Prophets are the oracles of any society. They exist today in the form of pundits, experts, popular scientists and business gurus. They read and give voice to the message of the time and forecast future possibilities - with varying degrees of accuracy.
In pre-colonial West Africa, only poets were permitted to criticise the chiefs. Their bardic utterances were considered to embody a truth and pertinence of a deeper kind. The Tibetans used oracles – trained psychics who went into trance to permit a deity to speak and answer questions – even in major state matters. In ancient Jewish society, prophets were taken seriously, occasionally felling a king or a high priest.
In our day we consider ourselves above all this, yet the principle still works. When Mikhael Gorbachev ended the Cold War, the international community simply agreed – he communicated an idea whose time had come. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Five years earlier, nobody would have expected it. Thus spake the oracle, on CNN and BBC.
Public figureheads embody and channel images and ideas. At times they utter world-changing ideas in powerful soundbites. In WW2, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt each were magical figures whose utterances made a big difference to millions. The key to such power, however, is public receptivity, for without followers leaders and prophets get nowhere.
Ideas whose times have come. What characterises prophets is their capacity to encapsulate a Big Idea which everyone believes yet no one had thought of or articulated until that moment. Prophets ancient and modern open the curtains for everyone else.
Strangely, once they have said their message, they’re often forgotten in the melee of subsequent events. This happened to Gorbachev.
Prophecy has various consequences. It can jump-start a good idea. Yet that idea can sometimes take on a life of its own, going further than reality requires. Darwinism, for example, liberated us from obsolete ideas about Creation in Victorian times, yet it became an article of faith in the 20th Century, an ideology which has blinded us to other perspectives, old and new.
Arguably, prophets fall into two kinds: those who illuminate the meaning and significance of current times, and those who predict or warn of future scenarios. The 1960s were prophetic times in both senses: Rachel Carson, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, John Lennon and Bob Dylan spoke both to their own time and to posterity.
In the 1960s many radical visions leaked into and influenced mainstream society through books, TV, films and music, though in many periods such publication has been distinctly dangerous.
Nostradamus, in the mid-1500s, had to disguise his predictions with undecipherable ambiguities, to avoid persecution by the Inquisition for heresy. As a result, interpretation of his predictions has been disputed to this day.
During insecure times, future-anxiety rises and prognosticators grow in number and influence. Notable in modern times is Edgar Cayce, a psychic who helped many people, whose prophecies have not so far been highly accurate, even though they were interesting and set many ideas in motion.
In recent decades, many believed that California would sink into the sea and that dramatic earth changes would hit the planet – meanwhile, earthquake ferocity actually declined worldwide (though small quakes increased) and, lo behold, California is still with us.
However, California indeed has had disasters in the 1990s which have devastated Californians’ psychological security – in this regard, the prediction has been correct in symbolic terms. Nowadays, we’re expecting a comet to hit Earth. It goes on.
A safely mapped-out future, even if looking disastrous, can give a sense of security. After all, for some it’s better to know it’s going to be hell on Earth than to know nothing at all. However, authoritative-sounding predictions can also render people passive, weakening our sense of choice or elevating those choices into mystical realms, beyond practical action.
Though many prophecies seek to awaken humanity, in recent times they have become common and thus cheapened – especially when they don’t seem to work!
Millennialist prophets are united by a common formula which attracts followers in every age. The world is in error, a showdown is coming, believers in this (such as you) will be saved, the rest will burn in hell, and the world will be a better place afterwards. It’s a neat final solution to a humongous bundle of questions.
Miracles can and do happen. We seem to be on the edge of enormous changes. A spiritual breakthrough would indeed help. This much is true. However, the idea that the matter is out of our hands, too big for us, even if true, is not helpful to humanity.
Humankind is responsible for its own destiny: instead of denying the problem or praying to be saved, it would help if we set about building heaven on earth ourselves, before the ‘wrath of God’, in whatever form it comes, from whatever source, does indeed fall on us.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.