The Oscars were recently held amidst much controversy. I found it hard to understand why awards for pretence being given to very well off people should stir up a whole nation. For one I am not a citizen. I therefore will find it harder to appreciate cultural problems in contemporary American society. As I reflected on why the issue caused such an uproar I realised something much deeper was at work.
Whether they are actors, musicians, authors, painters or directors, artists are a society’s primary story tellers. It is through them that a people’s philosophy, culture and worldview is articulated. Anthems, like England’s Land of Hope and Glory, capture a nation’s aspirations. On the other hand Kendrick Lamar’s Alright was an anthem of resilience during the Ferguson riots. Artists being a society’s narrators provide valuable social commentary through the powerful medium of the arts.
Like artists biblical prophets are also commentators. As I mentioned in The State of the Covenant they gave commentary on the state of the covenant relationship between God and his people. They did not blandly recite facts but addressed the people with a certain level of artistry as the primary story tellers of God’s people.
We must recognize that story-telling is the most fundamental art-form. Novel’s and folktales are the most obvious examples of story-telling. Paintings too, like the world-famous Mona Lisa, also tell stories. When you see her you wonder what her smile is about. Is she even smiling or was she a real person at all? All these questions swirl in our minds because in interpreting art of any kind we try to form a coherent narrative that accounts for what we perceive with our senses.
Being story tellers the biblical prophets spoke according to varied themes using various tropes, literary devices, and even poetic techniques. The idea of a prophet being a poet may seem strange to the contemporary Christian. In the ancient world poetry was associated with oracular powers from the gods. The ancient bard Homer for instance was revered in ancient Greece as divinely inspired. Poetry, and all art for that matter, is inspired by something. Sometimes you here a song and you are struck by its potency. Sometimes it even makes astute predictions. The ancients noticed this and thought they must be somehow divinely inspired. In the case of the biblical prophets they actually were.
Poetry in the ancient world, like today’s “spoken word”, was performed. Prophecy in the Bible was a speech-act. The prophet was God’s actor. An actor does not simply recite lines of a script. They interpret the message of the story and translate it to the audience. Since there are differences in the style of writing between Isaiah and Jeremiah for instance, I do not think the prophets were rote repeaters of God’s word. At least to some extent, even though it is hard to tell how much, they each interpreted the divine messages they were given. When St. John for instance uses simile e.g. a voice like a trumpet, he is trying to help the reader comprehend what he saw. He does not mean he heard a literal trumpet. It is not only the differences in style and their use of metaphors. There was a wide range of prophetic expression in the Old Testament.
I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables. – Hosea 12:10 ESV
Prophets often went beyond proclaiming a message and enacted it. Hosea marrying an unfaithful woman and Ezekiel lying on his side for forty days are clear examples. The prophet in delivering the logos had to also carry across the very pathos of God. A prophet weeping for the people was in a profound sense God weeping for his people. If a person congratulates you with a blank expression on their face you would certainly interpret the message differently (he might not like you very much!) This helps illustrate that communication is not solely verbal. Speech-act theory in the philosophy of language even contends that speaking in itself is a kind of performance, that is, a set of related actions that convey a message.
Now if the prophet is God’s ordained actor what then is the nature of the prophetic office? Prophets certainly did not have “their eyes open” all the time. It was not every single word that Moses uttered that was divinely inspired. Similarly an actor is not always acting. “Prophet” is actually a persona, character a person inhabits. Prophesying is therefore like getting into character and executing a role. When a prophet was prophesying in that moment he was like God. When prophesying they would be under the influence of God’s spirit so their words were truly divine. To be YHWH spokesman they had to be filled with his spirit. Actually the prophet was the character God took over and his divine influence could be very potent and tangible.
All I have said about the biblical prophet also applies to the New Testament prophet. Agabus, a well-known prophet in the early, Church enacted a prophecy to Paul, tying the apostle’s belt around himself to signify the owner’s fate (Acts 21:10-11.) What it means for prophesy is that it remains largely the same in both testaments. Biblical prophecy in general employs the heavy use of symbolism. Some symbolism like predictions can be very extraordinary.
The prophet is God’s chosen instrument, the medium through which he speaks. He translates and interprets God’s word to his people. He’s a divinely ordained actor who provides covenant commentary. As a persona, the prophet needs to be inspired by the Spirit, to fully inhabit the prophetic role.
The prophet as a shepherd of God’s flock was responsible for instructing the people. Currently we are in dire need of a better understanding of the modern prophetic scene. Contemporary prophets need to help develop a scripturally robust theology of their role in the Church today. We need thoughtful charismatic ministers and not bombastic showmen. People who are wholly committed to conveying the very heart of God to his people.