There is a reason the prophets of the Old Testament were all poets. In his book The Prophetic Imagination theologian Walter Brueggemann states the prophets were those who sought to cultivate an alternative consciousness to the status quo via the creation of fresh language. They did not merely activate a group of people to address one or two burning issues; they overturned the entire order of things through telling a whole new story. This whole new story was sufficient to guide the new community faithfully because it was embedded deeply in the hearts of the people. And it was embedded deeply because it was marked by artistry.
Stories that are truly create-ive require the fresh use of language. The best way to use language in surprising ways is through the medium of poetry.
Specifically, Brueggemann states that the prophet-poet speaks according to a certain dialectic: critiquing and energizing. On the one hand, the prophet-poet speaks in a language that critiques the status quo; on the other hand, they present (at the same time) a vision that energizes a community to hope for new possibilities, alternative realities. Poetry embodies this dialectic: seeing things the way they are and seeing things the way they could be in a simultaneous fashion.
The critiquing is no mere judgment, however. It is a critique of the oppressors through anguish-in-solidarity with the marginalized and victimized.
Jesus is the quintessential prophet: he critiqued Roman imperialism and the religious establishment’s oppression by becoming one of the sufferers. He identified with the marginalized in his years of public ministry by showing the outcasts (lepers, the blind, the lame, prostitutes and tax collectors) compassion. This identification served as a critique to both the Roman dictators (the outcasts were ignored by them, of no account) as well as the ruling religious elite (the outcasts were judged by them—they were in that predicament, no doubt, because they had sinned).
Jesus’ crucifixion represents the pinnacle of anguish-in-solidarity. In the crucifixion Jesus “took up our infirmities”. The emphasis is on the third word: “By his wounds we are healed.” This was the ultimate prophetic critique of the ruling order. Jesus did more than merely notice the outcast, he loved them and healed them by becoming one of them--and suffering even more deeply than they suffered. The prophet critiques by the act of grieving-with, not by judgment. He confronts the apathy of the institution by caring deeply. He upsets the order of the day through appropriate anguish that says, “All is not right with the world. Things must change. We must weep because of this.” He leads the way in weeping. He is the chief griever.
Because of this, the prophet speaks in poetry, drama, parables and stories to counteract the “factual prose” of the Empire. Poetry is the language of mourning for there are no straight-forward ways of expressing “groans that words cannot express.” It must be through the means of metaphor. It is interesting that there is more of truth in the fiction of the prophet than in the facts of the establishment—for the truth of the prophet is a truth of beauty. Ultimate beauty—the kind we find in Jesus—knocks your legs out from under you. Its unsettling character poses a threat to homeostatic systems, so it arouses the leaders of those systems to respond in anger, anxiety, frustration. This is why Jesus was crucified. He threatened their power. There was nothing their weekly reports nor annual ledgers could overcome in the lyric of the prophet. He rendered their systems obsolete, upsetting the whole structure of existence.
Once the prophet has awakened society out of its numbness and led the way in grieving the current state of things, the temptation for those he’s awakened is to despair. Eyes have been opened. We see things for the sham they have been. We can be honest. But there are still no answers. “What now?” we ask, fatalistically.
So, the prophet energizes, says Brueggemann. He energizes through the offering of hope. And hope comes first of all in the form of doxology. See the songs of Moses and Miriam after the Red Sea incident. The critique of the imperial order is complete. What now? Music seems to be the only way to express this genesis of hope. Indeed, it is the vehicle that calls hope to the surface. Hope is an act of faith when faced with the inevitability of not-knowing.
The Israelites have no idea where they are going--nor how they are going to get there--but they do know they can hope again and rejoice at the great inversion they’ve witnessed and received. They do not know where this new inversion will lead them, but they do know they can rejoice. So, they sing. Music energizes the new community.
Because it is music that expresses this new hope, it is a hope that is communal. The music may be initiated and led by a prophet but it is offered communally with different singers, players and dancers. The prophet therefore creates a new community, an alternative community which embodies the energizing towards a new reality in musical poetry.
In Jesus this energizing hope is represented by his resurrection. The crucifixion critiques the old order of things and the resurrection energizes a new community to embody a new reality. This is why the early Christians created original music and art. There was simply no better way to express the depth of mystery they’d just received. Their liturgy reads like poetry. Art is the fruit of prophetic imagination.
Today our prophets are our artists, musicians and poets. Listen carefully to them and you will hear the dialectic. On the one hand, critiquing; on the other hand, energizing. They lament the current state of things, calling into question the status quo, awakening the establishment (hopefully) out of its numbness, slumber, apathy and indifference. They hearken our ears and hearts to the plea of the forgotten, the little person, the victims. If they do their job well, they should arouse in us compassion, anguish and grief—as opposed to judgment, anger and bitterness. I say it is grief that is called forth and not judgment because the Christlike artist-prophet reminds us that all of us have played a role in the creation of the problem. None of us are exempt. “To judge is to judge oneself,” says Jesus. So, we should grieve, not hate. To hate is to point the finger at yourself, whether you realize it or not. So pay no attention to the prophet that preaches hatred of another. He or she is a false prophet. They often come disguised as a twister of facts, so-called facts.
But the really good artist-prophets of today do not stop with critique-by-grief. They find a way to energize society to hope-as-new-community. They are those who stir the imagination. They help us recover play and freedom. They call forth ancient symbols that remind us of history’s liberating moments and breathe fresh life into those ancient symbols. The prophet is an artist-liberator, in the final analysis.
And this, all this, is what we find in Jesus, who is the quintessential prophet and so much more. Let us learn to be like him.