“This is a book about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived…” So begins Abraham Heschel’s paradigm shifting book The Prophets. He continues:
“The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither “a singing saint” nor “a moralizing poet,” but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends. [. . . ] The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretentious.” *
In truth, I had adopted the biblical prophets as my guides long before I ever sat down to reason out why. I met plenty of Christians in the early noughties who were uncertain and anxious about what a Christian artist ought to look like; I ignored such discussion and dived after Ezekiel (my favourite) in his wake of woe and madness.
It was the end of the noughties when I decided to sit down and sketch this sort of approach out into a manifesto. I did this partly because others found the approach compelling, and I thought describing some principles might be helpful. But the greater reason was that the idea of the school of prophets had taken hold of my mind. The biblical prophets were not all loners. We often read of prophetic communities (eg 2 Kings 2:1-18) who together sought mystical experiences of YHWH, and embarked together on their strange prophetic activities. I had a notion that perhaps some like-minded artists of faith might similarly work together and create jarring public spectacles to interrupt the numbing rhythms of the broken present.
And so we did. There was performance art in front of the giant screens and coercive advertising campaigns. We played music on buses to disrupt the public numbness, and on monuments to call the images and powers into question. The manifesto kept us very much focused on aesthetic actions in public spaces (such as the prophets seemed to do). It was, on the other hand, very much against the safe containment of art in the abstract echo-chambers of cyberspace, or the domestication of art into the capitalist lounges of record shops, art galleries and billboards, and the mythos of the aspiring artist. It was also against art as a thing prescribed by empire for introspective moments, to sooth unsettled emotions while the world itself withers. Certainly not! Our art was to be offered directly to the everyday public in a manner that promoted immediate public discourse.
All this finally culminated in our participation in the No More Page Three campaign, which – after several years of slogging – finally succeeded in persuading The Sun to remove its soft porn images from the paper.
After this (or even before, really), the loose collective dispersed. People got married, had children, moved to other cities, and so on. I, who had been the chief organiser (and quite unsuited to organising anything), collapsed exhausted. And the manifesto went on the shelf, where I still occasionally glance over and wonder about dusting it off.
To reflect on this brief experiment: it was hard. Doing subversive art in public space is emotionally draining. Taking a public stance on an issue is costly. Aiming art exclusively at public life, to the exclusion of inner life, is unwise – as Jeremiah would have told me if I’d listened. Although others sometimes took the initiative, I was mostly the driving creative force. I was hoping to create a structure within which others felt empowered to thrive and speak with their own voice, and launch their own creative actions. This happened occasionally, but was pretty rare.
On the other hand, it was fun. We bonded. We lit up spaces with discussion and merriment that were otherwise numb and atomised. We saw small changes in response to our actions. We made new friends and connected with new people. One pair connected, got married and now have a third child on the way. We were all somehow enlarged and changed, and various people were, I think, positively influenced.
If I were to re-ignite such plotting, rooted in the example of the school of prophets, I suppose I would work harder at two things: first, a slow, sustainable pace. And, second, a prayerful common life.
I don’t think it entered our minds that one ought not to emulate the prophets. It never occurred to me to think of the Hebrew prophets simply as verbatim mouth-pieces for God (like Mohammed, say). I think if we try to capture a sense of them in their own moment, we find social, cultural and political activists working out of their Yahwist faith, and toward their Yahwist hope. They had no idea that they (or their disciples) were writing canonised religious texts. They were faithfully responding to the world as they found it in their own day. If someone decides to canonise your babblings in a few hundred years, that’s their business. Ours is to speak faithfully into the hope crisis of the present. God help us if we don’t.
One of the curious and marvelous outcomes of the experiment, for me, was the very mixed group that formed around it: some Christians and some not. I think one of the reasons (besides canonical anxiety) that people aren’t sure of how to emulate the prophets, is that their religious paradigms are quite different to ours. The prophets didn’t really try to “convert” people in the religious sense. They certainly called people to right living and authentic worship, but the Ninevites, for example, didn’t convert to Judaism, as such, neither did Nebuchadnezzar, or Naaman. As I reflect back on our little collective, it occurs to me that those who engaged most deeply with the Manifesto itself, were not Christians. And indeed, they helped shape and refine it. Non Christians took part in our actions, and we as a collective threw our weight behind secular movements (such as No More Page Three). Meanwhile, it was sometimes Christians who criticised us most fiercely. How did all the boundaries get so jumbled?
For now I’ll just reflect that that was how it went: being salt and light in this sort of paradigm felt a lot more like a mutual discipleship with others toward God, than the usual sorts of images (us in a boat, holding a hand out to the drowning folks in the water). In this respect, it chimes with my experience that Chris Donald might point to Kate Tempest as one of the most authentically prophetic voices in the present. The prophets so often jarringly critiqued the ordinary, ubiquitous, and systemic evils, in which all are enmeshed. And so the dividing line is, as Paul might say, abolished. All have sinned, and all – prophets included – are called to change, to metanoia, to repentance. No doubt, this raises questions, but it was, on reflection, very refreshing to engage the world this way.
*If I may recommend two books to read on the prophets, these would be The Prophets by Abraham J Heschel, and The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.