Prophets–the divinely-touched emissaries of a god–have always had a very special place in human minds, haven’t they? They are thought to be the conduit for divine words and power, the most effective demonstration there could be for the existence of a living god. Prophets told a religion’s followers what to do, how to react to events, and how best to worship their god. They worked miracles and advised kings. Sometimes they took the religion in whole new directions or up-ended a previously-held social order (like Jesus is said to have done). Prophets were infused with divine essence, so much so that they seemed insane to those around them. And why would they not be out of step and acting strangely? They gazed on a world that other people couldn’t even imagine. They spoke in prophecies, which might be foretellings of future events (which is what most of us think of when we think about prophecies in general), or else just a god’s words of instruction or admonition, and in the myths at least, they were powerful figures who were ignored or mistreated at their antagonists’ own risk. Societies might sometimes chafe against a prophet’s words, but they knew the risks of disobedience–and in a world where scientific concepts were understood poorly if at all, I can imagine that having someone around to explain mysteries–even incorrectly–was a real comfort to ancient people.
The Bible certainly doesn’t step outside of those tropes for its own prophets. Christians generally believe that their god is literally a real live god, and moreover that he is passionately interested in what humans do and even more passionately interested in communicating with them. In the Old Testament, when that god was a bit more remote and hands-off, prophets gave messages to kings and helped direct the course of wars and great migrations. They called down pillars of fire from the sky, shook cities to their foundations, and more. Sometimes they were taken well and obeyed; sometimes they were persecuted. And either way, what they said happened. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and many others acted thusly as spokespeople for their god.
In the New Testament, the tradition of prophecy continued. Though some Christian denominations don’t think there are prophets anymore, the New Testament quite explicitly discusses the matter. It’s not hard to find various Christian sites that discuss how to tell if someone’s really a true prophet or a false one; if you go to that link, notice please that the site simply takes for granted the idea that yes, prophets do totally exist and can be hearing from a god. And of course some denominations–notably Mormonism–wouldn’t be quite the same without their conceptualization of their leaders as automatic real live prophets.
I know what many of y’all might be asking right about now, hearing that information: why would prophets be necessary at all in a faith system whose adherents seriously think they have an intimate “relationship” with a god?
And yes, I kind of wondered too at the time why this god would need to send emissaries when we all thought he was quite capable of talking to his people himself, but even then I realized that I–a very fervent Christian–still had, despite my fervor, the most terrible luck figuring out what messages were from my god, which were from my own head, and which were from simple cultural conditioning, group hysteria, or rational biases. For all our talk of having a big cosmic purpose and of talking with our god and hearing back from him, we seemed as a group to have a tremendous amount of trouble actually hearing his voice clearly and accurately. Having someone say that this or that statement or command was coming straight from our god was very easy for us to understand, and as long as it didn’t interfere too much with what we already thought our god should say, the folks around me were all too happy to celebrate each “prophecy” as a real live miracle.
I’ll add as well that for a religion whose adherents prize blind faith and obedience over proof and critical thinking, prophets fulfill a very real function in the religion: they act as a sort of ersatz “proof” of this god’s reality and his capability to communicate. Just as demon possessions can’t possibly be real if there aren’t any demons, prophets can’t be real if gods aren’t talking to anybody. The very idea of prophecy takes totally for granted that such things are true. I think sometimes that this desperate need for evidence is why Christians tend to ignore when their “prophets” make false predictions. I know of not a single prophet who’s ever gone on record with a prediction that could actually be rigorously tested who hasn’t also been debunked–but I didn’t hear much about them till after I’d deconverted. Such debunkings didn’t fit the narrative, so they just got blithely ignored.
Nobody wanted to look too closely at the idea of prophecy itself or test it with any kind of scientific rigor, obviously.
I think that deep down we knew what we’d find if we did.
Ah, but as with everything else related to the Bible, the folks calling themselves prophets nowadays don’t even come close to the phenomenon outlined in that book.
When non-Christians hear at all about prophets in Christianity, it’s usually in the context of a prediction that prophet has very foolishly made on record. Disgraced doomsayer Harold Camping is one such person; his numerous failed predictions about the end of the world made him a laughingstock in America at least. I’ve mentioned before that another very popular prophet, Edgar Whisenant, made a prediction about the Rapture in the late 80s that actually snagged me as a convert.
The problem, of course, is that the Bible is quite clear about what happens when a prophet makes a prediction that doesn’t come true: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:22) That said, I’m sure that Pat Robertson is very glad indeed that most Christians don’t have the faintest idea what’s in the Bible, after his famous false prediction about Mitt Romney winning the 2012 election, when he said, “the Lord told me Romney will win.”
Christians don’t tend to remember those false predictions at all, any more than people who give money to psychics ever remember their false predictions–it’s such a well-known cognitive bias that it has its own name by now, the Jeane Dixon Effect (after the super-famous-at-the-time psychic Jeane Dixon, who let loose a veritable slew of predictions that largely didn’t happen). In the same way, fans of current famous psychics like the recently-deceased Sylvia Browne don’t even notice that their accuracy rate is barely that of random chance. Given that there doesn’t seem to be anything supernatural “out there” communicating with anybody, it shouldn’t be surprising that Christian psychics–er, prophets–are any different at all. Derren Brown, a well-known British debunker, did a very good documentary about how he pretended to be a prophet and miracle worker–and Christians ate it up with a spoon for the most part. Here’s an entire Wikipedia page just about the various Christian prophecies that didn’t come true.
What’s funny is that Christians–especially fundagelicals, who seem to me to be the most glaringly ignorant of their religion’s history–often point to the story of Jesus’ biography as told in the Gospels as if it was some massive fulfilled prophecy, which just tells me they don’t actually know what a prophecy actually is and how little they know about how their Bibles got written. We could spend a whole post on this subject alone, but I’ll just let it go at this: No, Jesus’ life is not actually evidence of any fulfilled prophecy, because 1) the New Testament was written decades after Jesus’ supposed death, not before it, so we don’t actually know how much the writers heard before his birth; 2) the events in his life do not have external corroboration, so this is a bit like using Harry Potter books to prove Harry Potter is real; 3) even if by wildest coincidence the Gospels are even halfway correct about Jesus’ life, their authors have written about him making several false predictions, which according to Deut. 18:22 makes him, at best, a false prophet. Also 4) Quite a few of those “prophecies” are very obviously mistranslations and misunderstandings of the Old Testament verses that were getting shoehorned into his biography. So basically, people writing about a character who lived decades previously and who didn’t understand much about their source material could make up whatever they wanted–and did. We’ll come back to this idea at some point soon because I find it interesting, but the idea I want to convey here is that there has never been a single confirmed prediction made via prophecy that can be definitively put down to a supernatural agent’s influence.
I don’t normally talk that much about false prophets. I certainly could; there’s enough of them to fill a blog all by themselves. I just view such charlatans as low-hanging fruit, not really worth discussion. Most of them are well aware of how risky it is to put specifics into their “prophecies” and stick to the other side of being a prophet–general exhortations and vaguely-worded sort-of-predictions that could mean just about anything. There’s much less risk of being proven wrong that way. Most of them try hard not to ping outsiders’ radar too much.
As approaches go, this more cautious approach gets received about as well as the bolder predictions anyway. When I was Christian, I belonged to a church that took prophecy very seriously. At many revival services–and quite a few regular Sunday night services (those were the ones that got rowdy at my church; the morning services were usually fairly subdued and staid)–there’d be this ominous, swelling silence that’d spontaneously arise during a service, and then a minute or so later someone would stand and yell very loudly in tongues (glossolalia). This yelling was very different from how people normally spoke in tongues; speaking in tongues was supposed to be part of one’s private prayers, not something one exhibited for crowds. But “a gift of tongues” was meant for a group, and it always had to be interpreted. It was also at least in theory a real live language, one living or dead, though in practice it always came out sounding exactly like what you’d imagine a lower-class uneducated Houstonian in the 1980s/90s would sound like trying to imitate what they thought was Hebrew or Arabic (by way of King James Version English cadence, of course, and often right down to the totally misused “selahs”).
So we’d wait and pray and be all oogly-boogly and wild-eyed–OMG OUR GOD WAS TALKING TO US RIGHT NOW THIS SECOND–and then at some point somebody would stand up and give the “translation” to the “tongues.” I do not remember a single one of these “gifts” to be anything really important or ground-breaking. Usually they were vague warnings of future difficulties or exhortations to hold true to the Cross or something. Afterward we’d all party and dance and yell anyway.
That’s the kind of prophecy you run into more often in Christendom nowadays–overwrought, histrionic drivel like this, from one of these self-appointed
panderers prophets, Chuck Pierce:
The confrontation of the enemy is at hand. You must be filled with praise to enter into that conflict ahead. War is stirring in your midst. War is rising. Unless I rise and inhabit your praises, you will not be able to praise in the midst of the conflicts ahead. I am calling you into a place, and I am going before you so that I am waiting to give you victory. I will establish Myself in your midst. When your conflicts arise, praise Me, and I will assure you of victory in your wars ahead.
I’m not exaggerating here: this exact (and meaningless, and beyond pointless) “prophecy” was something I could have heard back in my old Pentecostal church at any point in my years in that denomination.
It simply amazes me that once I used to think this kind of blather was a real, live communication from a divine being to his awed children.
Pandering to Christian persecution fantasies never gets old to them,, and “war is stirring” rhetoric certainly isn’t going to be a surprise to anybody. But I can easily guess why Mr. Pierce has to hedge his bets and be as vague as he can; he’s certainly been peddling and pandering with his vague little “prophecies” for a while now. He claims–just like any cable-TV-infomercial psychic might–that he’s had remarkable success with his prophecies, such as predicting Hurricane Sandy (but weirdly, his god was silent about all those other bad storms like the one that did so much damage in Japan, and speaking of which, did you hear any prophets predicting the hurricane before it hit, when people could actually do something to prepare for it? Yeah, me either). I’m not saying this to be mocking the guy, though mockworthy he truly is: I read the previous link a few times and all I got out of it was him gloating about how he’d supposedly predicted the hurricane and doing generic rah-rah for himself. Reminds me of those twits who “like” their own Facebook comments.
Are churches actually paying this doofus to squint at them and intone magic utterances at them? Oh yes, they are. This guy makes a living lying his ass off for Jesus. The cool part about being a “prophet” is that you’re not required to be accurate or even make predictions; you don’t have to be a skilled public speaker or even a nice person to be around, because prophets have a reputation in the religion for being a little weird. If you have no other marketable skills but have the ability to speak in riddles and sound earnest, you too can be a prophet!
I would like to point out here that it was realizing that none of these so-called “prophets” ever actually came up with anything really noteworthy that was part of my eventual waking-up from Christianity. The second one of them foolishly went on record with anything specific that actually could be tested, the prophecy turned out to be false. And Christians would just conveniently ignore that false prophecy and the charlatan could continue on the evangelism route, confident that nobody important would ever hold his or her feet to the fire.
Still, they know it’s better not to get too specific, just in case. Normally they do what Chuck Pierce does and try to be as urgently vague as possible. Otherwise they come out with eye-bulging inanity like this (emphasis mine):
The Lord showed me after the first three years into President Obama’s first term, America’s covenant alignment would polarize and the America as we know would no longer exist but begin to fade quickly. That occurred in May, 2011. President Obama made a statement that was overlooked by most that set all of this in motion. Next, He showed me that by within three years (by May 31, 2011), a statement would be made regarding Israel in this nation that would realign the nation and determine the future of this land. (With President Obama’s speech of mid-May 2011 endorsing the Palestinians’ demand for their own state based on borders that existed before the 1967Middle East war, I believe that statement was made (this returns us to the warfare dimension of that season and time in U.S. History!) I sense that three years into this last term there was a shift to turn America from its current covenant aligned form into a new form. I then saw a massive storm hitting the East Coast. This storm would be sent as a sign for this shift that would come on the East coast and water would cover Atlantic City.
I saw that and literally just groaned on his behalf. (He is Chuck Pierce–a fundagelical. He cannot groan. So I groan for him.) Do you see what happened in this quote? This is a “well if I don’t say so myself” self-done back-patting, nothing more. And of course his “prophecy” involves Atlantic City. That’s like Jerusalem for fundagelicals, right?
Oh, it gets so much worse. This prediction came from shortly after the 2012 elections, when fundagelicals were all convinced the end of the world was at hand because the Scary Black Muslim Atheist Kenyan Space Alien got re-elected; Chuck Pierce uses rhetoric that wouldn’t sound out of place at all in a Chick Tract:
Then He showed me high places. These were altars that had been built by the enemy and positioned strategically throughout the land. I saw how the sacrifices on these altars were empowering and keeping an atmosphere held captive by ruling hosts. Next, the Lord showed me the atmosphere. In this vision, He showed me different layers of the atmosphere in relationship to His presence versus the demonic spiritual rule in that particular area or region. (Some areas have already been taken over, and darkness actually rules those areas.) There were 10 ruling centers already developed within the United States. Then He showed me the communication systems between these centers. I saw how one sacrifice empowered one dimension of an evil presence, and then that presence would communicate to another center as together they networked their plan of control. (I could go into great detail here, but I will wait for another time to do this. As a matter of fact, I believe it would be unwise to share everything I saw. In the next book when we are dealing with worship, perhaps I will share more.)
Oh my, he’s going to share dangerous, secret knowledge in a book “dealing with worship”? I didn’t hang around the Music Ministry offices enough, clearly. That sounds like some next-level shit, right there. I’m down with that. But we know it won’t be like that at all. This is just a desperate ploy to sell books.
I don’t think fundagelical “prophets” like him even really think this stuff through. Why is his god so worried about America’s elections when half the planet is at war and children are starving all over it? Ebola is cutting a swathe through West Africa, but American politics is just so much more of a priority? Seriously, I’m not even kidding around here: how narcissistic are modern American fundagelicals? Because every damned time I think someone has won the prize, another entry rolls in to top the previous big winner. These totally out of whack priorities remind me of the weird hypocrisy of those beefy, corn-fed Bubba Christians who are absolutely convinced that their god earnestly cares about who wins the local high school foobaw game. I mean, really when you get down to it, America’s just one country, and we’re doing pretty well all things considered. But fundagelicals–who seem to regard America as a new incarnation of Israel, and themselves as their god’s Chosen People 2.0–don’t even stop to wonder why their conceptualization of deity gives a third of a shart about momentary, fleeting current events in the face of serious need in this world. It’s like all that suffering doesn’t even matter. I just don’t know how someone can be that immoral and egocentric.
There’s something so cheap, so obviously fake, about Christian “prophets.” So dollar store. So Wal-Mart. Slickly-packaged, airbrushed, blow-dried, sequined, glittery, loud, over-salted, swaggering hucksters, the lot of them. Only the spiritually-blind could ever mistake this performance art for anything divine.
And if I sound a little wistful or sad, then you may rest assured that it is because I am; I am sad that Christians have sold themselves so cheaply and are as gullible as they are, and wistful to realize that there really aren’t any real prophets, not really. I’m about as friendly to the idea of spirituality as someone can get, but grifter conjob bastards like these make me realize anew that there simply is no evidence for a single bit of any of it.
Whatever is out there, it either does not or cannot communicate with us; we are on our own.
There’s a sweet simplicity to that.
I’d rather just go with the idea that humanity is on its own than give a single second more attention to the charlatans who claim to speak for the supernatural. It is nothing but a waste of time to do more than the bare minimum required to debunk their claims. They drag humanity back; they spend our precious finite moments lying to people and stroking egos and feeding paranoia and outraging fears. Since these hucksters lack the capacity to feel shame for what they are doing, it is upon the rest of us to deny them soapboxes and funding for their lies and self-serving blather, and to call attention to their predations.
“Prophets” are another symptom of the sickness that is fundagelical Christianity. As the religion’s adherents get more and more desperate for some kind of sign that their god is real and communicating with them, we’ll see more and more of them.
(H/t for original linkie from Right Wing Watch.)