13 July 2023

More on biblical realism: Howard Macy and the prophets

I don't know anyone who is better able to help introduce us to the biblical prophets than Howard Macy. His new book, Befriending the Prophets, shows what I mean.

Howard's book represents a great expression of what I've called "biblical realism," the Bible's unblinking portrayal of reality in the light of God's love. There are at least two dramatically different obstacles to a deep encounter with the Bible: one is a sort of pious trance that causes our eyes to skate on the surface (I think this is Mary Morrison's metaphor) of those ancient texts, both familiar and puzzling. Another is the skepticism, even scorn, that can result from apparent contradictions within and authoritarian biblical malpractice without.

Howard gets us through these obstacles with his calm and very direct focus on the humanity of the prophets, a humanity that is a sufficient antidote for both the pious trance and the skeptic. Sure, there is a distance of two or three millennia and wide cultural gaps between then and now; there's also the concentrated lyricism of poetry and the intense drama of street theater, depending on the prophet and the occasion. After all, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, these are "some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived."

But the warnings and ethical demands of the prophets are not at all obscure:

When we examine some of the words the prophets use, we can get a clearer sense of how living well can be ordinary, even routine. Of the several words that frequently hang out together in the Prophets, let's look at four of the most common. The ones we've chosen here are righteousness (tsedaqah), justice (mishpat), love/kindness (hesed), and truth (emunah). I think of these as four shiny facets of the gem shalom. Instead of competing, they overlap and complement each other to build a community of peace.

Another aspect of the prophets' essential humanity is that many of them resist the call to become prophets, or at least ask God in disbelief, "Who, me? You have the wrong person." The "prophet" category overlaps with the "mystic." Both have the reality of God at the center of their lives, and both can also be acutely aware of the true state of affairs in the world, and--crucial to "biblical realism"--are not particularly shocked when people cheat and lie.

Along the way, Howard's book draws on insights from Evelyn Underhill, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Thomas R. Kelly. I particularly liked his reference to Kelly's talk, "Have You Ever Seen a Miracle?" from The Eternal Promise

Howard lists the major groupings of prophets in the Bible, but in emphasizing their humanity and their function as witnesses to God in their time, and to the non-mysterious ethical requirements of following God, he doesn't let us, his readers, off the hook. 

In several places, Paul writes about the variety of empowered gifts that the Spirit gives to members of the community of faith, but in his letter to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14), he writes even more specifically about the gift of prophecy, explaining that it's even more important than the gift of tongues. "Those who prophesy," he writes, "speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (v. 3). And, he adds, even more than tongues, he would like all of them to prophesy (v. 5).... He adds instructions about when the community gathers together: "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said" (v. 29).

Just as speaking is not the only mode of prophetic expression in biblical times, prophets in our own time have poured blood on draft records and hammered on nuclear warheads. Just as in biblical times, our own prophets may have messages of personal righteousness, or messages directed against exploitation and systemic sin. In all cases, there is no particular mystery in what God requires:

"Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of heavenly forces, will be with you just as you have said" (Amos 5:14).

Thank you, Howard Macy, for helping us become clear-eyed friends of the biblical prophets, and with the prophets among us today (are you among them, dear reader?), engaging with all of them in the "mystery of collaboration." Turns out, we're in good company--maybe a bit intense at times, but very human, very ethically focused, helping us all live with God at the center.

Befriending the Prophets is available from the Barclay Press Bookstore.

Related posts:

Biblical realism.
Iran, biblical realism, and perpetual war.
Shock and awe in Ezekiel.

Quakers and ubuntu ... looking toward and beyond the Friends World Committee's world plenary next year. 

(An irrelevant aside: my first experience of Ubuntu, a computer operating system which I'm still using fifteen years later in its Pop!_OS variant.)

Kristin Du Mez: Demonization and complicity. "... [W]hen they come for me now, I often just smile." 

Greg Morgan: "I am always in awe of those who confront end of life with courage and grace, and I learn so much from spending time in their presence."

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Another look at Nancy Thomas's dangerous books.

Another classic performance by Barbara Lynn on The !!!! Beat.

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