This week at Bible study, we meditated on 1 Corinthians 7:29 with its appeal to live in the "already" of this world with our affections, possessions, and relationships firmly rooted in the "not yet" of the world to come. While discussing the passage we considered a number of rival eschatologies and end-time ethical positions. That lead us to a brief discussion of a number of "prophecies" making their rounds in the Cayman Islands. They're the kind of vague doomsday "prophecies" that promise God is going to do something "really bad" if the Cayman Islands don't repent. The "prophecies," quietly tacked onto church bulletin boards and other notice boards around the community, take particular interest in the pastors of the Cayman Islands. As leaders of God's people, we pastors must be the fulcrum of change, the tip of the spear piercing the enemy's flesh. Unless the pastors humble themselves and pray, the whole ship of the country is going down in plumes of smoke and raging flame.
Of course, the "prophetess" who writes these prophecies offers "proof" of her prophetic power. After all, she made the same kind of prophecy "some time previous" to September 11, 2004. Everyone living in the Cayman Islands knows what dread came over the island on that day as a category 5 hurricane named Ivan engulfed the country for hours. Some people still shudder and weep when they think of the destruction of that hurricane, the way New Yorkers remember with horror the smoking, crashing towers. Which, of course, means it's not very difficult to manipulate people with such claims to "proof" of your "prophecies."
But what of this claim? Is it really proof? Some people will quickly divide respondents into "believers" and "unbelievers." The "believers" put stock in the prophecy because "something bad" did happen. The "unbelievers" either reject or at least remain skeptical of such claims. After all, we live in the Caribbean-we have something called "hurricane season" which lasts about half the year. Sooner or later, we were bound to get our share. Whatever side one takes, sides have been taken. The "prophet" has succeeded in rearranging the world along the axis of belief/unbelief in their vision of things.
Once the world gets rearranged according to belief or unbelief in the "prophesy," the "prophet" has largely succeeded in binding the consciences of many persons. The specter of either being for or against "a prophet" will be enough to make many people otherwise free in Christ hesitant to use that freedom. The more ominous but vague the prophecy, the more sweeping the charge and condemnation of "pastors and leaders" without naming one, the more conscience-binding the "prophecy." People will be paralyzed in light of a new "word from God" which shackles them not to Christ but to a vague "law". They'll constantly wonder, Can I do this thing or that thing? Will this or that meet with God's approval? Did I just blow it with God for this sin or that sin?
How easily we forget God's satisfaction with us through Jesus His Son. How easily we're brought into slavery by the strong words of weak positions.
But for the "prophetess," it doesn't really matter whether you believe or reject her "prophecy." You see, she/he wins either way. If you agree with her then there's validity for her ministry. The small tribe of people with her face on their totem constitute the "faithful remnant" who do not bow to the baals. They buy the T-shirts. And, if you disagree with such a "prophet", well… the louder, the more specific, and the higher up the disagreement the better for her. Such disavowals only prove the corruption of the pastors and leaders of the country, makes her out to be a Deborah leading where the men of Israel would not, or a David facing Goliath with a slingshot, and… here's the conundrum… serves for her as more "proof" validating her "prophecy." After all, why would everyone protest so loudly if I weren't "hitting a nerve" or exposing a real problem? she asks.
How is it that whether you're for or against the "prophecy" the "prophet" still walks away believing they're correct? In social psychology it's called "confirmation bias." That's where the researcher interprets all the data-positive and negative-as confirmation of his theory. He's not really reading the data; he's simply fitting it into his preconceived notion of what "is." Take the classic psychology 101 example: Ice cream sales go up in the United States when snow fall reaches record levels in the Himalayas. Imagine the savvy researcher who postulates that ice cream merchandisers do better in winter time because snowfall increases appetite for sales. He reaches for the correlation data involving Himalaya snowfall and ice cream sales in the U.S. Sure enough, the correlation is strong: More snow in the Himalayas means more chubby cone-licking children in the U.S. Now he presses the correlation into causality-serious mistake as any college freshman will tell you. But what does he do with sales figures that invalidate his theory? Well, those become anomalies proving the rule. The opposing data indicate some kind of market "blip," and we can expect that the next big snowfall will produce greater demand for Cookies n Cream. Nevermind the Himalayas are in an entirely different part of the world with a different seasonal pattern than the U.S. "Something happened there," and that provides data that fits my theory. There's my proof, or fulfilled "prophecy" if you like!
Ever been in a discussion with someone where opposing them only "proves" their case? I was once told I was "argumentative." I said, "No, I'm not." My friend said, "See! I told you!" Now, in my case, I am argumentative. I fight the tendency with repentance and faith in God's grace. But what if I weren't argumentative? How do you win a discussion like that?
Issue a dissenting opinion and the fact that you dissent becomes "evidence" that the problem is really there. It's like asking a man, "How long have you been beating your wife?" How can he answer satisfactorily. The more he defends the guiltier he looks. Simply asking the question puts the man under a poisonous cloud of suspicion and gets interpreted as "proof" of the "prophet's" position. The charge gets leveled, the dissenter gets smeared, and the wild-eyed "prophet" nods knowingly. He "knew it all along." "Why couldn't everyone else see it? They don't see the world the way I do; they must be blind. I keep trying to tell everyone there's a problem. When will they listen?" So goes the song of self-congratulation. The "prophet" never for a moment thinks he/she has the cataract.
Have you ever noticed that so many of the "prophets" and pundits of our day are Chicken Littles, announcing, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" You look up into the clear blue sky dotted with the puffy whites of clouds and ask, "Where?" They say, "Everywhere! I'm telling you the sky is falling everywhere!" Then out trots the anecdotes and "evidence." They say: "Something fell on my head once." "There was this guy once…." "I didn't see what it was or where it came from, so it must've been the sky falling." The alarm is sounded, the people divided between believers in the falling sky and disbelievers, and every subsequent interaction interpreted to confirm the original opinion. No one listens. No one benefits from the "others." All now live under a cloud. The fear of doom grows without one substantiated case of falling sky.
One day we'll be walking in that field where Chicken Little once slept. Under the clear blue sky, we'll kick rocks as we stroll. Then, an acorn will fall from the tree, hitting us in the head. We'll see that what was once heralded as an apocalyptic, life-ending event was little more than the acorn or two that fell. Even the alarmist will be forced to revise their claims with more specific statements of the problem and its scope. Then we'll be able to do something specific to advance everyone's benefit.
Until then, here are some questions for the "Chicken Little" evangelicals who see calamitous ruin under every rock:
1. What were you doing when you first noticed the sky falling?
2. In what state of mind were you? Was there anything happening in your own life, like drowsily sleeping under a tree, that predisposed you to believing your theory apart from evidence?
3. Can you point to anything specific and verifiable to substantiate your claims?
4. Does your "prophesy" find concrete biblical support?
5. Can you specify what the problem is, who the guilty parties are (if any), and what the biblical remedy might be?
6. How do you interpret any evidence to the contrary? Do such interpretations take the data in context and apply the data appropriately?
7. When is the last time you changed your mind, admitting you were wrong?
Of course, one day the sky will fall, or rather, be burned up as in fervent heat. But the One who tells us this future is no Henny Penny or Chicken Little. He's the One who made the sky and hung the stars and whose holy gaze will end this perishing world and bring the new age of His glory. Until then, pay little attention to the evangelical Chicken Littles who are really but little chickens.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of what is a healthy church member?, the decline of african-american theology: from biblical faith to cultural captivity, and the faithful preacher: recapturing the vision of three pioneering african-american preachers. He also blogs regularly at pure church.