“I met Chuck Smith’s sister a while ago,” Amanda said.
“Yeah. She told my ex-boyfriend that he would become a great pastor.”
This is all I could say in such a discussion. Amanda later told me that her former boyfriend had not become a pastor. At the same time, we cannot admit that such a prophecy won’t come true because he has not yet died. This is the difficulty of the prophetic imagination.
The first difficulty is misunderstanding. Prophecy, as it is understood at a popular level, is a fortune-telling business that bespeaks doom or greatness to particular people. It has been misused, abused, and thrown around carelessly in the past. The prophetic utterance really is an “eating of the scroll” (Ezekiel 2:8), that is to come into communion with God–literally sitting down with and feasting with the king of kings–and eating up all of his divine words. In a way, Ezekiel has taken on the role of God’s mouthpiece to the world. This is no small task because “on both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe” (Ezekiel 2:10). The prophetic imagination is always powerful, but is rarely a “good word” in the sense of happines, peace, and joy coming to the recipients. Virtually all of the prophets were born out of dire circumstances. Even the “comfort” that Isaiah speaks of is a future hope that is only good in the sense that it will bring relief to the present suffering of Israel.
The second difficulty is interpretation of the prophetic in the present. While we have the luxury of looking back at history to see the outcomes, those in the present making prophetic statements are really making statements in faith. For instance, the prophets draw on the rich history of the people of God. They know the traditions of escape from Egypt, and they draw on it to bring God into the present through his own powerful word. The Lord is again trying to break through into their present to transform society into the way God wills for it to be. But the difficulty is seeing the present stand largely static and unchanged because the people do not buy into the prophetic imagination. They simply do not see how God could possibly have said that through that person. If God wanted to speak, they assume, he would have spoken to them first.
Thus, how do we interpret modern day prophets? Just as during the exilic period, there are a number of different voices vying to speak for the almighty. Some say that doom will come through environmental disarray. Others say that doom is coming directly through a future all-powerful anti-Christ. Some argue that the end will come as we allow our consumeristic tendencies to destroy the world. Others argue that God speaks only through certain churches at certain times. Others have created communes for ordering their lives around a kingdom ethic, and they believe that this community is embodying the prophetic imagination as they give themselves away to the world.
So many options. How do we choose?