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Prophets are misunderstood in America today. I don’t mean that what they say is confusing. I mean that our modern conception of what a prophet is and does fails to live up to the traditional definition of prophet as revealed in the Old Testament.

There are two dominant ideas about prophets today. The first sees prophets as mainly ‘future-tellers,’ mostly of scary things to come relating to Jesus. The second view prevalent today imagines prophets not as those concerned with the future, but rather ones ‘righteously indignant’ about social injustices abounding in the present.1

According to one contemporary theologian, neither of these diverging visions truly articulates the biblical conception of the prophetic role. Instead of acting as harbingers of end-times doom or conversely angry church politicos, Walter Brueggeman claims that the

[t]ask of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousess and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.2

According to Israelite tradition, prophets were all about ‘evoking perceptions’ about reality. How did the prophets do this? In ancient Israel, they often used passionate words to convince the hearers about the way things ought to line up in God’s economy. Some prophets took action (in the case of Ezekiel very strange action) that metaphorically and tangibly conveyed an alternative perception of reality for all those who were witnesses to the prophet’s life and ministry.

If the above critique is true, who then are the ‘real’ prophets of our age? We could assume it is the religious pundits and preachers who purvey their visions of God’s reality before eager ears. This may be accurate in part. However, our world no longer deals exclusively in word-driven communication.

Technology has turned our society away from being a culture of words. Our world – now brimming with videos, sounds, pictures, computer screens, movies, the internet, and more – is not one of words alone, but of multi-media language.

I believe that today’s prophets are the ones with mastery over today’s media language, who at the same time understand God’s ‘alternative’ to the popular consciousness. These are the ones with the powerful potential to “nurture, nourish, and evoke” a new and true vision – a vision of the real kingdom of God. I am speaking of the twenty-first century artists–of-faith.

The artists-of-faith are precisely the ones in whom I am investing most of my time and energy. While continuing to ‘help churches worship better’ (since 2003) I am adding a new aspect to my ministry through Church Resource Ministries (CRM). I am gathering women and men to start Arts Collectives. These are simply groups of diversely gifted individuals who invent new and culturally saavy ways to inspire spiritual dialogue among their neighbors.

This task is significant since almost 100% of Christian artists are currently only using their skills for church services.

Instead, I am calling artists who are worshipers and leaders out of church to not just lead believers, but to lead culture.
————
1 Walter Brueggeman, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978), 12-13.
2 Ibid., 13.

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When most people think of the Gospel of John, chapter three, they think of silly people with numbered signs at football games. Or, they think of the very first verse they ever memorized in Sunday School.

Chapter 3, verse 16 somehow became a (literal) banner verse, at least for 20th century Americans.

For the last several years, I have been much less interested in 3:16, perhaps because I was one who memorized it in Sunday School when I was three. I am more intrigued by the beginning of the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, earlier in the passage.

Nicodemus – who is apparently a little embarrassed to approach this new Rabbi – meets Jesus under the cover of darkness. He immediately confronts Jesus with his question about who Jesus is and how he can possibly perform all of the amazing signs he has been performing. In typical fashion, Jesus replies with an answer that seems to indicate Jesus wasn’t even listening to the question.

Instead of saying, “Yes, Nico, I AM from God and that is how I can heal and love the way I do,” Jesus says something baffling about the nature of the kingdom of God. He says:

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.

Nicodemus jumps on this, forgetting his initial track of questioning and exclaims, “How can anyone be born when they are old?.. Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus’ answer is an expansion of his first statement. The way a person can be “born a second time” is through a spiritual birth. Each person has a first birth – that of the flesh – literally our human birth. Jesus explains that each person may also have a second birth that has to do with the Spirit. Apparently, the mysterious Spirit of God causes spiritual rebirths in people.

Examination of the Greek reveals that “born again” is a poor English translation, since the original term contains both the meaning of being born “anew,” as well as the concept of being born “from above.” This second part helps emphasize the necessary work of the Spirit in this re-birthing process.

Later, verse 16 – that popular verse – was inextricably married to this idea of rebirth. The idea in verse 16 of “believing” to have eternal life has been linked with being born again. But, I see these two verses (3 and 16) as separate issues. In fact, in my TNIV, the editors haven’t attributed verse 16 to Jesus as others have and as one would if it was a continuation of Jesus’ words about rebirth to see the kingdom of God.

The above is important because linking the emphasis on “believing” with “seeing the kingdom” places the onus and responsibility (or even simply the ability) to be born again on individual humans. However, if one is to be born “from above” there is evidently a supernatural action from God that is beyond our initiation and ability. I am not arguing that we have no part in this process, I am simply arguing that the Spirit has a crucial part in this second birth and a part that is not necessarily contingent on our “believing” as has been promoted in fundamentalist circles.

When I think about John 3:3, all this musing on spiritual rebirth and one’s ability to see or not see the kingdom of God begs this question: If people see the kingdom as the Spirit acts from above, is there a part we can play in making the kingdom more accessible or visible to those who haven’t yet seen it?

My thought is that as prophetic artists (not just visual artists, mind you) we have the ever-present opportunity to portray aspects of the invisible kingdom through pictures, stories, songs, poems, and even the way we creatively live our daily lives. I believe that each time someone confronts our art, the Spirit has another opportunity to bring new birth, from above to that individual. Each engagement with kingdom revealing art is a potential revelation moment.

One more thought. I am not talking about painting pictures of flowers and children and Jesus handing out stickers. Nor am I talking about explicitly “religious” art. The kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that has sociological implications. When thought of like this, our art can portray almost any kingdom value as it is in conflict with the values of this world. Perhaps this also includes portraying worldly values in conflict.

In other words, we are not just talking about ‘shiny, happy’ art. We are speaking of art that depicts real life – the good and bad. It will differ, however, from the art of others, because it will alternatively critique culture and bring hope to culture. Not all art critiques and brings hope, but kingdom art ought to and in this way it becomes prophetic – the ‘word’ of God – spoken through those who have tasted and seen his good kingdom. It is art that conveys the beauty of a world fully embracing all the King intends for it.

I regularly receive a couple alumni journals from two Christian colleges, both of which I attended – neither of which I graduated from. Does that make me an alumnus?

Anyway, a recent journal from one of the schools has a great article on “The Church in a Missional Age.” Though they are a little late in bringing this to the table, it is a really well-thought out, thorough survey of what missional means.

However, there is still a good deal of language in the article that – though it is subtle – rubs me the wrong way. For instance, in speaking about “missional” in terms of the Church and the kingdom of God, the perfectly orthodox statement is made:

It is the Holy Spirit working through us as Christians – as the church – that bridges the gap between the kingdom and the world.

What bothers me about this statement is not the bottom-line truth or falsity of it. It is harder to define than that. I do not necessarily disagree with the basic idea that the Spirit works in the world through believers. What does bother me is the perceived tone and emphasis in the exact chosen words and sentence structure. It gives away an underlying bias.

What bothers me is that “Christians” are positioned as simply the new Israel. We (the Church) are the (only) hope for the world. Sure, the concession is made at the start that it is the Holy Spirit “working through” his followers. But, the idea that it is solely the Church, specifically “Christians” that “bridge the gap” between the world and the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, seems incomplete. To me, it smacks of unnecessary arrogance.

The language used here indicates that the Church is some kind of exclusive club that must save the world. It implies that the world is helpless to behold the kingdom without the Church. I think this is incorrect.

I remember attending a seminar on worship and healing at Anaheim Vineyard back in the late 1990’s. It was before John Wimber died and he gave an impressive talk, even though his throat was dry, ravaged from the cancer battle he was losing. One of the themes of the conference was the idea of the “kingdom breaking through.” We discussed how Christians often pray for healing and find that sometimes, actually often, God does not heal. The kingdom fails to “break through” at the whim of the praying believer. Conversely, its “breaking through” is unpredictable and uncontrollable.

I was impressed by this idea that the kingdom breaks through as it will – as God wills it – sometimes very erratically and definitely not as we expect or will it. How much control do Christians really have over who and which parts of the world “see” or “don’t see” the kingdom? Must the world really walk across our backs as the only pathway to apprehending the kingdom? I think not.

The kingdom breaks through as God’s wills it, often independent of the work or works of the Church. In fact, I would argue that more often than not – throughout history – it is the Church which has hindered that breaking through.

Let me clarify, I DO think that believers can live out kingdom values that display this “invisible” kingdom. And, of course, I am very interested in how works of art can depict the kingdom of God, presenting opportunities for the Spirit to reveal as she will. It is this idea that Christians corner the market on the kingdom that I have a problem with.

Ask yourself this: Is it possible that certain non-Christians may say and do things – as those made in Imago Dei – which reveal the kingdom in powerful ways? To answer “no” is to claim that some sort of particular religious flavor is what saves, rather than God himself.

The kingdom breaks through as it (God) wills.

The title of this post is a version of a phrase attributed to Leonardo Boff.

These ideas ©2009 Eric Herron unless otherwise noted.

Dialectic refers to an exchange of words, especially one in which contraries are not excluded.1

By refusing to exclude “contraries” we are forced to deal with the inconsistencies in our world. The other option available to us – other than thinking dialectically – is working to resolve the tensions that come when two realities come in contact and are in conflict with one another.

Fundamentalism in religion does not deal dialectically. Rather, those subscribing to a Fundamentalist faith must – underscore must – find a way to reconcile contradictions. This, however, becomes a problem for believers when revelation – namely the Bible – evidently proposes contradictory ideas and realities. For instance, how can God be holy (separated from creation) and still be incarnated in the person of Jesus? Or, if salvation depends on grace, why are good works so important, even necessary?

Jacques Ellul, the French theologian philosopher, worked all his life within a dialectic framework and approach. Many people are confused when they read Ellul for this very reason. When one compares one of his books against another, it is possible to find opposing viewpoints, within one author’s ideas! The primary reason he uses dialectic in this way is he believes “reality is fraught with contradictory and opposing elements… [and] so is our means for apprehending that reality.”2 He chooses to use dialectic as an “epistemological tool” or method toward gaining knowledge about reality.3

This worked for Ellul, but for many this poses numerous challenges. For one, linear logic appears to be ignored when dialectic approaches are applied to certain problems. But, at least for Ellul, he did not completely reject Reason, per se. In fact, he claimed that giving up reason altogether leads only to “the irrational” in a negative sense.4 But, clearly, Ellul was concerned with pushing reason beyond its apparently limited abilities.

Those of us reared in Modern churches (“Modern” in the sense of the modern era) lean toward the fundamentalist goals. Personally, the longer I live, engage my world, and examine scripture, the more I find inconsistencies. And, in my opinion, these inconsistencies are better “solved” not through “reasoning out” the conflicts, but instead finding the tension dialectically between the spiritual truth and the sociological reality (two realms in which Ellul constantly dealt) and resolving to live with this tension and find meaning within it.

What does this discussion have to do with art? Art – whether multi-media, music, painting, drama, poetry, or whatever else – is especially given to illustrating (not just visually) worlds in tension. For example, it is simpler to make a painting that conveys the sociological reality of the poor, while simultaneously alluding to the hope found in spiritual reality, than it is to just talk about it, reason it out.

Even with art, our faculty of human reason will not be entirely satisfied. Still, the ambiguity of shapes, the inference of shades of light, the subtle implication (rather than outright definition) of non-rhetorical communication, the availability of fantastic juxtaposition in art and how this can refer to unseen, spiritual truth, all of these things and more argue that art is often a better choice when the need for communicating conflicting realities is present.

Among the many things this “means,” one thing is certain. Those who are called to “lead worship” in our post-modern age ought to embrace more and more the benefits inherent in dialogue spurred by artistic depictions over and above dialogue that is simple a response to the “preached” Word of God.

The question to grapple with is: How can we “preach” the gospel without strict linear reason? After all, God’s upside down kingdom is much less reasonable than the fundamentalists would have us believe. It is not irrational in the strict sense. But, it is certainly opposed to our human ideas about reality and how the universe ought to function.

1Daniel B. Clendenin, Introduction to The Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul (Colorado Springs, CO:Helmers & Howard, 1989), xxvii.

2Ibid., xxx.

3Ibid.

4Katherine Temple, “The Sociology of Jacques Ellul,” in Research in Philosophy and Technology, vol. 3, p.225.

These ideas ©2009 Eric Herron unless otherwise noted.