The Ancient Modern
Prophecy and Narration / Joshua Alan Sturgill
This morning, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of story and prophecy.
Prophecy can be both foretelling (a revelation of future events) and forthtelling (a revelation of current events or the meaning of these events). I find it unfortunate that we often restrict our use of the term to the first definition, when the second is by far the more practical and the more immediately beneficial.
The best of our writers, commentators and essayists are prophetic in this second sense. But given our climate of soundbites and social media, their voices are lost in a storm of opinion and ephemera.
The form that prophecy takes is most frequently the Narrative or Myth. I use both of these terms positively. Whether we are speaking of historic prophecies of a messiah or prophecy as a literary device in fairytales or fantasy literature, a crucial element of the transmission of the prophecy is the surrounding Story.
Moses, for example, does not come down from Sinai with a mere list of the Ten Commandments. The moral law as a prophecy is set in the whole context of Hebrew history and recorded as a series of stories. Isaiah’s prophecy of the Virgin Birth comes up very suddenly in a story about his interaction with an ineffective king.
The Gospels themselves, especially Matthew perhaps , go to great lengths to show the fulfillment of prophecy through the detailed narrative of the life of Jesus.
In each of these historic examples (and the pattern is echoed in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and others) the prophecy itself would be dry, simple and often obscure without its rich narrative setting. This in no way diminishes the value of the prophetic word, but, I believe, reveals its necessary integration with the people, places and historical circumstances involved.
So we should ask: is prophecy a set of statements, or the method of transmission from divine to human, or the story of this transmission? I lean toward a holistic view. This would mean that the words of the prophecy, those who hear, and how the hearers respond are integrally connected. To continue the example of Moses,Genesis is a “prophecy of the past” containing deep mysteries and ambiguities, and must be interpreted.
In fact, it may be said that the acceptance and interpretation of prophecy is what creates a particular religious, philosophical or political community.
How we hear Genesis or the Gospel (or even Steven Hawking and Oprah Winfrey) says much about our cosmology. What we believe about the world influences not only how we listen, but to whom we will listen.
How we hear those prophets who try to bring history and current events to light says much about how willing we are to pay attention to the world around us. There are “prophets” who say that all is well, and those who say all is about to fall apart. These prophets are usually given center stage. I would be careful of calling them “false prophets” because, in one sense, their messages are a distillation of what many already believe. So they are doing a work of forthtelling—in articulating a common error.
However, there are prophetic voices who see with nuance and subtlety, and attempt both prognosis and diagnosis. These are the voices we should pay most attention to, though as I said, they are harder to hear. These are the true prophets who both interdict and predict. They may be essayists, poets and artists. Or, they may be Sages and Saints.
We should search for these prophets, and understand how we fit into the story they are attempting to tell.