Growing in wisdom involves growing in the discernment of who is wise, and who only parodies wisdom. While there are many ways to parody wisdom, two stand out in the age of the internet. At first glance they might seem to be opposites, but (on closer inspection) they reveal themselves to be alter-egos of one another. Tragically, each of these tendencies has plenty of public representation. Let us label their distinctive brands as “Prophetic Performers,” and “Authenticity Acts.”

The Prophetic Performer

“Prophetic Performers” prey upon the humans’ natural (and good) instinct to respond to certain modes of rhetoric and prophetic inflexibility. Since humans are sometimes liable (some more than others) to say “whatever” too often, to be morally lazy, or to fail in their capacity to protect sheep from wolves, it is important that we can nevertheless be psychologically accessed by a strong rebuke, by a reminder that some things are hard, that some bits of reality are unsavory and rough-edged, sometimes you have to confront your own will and sentiments, etc.

To possess this truth-telling quality is a virtue. But this virtue must be distinguished from the performance of “The Badass” prophet. We all know several of these folks. They almost always take the “hard position” on things. They are constitutionally unmoved by counter-arguments – labeling their intellectual dishonesty “principle.” On almost all matters, the world is divided into the righteous and the wicked. What is more, this is all “very clear.” If one is thinking rightly, the world is not complicated, and most situations are a matter of “common sense.”

Here is the thing to note about these persons. We should not think of them as possessing an excess of a particular virtue—or think of them as “unbalanced.” Rather, this entire thing is a surrogate for the prophetic voice altogether. It is a chosen “performance,” the inflexibility of which is an aspect of the show rather than some inner strength of character or resolve. Indeed, behind this infantile role-playing is often a deep insecurity which puts up this mask a psychological safeguard from the danger of actual thought and contemplation. What is more, it pimps prophetic persuasion to the abusive “john” of spiritual manipulation.

The Authenticity Act

More popular in our era is the “Authenticity Act.” Sometimes, but not always, this person started out in the first camp and ends in the second. One will frequently hear this sort waxing eloquent about how “messy” and “complicated” life is. Rather than reducing the complexity of life, they will tend to reduce the complexity of God’s law (not to mention His character) to some vague platitudes about infinite empathy. These persons are frequently hurting and broken, and use the public platform they have to tell their personal narrative, process their lives, and garner empathy for their spiritual destination, or the turns their “journey” has taken.

The same lesson with the prophetic performer applies to the authenticity act: We should not think of them as possessing an excess of a particular virtue—or even think of them as “unbalanced.” Rather, this entire (quite often narcissistic) public display is simply the alter-ego of the prophetic performer—who is almost without fail its foil. This is a performance of the “chastened” whose grandstanding now finds its telos in maximal support rather than maximal opposition. What is preyed upon here is the Christian virtue of empathy toward the weak, listening to the brokenhearted, mercy toward the tearful. But if one digs a bit beneath the service, one will often find iron wall limits to such persons’ empathy, and an anger at reality, others, and God that slowly but manifestly dissolves their soul.

What do these two characters have in common? Fundamentally, they have a narcissistic relationship to reality. Even when they are correct (as they sometimes accidentally are), their relationship to the reality that they presumably elucidate is inflected through their final goals of self justification – whether it be of the deeply fearful valiant badass for Jesus in the case of the former, or the deeply broken demander of infinite affirmation in the case of the latter.

In both cases, what is required is getting out of one’s own head and into the world. Wise men do not safely wax about a reality which functions as their shield, but speak of it with fear and trembling. Wise men are humble before God. Wise men often admit that life is complicated. Wise men sometimes do not know the answer. Wise men are also willing to receive an answer that they find unsavory. And most importantly, wise men will ask divine help to bend their will to savor reality over their distorted sentiments.

The Role of Wisdom

Wisdom is a skillful and artful grasp of the structures and patterns of reality as it is revealed to us in Holy Scripture and in general revelation. It is further the capacity to apply these to particular circumstances, having had our senses trained to discern good and evil. And it is ultimately foraged in the flames of hearts which seek not to avoid unsavory reality, but to repent of their tension with it.

As such, the chief virtue of the prophet is not “balance,” but fine-grained delighted precision about reality. It is love of reality – even at personal cost. Concerning the latter, let it finally be noted that some vices require deep re-orientation. One of the particular difficulties of “Authenticity Acts” is that they find certain moral claims implausible and ugly—superficial and arbitrary.

However, this is often because they take their morality from the superficiality of their own former performing selves. What is easily missed here is that they’ve never confronted reality as such, but merely moved from one willful relation to another—shielding themselves from primal and basic experiences of love and fidelity that flavor the moral order and make sense of it. Like children who move from accepting to rejecting the moral order, they fail to see that delighting in that order is nevertheless not the purview of children. It is rather an achievement born of humility and trial.

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Posted by Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.

  • I think the perspective of the article is off. We are no longer privileged to have prophets who, by the power of God, always speak God’s truth inerrantly to us. In addition, Romans 2 tells us that unbelievers who have faults also show examples of good works that far surpasses the works of those who are religious–including us Christians.

    Thus, what we have today in listening for the prophetic is a venture that is like finding gold in a stream. Where there is gold in a stream, one also finds not gold. The not gold does not imply that there is no gold. It just shows not everything in the stream is gold. And thus it doesn’t make sense to move to another stream just because one finds varying amounts of not gold.

    The logic employed in the article above, however, seems intent on telling us that once we find not gold, we should move to another stream. That is the purpose of negatively describing people outside the Christian tribe who attempt to speak prophetically to the world. If Minich was really interested in us listening for the prophetic, wouldn’t it make more sense if he told us how to distinguish gold from not gold than to tell us which streams should be abandoned in one’s search for gold?

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  • hoosier_bob

    This article says a very important thing. It notes that we live in a very unwise age, and that the lack of wisdom affects both conservative rhetoric (Prophetic Performers) and liberal rhetoric (Authenticity Act).

    Thinking about my own decision to leave evangelicalism (PCA), I did so because it was clear that the Prophetic Performers had so come to dominate discussion in the Reformed corner of evangelicalism that there was little space left for reasoned theological discussion. The Nashville Statement is the most recent example of such un-wisdom, a document that essentially suggests that one needs to buy into CBMW’s Trinity-denying theology in toto just to be considered an orthodox Christian.

    If I learned anything during my years within evangelicalism, it is to run the moment you hear anyone suggesting that he (and it usually is a he) has the gift of speaking prophetically. The same warning should probably also be applied to those who claim authenticity as a badge of honor. But the former is the main problem within evangelicalism, even if the latter is a bigger problem within the broader cultural milieu.

  • john smith

    I read this article with interest while drinking my morning tea. Then I came across these words:

    ‘a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.’

    I was in mid-tea-sip as I read to the point of about the word ‘history’ in the line above, and as the liquid trickled down my throat, my esophagus seemed to fail, and to relax so much so that I forgot even to constrict it again, in order that the hot tea might be diverted down my gullet into my stomach.

    At the same time my respiratory muscles, which are involuntary, continued taking in their air. Yet now, due to the failure of my digestive system, they found the air contaminated, if you will, by scalding hot tea.

    The result was a total rejection of entire air/tea paradigm by the body john smith. Suddenly tea and saliva and quite possibly even some fluid from the tear ducts sprayed across the screen of my computer monitor. Coughing and hacking and choking reverberated against the walls of my living room, as the fluid dripped down the screen in clear, straight rivulets.

    The effect of the spewed spit and tea that I sprayed across the monitor was only to magnify the passage in question, so that it now seemed to be displayed in larger letters, bulging and distorted. As I crumpled over toward the floor, still choking and coughing, as my very lifesbreath seemed to desert me, cup of tea overturned next to my dying body, I glanced up to see the fateful words one last time:

    A PHD IN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT DALLAS