Prophets, Scribes, and “The Big Sort”

We are in the middle of a fascinating series of lectures and discussions with Bill Bishop, a journalist, and Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, on pluralism and unity in world and church as we meet as a House of Bishops here at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina.

Mr. Bishop has written widely on the “sorting” Americans are doing by retreating not just into “red” and “blue” states but in local communities. Withdrawing from any engagement with those who may be different, but “ghetto-izing” ourselves into neighborhoods (and churches!) of like-minded people. This has a tendency to reinforce our own prejudices and lead us deeper into extremism on all sides. It makes conversation and community extremely difficult.

Dr. Brueggemann is challenging us to see the Bible, not as some kind of seamless document of universal Truth, but as a conversation itself between different narratives. The Hebrew Bible itself, he maintains, is such a conversation between (among others) the “Priestly” and “Deuteronomic” traditions — between “purity” and “prophecy.”

His point is that neither tradition “won out” because both are true and need each other. Similarly, in the church today “conservatives” (who emphasize purity) and “liberals” (who emphasize prophecy) desparately need each other and cannot afford to allow this cultural “ghetto-ization” to separate us from one another and so lose “the rest of the story.” (To quote the late Paul Harvey!).

He thinks that, at least within the church today, we need fewer “prophets” of the kind which arose in Israel in  and around the Babylonian captivity. Instead, he believes, we need more “scribes” who are able to go back to the Tradition, bringing out “what is old and what is new.” This scribal approach flourished more in the Persian period in Israel and required a subtle combination of “accommodation and resistence” to the Empire under which they found themselves.

If we are to be a truly “prophetic church” against the Empire of our day — consumerism, militarism, etc. — we cannot afford to be lobbing “prophetic grenades” against one another in the church. We need instead to keep the conversation going between the “priests and the prophets,” the “Puritans” and the “Revisionists”, the “conservatives” and the “liberals”

Because none of us has a corner on the Truth. The wheat and the tares must be allowed to grow together. Because “The Big Sort” is yet to come!

And only God can do that.

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