Tag Archives: Princeton

West, Dyson, & the Independent Prophet as False Prophet

Cornel West in 2008, by Esther. Courtesy Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.
Cornel West in 2008, by Esther. Courtesy Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent public drubbing of Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson laid into the Princeton public intellectual for a variety of reasons in what was both a stringent personal attack and a mournful elegy to a declining mentor.  One of Dyson’s most incisive critiques was that West’s claim to the prophet’s mantle rings hollow, lacking the nuance both of biblical exegesis and ecclesial experience.  Dyson, a Georgetown professor, raises some serious questions here not just of West but of all Christians who would blithely claim the prophetic role for themselves.  Consider the following excerpts (subheadings are my own):

Defining the Prophet

“To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, West may not seek to define a prophet, but he knows one when he sees one, and quite often, they sound just like him. This limp understanding of prophecy plays to his advantage because he can bless or dismiss prophets without answering how we determine who prophets are, who gets to say so, how they are different from social critics, to whom they answer, if they have standing in religious communities, or if God calls them.”

Prophecy Demands Institutional Accountability

“But ordained ministers, and especially pastors, must give account to the congregations or denominations that offer them institutional support and the legitimacy to prophesize. They may face severe consequences—including excommunication, censorship, being defrocked, or even expelled from their parishes—for their acts. The words and prophetic actions of these brave souls impact their ministerial standing and their vocation. West faces no such penalty for his pretense to Christian prophecy.”

“West might argue that not being ordained leaves him free to act on his prophetic instincts and even disagree with the church on social matters. Thus he avoids the negative consequences of ordination while remaining spiritually anchored. That’s fine if you’re a run-of-the-mill Christian, but there is, and should be, a higher standard for prophets. True prophets embrace religious authority and bravely stand up to it in the name of a higher power. The effort to escape responsibility should sound an alarm for those who hold West’s views about how prophets should behave.”

“As a freelancing, itinerant, nonordained, self-anointed prophet, West has only to answer to himself. That may symbolize a grand resistance to institutional authority, but it’s also a failure to acknowledge the institutional responsibilities that religious prophets bear. Most ministers are clerics attending to the needs of the local parish. Only a select few are cut from prophetic cloth. Yet nearly all the religious figures we recognize as prophets—Adam Clayton Powell Jr., King, Jackson, Sharpton—were ordained as ministers. Powell and King were pastors of local churches as well. To be sure, there are prophets who are not ministers or religious figures—especially women whose path to the ministry has been blocked by sexist theologies—but most of them have ties to organizations or institutions that hold them accountable.”

“Prophets, as a rule, don’t have tenure. West gets the benefits of the association with prophecy while bearing none of its burdens. By refusing to take up the cross he urges prophetic Christians to carry, West is preaching courage while seeking to avoid reprisal or suffering. Playing it safe means that West doesn’t qualify for the prophetic role he espouses.”

Is Anything Critical or Counter-Cultural Prophetic?

“What makes West a prophet? Is it his willingness to call out corporate elites and assail the purveyors of injustice and inequality? The actor Russell Brand does that in his book Revolution. Is he a prophet? Is it West’s self-identification with the poor? Tupac Shakur had that on lock. Should we deem him a prophet? Is it West’s self-styled resistance to police brutality, evidenced by his occasional willingness to get arrested in highly staged and camera-ready gestures of civil disobedience, such as in Ferguson last fall?”

Conclusion

Dyson raises crucial questions for any Christians who would blithely ascend to the prophetic office.  Most especially, he reminds us that true prophets are always close enough to the Christian community (by ordination and other relationships) to be held responsible, to be able to receive praise or blame for their actions.  The lone prophet has, by contrast, won his or her mantle cheaply, like a bitter child who buys a championship trophy at a pawn shop and then fancies himself All-State.

Let those with ears, hear.

 

P.S. Given what Dyson has said about prophets not having tenure, I wonder if it possible for United Methodist elders to be prophets in any real sense of the term?

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Remembering How to Read the Bible

15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.
15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.

An isolated reader of Scripture is as dangerous as a self-taught surgeon.  One of the presenting conceits of contemporary Christianity is that the isolated interpreter has become normative.  Few things are deadlier to Christian truth than exegesis stifled by personal idolatries and hidden prejudices. Princeton Seminary’s C. Clifton Black suggests, as a cure to such (mis)reading, bringing the saints alongside us as we explore “the strange new world” we call Scripture.  He takes a cue from Benedictine spirituality and encourages reading the Bible with both hospitality (welcoming strangers) and humility.

If you’ve never experienced Benedictine hospitality, you’re missing out.  Following the lead of both the Bible and the Rule of St. Benedict, this vision of hospitality recognizes that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome Christ himself.  This delightfully informs our reading of Scripture, for if we meet angels unawares when welcoming guests, might the Spirit also speak to us about the truth of Scripture from voices we would otherwise ignore or neglect?  Thus, Black concludes:

“If like-mindedness is our overt or tacit criterion for interpreting Scripture in community, then we shouldn’t be surprised to hear only echoes of our own biases while learning little. Does the theologically liberal reader shield herself from scholarship more conservative? Does the neo-orthodox read nothing of the liberationist? For as long as members of the three Abrahamic faiths read their Scriptures only within conventicles, ignorance and mistrust are bound to proliferate. None of us holds  the truth in Scripture by the ears, and none of us ever shall. Hospitable interpreters seek help in understanding Scripture wherever they can find it. ” (58)

An openness to others’ thoughts naturally tends toward taking our own ideas less seriously.  The resulting – or at least correlative – humility is also a great aid to the exegete who desires her reading to be not only accurate or insightful but also an act of worship.  Humility is a monastic virtue that is foreign even to many Christian ears today.  Readers of Scripture, lay or clergy, novice or doctorate-wielding, would do well to remember the distance between our thoughts and God’s thoughts – and treat our interpretation of the text accordingly.  Again, Black is insightful:

“Because we are frail creatures and not our own Creator, we beware of mistaking our own voice for God’s alien word.  We discipline ourselves to listen more keenly, assuming our ignorance and not our knowledge. We resist a constant temptation to control other interpreters and to manipulate other voices – including those within Scripture itself. When the Lord sounds just like us – when Scripture can no longer surprise or disturb or offend us – we should be very, very afraid: it’s likely we’ve locked ourselves in an echo chamber. And if, God help us, we are entrusted with teaching others about Scripture, we should remember that we too much someday give an account of what we have said and done (Jas 3:1).”

The world has seen enough of proud,  isolated, and eccentric readings of the Bible.  What is needed today, for the renewal of the Church and her witness, is followers of Jesus who are able to read the holy writ well.  A humble and hospitable approach to the sacra pagina holds great promise, for personal study and discipleship but especially for community worship, witness, and discernment.  After all, the Bible is the book of the church, and reading it wisely means reading in a way that does not create a scandal  or shipwreck with our neighbors in the Body of Christ.

Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.
Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.

Humility and hospitality don’t cover everything, but I believe they would certainly go a long way towards renewing our encounter with the God’s word, which is, “living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.” (Hebrews 4:12, CEB)  Such a gift from the Triune God’s treasury will not be opened to hearts ill-disposed to the humility and hospitality which mark a disciple of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word from all virtue and wisdom flows.

What do you think? What other virtues are needed to read the Bible well? Are there downsides to these?

 

Source: Black, C. Clifton, Reading Scripture With the Saints (Eugene: Cascade Books 2014).