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Evangelicals and the Loss of Prophetic Imagination

February 9th, 2017 | 9 min read

By Sharon Hodde Miller

This year has changed me. I say this in all earnestness and with no dramatic intent, but this year really has changed me. I am not the same person I was, and my calling has shifted too.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the change occurred. Perhaps it was a series of events. It began when conservative evangelicals began to endorse a presidential candidate whose rhetoric, lifestyle, and priorities resembled nothing of Christ, but much of the fool as described in Proverbs.

I watched Christians use dubious biblical interpretations and downright bad theology in an “ends justify the means” kind of ethic. I watched those same Christians bend over backwards to prove that this man, who possessed no discernible fruit of the Spirit, was a Christian. I watched Christians remain silent as the man they put in office continued to lie, name call, belittle, and slander. And I watched conservative Christians take up the mantra “Do not judge” in lock-step with the liberals they used to deride, as if Jesus’ words were intended to silence sound judgment. This wasn’t just hypocrisy. This was a forsaking of basic Christian doctrine and our primary citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And it changed me.

I struggled to articulate the impact of this experience, until I ran across an essay by author Jonathan Martin in which he describes our present historical moment as an “apocalypse.” Apocalypse is a word we sometimes confuse with “armageddon” but it refers to an “unveiling,” and for me, that was the word I was looking for. This year, I was able to see with a clarity I hadn’t before.

Martin further explains, “These are the days when the hearts of men and women in America are being revealed,” and as this apocalypse unfolded in evangelicalism, this is what I saw: the faux-faithfulness of pragmatism, in place of cruciform obedience; moral relativism in place of biblical truth; personal security pitted against Christ-like compassion; and the true spiritual character of our leaders. Once I saw this, I became “disillusioned” in the very best sense of the word. God had pulled back the curtain of my illusions to show me our true spiritual state.

Each of these failures deserves serious attention, but there is one more failure I want to focus on here: evangelicalism’s prophetic bankruptcy. At a time when our country has utterly lost its moral center, this could have been our moment. Rather than negotiate with evil, we could have rejected worldly notions of “good” in a show of prophetic imagination. Instead, we accepted the terms the world set for us. We chose short-term gains over long-term credibility, and traded our birthright for porridge.

A sweeping number of evangelicals contributed to this prophetic forfeiture, but there have been some notable exceptions. Russell Moore, for example, has leveraged his influence in the Southern Baptist Convention to challenge idols of nationalism and vestiges of racism in his tradition. Moore is committed to the SBC, but he is also clear-eyed about its shortcomings.

Brueggemann’s Creative Word

In addition to Moore, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is an essential perspective for correcting our prophetic deficit. Brueggemann’s book The Prophetic Imagination is probably his best-known work, but he also wrote a lesser-known book which is just as important, called The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education. In this book, Brueggemann makes the case that the Biblical canon is a “clue to education,” and he pays particular attention to the three sections of Old Testament literature— Torah, prophets, and wisdom—as pedagogical models.

Brueggemann begins with the authoritative character of the Torah, which is symbolic of our doctrinal foundations, those fixed truths which shape who we are as a people. Torah represents a category of teaching that is, in Brueggemann’s words, “not debatable.”

Torah is an essential pedagogical paradigm, but Brueggemann also warns, “If a community educates only in the Torah, it may also do a disservice to its members. It may nourish them to fixity, to stability that becomes rigidity” (40). This caveat naturally leads to the second major section of the Old Testament, which is the prophets. Whereas the Torah constitutes unchanging truth, the prophets challenge errant interpretations of Torah. He describes their relationship as “delicate,” since “there are aspects of continuity and discontinuity; both appeal to the consensus and a shattering of consensus” (51).

To be clear, Brueggemann does not believe the prophets undermine the Torah. God’s truth, as embodied in the Torah, is never to be contested, so there is an important continuity between them. However, our interpretations and applications of God’s truth certainly warrant critique, a service not only performed by the Old Testament prophets, but Jesus himself. Quite often, the prophets were divine pruning shears, clipping away the weeds of false teaching which had grown up around God’s truth.

That is why, for Brueggemann, the prophets were not merely social activists. They were disrupters. The prophets did not claim new revelation, but they did set about the task of nurturing the “poetic imagination” by questioning the truthfulness of the popular imagination, and challenging the status quo.

This, for Brueggemann, continues to be the task of Christian leaders today. If we want to teach in a manner that is actually “biblical,” then the shape of the canon is a blueprint. We must pass down the fixed truths of “Torah,” while also disrupting the false interpretations and moral blind spots which have grown up around them. It’s a hard tension to navigate, but it is how we remain faithful to God and His Word.

Ever since I first read The Creative Word several years ago, I have thought about this tension a lot. It has helped me understand my calling as a writer and teacher, as well as the broader witness of the church. One of the convictions I have come to, is that “prophetic disruption” is not simply a matter of speaking hard or unpopular truths. I think what makes a message truly prophetic is its audience. When a conservative pastor preaches about modest dress to his pious congregation, this is not prophecy. And when a progressive evangelical tweets about care for the poor and oppressed to his sympathetic followers, this is not necessarily prophecy either.

Prophecy is disruptive.

More often, prophecy disrupts the particular audience God has given you, the audience that trusts you, follows you, and considers you an authoritative voice. (This is exactly what Moore did, for example.) If you are attempting to disrupt some other audience “out there,” then you are more likely shouting to the wind, or toppling straw men. But if you are stepping on the toes of your closest followers, then you are probably more in line with the prophetic tradition.

In my own context, my audience is mostly female, and in the world of evangelical women’s ministry, the status quo is “positive and encouraging.” Messages for women are big on self-help, “being enough”, and speaking affirmation. This is an all but unspoken standard, and for years I followed it. I didn’t want to lose followers by talking about controversial subjects. Instead I opted for a manicured Instagram profile and inspiring quotes on my Facebook page. People like positive, so that was what I wrote.

But this year I realized the prophetic impotence of self-help messages. Encouragement does have its place, but as I considered the state of women’s ministry and the disciples we were making, I realized something: knowing you are “beautiful” will not embolden you to acts of true courage. At its heart, these messages are fundamentally about us, which means they are powerless to resist a narcissistic culture.

This has been a sobering realization for me. It forced me to ask whether I was contributing to the formation of women who would actually take up Jesus’ cross and follow him. Or, was I nurturing a generation of women who felt great about themselves, but were totally unequipped to lay down their lives out of love for God and neighbor. Those are the questions that have been keeping me up at night.

This is the challenge facing evangelical women. The pressure to be nice competes with the calling to be prophetic. But women are not the only ones facing this struggle. For every article about making money with your blog, or having a better marriage, we need leaders who are leveraging their authority with their particular audience to call people to rugged faithfulness. We need teachers who are targeting the idols of people-pleasing and politics and worldly success, and helping us to be the actual people of God. And we need pastors engaged in the kind of spiritual formation that resists cultural influence, and prepares believers for loving self-sacrifice.

Last year Brueggemann summarized our prophetic failing this way: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3)

Both in women’s ministry and “American Christianity,” we are witnessing the fruit of inadequate spiritual formation. When our spiritual formation winks at, or embraces, cultural idols, we will produce individuals who are totally unable to resist the culture. That is why we are in dire need of prophetic leaders with the courage and clarity to name our adulterous loves. It’s hard work, and humble work (since ranting should not be confused with prophetic teaching), but we need it now as much as ever.

That’s what this year taught me. And I hope I never forget it.

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