Prophecy

If the poet’s office is to write of and communicate truth in a complex, poetic way, how should we define the poetic vocation? Four models are worth considering at this point: the poet as prophet, the poet as confessor, the poet as maker, and the poet as tradition-bearer.

Why, do so many modernists look to poetry as a kind of semi-divine office? Many contemporary notions of the poet find their source in Romanticism. Because of its emphasis on the self as the center of truth and its distrust of tradition and dogma, Romanticism tended to "deify" inspiration, spirit, and art. Poets, for example, were understood as prophets of great truths. Because these elements were considered to offer a unique avenue to truth, they were given a kind of quasi-divine status. William Wordsworth, for example, could see his poetic gift as having prophetic and priestly functions. He wrote in his masterwork The Prelude, an epic poem that sets forth the condition of his poetic mind and its history, that the poetic gift had something sacred about it:

To the open fields I told
A prophecy; poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robe
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem,
For holy services. (1.59-63)

How should Christians respond to such claims of inspiration? Poet and biographer Paul Mariani weighs against this temptation to exalt the powers of the artist: "How seductive the promptings of the gnostic imagination for the artist: the old temptation to think one sees the world as God sees it" (245). Prophets in the biblical sense are spokespersons for God. Like the prophets Deborah and Ezekiel, they are divinely commanded to deliver God's message to his people, a message that is often a call to repent and to turn back to God. It is not uncommon for the authors of creative fiction and poetry to be referred to as prophets. Those who do tend to do so either because the writer has great insight into the human condition or speaks out against social and political injustice. The more radical (and esoteric) version of this claims that literary artists are prophets by virtue of being creative alone, that the very act of writing a poem or story is a kind of prophecy in that it offers something of the human spirit that cannot be reduced to the deterministic or mundane.

There are dangers in too easily applying this label to many (or even every) creative artist. Not every one is divinely commanded of God in quite the same way that a biblical prophet is. While artists may be gifted of God to make beautiful objects, it doesn't always follow that they are speaking for God. Of course, some, like the prophet Isaiah, are both voices of God and talented in their presentation.

Paul, quoting a portion of the famous poem Hymn to Zeus, called the Cretan poet-philosopher Epimenides a "prophet" in part because the Cretan people highly honored him and in part because his condemnation of his culture's ethical abuses supported Titus' need for enforcing church discipline. It is likely, Paul did not intend the title "prophet" to have the same force as when referring to Jeremiah or Hilduh. Rather, Epimendes is prophetic in the more general sense that his words reflect God's perspective on a matter, even if not directly inspired.

In this sense then, we might comfortably refer to some authors as having a prophetic sense or disposition.

As the Apostle Paul reminded the crowd at Mars Hill, God has made all humanity and designed them that they might seek him. God by his common grace has spread abroad in his creation signs of who he is and what truth is. In this sense, God has offered a natural revelation of important truths about himself in both the world of nature and in human hearts, including in cloudy, unfocused ways, human systems of philosophy, art, and belief. Mary Jo Salter’s "Benediction" is an extended meditation on marriage—it’s long tern growth and challenges. She speaks of the daily changes that take place in any marriage:

Love grows by familiarity:
a husband may enjoy the sense
of completing his wife’s every sentence.
Yet after a while, a disparity

between what happens and what’s planned
is the finer miracle to pray for.
[. . . .]

A kiss is sweeter when you think
none’s coming; you may be at the sink
peeling an onion, feeling alone,

when a visitor behind your shoulder
makes you shudder, or fills your eyes
with tears. (61-66, 74-79)

This is a wise observation about love and marriage, one that could come from any quarter. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to know this, but the Christian believes that one knows it because God has allowed him or her to learn it. So it is, perhaps, not unfounded to think of human artists, poets, and philosophers, as well as the natural world and human feeling in general, as being sources of general inspiration. However, Christians would also stress that such human venues are clouded by human sin, for they need the specific revelation of God's scripture, as well as the mutual accountability of tradition and church. This is true, even if the poet in question is speaking and writing as a Christian. Robert McDowell reflects on the individuality responsibility of the one who prays. In "Prayers That Open Heaven," he asserts that despite "a declaration of faith proclaimed among many/ The congregation rising up in song" (1-2) or "[o]f forgiveness for those who burn fields/ And break promises, who use their power/ To lord it over others" (6-8), prayer is finally something we each have to make the choice to offer:

Of Our Father and Hail Mary,
Of the sight of a solitary rider
In late afternoon sun on the Cascade range,
The horse moving like the motion of God;
Of sky so full of stars you know you are not alone.
What are the prayers that open Heaven, where
Are the words and guides you should follow?
No one answers, no one lifts up your heart but you. (11-18)

There is much truth in what McDowell is saying here. Prayer cannot be just a corporate experience or the feeling of creation as a kind of sacrament. It also has to be one heart offered to God intentionally. Yet this poem, as McDowell I suspect would himself admit, is not the total lesson in seeking God. Such a poem cannot deny the corporate nature of the church and the church’s prayers. What McDowell offers us is a humbler claim.

The danger of a gnostic or Romantic view of the imagination is to think that such limited means as imagination and perception are of the same caliber as special revelation, which is to treat such general truths as assumptive, formative, and directive. The language of inspiration and spirit is valuable when it reminds of something higher, something non-mundane, non-pragmatic, even non-material about human life, purpose, and culture, yet such language is also too fuzzy, too "loose" when it ignores the specifics of God's written revelation to us. The biblical language of spirit is more specific because it takes general "unfocused" truths of energy and inspiration and assigns them to the person of the Holy Spirit.

In the Bible, God's Spirit, his rhuma, works to create, inform, direct, and raise up the creation, especially human beings. The work of the Spirit in the New Testament includes the mediation of God's words, in order to offer power to the church, to perform deeds, and to interpret that scripture. In this sense, the spirit of believers responds to the acts of the Holy Spirit in our world and our lives. This response includes both those "natural" general acts of revelation in the broader human culture and those more specific and clearer, and therefore more corrective and binding, actions of the Spirit in the Bible and in Christ's church. As the church, we are called to call attention to the works of God's Holy Spirit wherever they take place. We are called to name that revelation rightly.

At best in such systems, God resides in human awareness and subjectivism, not in human history in an incarnate fashion. The failure to recognize or the inability to receive incarnational truth closes off such poets from any sense of indebtedness.

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding