04 June 2017

Of Prophets

I have always been drawn to the figure of the prophet. Not the fairy-tale type who mutters mysterious things and then says ‘now you must seek your own destiny!’ But the real-world ones as recorded in the Bible. These prophets are strange, controversial people wracked with passion and anger. Most of the time, people don’t like them very much. Sometimes they seem to have gone insane. God seems to use them rather roughly, as well.

My interest in the prophets had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve always found the book of Isaiah beautiful and compelling. I mostly thought of the book in terms of the words, but a while back I had a Rabbi-professor who gave us an assignment to write an essay about a section or a story in the Bible. Naturally I chose Isaiah: it’s poetic! It’s epic!

But I had to do the research into the historical period, the political situation under which Isaiah wrote, and the very nature of the prophets of ancient Judea. This necessitated my very happy introduction to the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel whose book The Prophets is highly recommended.

This investigation into the nature, history, and calling of the prophets helped me to finally understand my own love for the biblical prophets. They are living and breathing bridges between God and man. They are caught in the middle. Berating the people with justice, passion, and wrath, pleading to God on their behalf with mercy, love, and hope. They have fire in their bones, and their lips are touched with coals. They are angry. They are heartbroken. They are half-mad. They are “some of the most disturbing people who ever lived,” said Heschel.

We always think of the person who stands in the middle and argues for both sides as a compromiser or an appeaser. Pick a side already, we say. But the prophets are the least compromising people on the planet. Jeremiah thought he would burn up from the inside if he didn’t say what God had given him to say. No room for compromise. Seemingly, the only one the prophets ever managed to please was God, though we get no insight on that score.

They will be threatened with death, called traitors and liars, they will be hated and even killed, all so they can speak the truth. For they have been yanked out of the crowd as with a hook, and have had God’s own words poured into them, and we can imagine that it truly is “a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

The Translator:

If you’ll pardon the deeply personal perspective, one of the reasons the prophets strike me so is that they are, in one sense, translators. I cannot help but see this.

Sometimes a translator may find themselves interpreting between two antagonists. This is a very tricky situation. We would assume, at first, that the translator must remain neutral: they must not coerce the language to achieve their own preferred outcome, nor prefer one party over the other. But, really, they must be anything but neutral. They must be passionate, and accurate, and wholehearted in both directions. They must be invested in the ideal outcome for both sides.

Now, the prophet as translator is in a quite different situation in at least one regard, for he stands as intermediary between One who is utterly righteous, and a people unrighteous. The languages of either side, so to speak, are not on equal footing. This is a higher language—an ineffable language, really—being translated downward.

“But what appears to us as wild emotionalism must seem like restraint to [the prophet] who has to convey the emotion of the Almighty in the feeble language of man.”  -A.J. Heschel

Regardless, the prophet is still positioned as the intermediary and it is because he cares for both sides—belongs to both sides—that he is torn in spirit. He ultimately is God’s. He is also human. If Israel falls, so does he. If plagues, if famine, if ruin befall the people, they befall him too. If the people are sinful and of unclean lips, so is he. He is a citizen of both nations, heavenly and earthly. He is both conduit and recipient of what God has to say.

No small wonder that the prophet trembles and raves.

Divine Tension

Most of us have heard of the concept of divine tension before—the idea that something must be put in careful, taut balance. Not this, but not quite that either. Perhaps there are times where the phrase feels like an escape hatch out of a very sticky subject—like predestination vs. free will—but that is probably because in God all things are exactly as they should be, whereas we are wild pendulums, and seem always hurrying to extremes. We antagonize intellectualism in favor of emotionalism, then turn around and hold emotions in contempt so as to revere only intellect (God gave us both). We forget we have sins to forgive, and then forget that our sins are forgiven. We forget wrath to talk only of grace, then forget grace in order to indulge in wrath.

The prophet embodies our broad-scale pendulum swings in so concise a manner, it’s almost as if he’s trying to contain two seemingly opposing truths in his mouth at one time. And so he is. The words of the prophets roll up against us like waves, rising with anger, then crashing down with mercy, towering over with wrath, then relenting to forgiveness, heaving up with judgment, then rolling to the shore with love. Again, and again, and again.

Yes, it has a whiplash effect. Yes, it is confusing. But instead of dismissing one part for the other, perhaps we should consider that this is yet another instance of “the feeble language of man” being unable to contain God.

Perhaps the many instances of divine tension which we encounter in the scripture, in theology, are simply the best translations we can receive of God’s thoughts, and God’s ways, which are higher, and which are not ours.

Prefiguring Christ:

“He who loved his people, whose life was dedicated to saving his people, was regarded as an enemy” –A.J. Heschel, speaking on the prophets.

Make no mistake, the prophets suffered. In varying ways and degrees, but in New Testament retrospect, persecution was considered one of the major characteristics of a prophet. And for what does the prophet suffer? Telling the truth. Telling people what they don’t want to hear. Speaking of hypocrisy, sin, and punishment—yet also hope and renewal and rising from the ashes.

A prophet is often telling a truth that is unpopular, against the prevailing winds of the time. Everyone—King and country—wants to go one way, but the prophet is pointing in another. Perhaps the prophet suffers because of the specific, physically miserable way in which he must convey the truth (Ezekiel). Perhaps the prophet must go somewhere he does not want to go (Jonah). Perhaps the prophet is called to love one who has been adulterous (Hosea).

Whether it is the powers that be, the broad culture, or the religious hypocrisy of the time, the prophet has to set himself against the flow, and he often gets thrashed about as a result.

Thus Jesus. He pleased neither the secular nor the religious powers of his day. He spoke of sin and wrath, but also of love and mercy. His words stirred tremendous passion, hope, anger, and violence. The zealots wanted a battle king, and got a sacrificial lamb. The religious leaders wanted compliance and to keep the social hierarchy in place, and they got the Messiah who was to change everything, and humble proud souls. The powers that be just wanted this to be a Jewish issue taken care of by Jews, but it became a phenomenon that spread throughout the Roman world, and then the whole world long after Rome fell.

And He suffered. Contempt, mockery, torture, then death. He told the truth—of who He was, and what he had come to do—and He was that which all the prophets prefigured, both in their actual words, but also in their very experiences.

I confess that this is the aspect of the prophets I understand the least, because Jesus Himself is so hard for me to understand. I understand with my mind, but struggle to truly grasp the nature of His sacrifice. I want to remain in the realm of the imaginary heroics where one feels hard-pressed, but prevails with a few minor bruises. Far less can I imagine or reconcile myself with something that would cause the Son of God Himself to sweat blood and quote David’s most frightening lines, Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabachtani.

As the prophets are sometimes brightly illumined, and other times painfully inscrutable to our souls, so Jesus. The prophets speak for God and Man. Jesus is God and Man. I will not pretend to understand this, but the parallels are present without question. It is as blazingly clear as when a form of poetry repeats itself, in rhyme and meter, building on itself, reaching a crescendo that now resonates with, but is so much more than, its first use of the form.

He is the second Adam, and all the prophets fulfilled.

Messengers:

This is probably the most straightforward and obvious fact about the prophets. They are the couriers of a divine message. They didn’t create it, they may not even like what they are bound to say, and it certainly isn’t for their own personal benefit, but it is their duty. I can’t help but picture the runner-couriers in WWI, as in the tragic battle of Gallipoli, who sprint to pass battle commands, to keep the troops from running straight into their deaths. They may be in terrible danger, they also may die under fire, but above all else they must get the message through. Even if no one listens, they must get it through.

Often the Prophets’ message is distilled simply to that: stop what you are about to do or you are going to die. Death (or enslavement) of either body, soul, nation, or future generations, but here is the word of warning if you will heed it. Turn back. The battle will fall to the enemy if you keep on as you are going. It may already be to late. Turn back.

Divine Discontent:

I do not get the impression that there was a great deal of satisfaction in the lives of the prophets. Trust and faith and hope, yes, but they seem to all have been inflicted with a divine frustration. Let this not be confused with the sort of discontent we experience in our fleshly selves, when we do not get to do what we want, or things aren’t going our way. This is something different.

“The essence of blasphemy is confusion and in the eyes of the prophet, confusion is raging in the world.” –A.J. Heschel

This is the prophet seeing the muddy water for what it is.

This is looking at the world and aching for all that has gone wrong in it. This is feeling it like a knife in the gut when someone takes a step that, to them, is of no consequence, but the prophet can see where it will lead. This is sensing the roiling misery under the pleasant veneer of the people or the culture. How can the prophet withdraw to his own affairs when all these things sting his lungs like a poison?

And will he get to see the fruit of his labors, the wheat that grows from the words he has sown? Probably not. Some things he may see come to pass, some morsels to feed his faith, but that is far from guaranteed. For “prophecy is never complete in itself; it is a burden, a tension, a call, the waging of a battle, never a victory, never a consummation.” (Heschel)

He cannot, like a monk, withdraw to be prayerful and meditative. That is a noble office, and some are called to it. But not the prophet. He has been tuned to a frequency in which he will hear all the terrible discordance around him. God has opened his eyes and ears, and it is not often a pretty sight.

So, then, what are the prophets to us? Certainly their words are not dead, but is their office? I do not think so, but I also do not know how to judge the matter. We speak a great deal these days of having prophetic natures, or prophetic personalities. We speak of it in terms of spiritual gifting, as is mentioned in the New Testament. Not that this label is wrongly applied, but I do believe we would do well to consider the concept of the prophet, or the nature of a prophet with wisdom and humility.

It would be very presumptuous of us to slide our feet into the shoes of the prophets—to take on that mantle when it must be one divinely bestowed. So I myself must be terribly wary of thinking “because I am passionate, it must be the passion a prophet,” or “my uncompromising nature is probably because I am in nature very like the prophets.” We must be especially careful not to put too much stock into our own words. I say all this more to myself than anyone else.

That remembered, let us play that dangerous game for one moment. You are as a prophet of God. Or I am.

What would that really mean? Certainly not praise and accolades, except perhaps after we are dead, and will neither know nor care about it. It would almost certainly mean:

-Being ignored.

-Aching in compassion for those very people who ignore you, mock you, call for your blood

-Weighted down by those infinitesimal fragments of God’s own compassion, justice, mercy and wrath he sees fit to show you, and finding that weight almost impossible to bear.

-Speaking truth to a beloved authority

-Speaking truth to a despised authority

-to the church

-to those who have abandoned the church

-Telling people that the impossible is possible

-Feeling like all your words are wasted

-Watching the world crash down around your ears

-Being a vessel, not a hero (poor Ezekiel)

-Enduring hunger, humiliation, discomfort, refuse, shame

-Knowing that the very people your rail against, and all their sin, are part of you and you are part of them. Your rail against your very self. You are never above that which you condemn. When God says, “speak this to the people” you—and I—are one of the people.

-Knowing that our own fallenness is one of the apertures through which we must look if we are to have good aim when sighting in on sin outside of ourselves.


So we might be cautious in comparing ourselves to the prophets merely because we experience passion, and we desire to speak, but—whatever else—we must emulate them in their fierce love for both God and man, in how ruthlessly they lash themselves to the truth in spite of all consequences, in how unabashedly they communicate both the wrath and love, the justice and compassion, of God.

If I have any love in me, it came from God. And from him it is infinitely truer, deeper and more pure than mine.

If, in my paltry love or sense of empathy for a perfect stranger, I feel as though I could enter a fight to the death to save someone…how much more so God. He sent many messengers to wake us, and some died in pursuit of their task. And then He sent His Son to die in the pursuit of His.


Only this time, that was not the end.

13 March 2017

Collisions in the Fast-lane: Twitter and it's Kin

I will be the first to admit that twitter is a fascinating and useful platform, but few will argue that it can bring out the worst in people. It is not, however, simply the shield of the internet, or even our ever-growing echo chambers that are the chief source of the problem. One frustration many have is that there is no coherent harassment-prevention policy and a lot of people get heckled, or bombarded with rude and crude tweets. I am mostly a casual observer and have no twitter following to speak of, so that is not something I’ve personally experienced. You should know that I’m on the outskirts of this here town and don’t really know anyone important enough to get yelled at on twitter.

Let me give a quick caveat to my concerns, then I’m going to explain the problems with, not twitter itself, precisely, but what it cultivates in us.

When I first heard of twitter, I didn’t remotely understand its purpose. I heard people praising it in connection to the protests in Iran circa 2011, so I assumed it was some sort of news outlet, rather than—essentially—a string of abrupt personal status updates. It took me years to grasp the concept, and I only dipped a toe into the platform in 2014 so as to better follow the vagaries of the publishing industry.

Now, I have seen people say and do positive things on twitter. Not just nice hashtags, but efforts of real value. I have seen people support someone who is discouraged or harassed. I have seen people unselfishly advocate the work/art of others. I’ve been linked to many a good article (while ducking and dodging the click-bait). I have seen people talk sweetly and kindly about those they love. I have seen some good comedy and, all too rarely, some wise and compassionate social commentary. So there is that. Let it not be said that I was unfair.

The problem is not with Twitter itself, precisely, but with what it necessarily cultivates in us. The very brilliancy of such a platform is also its villainy; that which makes for great wit and instant updates also makes for terrible consequences in many other areas. There are four main characteristics of Twitter that put us on our worst behavior.

1.      Brevity: The space for a punch-line is the same space given for a complex argument so, for the most part, there are no complex arguments. The platform encourages stereotyping, over-simplifying, broad-sweeping generalizations all in the service of the required brevity. Yes, you can do a tweet-storm, but at that point you are sort of using a loop-hole, and it’s still one sentence at a time, and scanning eyes will skip around to find the thing they want.

2.      Emphasis: The platform also encourages over-emphasis. Since you usually can’t make a many-bulleted, complex, full-scale argument, requiring step-by-step data and logic, but you really, really want to prove your point as succinctly as possible, most people just use extreme language. Hyperbole is used instead of reason—since there’s no room for it—and then, over time and frequency of usage, it eclipses reason. Reason is no longer invited to the table. We come to believe the extreme language we employed for mere expediency, and so do others. What was once recognized as hyperbole for the sake of emphasis, simply becomes “the truth” and fie upon all those who dare question it. We begin to believe our own lies.

Not only do we exaggerate to emphasize, but we begin to crave that everyone match the extreme nature of our language. It becomes a Cold War of hyperbole-turned-“reality.” The stronger you feel, the more extreme language you want to use, which pressures others to do the same, lest they fall behind. It’s a lot like when one sends e-mails…you start by using one exclamation point, so they they use two (so you won’t think they’re under-enthusiastic) and by the end of it, the whole text is riddled with meaningless punctuation. Eventually the truth—the proper temperature of the given sentiment—is lost entirely. Everything boils over and kills whatever value was present to begin with.


3.      Immediacy: A platform like twitter is designed for instant feedback. Something happens, you tweet it right then—whether it’s newsworthy, funny, infuriating, or false. This leads to two big problems. In the moment of reaction, emotions are at their highest peak, reason often at its lowest. You know this if you’ve ever gotten in a knock-down, drag-out argument with someone you love, where they’ve really gotten under your skin. You get so hot and angry, you start exaggerating, making outrageous accusations that don’t line up with reality, and using “always” and “never” where you really mean “sometimes.” (“You NEVER listen to me. You ALWAYS get what you want!”)

That’s one thing in a personal relationship, where you can mend it, and move on. But the nature of the public platform makes it that much harder for anyone to apologize and acknowledge their untruths. The height of anger, rage, meanness, hurt, confusion and frustration are all on display because the platform encourages it. Yes, it is possible to be disciplined just as it is possible not to drink too much at an open bar, or not to watch too much Netflix when the next show only gives you 17 seconds to stop it before you’re hooked on the next one. But when you’re angry and the option to spill your anger is right there at your fingertips, and you might get a lot of back-patting feedback to boot? Well, the temptation is strong, and only grows stronger each time we blast our in-the-moment emotions onto the internet. We get to the point where we can’t not do it.

The second thing that happens is that bad information is circulated just as swiftly as good information…nay, faster. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” Incendiary, angry, snarky stuff—whether true or not—will get around a LOT faster than a calm, measured truth. Falsehoods, false equivalence, and funny lies get traction, so we’re tempted not to scrutinize the things that we already want to agree with.

4.      Public Space and Publicity: None of this is being done in the privacy of your mind or your home. It is ALL on display. The good, the bad, the ugly. Even if any given sentiment expressed is genuine—you’re supporting a cause you 100% believe in, boosting a signal that you 100% support, or encouraging someone that you honestly admire and want to help—there is often still some part of you that is doing it for the feedback: the thanks, the favorites, the accolades, or even just the general atmospheric impression you give of “being a good person.”

Being a good person on twitter consists in garnering favorites, retweets, links, and adulatory comments. You don’t have to go very far out of your way to prove that you’re on the “right” side of an argument, or that you’re angry about the same thing everyone else is angry about. The platform provides tremendously easy access to a pleasing (and passing) sensation of goodness. Of course giving an impression or getting feedback are things we all desire for almost anything we produce: writing an article, or a book, or making a piece of art.

But once again, the brevity and immediacy are what make the key difference here. When creating some art (a novel, a painting, anything) time and effort and thought wear on the piece of art like water, shaping it slowly over time. You don’t just spit it out in two seconds. You have to wait a long time for feedback, or for it’s intrinsic value in the grand scheme to show itself resilient. You have to do the work without any accolades at first.

Not so with twitter and like platforms. Public interaction in the form of feedback and accolades are immediate, so it tends to shape what we say and do far more than we realize. The distance between creation and subsequent response is reduced almost to nothing. Room for deep thought and careful creation—without thinking about what others will say about it—is essentially lost.

When you write about that good thing you did, are you doing it because you’re trying to encourage others to do the same, or because you want everyone to know you did something. Probably a bit of both? Even if it’s the former, you’re doing it to prove you have the right to encourage others to act…and eventually, it’s more and more of the latter, because it feels good to be praised for doing something, rather just doing it and never letting the right hand know what the left is doing.

Thus Twitter becomes an external archive to prove to others that we hold the correct opinions and are doing the correct things in the correct way. It’s almost as if we’re in a perpetual state of building our own public defense. As if…we’re expecting to be brought to trial in a court of public opinion and need to have evidence for our public persona.


I think that says an awful lot about both the way this platform seeps into our thinking, and about where we are as a culture. We all think we’re on stage, waiting to be praised or booed—wanting to know instantly what people think of our thought-of-the-moment. And, if we’re not careful, we’ll become the marionettes who just do and say that which we know will garner praise, likes, retweets…or simply the mere absence of censure.