Within Christianity, there is always a tension between prophecy and culture. In the playing out of this tension, faith runs the risk of accommodating itself to cultural expectations, bestowing a spiritual imprimatur upon them. When it resists this tendency and is faithful to its prophetic responsibility, faith poses a challenge to prevailing cultural assumptions that conflict with the gospel message of love-justice and tenderness-inclusion.
Prophecy can be likened to the unimpeded free-flowing movement of the Spirit, which like a natural spring of water gushes and spills out everywhere. Organized religion creates a walled reservoir collecting the gushing spiritual spring water of the Spirit, channeling it to become a flow of spiritual energy to irrigate civic and cultural life. This is an essential function but herein also lies the danger of faith jettisoning its prophetic mission in order to compromise with the values of a surrounding culture. When this boundary between spiritual and cultural values is blurred, Christian faith becomes cultural religion. Cultural religion not only suppresses prophecy but becomes its greatest opposition.
In the pages of the Old Testament, we witness this age-old struggle between the divine vision for Israel expressed in its covenant with God and its adoption of the cultural values of the world around it. The history of ancient Israel is a rollercoaster ride, a record of the ups and downs in a struggle that finds no simple solution.
The first lesson for this Sunday, the call of Samuel, is set in an age when: the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread. This is a description of a society in which God’s voice is no longer heard or even expected to be heard.
Samuel grew up to become the last of the great charismatic Judges who ruled in Israel before the age of monarchy. In his call, we see God repudiating a religion corrupted by the misuse of power as identified with the hereditary priest Ely and his corrupt sons.
The period of Samuel’s judgeship is a liminal period between Israel’s tribal confederacy led by a charismatic leader and the emergence of monarchy. This was a period of huge political and social change, which Samuel at first tried to resist. Eventually, under pressure, he finally gave way to the people’s demand to: give us a king like all the other nations around us. Against his better judgment he anointed first Saul, and then David, to be kings over Israel.
Susan Beaumont’s in How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going – writes about the leadership challenges in a liminal season. To capture the essence of liminality she quotes Ed Catmull of Pixar:
There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.
Samuel personifies liminality. He is the last judge but also the first prophet. With the advent of the monarchy, Hebrew religion becomes corrupted by the cult of divine kingship. As a result, the office of the prophet arises to speak out against the cultural corruption of Israel’s covenant faith which was always in danger of giving way before a cultural religion that no longer blessed God, but blessed kings who acted as if they were God.
In the politics of ancient Israel, prophecy becomes the constitutional counterpoint story to that of authoritarian kingship.
We are in the season after the Epiphany. 10 days ago, on January 6th, the Epiphany of Jesus, we awoke to an epiphany of another sort – a stark revealing of America’s dark side. This coming week will see Joe Biden become the 46th President of the Republic. His incoming administration will face no greater challenge than the challenge of leadership in a liminal season. For America is at a point of transition from the known which no longer works to the unknown yet to be tested.
With Ed Catmull in mind again – one might say the situation facing the new administration seems hardly a sweet spot – more like a tight spot. The danger will lie in any attempt to go back to a status quo before Donald Trump’s presidency. The temptation will be to promise solutions that ceased to work a long time before.
The present moment is the point at which the past remembered becomes the future reshaped. The present moment in a liminal season has the potential to pivot between being a tight spot and a sweet spot. In a liminal season the present moment pivots through an openness to new directions -and the tight spot becomes the sweet spot – the place where originality happens.
The key is to be able to linger in the liminal space long enough without panicking.
In these days following the events of January 6th I went back to what I wrote in on the call of Samuel text in 2018. I then quoted Ross Douthat who in a NYT op-ed asked the prescient question:
Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?
Douthat concluded that for all of us the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer.
For Christian faith in today’s America, there is a clear litmus test to determine the vibrancy of its prophetic health. On the eve of the commemoration of Dr Martin Luther King’s birth, that great prophet and agitator for social justice in our time, this litmus test remains simple, clear, and uncompromising. Our Christian faith reminds us that love is the key. A great phrase! But what does this actually look like in practice? Cornel West has reminded us that justice is what love looks like in the public sphere and tenderness is what love feels like in private.
For all of us, the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer. As people of faith in this liminal season our task is to sit in the sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens – without panicking. When we remain alive to the dangers of jettisoning our prophetic responsibility for accommodation with prevailing cultural assumptions, we become a beacon of hope and force for good; the exponents of justice and practitioners of tenderness in the world.
But as Douthat reminds us the choice is ours.