Something odd but intriguing has been happening pretty much under the radar in American Christianity.
As this New York Times article reports, "in recent years, self-described prophets have proliferated across the country, accelerating in stature over the course of the Trump era. They are stars within what is now one of the fastest-growing corners of Christianity: a loose but fervent movement led by hundreds of people who believe they can channel supernatural powers — and have special spiritual insights into world events."
When Christians and adherents of other faith traditions speak of people having "prophetic voices," they usually aren't referring to an ability to predict the future. Rather, they mean speaking out about problems in society and suggesting ways they can be fixed. One way of putting that notion of prophetic voice is to say that what breaks God's heart should break our hearts and that we must not be silent about those matters, whether they refer to ecological damage, racism, sexism, poverty or some other issue.
But the "prophets" in the Times story are people who claim they know what's coming and are deputized by God to alert the world to whatever that is.
There is, the story notes, a long tradition of such people in the history of Judaism and Christianity: "The desire to divine the future is a venerable one, fueling faith in figures from ancient Greek oracles to modern astrologists. Christianity in particular is a religion whose foundational text is filled with prophecies proven true by the end of the book."
Much of what Christians read as prophecy in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, of course, is not viewed that way by Jews, particularly those passages that Christians assert forecast the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But in any case, future-predicting voices have been around a long time in religious history. For the most part, people in recent centuries who have claimed the gift of prophecy have been seen as religious quacks or misguided fools. That, however, has changed in recent years as more and more of these voices have found an audience.
And just who are these prophets? The Times story answers this way: "Many are independent evangelists who do not lead churches or other institutions. They operate primarily online and through appearances at conferences or as guest speakers in churches, making money through book sales, donations and speaking fees. And they are part of the rising appeal of conspiracy theories in Christian settings, echoed by the popularity of QAnon among many evangelicals and a resistance to mainstream sources of information."
Perhaps all this is just one more aberration we can blame on the internet. But the question is whether the gift of prophecy is real and, if so, how one can know a true prophet from a charlatan. There may be no clear answer to that question, meaning it's up to each of us to be careful and discerning about whether we give such voices credence.
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RESURRECTING A USEFUL OFFICE
President Biden has signed an executive order recreating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Good. That office, about which I had some initial church-state reservations, has done some good work in the administration of several presidents. But, properly overseen and operated, it can be a beneficial way to connect faith communities to the common good.
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P.S.: The annual Give Seven Days events in the Kansas City area will happen virtually this year, April 13-25. Here's a pdf with all the details you need to participate: Download 7-days-2021_eventspostcard. As part of the events, I will be moderating an interfaith panel on Monday, April 19. Please save the date on your calendar. Thanks.