Tag Archives: prophetic

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?

Would John Wesley Watch Jon Stewart?

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Examining John Wesley for contemporary answers is a difficult task.  He was a highly-educated member of the upper crust of British society, who became known for preaching, teaching, and generally ministering to the dregs of society.  He defended the British empire to the hilt (citing 1 Peter 2:17’s admonition to “fear God, honor the emperor” when considering the question of the American revoltion; yet near the end of his life he supported the anti-slavery work of Wilberforce and his allies.  He was a moral elitist, expecting extreme piety from his followers, but wrote and preached of a God of grace and love.

This was not a one-dimensional man.  Much like Jesus, contemporary interpretations of Wesley tend to tell us more about the interpreters than the subject of study.

Wesley’s disciples are a diverse lot; if all you knew about Methodists’ political beliefs came from the General Board of Church and Society, you would think we were a left-of-center gang.  But Methodists and other Wesleyans run the gamut, from left to center to right, to those with Anabaptist sympathies (think followers of Hauerwas) who don’t give a damn about politics in the usual sense.  This political variance is also liturgical; walk into UMC or AME Church on a Sunday morning, and you could think you are in a Catholic, Southern Baptist, or charismatic church.  Because our Bishops and Discipline do not regulate our worship in any meaningful way (despite the presence of an excellent Book of Worship), you really never know what you are going to get going into any church in the Wesleyan tradition, and especially in the UMC.  But I digress.

Was Wesley a radical?  Many pastors and other theologians since the 1960’s (and with renewed vigor following the Bush/Obama turn) have tried to make Wesley into a champion for any host of social causes.  We love our “prophetic” religion so long as “prophetic” easily translates into the categories of contemporary politics; “speaking truth to power” is a phrase so vastly overused by puerile master’s students it should cause one’s bile to rise.  In fact, many seem to think that being “prophetic” just means being “against,” against what is established, against anything and everything – but especially politics and politicians. Many Methodists fall into this pseudo-theology quite happily.  But was Wesley much of a radical? Like my entire generation, would he go gaga for the reflections of Jon “I’m a comedian so I can say whatever I want and claim nobody should take me seriously even though half of young people get all their news from me” Stewart?

Researching last week’s sermon gave me pause.  Consider this reflection on Luke 13:32, in which Jesus calls the corrupt Herod a “fox”:

32. ‘And he said, Go and tell that fox’ – With great propriety so called, for his subtilty and cowardice. ….But let us carefully distinguish between those things wherein Christ is our pattern, and those which were peculiar to his office. His extraordinary office justified him in using that severity of language, when speaking of wicked princes, and corrupt teachers, to which we have no call; and by which we should only bring scandal on religion, and ruin on ourselves, while we irritated rather than convinced or reformed those whom we so indecently rebuked. (Emphasis added)

Thinking about the lack of decent discourse in American politics today, I found Wesley profoundly helpful.  As Christians, even at our most prophetic, our goal should be to “convince or reform” those with whom we disagree, not simply make them a mockery.  The hatemongering we saw for years in response to W’s presidency, and now with Obama, should be enough for anyone to see to need for Wesley’s approach to how we speak of and to our ‘princes’.  Was Wesley a radical? Look at the man’s portrait! (Translation: probably not.)  Would Wesley drool for the observations of Jon Stewart?  Doubtful.  But he should give us pause as pastors, theologians, and – dare I say! – bloggers.  Christ certainly had business rebuking, mocking, and talking down to rulers and authorities.  Is that our vocation?