The Audacity of Prophetic Truth

by Quentin Schultze

(Note: This essay is my foreword to a terrific book on media criticism: Robert H. Woods, Jr., and Paul D. Patton, Prophetically Incorrect: A Christian Introduction to Media Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010).  

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) had a knack for irritating the state church. He claimed an unusual gift: namely, perceiving the lengths of the noses of Christendom’s Pinocchio-like prelates. When their noses grew, Kierkegaard reported it publicly in books and articles. In Kierkegaard’s view, church leaders were self-righteously playing God rather than humbly following God. As he once put it, “Christendom plays the game of taking God by the nose: God is love, meaning that he loves me—Amen!”1 By “Christendom,” Kierkegaard meant the established, bureaucratic, self-serving institution that had become increasingly irrelevant to the real spiritual vitality of everyday citizens. Christendom was a godless church, more like a country club than a place for submit- ting to the one true God. “Christendom,” wrote Kierkegaard, “is a society of people who call themselves Christians because they occupy themselves obtaining information about those who a long time ago submitted themselves to Christ’s examination—spiritlessly forgetting that they themselves are up for for examination.”

Beginning with the story of Adam and Even in the book of Genesis, the biblical drama shows that human beings have always been liars. We like to fib. To exaggerate. To misrepresent. To pretend that we know more than we really do. For instance, self-serving deception is a common malady in the modern advertising business. Deceit runs throughout contemporary political discourse of the Right and Left. Like politicos, we appreciate opportunities to enhance our own ethos so that others will look at us more kindly or respectfully—even if all we get is fifteen minutes of media fame. In short, we humans dwell east of Eden, in ever-evolving but rarely progressing cultures that are based on one or another pack of lies about God, ourselves, others, and the creation. As Augustine discovered, our collective, self-serving, socially shaped lies foul up our personal desires. We desire the wrong things—or the right things in the wrong ways. We love things the way we should love only God, and we pretend to love God while treating God as another thing to control. We become tragic characters in our own puny, picayune dramas. Which came first—real life or reality TV? What difference does it make to us? After a while, we can hardly distinguish between our adventures and our misadventures. We imitate the oddities that we have created in the media. Imagine Adam and Eve watching their fall unfolding on TV and enjoying the drama. This would have been the first reality TV series (as long as God was not there to narrate).

Into this mess steps a prophet, himself or herself fallen but simultaneously carrying a God-given ounce of dangerous, culture- upsetting, society-challenging wisdom. This prophet’s wisdom runs deeper than data or information. The wisdom could be only one word: Stop! Outlandish! Unjust! Folly! The Decalogue itself is essentially ten word-phrases that might please a modern Ger- man linguist. Here’s a slippery translation of one command: “No- idols-or-you’re-dead-meat.” I can imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger mouthing this line in a movie. The problem is that the word idol would not work. It is not commercial enough for prime time. Especially in a literal translation: “No-nothings-or-you’re-dead- meat.” An idol is, literally speaking, a nothing. The insightful prophet perceives the connection between no-nothings and the know-nothings who worship them. Didn’t Jesus say something like “I’ll be Bach”? A reporter could answer that question properly without parroting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line in the movie The Terminator, “I’ll be back.”

The Hebrew and Christian traditions offer a prophetic means for human beings to find their way amid the miasma of mediated mendacity. This way requires humans to do something outrageous, even foolish by many of today’s standards: to be faithful (or to be true to the One who is the truth). This kind of faithfulness is based on assumptions at odds with Christendom. First, we truthseekers assume that there is a living, personal God of the universe. There is a God who knows, who sees through the lies that we hold dear. Second, we assume that God has and will continue to speak to us through wise, God-fearing mediators. Third, we give witness to particular people and other means by which God speaks the truth in our midst; instead of merely listening to God as individuals, we listen as communities of prophetic discourse in which we can hold each other accountable. We affirm prophetic critics’ gifts to identify and speak the truth, but we also question them as to whether they are speaking truthfully. We might not like everything they say. We will not always appreciate words of wisdom that hit too close to home, challenging our misplaced desires and reminding us that we cannot control our own fate. The prophetic way is inherently communal, testing the words of truth through ongoing proclamation, discussion, and sacrificial living.

Obviously I have ducked several of the most difficult questions related to the specific times, places, and means that God uses to speak prophetically (or, to put it less tribally, the ways that God appropriates human beings’ language for God’s own purposes). When Augustine claims that “all truth is God’s truth,” he reminds us that there is always gold as well as dross in any culture; truthtelling cannot be limited to any one social group. Does God “speak” through an individual person’s conscience? Do some people hear the literal voice of God? Neither my foreword nor this book claims to solve these problems. Indeed, such difficulties are probably necessary for faith. To borrow another quote from Kierkegaard, “Christianity has been abolished somewhat as follows: life is made easier.”3

My own view is that God can appropriate anything for the purpose of speaking to humans. Here I am borrowing from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s fine book Divine Discourse, which uses speech act theory to support the thesis that God speaks. 4 As Wolterstorff argues, God does not just reveal truth or inspire people to speak the truth. God asserts things, commands things, promises things, and so forth. God accomplishes such speech acts, first, through prophets who proclaim the source of their speech: “Thus says the Lord.” Prophets are deputized to speak in the name of God—just as an ambassador might (or should!) speak in the name of the head of state that he or she serves.

This essay is the foreword to this book.

Moreover, God speaks not just through such deputized prophets but, second, by appropriating others’ truthful messages. These truthtellers need not be prophets in the sense of being directly called by God to declare the Lord’s word. For example, God appropriates King David’s speech in the psalms. David never says, “Thus says the Lord,” as if he were a prophet who heard the words directly from God. Nor was he merely inspired by God to write psalms. Nor was he simply revealing more about God by writing the psalms. God appropriated David’s language in order to speak the truth. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures certainly include both prophets and apostles deputized by God to speak in the name of God, but the same Scriptures include other human discourse, like the psalms and epistles, which God appropriated in order to say what God wanted to say.

Now Robert H. Woods and Paul D. Patton are playing the role of deputized prophets by appropriating others’ words—words spoken by God, rabbis, scholars, and cultural critics, among others—for the sake of truthtelling about the purpose and nature of prophetic media criticism. Their purpose is to speak truthfully about the state of contemporary media criticism by offering a renewed vision of the critic as prophet. Their own guides include the insightful Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72), who descended from European rabbis and whose family was decimated by the Nazis. He escaped Poland before the Nazis could send him to the death camps, but the emotional scars remained: “If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.”5 In effect, Heschel and the other sources of wisdom in this book are Kierkegaardian gadflies in the midst of today’s Christendom. While monitoring their own noses, they are busily yanking the planks out of each other’s eyes and using the wood to build a bridge between the prophets of old and the media critics of today. Moreover, they are building a bridge over which we too can journey back and forth, appropriating words that help them and us to understand our plight in societies dominated by consumerism. Heschel’s daughter recalls of her father, “Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s own tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness—or evil— into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child, and they must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn. The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue.”6

One problem (or is it an opportunity?) that Professors Woods and Patton necessarily face is avoiding the existing shibboleths that religious and nonreligious groups simplistically equate with God’s truth. The language of “prophecy,” “the prophetic,” and “prophetic voice” have been co-opted by disparate groups acting like psychological, theological, and ideological thought police. This is particularly true for media criticism, which is highly predict- able given the theo-moral background of the critics. For instance, mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic media criticism has been co-opted by what we might call “secular elite culture.” Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the words of the Times (almost any Times) or National Public Radio, on the one hand, and the words of the mainline critics on the other. Meanwhile, much evangelical media criticism has been co-opted by “inspirational” popular culture. There is a fine line between evangelical media criticism and evangelical celebrity culture; the celebs are the de-facto, trusted critics. Why? Partly because their predictable, tribe-affirming criticism sells well. Who can argue with the marketplace, the great adjudicator of Christian truth? If you want to operate a successful “ministry,” you have to find a leader whose words confirm what the tribe wants to believe is true. Christendom, both on the Right and the Left, increasingly resembles gaggles of gawkers with their own penchants for self-styled, self-induced “Christian correctness.” Like all fallen human beings, Christians tend to seek media content that confirms what they already believe or wish to believe. This is far more than what psychologists call selective perception; it is a form of self-delusion.

This book’s splendid title, Prophetically Incorrect, captures the authors’ shibboleth-questioning perspective. The playful title captures a kind of extra-tribal or cross-tribal vision that refuses to bow down to the commonplaces de jour. TV celeb Bill Maher claims to be “politically incorrect” but is far more politically predictable. When his program was on Comedy Central, it was less predictable (and less profitable) than it became on ABC. He serves on the board of a humble organization called The Reason Project (religiously dedicated to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society). Maher once referred to religion as a “neurological disorder”—similar to the phrase “psychological disorder” that conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage, on the other end of the thought police divide, uses to describe liberalism. Fans of Maher or Savage love to see evil people’s oxen get gored. Again, we all do, as long as we are not among the evil people.

A second problem the authors face is the self-deceptive nature of propaganda in mass-mediated societies. Most citizens, whether they are religious or not, naively assume that propaganda is simply the easily identifiable lies and deceptions promulgated by a few really bad people (like a Hitler). This simplistic, good-bad notion of propaganda is actually part of the propaganda by which we all live. Augustine in the fourth century battled against Manichaeism, which held a dualistic worldview in which the flesh was evil and the spirit was good—period. Today the villains are said to be members of one or another social group: fundamentalists, liberals, feminazis, neocons, and so forth. The specific labels come and go as new dualisms emerge from media discourse. This self- deceiving criticism lacks prophetic discernment. Like toddlers, we stuff square or triangle blocks into their respective holes on the top of a plastic can—round is good and goes here, whereas square is bad and goes here. We self-servingly employ favorite moralistic categories to simplify the complex, confusing, and often incongruous aspects of culture.

Along the way, we completely miss some deeply biblical categories. For instance, some critics’ concerns about immoral media content focuses on obscenity and profanity but ignores racism and sexism. Others focus on materialism but ignore gratuitous sex, violence, and profanity. In short, we critics tend to carve up the world into classifications that reflect our desire for self-righteousness more than they do our faithful quest to become selflessly wise. We propagandize ourselves. The media join in, telling us what we already believe or what we want to believe—regardless of whether or not such belief is ultimately true. The media do not cause us to believe one thing or another; that idea is itself too simplistic, more like scapegoating than critical analysis. Media and culture are synergistically dependent on one another; both the media and our lives are complicated mixes of good and bad motives and misordered desires, many of them institutionalized in bestseller lists, fan and critic awards, audience ratings, and YouTube rankings.

Prophetic wisdom invariably prods people to ask themselves what it is that they truly want—and why. Often it uses satire and parody, frequently in the form of questions. God begins the fun with a whopper directed at the newly fallen couple in the garden of Eden: “Where are you?” The question was ontological and ethical rather than merely geographical. When I was growing up in Chicago we used to ask one another, “What’s shakin’? What’s going on? What’s happening?” Most of the time our friendly greetings were not meant to be interrogations. But when we knew that some- thing significant was happening, we were quick to follow up with more questions. “Was Jim suspended from school for drinking in PE again?” We did not want him to get booted out. But we did desire to drink in PE without getting caught. Surely we needed a higher vision based on a deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of life. We did not respect school officials, some of whom might not have completely deserved such respect. But who merited our respect? How should we have fulfilled our mimetic desires? In a spoof interview in the Christian humor magazine The Wittenburg Door, Superman complains, “I used to be this untouchable, all-powerful being. I always did the right thing. I never struggled with the decision. Now people want someone more down to earth, easier to relate to. So I have this relationship with Lois I can’t figure out. And I make little moral misjudgments, like sleeping with Lois, leaving my elderly mother alone for five years while I go search for Krypton, things like that. I’m just an ordinary guy with the powers of a god. That’s what people want from Jesus nowadays, too. Not an all- powerful, all-knowing, all righteous God. They want an affable, easy-going guy who just happens to have superpowers and uses them for good. “7

We could have used those superpowers to get off the hook in high school. Imagine the opportunities!

There is something delightful about self-deprecating prophetic wisdom when it reveals our foibles with gentle love and open curiosity about our plight in this good but fallen world. As the authors of this volume indicate, prophets sometimes have to call down the roof, overturn the tables, and “call ’em as they see ’em.” Still, the more subtle, inquisitive style of prophetic critique has its place. For one thing, we are curious creatures—even curious about what troubles us and why we continue on our wayward paths individually and collectively.

Perhaps partly because of what Augustine called original sin, we are born with what J. Richard Middleton calls a “desire to learn, a passion to explore, to stretch the boundaries of the known, to go new places, to discover new insights, to ask probing questions that maybe we hadn’t asked before.” According to Middleton, this curiosity is a “natural part of life. It’s a developmental task God has put before us, and it’s a blessing God has gifted us with—to be playful as kittens in our curiosity.”8 We need to learn measured styles of prophetic criticism that bring others into the conversation rather than drive them away from the discourse. This partly means not taking ourselves so seriously that we fail to take others seriously enough. Perhaps the underlying basis for all prophetic criticism must be humble gratitude. Gratitude to God, first, and to other faithful critics, second, melts away our self-righteousness. The fact is that we cannot save ourselves even by knowing the prophetic truth; salvation is beyond our rhetorical, ethical, and hermeneutical abilities. The kingdom of God and all of its prophetic insights are gifts worthy of accepting before we get overly exercised about anything that appears to be wrong with media and culture. “Everything changes,” writes Evan Drake Howard, “when we realize that the only rewards that matter can’t be earned. This is how prophets and righteous persons and children live—not out of shoulds but out of thanks.”9 Much Jewish humor—from Seinfeld to Stiller—simultaneously pokes fun at human beings’ nuttiness while gently reminding audiences that things could be worse. We ought to be thankful for the fact that our situation is not even more desperate, that we can still smile and laugh rather than merely hate. Speaking at the Oslo Conference on “The Anatomy of Hate” in 1990, the former Czech Republic President Václav Havel said, “The man who hates does not smile, he merely smirks; he is incapable of making a joke, only of bitter ridicule; he can’t be genuinely ironic because he can’t be ironic about himself. Only those who can laugh at themselves can laugh authentically.”10 Kenneth R. Chase insightfully says that Christian discourse “emerges out of a double humility: the humility that comes from acknowledging the inexhaustibility of God’s abundant grace, and the humility that arrives from a posture of silence before the Almighty.”11

In Brian Friel’s play Translations, Irish bureaucrats are remap- ping the country and changing the long-standing place names that carried the histories of the local people and their common experiences of the land and its related cultures. The bureaucrats’ outlandish aim is to create for the entire country a simple, understandable, six-inch map largely devoid of any of the cultural memory of specific places. In the name of progress, they are destroying what one character calls “a rich language . . . full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception— a syntax opulent with tomorrows.”12 Just as playwright Friel serves as a kind of prophet, revealing culture-robbing folly and warning about its implications, the contemporary media critic can help us to identify what we lose and gain in the mediatization of practically every aspect of modern life. Without such audacious critics, we can become “imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of . . . fact.”13 The perennial task of the prophet is understanding the contours of the present in the light of God’s wisdom. The critic thereby mediates our understanding of the media world by proclaiming and warning, satirizing and tracking the ongoing remapping of God’s world. The Christian critic always does so self-reflexively as part of a community of Christian discourse, aware that he or she might indeed be part of the problem. As Kierkegaard wrote, “There is something frightful in the fact that the most dangerous thing of all, playing at Christianity, is never included in the list of heresies and schisms.”14 May this book help all of us to attend to the sizes of our own noses as we monitor the noses in the media.

1 Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles, E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 1999), 227.

2  Kierkegaard, 226.

3  Kierkegaard, 227.

4 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

5 Susannah Heschel, “Abraham Joshua Heschel,” accessed at <http://home.versatel.nl/heschel/Susannah.htm> on January 23, 2009.

6 Ibid.

7 Matthew Mikalatos,. “’Interview’: Superman.” The Wittenburg Door 37, no. 211(May/June 2007): 36-37.

8 J. Richard Middleton, “Curiosity Killed the Cat (Or, the Outrageous Hope of Reformational Scholarship and Practice).” Perspectives 32, no. 4 (December 1998): i-iv.

9 Evan Drake Howard, “Reflections on the Lexionary.” Christian Century, June 17, 2008, 21.

10 Václav Havel, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice: Speeches and Writings, 1990-1996 (New York: Fromm International, 1998), 57.

11 Kenneth R. Chase, “Christian Discourse in a Nietzschean Age: Mapping a Theological Location for Persuasion,” Paper presented at the Religious Communication Association annual convention, New York, NY, November 12, 1998.

12 Brian Friel, Translations: A Play (New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1981), 50.

13 Friel, 51.

14 Kierkegaard, 227.

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