Wendell Berry –Prophet of sustainable communties and agriculture

rogerdhansen in a comment on Bishop Bill’s recent post on Revelation Again suggests we need a visionary, spiritual prophet. Well, guess what –we are moving into the third Century of the Church. Visionaries tend to get a little scarce the longer the Church is around. Managers take the lead!

Prophets and revelations, however, are at the heart of our belief system. But many if not most commenters on that post felt there were few revelations, at least in our recent history, that could qualify as prophetic. The general discussion revolved around what it is that constitutes a significant revelation consistent with the status of a prophet.

I would like to spin this discussion off in a slightly different direction by exploring just what it means to be a prophet. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us several definitions, but I draw on two:

  1. A divinely inspired interpreter, revealer, or teacher of the will or thought of God or of a god; a person who speaks, or is regarded as speaking, for or in the name of God or a god.
  • a prominent proponent of or spokesperson for a particular cause, movement, principle, etc.; a visionary leader or representative.

Most Mormons would likely choose No 1 as the definition for “our” prophet: a person who speaks for God. Other prophets are visionaries-No. 2. Are there prophets who fit both definitions, or is it rare that one person can be both a visionary and the spokesperson for God?

The Old Testament prophets embody for most people what a prophet is. I don’t think their main purpose was to predict the future. The Old Testament prophets commonly spoke truth to power, telling the people what the consequences of their actions would be. “If you continue to grind the faces of the poor, then your community is doomed”, for example.  I am an environmental scientist, and I like to believe that scientists can play the role of the OT prophets: “If you continue to discharge raw sewage into this river, if you continue to pave over the prairies, then your community will be so much the brittler and so much the less resilient, and you will be going to hell in a handbasket,” or something to that effect! Think about Jeremiah– where does that word Jeremiad come from? The status quo church was not comfortable with Jeremiah, neither was he comfortable with them. Jeremiah 20 is revealing in terms of the animosity.

In the OT, prophets stand in opposition to the status quo Walter Brueggemann, one of the most influential scholars of the OT in the world, in his book “The Prophetic Imagination” believes that opposition is at the heart of the prophet’s task:

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.

Brueggemann believes that the consumer culture of the West is a large part of the dominant culture around us. And what might be the alternative?  That is where the Prophetic Imagination comes in. The prophetic alternative is not the easy road. It is a radical alternative that has to be imagined.

Our Second to Third Century prophets clearly line up with definition No. 1 above. Our leaders dress like American businessmen and they manage like business men (and now business women?). Certainly they stand opposed to certain characteristics of society that they find problematic – Word of Wisdom issues, breakdown of the family, and perhaps a general loosening of what they call morals. They do not articulate nor envision, however, a radical reworking of modern industrial society. 

But some of their predecessors did imagine a radical future. Joseph and Brigham, aside from their faults such as polygamy and no priesthood for the blacks, clearly articulated a radical egalitarian future, where it would not be given that one person would have that which is above another. The Law of Consecration and the United Order were the result of that vision. Of course, like most radical visions, it eventually lost steam.

Vision eventually gave way to management, but an interesting outlier in the Twentieth Century was Spencer W. Kimble.  His June 1976 Ensign article, The False Gods We Worship, was a direct attack on 20th Century consumer culture, delivered right on the Bicentennial. This powerful article, aside from an unfortunate slam on homosexuality, reads as powerfully today as it did 45 years ago. The false gods SWK alluded to centered on greed and covetousness. This piece is solidly in the tradition of the OT prophets. But not much else along these lines ever took place. The SWK False Gods piece went largely ignored.

Our prophets, seers, and revelators, then, are not much in the OT tradition of speaking truth to power. The vision thing does not appear to be their thing. I don’t know, though, that we should expect much from them in that regard, as we transition into the 3rd Century of Mormonism. They have their moments of illumination, and the pace of change does appear to be picking up. But the Q15 are about stability, not rocking the boat. Change can come but it will be incremental. I can sustain the Q15 as prophets, etc, of this church. But not so much as the articulators of radical change in the larger society, which is where we sorely need visionary leadership

There are other prophets out there, currently and in the recent past. These are the prophets of definition No. 2—the visionaries. Who are these prophets? Are they inspired? Do we ignore their message to our peril?  These are people who stand in opposition to the status quo, and who imagine and articulate a radically different future.  Martin Luther King was certainly a prophet. His I have a Dream speech still allows us to imagine and see the same future he did. The idea of a “beloved community” is an imagined future, but a very compelling one.  Wendell Berry, maybe not quite of the same stature as King, but a prophet of that beloved community nonetheless. These prophets/visionaries have left us many writings. Should we treat these as scriptures of one sort are another? My wife will sometimes ask me if I am reading the scriptures. I say, yes of course, in am in 8th Berry, chapter 22.  And why not?  Berry’s work is inspiring. But might not need canonization.

Who else is out there? In terms of environmental degradation, including climate change, perhaps James Hansen, a prominent NASA scientist who wrote Storms of My Grandchildren. He is definitely an outsider even in mainstream environmental scientist. But he is one who speaks uncomfortable truths.

Other prophet/visionaries might include Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. Jacque Cousteau?  Vandana Shiva would have to be high on any list of prophets. She articulates a very strong vision of local food economies. These writings in my opinion are as important as the Book of Mormon, whose message is also one of radical equality.

What other prophet/visionaries should we be paying attention to? What is their message and why should we heed it? Mormons like and believe in prophets.  Should we not support prophets in the Number 2 tradition?

Featured image from America, the Jesuit Review, Oct 2019.