What separates prophetic boldness from dogmatic shrillness?

In my first post, I suggested that evangelical Christians have a problem that mirrors issues in the broader culture. In some cases, we have come to use the banner of “prophetic boldness” to excuse rhetoric that is just plain rude.

(I know, because I’ve done it. Hypothetically.)

But what separates boldness from belligerence? Walter Brueggemann, in his famous (if flawed) book on The Prophetic Imagination, points out two biblical hallmarks:

  • deep anguish (“weeping”)  
  • exuberant hope (“dancing”)

In short, the strange marriage of lament and joy makes the prophet both more prone to tears and more prone to “dancing” than is usual amongst the “clanging gongs” that masquerade as God’s mouthpieces.

Now to unpack this paradoxical combo.

For sake of space, I limit this post to the first point: prophetic lament.


“If we are to understand prophetic criticism,” writes Brueggemann, “we must notice that’s underlying character is ‘anguish and not anger.’”  

Say it with me: anguish, not mere anger.

Of course, the two emotions often co-exist, as in the loving parent who is both gutted and exasperated by a rebellious child. In this case, righteous anger is an outflow of brokenhearted love. Still, the crucial point rests upon which attribute (or posture) has been given pride of place.

Cynics smirk, pundits rant, prophets weep.

Brueggemann draws out this point as it relates to the ultimate “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah:

I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the . . .  numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. [. . .] I believe that grief and mourning, that crying in pathos, is the ultimate form of criticism (46).

Right away, one notes how different this sounds from the snarky, monotonal shrillness that pervades our public discourse — and social media especially.

Can a meme lament? Is there an appropriate emoji to express the pathos of Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15)?  

I doubt it.

Yet for all our proof-texting of a prophetic Christ who “flipped tables” and likened enemies to “snakes,” we often miss how this very passage (in Luke and Matthew) is bookended with incidents of public weeping.

Indeed, at the very moment Jewish citizens are Re-Tweeting Jesus as the true and “trending” king, Christ is channeling the ugly cry of Jeremiah:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes (Luke 19:41–42).

Likewise, in Matthew’s version, this same scene—in which Jesus calls religious leaders “snakes”— is couched in sobs of a maternal grief:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).

My single takeaway is this:

In many cases, dogmatism fails to be either Christian or “prophetic” because it has lost its love-based grounding in lament. It is the empty husk left over when God’s people exchange weeping eyes for gnashing teeth — and call it “prophetic boldness.”


Here, then, are some dangerous questions that I have begun to ask myself when writing, posting, speaking and teaching:

  • Is it clear that my attempt at biblical truth-telling on a particular issue flows forth from brokenhearted love?
  • Is that still clear for people who do not know me personally?
  • Does my own tendency to use snark in the face of evil and injustice flow forth from a preference for numbness over grief?  

Of course, none of these means that Christians should stop speaking prophetic truth with courage, wit and winsomeness. Still, it may mean reclaiming a posture of anguish over naked anger.

But enough on weeping; next time: dancing prophetesses.




Joshua McNall

Joshua McNall (Ph.D.) is assistant professor of theology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He is an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church and blogs regularly at joshuamcnall.com. His latest book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements, has just been released for churches and small groups at www.seedbed.com.

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