Saturday, August 23, 2008

Prophetic Culture

I have just finished reading John O'Malleys book, Four Cultures of the West that I mentioned several posts ago. I want to take a couple of days and look at the four cultures that O'Malley outlines because they are, I think, or significant importance in understanding how we got to where we are today. The old adage is true that if you don't know where you came from, you can't move ahead. I will outline the broad concepts of the book and then touch on O'Malley's first culture - prophetic.

This book is about four phenomenon in the history of the West. O'Malley calls them cultures. "With them, I hold up for appreciating phenomena, deeply embedded in the History of the West, so deeply embedded in fact, that we sometimes become oblivious of their import. The purpose of this book is to make us less oblivious of them and more appreciative. In other words, O'Malley is trying to be the fish who realizes that he is wet. He is attempting to stand outside of these Western contexts to bring us the very needed realization of the water that surrounds us. We are who we are, in a very large part, due to these four cultures, O'Malley is saying.
In the book he describes his cultures as being "four large, self-validating configurations of values, symbols, temperaments, patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, and patterns of discourse."
O'Malley sees these cultures originating from the Roman world, out of the ancient Mediterranean world of Tertullian's "Athens and Jerusalem" into the Middle Ages. Between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries through renaissances and reformations, these cultures have achieved a new force and a new coherence that have propelled them into our modern lives. What I appreciate about O'Malley's book is that he is a church historian. He rightly interprets Western events through the eyes of Christianity and the Church, a lens that must be understood if Western culture is to be understood in its originality.

The first culture that O'Malley holds up to his scholarship is the prophetic culture, the culture of Isaiah and Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King Jr. This is the only culture of the four that comes straight out of the Judeo/Christian tradition, or strictly out of Jerusalem. This culture demands on the absolute otherness of God, his incomprehensibility, his transcendence. It is the culture of alienation, of protest, of standing apart. Above all, it is the culture of the reformer decrying injustice and corruption in high places. Throughout history justice has been its watchword, along with variants like righteousness and justification. It longs to turn the status quo into something genuine from unfaithfulness and corruption. It finds its form in manifestos and speaks in the manner of proclamation. To sum it up, I think O'Malley makes a fascinating point In speaking of prophets he says: The withdrawal of these austere figures from human society was a variation on the rich biblical themes of wilderness and desert that would continue to play themselves out in a multitude of ways throughout the centuries into the modern era." This culture is that of a "voice, crying out in the wilderness. Repent and be baptized! it screams. From this culture comes the great movements of exile and repentance in the 8th century B.C. Reformation in the 16th century, civil rights in the 19th. I hope you can see what an impact this culture has had on Western culture as we know it.

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