20 June 2011

The Prophet

I'm currently taking a course on the prophets with a professor I've had three times before for various inquiries into Old Testament literature. He's a master at his craft and has been perfecting it over nearly four decades of teaching these ancient texts. The prophets are, of course, generally considered as those men (and some women) who railed against the abuses of the age and promised Yahweh's swift justice for the iniquity of the people. What is often lost is the powerful poetry of their prophetic works and the deep and intense emotion that emerges from their cries.

Last year I took a course from the same man on the Psalms. Explaining the range of feeling in the psalter, not unlike those feelings found in the prophets, he explained, "Human life has its ups, its downs; its winter, its spring. But human life also consists of moments of surprise. When we're overwhelmed by goodness and joy that might even come to us in times of suffering. You may or may not have experienced something like this, I know I have many times: in the midst of the worst thing that's happening to you or to someone you love, moments of incredible peace and joy can descend." This sort of breakthrough only rarely occurred for the prophets and, I daresay, occurs only by seeming happenstance in ordinary life.

The prophet Jeremiah is a favorite of this old professor, and he brought to life the complexity of this man and his relationship to Israel and God. His was not an easy road, nor was it one he chose for himself. At nearly every turn it appears he was the violated servant who was abused precisely because of his service as the divine mouthpiece. In the middle of the book he issues a series of curses which illustrate his deep, existential sadness: "Cursed be the day on which I was born! May the day my mother gave me birth never be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, 'A child, a son, has been born to you!' filling him with great joy. Let that man be like the cities which the Lord relentlessly overthrew... because he did not dispatch me in the womb! Then my mother would have been my grave, her womb, confining me forever. Why did I come forth from the womb, to see sorrow and pain, to end my days in shame?"

Tradition has it that Jeremiah met his end at the hands of an angry mob in Egypt, dismembered and disassembled. His sadness, then, seems justified. One contemporary theologian has remarked that these texts are difficult for Christians to ingest, since the image of God we have is that of total forgiveness and mercy. After wading through these painful pieces, she concludes, "In the end, a faith in a God who both gives and takes away may be the only way to encounter the reality around us." Too many of us hold only to the God who gives, the benevolent master who hands out whatever at the slightest asking. Jeremiah and his prophetic community would view the situation otherwise.

A former student recently asked me about the seduction Jeremiah evidently experienced by God. The prophet did not ask for this attention and he met it on and off with biting resentment. I tried to explain that divine seduction is something experienced by a select few and this seduction is not necessarily something one should envy because it renders the recipient virtually incapable of fleeing. It is a kind of magnetic force that captivates the prophet or saint or mystic and suspends them apart from what the world holds as dear and subsequently becomes an enemy to the world in their own lifetime. It is only after their bones have been scattered that the world discovers their wisdom. It is no surprise that exile was often the preferred outcome to the alternative.

This world of ours seeks assurance at every turn, safety and security for every undertaking. We prefer padding ourselves against the unknown and elusive. Many opt for ambivalence in matters of faith and suffering so as to not be pierced through by the searing pain of love. The attraction to the catatonic becomes ever stronger in a milieu that treats this state as the only sure way to live safely. It takes only a cursory reading of a prophet like Jeremiah to see that, despite the horror of much of the message, the authentic life requires continual exposition of self to the elements. 

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