued) his controversial apology, Vallotton said, “I think it doesn’t make me a false prophet.” Vallotton is correct. He was already a false prophet on December 8, 2019, a year before anyone could have known what would happen, not because he was mistaken in a prediction but because he claimed the prophetic voice when he told his own people what they already wanted to hear, to applause from the crowd. In their contexts, Jess de Wahls and Cornel West were prophetic because they spoke against the common assumptions of their respective spheres.

    Ironically, the apologies of Vallotton and Johnson go some way to restoring their bona fides, for the simple reason that these apologies are so unpopular among the audiences to which they are directed that making them stands as a sort of prophetic witness in itself. For these self-appointed prophets to fulfill their claims, however, they must consistently use their voices to counteract mistaken mindsets in their home cultures. And such a course of action is inevitably bad for business.

    Jesus says, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24). Prophets speak not only to a specific group but from within it. They have hometowns, and how their hometowns treat them can be a good indication of their integrity. When prophets do not tell the majority what its itching ears want to hear, they will be marginalized. There’s a reason the stereotype of the prophet shows him ragged, poor, carrying his placard in the face of jeers.

    Of course the content of the prophetic message is important too. Surely the overriding concern of the Old Testament prophets for the poor and the weak is an indication that prophecy must defend such people. However, prophetic witness can be directed on behalf of any despised group against any despising one. It is true that Jesus acts prophetically against the oppressors on behalf of his poor compatriots living in foreign-occupied regions. But he also acts prophetically when he heals Roman servants, raises rich people’s daughters from the dead, and feeds hated Samaritans and other gentiles, all in the face of hostile crowds of impoverished people. The most intense anger at him tends to come when he prophetically reminds his subjugated countrymen to love their enemies. Significantly, Jesus’ saying about prophets and hometowns belongs in the context of the home crowd wishing to guard itself against a perceived challenge to its own sense of ethnic privilege: “‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.’ All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this” (Luke 4:24–28). The dominant culture might be the rich and powerful, but it might also be the poor and aggrieved.

    The prophet reminds the powerful that their story is not the whole story, that their way is not the only way, and that they are not God.

    “For the time will come when people will not put up with true teaching. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3). To talk about prophets is to talk about power, and to talk about power is to talk about who controls the story a group tells itself about itself. Prophets are inextricable from the social environment. Agreed-upon forms of social life may be legal or political, but they are also economic, religious, ethnic, traditional. Collective agreement can be explicit, or it might be inferred, but collective agreement is how human societies work. However, there is a catch, for the whole truth of any situation can never be comprehended by any one entity. Whenever one finds a large group shouting with one voice, one may be sure that somewhere, somehow, smaller voices are being silenced or unheard. And with their absence comes a distortion of the truth that applies not only to those who speak the loudest or draw the biggest crowds. This is what Kierkegaard is getting at when he says that “the crowd is untruth.” And yet human groups love to be right, and individuals crave being among the right, and the righteous. The pressure of confirmation bias and sentimental narratives is enormous, and the authentic prophet is doomed to offend it.

    It is ironic that of our three examples, it is the professional prophet who failed the test of true prophecy when the academic and the artist did not. To be clear, it is not a prophet’s controversial opinions and conclusions which validate the role, it is whether the prophet speaks truth without calculating fear or favor. Insofar as the prophetic task treats with power, it is political. And insofar as it treats with truth it is theological. Whether they are overtly religious or not, when those with power act as if their beliefs are timeless, immutable, and true they arrogate to themselves properties of the divine. The prophet reminds the powerful that their story is not the whole story, that their way is not the only way, and that they are not God.

    Contributed By

    Stephen Backhouse is a political theologian. He is the author of the Essential Companion to Christian History, Kierkegaard’s Critique of Christian Nationalism, and the biography Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Stephen is the director of Tent Theology and the host of the popular Tent Talks podcast.

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