By Fredrik Håkansson from Gothenburg, Sweden, CC BY-SA 2.0
Prophecy, in the Biblical sense, is not usually about telling the future: it’s about re-framing the present as seen through God’s eyes, with encouragement or dire warning as appropriate. The future part is implicit, perhaps, but primarily God speaks to what is happening now.
Many of the Old Testament prophets were performance artists, active demonstrators of the message that God wanted them to deliver. Isaiah preached naked and barefoot as a warning that Judah’s allies would become similarly stripped. David sang songs that became signifiers of Jesus’s life and, in some cases, actual words that Jesus spoke. In fine oral tradition, prophecy was a thing performed, proclaimed, in real time and space.
Because prophecy addresses the state of now, it’s socio-political: not party politics but the deeper stuff, the interrelationships of communities, the misuse of power and resources, the contents of people’s hearts towards each other. Nowadays, Christians are deeply involved with matters of justice and social action in the charitable sector – implicitly prophetic work, you might say. But what about the art of explicit prophecy?
While there are Christian artists doing it well – our man Benjamin Blower comes to mind – I’d like to suggest that there are a number of more agnostic artists who have taken onto themselves a mission that’s best described as prophetic. Kate Tempest would be a good example. (Contains dangerous language.. and one F-word):
Above all else, Kate Tempest’s poem carries a deep understanding of the inter-connectedness of everything, the ‘web of being’ as David Dark calls it: the environment, capitalism, the arms trade, social isolation. Yes, it’s a hugely broad sweep, but that’s exactly the point: while “the myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost and pitiful”, comprehending the real state of the nation requires a bird’s eye view. Old Testament prophets dealt in broad sweeps too, and one theme that recurred ad nauseum was that the greed of nations leads to social wreckage and death.
Tempest ends with a plea to “wake up, and love more”, which may be too ambiguous an ending for those who favour clear, didactic treatises of faith (and generally throttling artistry) but watching it again, I don’t disagree with any of it – in fact, I think the poem’s message is something God is crying out for us to hear and understand. You might say it’s not the ‘whole’ truth, but it’s part of it, and powerfully, incisively delivered.
I’m not suggesting that the role of the prophets has somehow moved on to those outside the faith (though there is Biblical precedent for that). Only that there are artists we can learn from who unflinchingly grasp the prophetic nettle. Perhaps the spectacle of sandwich-board-wearing street preachers shouting about hell has scared us from the idea of protest. Yet Tempest, in her way, preaches hell: the hell we’re in, the chaos we’re headed for. I don’t doubt she faces her fair share of deaf ears, doubters, haters, cynical eye-rolls and gleeful misinterpreters. But the prophetic voice in the world will not be silent.