In the Old Testament, the Levite priests served as mankind’s representative before God by prayer and sacrifice. Prophets, on the other hand, were God’s representatives to man. As God’s mouthpiece, the Old Testament prophet was involved in two kinds of representation: forth-telling, communicating the mind of God for the present, and fore-telling, communicating the mind of God for the future . These were the “teachers of true religion,” divinely commissioned and inspired seers who were “gifted for the exposition of truth. ”
In the New Testament, there is a notable absence of kings and priests in religious society; instead, every believer is both king and priest in the presence of God. Prophets and apostles now serve as counterpoints to one another, giving checks and balances, and helping to navigate overall church direction and focus. The prophetic office still involves both fore-telling and forth-telling, however, and we can see widespread evidence of prophetic ministry in the church today. This present-day prophecy is defined as the interpretation of the scriptures “in light of the present situation in the church. ” In this way the prophet acts as a representative of God, and as “spokesman and equipping agent to present the heart, will, and purpose ” under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The prophetic ministry today is reminiscent of the prophecy in Joel concerning the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh and the manifestation of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost , though it remains – along with apostleship – one of the greatly misunderstood components of our ecclesiology. For many years Evangelicals have shied from the term, believing that the office was no longer required; yet, the text of Ephesians 4 identifies the timeline of these Ascension Gifts extending “until” the church comes to unity and maturity. Anyone who has seen – for even one moment – the inner workings of a local church in North America knows that this reality eludes us for the present; such that our need for apostolic ministry endures. In fact, there is historical evidence of the ministry of the prophet in the Early Church. These accounts are recorded after the writing of the canon was closed, but the impression is given that such ministry “was not always encouraged” because “local bishops often assumed the prophetic ministry themselves and false prophecy was a growing problem.” The writing of 1 Clement, for example, was necessitated by a split in the church in Corinth over the issue of prophetic ministry , and both Ignatius – Bishop of Antioch – and Melito – Bishop of Sarnia – claimed to be prophets . Similarly, the Shepherd of Hermas [c. A.D. 140] and Dialogues with Trypho [c. A.D. 160] take for granted the existence of prophetic ministry in the Christian church and Ireneus testifies almost thirty years after Trypho to the presence of the charismata in Christendom.
UNFOLDING THE METAPHOR
I have often dreamed of opening up a center for Christian artistic expression much like the studio that Andy Warhol lived in/ran in the seventies and eighties. It is a beautiful, utopian picture of men and women working together to see what cannot be seen while looking at the world as it is, and it serves as the inspiration for the four crossover points of this metaphor.
1. A prophet/artist “sees” the invisible
The prophetic quality of art has long been a favorite topic of coffee-house theologians and philosophers. Art is often understood as a window into a more just, egalitarian world where idealism is the lingua pura and hope is unnecessary. It is this quality of making the “inaudible become audible and the invisible become visible ” that makes the prophet/artist so crucial a component to the church. The prophet causes everyone to see differently; and in such light, art is prophetic – both foretelling the incongruity between the way things are and the way they should be, and forth telling as it illumines how we shall all evolve. As Walter Brueggemann put it, “knowing consists not in settled certitudes by in the actual work of imagination. ” St. Paul said something similar: Look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. Tomorrow’s leader is a seer according to leadership guru Dave Fleming, and it is the job of the seer to “flesh out the unseen. ” Artists take what we can see and infuse it with what we cannot see. It is in this way that art is transubstantiation – taking the material and endowing it with divinity. So it is that artist’s terms are spiritual terms like “inspiration”, literally “bringing in the spirit”, or “animation”, meaning “the imbuing with animus or soul. ” This spiritual vocabulary is more than just vernacular, though; it is representative of real elevation and commerce between Heaven and Earth
2. A prophet/artist distorts reality into art that is true
Both art and prophecy are seditious methods of communication – they are guerilla tactics designed to upset the sociopolitical apple cart and prompt a quick recovering into a truer state. Prophecy/art does not describe a “gospel- governed world but helps the congregation imagine it ” and the real power to do so lies in the imagination – in the hope, in the promise of God to intervene and save, or to correct and restore. Imagination is the capacity to work through images, metaphors, and narratives as a way of evoking, generating, and constructing an alternative world that lies beyond and in tension with the taken-for-granted, commonsense world of day-to-day experience. This is the distortion of the prophet/artist: the distortion through imagination of how the world is in reality into an image or vision or how things truly will be once salvation is unveiled.
3. A prophet/artist uses art to deconstruct reality
The New York DJ Danger Mouse has recently made a name for himself by blending the rap lyrics of Jay-Z and the acoustically-driven pop of early Beatles’ tunes, calling the project the “Grey Album .” The Grey Album is a brilliant example of the way in which prophecy/art can pull apart the layers of reality in order to see what is at the root, the source, of each message and gesture. Prophets use this kind of vision to discern what is happening in churches and in individual’s lives and spiritual formation so they can better aid the purposes of God. As such, it is important to note that the “thing” itself – the art, the words, etc… – is not as important as the meaning behind it. Prophecy/art is the vehicle. “It’s not what you see that is art,” says critic Marcel Duchamp, “Art is the gap. ” That “gap” is the space between God’s purposes and vision and what we do with that purpose and vision.
4. A prophet/artist is often without peers because of their difficult temperament
One of the most significant truths inherent in this metaphor is sadly unflattering to both the prophet and the artist; the fact that they tend to be remembered as difficult, contentious people. Perhaps that is their role, part of their unique social DNA. Perhaps they are here precisely to slow us down, irritate us and make us think, causing us to reevaluate and find alternatives. Paul Schmelzer notes that “[artists] ponder the sacred in non-dogmatic terms [comprising] a spiritual underground ”, suggesting that maybe one cause of prophetic/artistic abrasion is in the refusal to speak in acceptable language and reverence.
Biblically, we see many examples of prophets who were uncouth or offensive to respected persons. Hosea married a prostitute , Jeremiah bought land that has just been destroyed , Ezekiel lay on his side for over a year beside a model of Jerusalem, and King Saul even prophesied naked. Jesus was no more orthodox than these, exemplified by his cutting down of the fig tree and prophecy of Temple destruction, nor was John the Baptist in any way respectable to behold.
Regardless of whatever motivations the prophet/artist may have underlining their strangeness, a word of caution should be prepared – for us, not for them – to discipline our hearts and not to pass judgment, to receive anything that God may want to instruct us with, regardless of how abstract. All of those in scripture who ignored the prophets because of their behavior suffered for it. Let us not repeat their mistakes.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com