The blunder of frivolous fires

Listening to Life/7 - Taking up the challenge and resisting the darkness, not confusing sunrises and sunsets

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 07/08/2016

Spighe di grano rid

"The heresies we ought to fear are those that can be confused with orthodoxy."

Jorge Luis Borges, The Theologians (translated by Andrew Hurley)

The prophet is not only a deliverer of men, of women, slaves or poor people. He is also, and perhaps above all, a liberator of God. By their nature, religions and ideologies have a tendency to imprison God in their cages, to build tents and temples where they force him in and then lock him inside. They elaborate theologies and philosophies where God cannot but obey the laws that we have prepared for him, without ever surprising anyone.

If there was no prophecy, these cages would be perfect. The first gift of prophets is to see these prisons of God, and then ask and shout for the release of the Prisoner. But the prophetic deliverances are not accomplished in the historical time of the prophet, because his "today" can only be the time of the fight that eventually creates the possibility of a different history tomorrow. The prophet is like an old man who throws an oak seed in the soil knowing that the tree will not be for him.

Chapter 9 concludes the so-called 'Memorial Scroll' of Isaiah (6:1 to 9:6), that is the great - and probably autobiographical - story of the first historical mission of the prophet and its failure. Isaiah was called to be a prophet to speak to Ahaz, king of Judah. The king did not listen to him, he did not believe the signs, the heart of his people hardened more and more. This first phase of his prophetic life, which lasted perhaps two years, left a deep mark in him. His sons became the coordinates of his prophecy. The first one, the son of hope: 'a remnant shall return' (Isaiah 7:3). The second one, the announcement of misfortune: "Then the Lord said to me, »Call his name ‘The spoil speeds, the prey hastens’«" (8:4). these are symbolic names, of course, placed in episodes where story and facts are uncertain, hazy and blurred. But not to the point of losing the concreteness and the carnality of that prophetic story. We do not understand either Isaiah or biblical humanism if we refuse to see men of flesh and blood inside their stories. We lose too much, almost all, of the early chapters of the scroll of Isaiah if we turn them into a collection of moral and visionary speeches, something totally detached from human existence and history of its author. His children are messages and signs, but first of all they are children, who carried the prophecy of their father engraved forever in their names - in the Bible one's name is a very serious matter.

All vocations mark our personal and collective flesh - there is nothing more carnal than following a vocation. The prophets can teach us (insegnare in Italian - the tr.) flesh-words because beforehand they were marked (where the root of the word is segnare in Italian - the tr.) by the word in their deepest flesh. Every call is personal, but the effects are greater than the person. It touches friends, wives, husbands, children, co-workers and girlfriends who do not become wives, all of them get 'injured' and 'blessed' by that call. It also explains the genealogies that open the stories of the prophets: "Isaiah, son of Amos", "Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah". The blessing of a prophetic vocation does not proceed only forward, towards children and posterity. In a mysterious way, it also has a retroactive effect, it goes backwards, giving meaning and blessings to the past. Many children' vocations have changed - and redeemed - the story of their fathers, mothers and grandparents and became the warp that unveiled the design of a plot hitherto incomprehensible. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth gave another meaning to the painful stories of Tamar and Bathsheba. The birth of every child gives a different meaning to the parents' history, to their meeting or missed meetings, their joys and sorrows. That concrete child explains the pain of a first, failed engagement, the break-ups done and suffered: ours and those of our ancestors. That's why every child is a message written in many languages, even the most simple ones in existence, others dead, and some not yet deciphered. The prophets, with their different signs, are also the living 'Rosetta Stones' that allow us to decipher unknown languages, to finally understand some stories, poems and funerary inscriptions.

Unlike the prophet, however, his family and friends do not have a personal encounter with the voice. It is not always, almost never, that the angel comes to them in a dream and says: "Joseph, do not fear" (Matthew 1:20); but often, almost always, the partners have to walk together with the prophets, following them in their missions, in their pain, sometimes martyrdom, having no choice in there. They follow a voice that they do not hear directly, but which mysteriously calls them and connects them to the vocation of someone to whom they are linked by other vocations or destinies. Theirs is often a history of meekness and gentleness, which makes them 'inherit' the same land of the prophet. These 'vocations without voices' are authentic vocations, real and actual messages: "Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents..." (8:18). The prophet is a sign, his children are signs, 'the prophetess' is a sign, too (8:3).

Isaiah closes his first mission with a formal delivery to his disciples: (I will) "Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples." (8:16) We know from ancient archaeology and other biblical texts that these acts were official, legal moments, which took place in the presence of witnesses that sometimes even put their signature on them. A particularly important document, a contract or a will was tied at the top with a thread, affixed by a seal to ensure their authenticity. It was then deposed in a clay pot, and then given to those who were supposed to guard it. Isaiah has carried out his mission. He does not just have to trust his testimony (torah) and his teachings to his disciples, with the same spiritual attitude you leave a testament behind. It is to say that the word that was not heard is alive, it represents a legacy.

The teaching-witness is handed over to his disciples. It is the first time we meet the community of disciples of Isaiah. It appears to collect the inheritance of his word and of his failure. A first task of every charismatic-prophetic community that collects an inheritance is not the management or administration of the successes of the founder/prophet, but the custody of a declaration of failure. Among the many legacies of a prophet, the first that should be tied and sealed is the memory of his historical failure. But when you 'tie' the successes and forget the failure, the communities perish.

There are other words that Isaiah gives to his disciples before retiring from public life (for twenty years maybe): "And when they say to you, »Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter« ... To the teaching and to the testimony!" (8,19-20) During social moral and political crises, the offer of soothsayers and magicians, tends to grow much, often driven by demand. The prophets are not heard or they are killed. And so there is a naturally growing market of magic and omens, along with spectacular spiritualities with special effects, 'signs', visions and miracles. Isaiah prophesies the imminent arrival of great trials and suffering for his people, and feels the need to warn against this dangerous disease of the times of crisis. It is very significant, however, that the prophet addresses this warning to his disciples, his prophetic community. During the crisis, in fact, there is an abundance of not only false prophets and magicians - true prophets are at high risk of turning into soothsayers, too.

Prophecy is always an expensive kind of faithfulness to a word it does not own, which ensures only failure and persecution. In the age of collective passage and loss, during famines and trials, the people and their leaders seek and ask for salvation. They do not like the answers of the prophets, because they do not indicate the wide and fast roads that the people and its leaders would like, the illusory consolations that the prophets, by vocation, cannot give. The consolations of the prophets are true because they do not meet the 'consumers' tastes': the 'clients' of the prophets are not always right. Amidst the difficulty of remaining faithful to the message the great temptation to soften the message never fails to arrive ("This is a hard saying": Jn 6:60), to enter a cognitive consonance with their listeners. And the prophecy dies, as it gradually becomes a production of illusions and pseudo-consolations, of 'chirp and mutter'. They no longer hold the 'testimony and the teaching' and become sellers of emotional consumer goods, organizers of shows of highly successful entertainment. But Isaiah himself tells us the fate of those who fall into these traps: "they will never see the dawn" (8:20).

Those who are in the night can see the sunrise. But if we exchange the night with the day, we end up confusing the dawn with the sunset. The religions of the soothsayers fight the true darkness of the night with fireworks, and even if the dawn was to come they would not be able to recognize it, as they are dazzled by their own frivolous fires. When the prophets retire and the crisis is strong, the only sensible thing we can do is learn to resist the darkness, by learning its new language, accompanying the other inhabitants living the night of the world - and they are many - in solidarity.

The communities that are the heirs of the prophets are faithful to the teaching and testimony if they become sentinels of the end of the night. If they wait, love and long for the dawn, they see its first rays, and announce the beautiful news to everyone: “The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, / on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; / you have increased its joy; ... For to us a child is born / to us a son is given" (9:2-6).

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