Monday, May 23, 2011

Fools, Power, and False Prophets

When I think of Jiminy Cricket, I tend not to think about Pinocchio, but the song from “I’m No Fool.” For those of you who haven't seen it, “I’m No Fool” was a series of cartoons from the 1950's designed to teach kids about safety. Jiminy would stage a safety contest between two characters he would draw upon the chalkboard. One was “the fool,” who would do everything wrong. The other was intended to be “you.”  Of course, "you" would always follow the safety procedures perfectly:
I’m no fool, nosiree!
I’m gonna live to be 93!
I play safe for you and me
‘Cause I’m no fool
There's no question that we live in a society that values wisdom very highly, and despises foolishness.  Wisdom was considered very important in the world in which the apostle Paul lived, as well, which was heavily influenced by Greek culture (that's why the New Testament was written in Greek rather than, say, Hebrew or Aramaic).  Think about the philosophers, for example.  Whether by accident or design, it seems like all of the "big" philosophers we're taught about in grade school (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) were all Greeks.  The Greek words from which we get philosophy mean “love of wisdom.”

Yet Paul tells the Corinthians that "the message of the cross is foolishness."  Paul notes that not many of the Corinthian believers of his time were wise by human standards, and emphasizes that very few were in positions of influence and power. If anything, it would seem that Paul embraces the idea of appearing the "fool," knowing that God's wisdom is what really matters.  Paul thus encourages Christians to do the same.  

AlexorigAnd whether intentionally or not, this image of Christians as "fools" persisted for a very long time. An archaeological dig in the middle of the the 19th century discovered some ancient graffiti from the 3rd century. This graffiti depicts a young man at the foot of a crucified figure with a donkey’s head. The words below it read, in Greek, “Alexamenos worships his god.” I'm reminded of cartoons where someone does something really foolish, and his head turns into that of a donkey. Apparently, the 3rd-century Greeks also thought of donkeys as being worthy of ridicule, and so they ridiculed both Christ and Christ's followers in this way.

To some extent, the world has changed since then. Today, Christians are no longer powerless "fools," but we can be found in pretty much all levels of society and in government.  It is all but inconceivable that a person can get elected to national office in America without at least paying lip service to the Christian faith.  The fact that rumors have been persistently circulated about the person who is our current President, despite the fact that he has never considered himself Muslim, and indeed has been more than forthright about his Christian faith, perhaps makes the point just how important it is for Americans that our leaders at least nominally follow Christ.  Rightly or wrongly, Christians have influence now.

This shift in power makes it somewhat harder for Christians to think of ourselves as "fools," and we often take umbrage at being called such.  When things like the recent May 21st prophecies are given such spotlight, it has the effect of making Christians (in general) look foolish again, and we often don't respond well.  It's not so much that I'm criticizing the humor poked at the prophecies — I did some of that, myself.  Rather, when I'm reminded that the prophets of old probably had to suffer similar ridicule, or that some of the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament in ways at least as outlandish to modern sensibilities as Camping's mathematical computations, I'm reminded that we should not be afraid of looking foolish from time to time.

That's not to say we shouldn't use discernment.  We weren't wrong to tell people that it was unlikely in the extreme that the Rapture would occur at 6:00 pm on May 21st, 2011.  It's just that Camping and his believers, most — if not all — fervently believing that the end of the world was imminent, weren't wrong to try to share that knowledge with the rest of us, however foolish that made them look.

I'm reminded again of those Old Testament prophets.  Many believers aren't aware of the fact that there were many other prophets running around in those days than the comparative few that we remember today.  Most of those other prophets said things that were in direct contradiction to the things that "our" prophets were saying.  The Bible even references such "false prophets," and gives us a surprising way of discerning which prophets are the real ones — the ones whose prophecies came true were the real ones!  That probably seems a bit absurd, since it means we can't always know which prophesies are real and which ones aren't until after the events foretold had taken place, but part of the reason the Bible does that (it seems to me) is that "foretelling events" isn't a prophet's main job in the first place.  A prophet's primary purpose isn't to tell people what's going to happen in the future.  A prophet's primary purpose is to tell people what God is telling the prophet to say to them.

So, in the final analysis, Harold Camping was a false prophet, and no doubt feels quite foolish right now.  The lesson we should take away from this isn't to avoid making such "foolish" claims ourselves, however.  It's to make sure that what we're telling other people is what God would have us tell them.  That requires discernment, and we'll probably still get it wrong from time to time.  But it's all we have.


  1. This post makes me think of the Nichole Nordeman song "Fool For You."

    "I will be a fool for You - all because you asked me to. A simpleton who's only thinking of the cause of Love."

  2. I actually had Michael Card's "God's Own Fool" going through my head, myself.



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