“I can testify about them,” wrote the apostle Paul regarding much of Christian Twitter, “that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rom 10:2).

While I have admittedly mangled the techno-context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the verse does raise an important question for Christians as we attempt to influence culture.

That is: What is the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness? Or as I’ve termed it in the title: How does one discern a prophet from a punk? (Especially when examining one’s own heart and actions.) Since these questions are complex, my goal in this initial post is merely to set the stage and to point out the nature of the problem.

One of the most common retorts of Christian bloggers/posters/Tweeters (like myself), when confronted for divisive snark, sarcastic memes, or just plain jerkishness — is to seek shelter under the label of “prophetic truth-telling.” After all, the stock argument when accused of digital mean-spiritedness is to note that even Jesus flipped tables, likened friends and enemies to Satan and ultimately wound up on a Roman cross.

“So, stand back while I get ‘prophetic!’”

In fairness, there is something to the claim that prophetic speech can be pointed and unpopular.

The Wesleyan Church was birthed from a refusal to be quiet in the face of grave injustice. Slavery was not, as folks like Orange Scott rightly saw, a matter to be silent over — despite the fact that abolitionists were often dubbed “agitators” and “troublemakers.” In like manner, Christians must sometimes risk ridicule in order to be faithful to Christ, and to defend the most vulnerable among us. The gospel cannot be synonymized with a silent endorsement of whatever the culture dubs respectable.

And yet: One of the dangers for all of us is the learning of a “grammar” that enables us to rename vices as virtues:

  • I’m not being disobedient; I’m “pursuing freedom.”
  • I’m not shirking prayer; I’m “avoiding legalism.”
  • I’m not surviving entirely on a diet of Cheetos, hot wings and my children’s Halloween candy; I’m “cooking” while my wife is out of town. (Confessing for a friend.)

You get the drift.

I’m not being a “Jesus-jerk” on Facebook; I’m practicing “prophetic boldness.”

How, though, can one separate the prophet from the punk?  

In his justly famous treatment of The Prophetic Imagination, the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann addressed this question, albeit prior to the age of social media. As he asked, how does genuinely prophetic discourse differ from the angry cavil that often masks belligerence under of the banner of “boldness”?  

While I maintain strong differences with Brueggemann on parts of his theology, my suggestion here is that his treatment of this particular distinction can helpful. Because while the prophet is deeply critical of the sin and numbness that afflicts God’s people, Brueggemann notes that she is also characterized by an imaginative pathos that is expressed through two seemingly contradictory dispositions:

  • deep anguish and
  • exuberant hope.

This 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.

Real prophets were often healers, not just critics. And when they laid hands on a problem or a hurt, it was not just to make it visible via their “platform,” but to make it whole. Picture Elisha stretching his body over that of the widow’s dead son, and breathing life back into him (2 Kings 4:34). Or picture Jesus stretching his body over a Roman cross, and breathing out his Spirit.

While much more must be said on this subject, my point in this installment is merely to note that there is a difference between the prophet and the pugilist.

In the next part of the series, I’ll delve into some specifics that can help one make this distinction — not just when looking at others, but when catching a momentary glimpse of one’s own face in the mirrored surface of a smartphone screen, just before hitting “post.”

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.

Read more from Joshua McNall.
Joshua’s website