Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Prophet as Poet

Finding anyone with a truly prophetic voice in post-9/11 America has become something of a chore. But if anyone fits that bill it would probably be none other than Stanley Hauerwas, my colleague in theology and ethics at Duke University. At an address to the Wesleyan Theological Society earlier this year, Dr. Hauerwas reminded us that in the medieval church three years of penance were necessary for returning crusaders and warriors before they were allowed entry back into the sacred space of the worshipping assembly and could receive communion. In contrast, he suggested, many American church leaders have fixated on issues of sexuality and almost entirely ignored issues of war and peace. His conclusion was that squabbling over homosexuality makes the church look silly and unengaged in the primary moral issues before us. If you read his books, you will pick up on his one continual refrain: that as Americans we feel ourselves dominated by the need for security and yet live in a dangerous world made more dangerous by our goods and our incessant lust for more of them. His prophetic cry is for us to embrace a radical pacifism and to learn to stand over against the culture as the church of Jesus Christ and not as sentimentally-religious Americans.

Perhaps Hauerwas’ voice comes as close to any who attempt to rattle the cage of those who have found in sentimentality a substitute for genuine Christian faith. My favorite definition of the prophet is that coined by the inimitable Frederick Buechner: “the prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tipsiness no one was ever comfortable. With a total lack of tact they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them.” They were the ultimate iconoclasts, smashing reputations and fortunes wherever they went--sounding forth God's word as poetry come to life.

Walt Whitman, in his “Leaves of Grass,” suggests that, “after the seas are all crossed, after the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work, after the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, finally shall come the poet worthy that name, the true son of God shall come singing his songs.” That is, in an age attempting to make sense of the world in modern terms, at the end there still stands the power of poetry—shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities.

Those of you who have seen Ken Burn’s wonderfully rhapsodic tribute to “Jazz” on PBS a few years ago, will remember just how powerful this new art form proved in pressing the envelope and finding new ways of crawling out of the formal patterns that stood behind it, yet at times threatened to shackle it. I oftentimes think of the jazz form when I’m reading a really creative writer, someone like Anne Lamott. In her hot-off-the-press new book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, she begins with words that hit us like a freight train: “On my forty-ninth birthday,” she says, “I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death. These are desert days. Better to go out by our own hands than to endure slow death by scolding at the hands of the Bush administration. However, after a second cup of coffee, I realized that I couldn’t kill myself that morning—not because it was my birthday but because I’d promised to get arrested the next day. I had been arrested three weeks earlier with an ecumenical bunch of religious peaceniks, people who still believe in Dr. King and Gandhi. Also, my back was out. I didn’t want to die in crone mode. Plus, there was no food in the house. So I took a long, hot shower instead and began another day of being gloated to death,” (3-4). No one ever accused Annie of not being honest and unwilling to make her readers uncomfortable.

Likewise, with the prophetic word, there is always this discomfort, even with the established patterns of prophecy. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the magisterial Roman Catholic scholar, says that, “God needs prophets in order to make himself known, and all prophets are necessarily artistic. What a prophet has to say can never be said in prose.” In my worship class, I continually refer to the fact that the liturgy is poetic and shapes us as people. In our age, however, truth is oftentimes confined to facts and that which breaks forth as poetic and prophetic utterance runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood.

This was the case with those who heard Jesus’ words in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry in Luke’s gospel. This is the carpenter’s son, they said. We’ve got him nailed down! Within a few verses their tone moves from one of admiration to rage. They knew what they were looking for in this one, and his prophetic word of judgment rendered in poetic utterance set their teeth on edge. The liberation they expected was the steady, militaristic cadence of prose, and he had the audacity to soar across established boundaries by the use of poetry, parable, and pithy aphorisms.

We all know what usually happens to prophets (just check out the end of Luke's story above!). In the midst of all of the political infighting, ideological pigeon-holing, greed and mediocrity in leadership these days, perhaps a "word fitly spoken," a word of poetic power from a few prophets is, perhaps, just what we need. I, for one, look forward to hearing those who are willing to step forward and to sing out a theology that challenges the status quo.