Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will know them by their fruits.
Josephus complained bitterly about people who called themselves 'prophets' during the build-up of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome; these would lead a group of people out into the wilderness, or up the Mount of Olives or Mt Gerizim (the Samaritan holy site) or across the Jordan, promising to lead them into a new Exodus in which the pagans would be driven out and Israel freed from slavery to them...
Josephus took a dim view of any popular movement, being an aristocrat from a prominent priestly family himself -- a man who seemingly failed to understand why the rebel groups he nominally commanded would want to burn the tax & debt records in any city they took. But these people and the tradition they came from did seem to be bad news, continually expecting God to confirm and follow their interpretations of Israel's prophesied destiny, according to schedules they calculated from diligent and wrong-headed attention to their scriptures -- and the result of their efforts was always violent repression by the Romans.
One such revolt is said to have left 2000 insurrectionists crucified along the road that passed by Nazareth about the time Jesus was born. No doubt he heard about it, many times, as he was growing up.
Does this passage apply to anyone in our current times? Few of us believe in prophets anymore, but we are offered a wide array of futurists, politicians, and people who interpret the Bible in much the same way that Judean revolutionaries once consulted it in search of 'the day and the hour' when God would finally do their will... instead of praying for a better sense of God's will.
And there are so very very many people -- who think they've figured out what evil needs to be perpetrated, in hopes some promised good will result...
Forrest Curo wrote: "Does this passage apply to anyone in our current times? Few of us believe in prophets anymore..."
A prophetic understanding of ministry is fundamental to the Conservative Quaker worldview. It is the early Quaker understanding of ministry. Howard Brinton, in his Pendle Hill pamphlet on "Prophetic Ministry", wrote: “The term prophetic indicates in a single word the basic theory of Quaker ministry. He who appears in the ministry in a Quaker meeting is, at least theoretically a prophet, in the sense that he or she is an instrument through which God speaks to the congregation.” “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability God giveth...” (I Peter 4:11 KJV)
This understanding of prophetic ministry, speaking as the oracles of God, is in contradistinction to the conventional modern understanding of "prophetic ministry" as "speaking truth to power."
Many Friends, and many other Christians, affirm the validity and contemporaneity of all of the spiritual gifts, as described in the New Testament: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_gift
I agree, but among Friends I know it looks to be a minority view these days.
I can't think of anyone on the world scene I would call a prophet. Even Mother Theresa was more of a Servant of God than a mouthpiece. The Pope is getting too well treated to be a prophet at this time but that's because he has several messages so everyone gets to pick the one he likes and write off the others as simplistic remnants of an archaic religious organization steeped in myths. The Pope's position on the environment is more of an affirmation of a problem than a clarion warning. Rachel Carson might have been a prophet. Dwight Eisenhower might have been a prophet when he warned us of the Military-Industrial Complex. So too George Washington's warning not to entangle ourselves in the affairs of other countries. Sometimes it takes years to realize a prophet walked among us. Sometimes God doesn't have to speak to a prophet but merely give him understanding. God seems to have his own ideas when it comes to calling prophets. False prophets on the other hand are everywhere. The tell tale sign is they tickle your ears - To creating a caliphate to building a wall on a country's border. If you are hearing just what you wanted to hear you are listening to a false prophet.
What we have today in our culture that Jesus did not in his, are science fiction writers and blockbuster movies. No Netflix back then, but some religious texts played a similar role, providing a shared repository of epics and sagas (e.g. Moses, Noah), some of which invited interpretation as oracular (about the future), such as the Book of Revelation.
In addition to such ink blotty "read into them" texts, were the oracles themselves, such as those of Delphi, originally in Athena's employ but with the slaying of the Python, a source of vapors, they became Apollo's minions (although I offer an alternative happy ending around some campfires -- the Python escaped to Nashville (long story)). 
I noticed in reading an 1829 rant against the Hicksites, that Hume, Priestley and Paine were named, a shish kebab of heretics, worthy of skewering and roasting (if not literally) for their unorthodox views. 
Hume, we've discovered, was channeling Buddhism, whereas Priestley discovered oxygen. What about Thomas Paine, and why would an American decry him (wasn't he a war hero or something?).
Paine, as I recall, linked "Prophetic" to "Singing" i.e. a prophet is uniquely gifted with an ability to Sing Out Loud what many are thinking but can't quite put into words. Once they hear what they've been secretly thinking, they say: this Friend speaks my mind!
But then not all Friends think alike nor agree what future is being revealed, and so once prophets are on the stage, one has the possibility of false or phony ones. Goes with the territory, part of the grammar. Many science fiction writers aren't even trying to predict a literal future. Others take that up as an interesting task.
So we're confronted with various utopias and distopias and everything in between. The next question is to what extent does each one of us sense we might steer? How powerless / powerful are we. I mentioned awhile ago about the Ouija Board Effect. There's more of them than there are of you. It's easy to feel the victim. Everyone wants to speak truth to power, but no one seems to think they're in power. There's always some cabal screwing up the plan. Always seems that way. I really doubt any human alive feels "in control" of the situation -- that's just not a feature of human existence, so control freaks beware.
Back to Quakerism and our practice of testing leadings: we need to keep doing that.
So-and-so has a "burning bush" experience and now wants to be a Released Friend and go about the world sharing ministry about ______. Shall we release said Friend? A Clearness Committee is formed, and if cleared (sounds like Scientology but that's inevitable), then a Support Committee is given longer term responsibility as a sounding board.
I'd say that's about as close to "official prophets" as we get in our NPYM Faith & Practice (version x.y). Plus it helps if said Friend has written a book or two, or at least has an on-line journal. Just having some visitation or dream is not enough. We look for consistency over time, commitment, and a willingness to do legwork.
Given our egalitarian structure, we do not "ordain" any specific class or cast (caste) of prophets. We don't like to professionalize these roles and give them titles. "Prophet" would only look silly on a business card and we're a business-oriented sect, hard to deny in light of our language.
We do hope to steer our shared business by God's Light meaning we're always hopeful and expectant that the Holy Spirit (or just Spirit) will move us forward. That's happened enough times already to have convinced a lot of us that it works.
However no one person in a Meeting has to stand out as The Rabbi, or Leader in such a design. We're all good at letting the way open without making anyone in particular be the gatekeeper. The way just opens. We didn't even need to pay an oracle.
"A prophet on the world scene?" What would that mean? -- and how would it happen?
"Hello, I'm a prophet and I'll be holding a press conference tomorrow at..."
Many people are trying to predict the future, to 'read the signs of the times' and extrapolate... but most of these, like those 1st Century Jews trying to look up 'The Day and the Hour' in the book -- are reading the wrong signs in the wrong places.
These aren't necessarily bad people, or 'ravening wolves' (although that's the sort most likely to make it to mass media attention) but they're hardly people who can truly interpret God's mind for us, tell us the meaning and intention behind events -- as opposed to babbling notions about God allegedly hating one weak minority or another...
I think we're getting fewer public prophets because... It's time people became prophets to ourselves, ['for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of God.' I can't say when that is to be -- but it's plainly the direction we need to move! How, aside from the Spirit working in ourselves, could we recognize when someone else is working as a true prophet?]
Kirby, you posted while I was replying to James...
Science fiction writers have practically never imagined they were predicting things so much as writing about 'could-be's. By the time you actually predict anything, you find out that someone has already done it -- unless it's so far off the map that it ain't gonna happen. We also see a lot of 'What if this get's even worse?' stories. Not understanding our own world, they collectively aren't that sharp about worlds to come. (Ursula LeGuin is one of the few people with sufficient imagination -- in her sense of the word, the human faculty of seeing how things must be -- to find real worlds with real people in them, whether or not they're in any future of ours.)
Tomorrowland was yesterday, and now we're trapped in its falling wreckage.
'Singing' is probably a good word for 'propheting'. I remember one bit in the Bible when two consulting kings call in Isaiah to give them a prognosis -- and he calls for a musician to bring him into readiness, then says what he's given. William Blake had a sense of that connection.
But I wouldn't say that someone delivering a Message is 'telling people what they're thinking but can't put into words', so much as pointing them to a truth they recognize when they hear it. (Where it is was 'before they said it..? Who knows?!)
Yeah true, science fiction is called fiction for a reason.
My dad was a Planner (urban, regional and education), which sounds almost like a brand of prophet. But when you're doing zoning maps for 50-year development / urban growth, that's not "to prophecy" so much as to "make regulations" i.e. he was advising a government (but then governments come and go -- plus those 50 years are about up by now).
Closely connected to "prophecy" (sing) is the ability to "dictate" as in "dictator". That maybe sounds bad to most modern ears (one of the "virtual nations" I frequent is a "dictatorship" and I'm not complaining -- his name is Guido van Rossum, title BDFL), but we want the captain of a ship, the pilot of a plane, to have "plotted a course" i.e. so often we wish for something stronger than guesswork.
People ask God for a Sign (something to go on -- sheer speculation is just too suspenseful). People want to feel ruled (by laws of physics if nothing else) so they know what to expect.
Paul Allen's Museum of Science Fiction in Seattle Center pays attention to the role our visions of the future have in shaping said future. A lot of 1950s post-War Popular Science was about a bright attainable near future, the one with jet packs ala The Jetsons. Upbeat and cheerful. Then it all seemed to turn dark, with the near future more often painted in bleak tones, ala Blade Runner. Star Trek stayed somewhat hopeful, about the future of humankind at least, but that scenario doesn't really get going until the 24th Century -- not much help in the 21st (let alone 20th). Near future positive science fiction: there's been a shortage, at least until recently.
My own brand of futurism is expressed through my Quakerism and I would encourage any Friend to consider Quakerism a vehicle for moving forward in the time dimension, even at this petty pace of day by day (I'm not talking about any time machine), but yet with planning and looking ahead.
What God reveals to us is not our one and only Determined Fate, but our Freedoms. We have some say in the matter, some ability to steer (within limits). Study helps. Scholarship is part of it. Our playing an active role is what God seems to reward, whereas the ultimate distopia is like in The Matrix: humans are not even hatched, never get to be whole: they have no share in co-creating (unless free of the imposed delusion).
The flavor of Quakerism I work on is non-Luddite in flavor. I like the crackly old stoves in the creaky wooden meeting houses, what many Friends seem rapturous about, but that shouldn't preclude other styles, like maybe on some 48th floor in some sky tower, with LCDs showing the Pennsylvania pix, of fine old meetinghouses. But we're in Singapore or Hong Kong and our Meeting is nowhere near the ground floor. That's OK too. It's not either / or. We're also very good with computers, thanks to our heritage of being meticulous at record keeping. Just as a contemporary librarian tends to be well versed in computer science, so are our Quaker clerks steeped in IT. Good PR is not enough. God wants us to stay strong.
Spooks and gangsters thrive on the myth of the competent benevolent dictator -- and so do the literal dictators of this world -- Terry Prattchett's ruler of Ankh-Morpork being one of the more plausible depictions, keeping a light grip on Diskworld's biggest and wickedest city by the sheer terror he generates by letting crime flourish, spreading rumors of what happens to opponents, being smarter than anyone else (except Leonardo, who's too naive to rule & doesn't want to) and the simple expedient of actually listening to people.
Here on Roundworld, any city that doesn't govern itself is ungovernable. Generally cities govern themselves by kleptocratic oligarchy, but it works, sort of. The police maintain a workable ecology of crime, stopping just enough criminals to make large-scale crime pay while assuring themselves of a steady diet of minor offenders. Campaign contributors get real estate deals and municipal contracts, and first place in line to buy up any city service that might plausibly be privatized somehow (at great cost to the city and degradation of service, but that's Efficiency.) It works in the sense that it accomplishes what the people who count want; and that's what counts, from a 'practical' viewpoint.
Dictatorships are very much like that, except that a typical dictator gets so reasonably frightened as to be dangerous, if he weren't so to begin with.
Self-government by Christ, such as Quaker Meetings strive for, is probably the only tolerable alternative. But people imagine that to be impractical -- which, considering the governments they prefer, is frankly amazing!
I have a sister and niece showing up this morning; I know not when. So, I don't think I can spend much undistracted time thinking about the topic and what you are writing.
A few preliminary observations:
1. The "prophet" as predictor of the future seems to be the model implicit in your various remarks. In the literature on the Biblical prophets, predicting the future is only one aspect of the prophetic role. Speaking (or, more generally, enacting) God's word to His people is a broader understanding of what prophets do.
2. In the Quaker tradition, there has been a reluctance to designate any given person in so many words as a prophet, even though some Friends were so regarded. Some were definitely seen as having a gift of prophecy. Since I am most familiar with Conservative Friends, I think of Ann Branson as an exemplar of the prophetic function, but I don't think she ever explicitly *called herself* a prophet. When she died, her journal was published and distributed at no charge to every household in Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). This indicates the significance Friends attributed to her ministry.
3. The literature cited thus far in this thread is non-Quaker and secular in character. This suggests to me that the *Quaker* understanding of prophecy and the Quaker literature on the "spirit of prophecy" are largely unknown to modern Friends, especially outside of scholarly, Conservative and New Foundation circles.
This is it for now!
Thank you, Bill, for this perspective! I think part of our traditional hesitance to name "prophets" even as we recognize the gift of prophecy is that any believer may be given a prophetic message and even recognized prophets need to have their words tested.
The biblical prophet has two characteristics, it seems to me: (1) calling God's people back to faithfulness and (2) access to "hidden knowledge" (knowledge of the future, past, hearts of others, will of God for a certain situation, etc.). So a prophet on the world stage is unlikely to say, "I'm a prophet and I'm having a press conference" and is more likely to say (publicly) "We need to stop engaging in XYZ sinful behaviors or we will receive God's judgment" or "We need to start engaging in XYZ righteous behaviors and get our hearts right with God" and (privately) "Sister Marie, God wants you to know that he is with you and won't forsake you" or "I have a message for someone in this room that now is the time to step out in faith." With this understanding, I think it is fairly likely that several people in the world stage are acting out a prophetic gifting. (Check out Primal Fire by Neil Cole for an in-depth discussion of the gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher. It's not a Quaker book, but I found it very instructive.)
William F Rushby said:
The "prophet" as predictor of the future seems to be the model implicit in your various remarks. In the literature on the Biblical prophets, predicting the future is only one aspect of the prophetic role. Speaking (or, more generally, enacting) God's word to His people is a broader understanding of what prophets do.
I wrote: "The literature cited thus far in this thread is non-Quaker and secular in character. This suggests to me that the *Quaker* understanding of prophecy and the Quaker literature on the "spirit of prophecy" are largely unknown to modern Friends, especially outside of scholarly, Conservative and New Foundation circles."
I should have noted that the discussion made little reference to Biblical materials concerning prophets and prophecy, or to the extensive corpus of literature informed by a Biblical/Christian perspective. Adria has added some of this literature and these ideas to the discussion.
What's somewhat paradoxical about Guido's dictatorship, which we sometimes market as Python Nation -- no more a "real UN nation" than Rogue Nation (a brewery in Oregon) -- is we vote for our Board (Python Software Foundation) using state of the art e-voting software that even the election master can't rig.
Each election may be studied after the fact, in detail, though who voted how remains secret (voters are welcome to assert how they voted). I'd like to see more technology like this percolate out to governments who use voting. From what I can discern, the US is rather inept (perhaps purposely?) when it comes to such civilian tech.
Why doesn't every pubic high school have voting machines to practice on and study? Because we live in a quasi-democracy with yearnings for monarchy? The way people treat their presidents around here, is if empowered to wave a magic wand, seems rather shallow and immature. "Blind loyalty" is hardly a virtue in my book.
Where do we find dictatorship as a pattern? In individual families with a dictatorial head of household? How about when Paul Bremer issued the "Bremer Edicts" to Iraq. I'd say many perceive the US as a dictatorship, telling them how to run their lives.
I'd say any military or corporate pyramid has aspects of dictatorship baked in.
My idea of a false prophet would be Jerry Falwell, who said the tragedy of 911 had to do with too many homosexuals in America. Guys like him fill Quakers like me with loathing and disgust. Many so-called Christians are among the lowest of the low. Yes, I'm being judgmental this morning. Haven't had my coffee yet.
I guess I'll go so far as to consider some texts, remarks etc. "prophetic" but I'm not really on the lookout for "prophets" in the Biblical sense, nor soothsayers, nor clairvoyants. It's one of those words that belongs to cultures other than mine. I'll be a futurist, a planner, a designer, an engineer... but I'll eschew the label "prophet" if at all possible. I don't like the connotations. Sounds like a B-grade Bible movie at best. cheesy, tawdry, not my cup of tea. Others may differ of course. I'm free to cultivate my own tastes without dictating them to others.