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Marginal prophets: God speaks to us through unexpected intermediaries delivering truths we'd sometimes rather not hear. (testaments).

CALL IT AN OCCUPATIONAL hazard, but it becomes hard to listen to a friend, read a magazine, or watch a movie without hearing the biblical overtones and making the connections between God's story and ours. That's why so many of my friends are careful about confiding in me these days. They are resigned to having their stories turned into a spontaneous Bible study, and often for a wider audience.

Some human stories, of course, may seem too ugly or profane to be told in church or among church people, which is one reason why the readings we hear at Mass come from the preselected lectionary and not from the Bible as a whole. Some Bible stories are plenty ugly: brutal, vicious, full of bad example and unwholesome ideas.

These stories have been effectively censored by their exclusion from the lectionary. But just because we don't hear them proclaimed in the Sunday assembly doesn't mean the telling of these tales is less inspired by God, which is why they remain in our Bibles. Even in the most horrible choices human beings make, God is speaking to us--often from the mouths of the victims of these horrible choices.

I am not suggesting that such stories be read in church or force-oed to children. The difficult stories in the Bible are most certainly intended for adults who confront the moral dilemmas they describe. But their inclusion in scripture implies that such stories can be used for our instruction, even when they include forbid, ding topics like the slaughter of children, the rape of women, the dismemberment of bodies, as well as treacheries and humiliations of every kind.

This, too, is part of human experience, and though we may imagine that such things only happen rarely or faraway from us, we are closer to these atrocities than we pretend.

This is why when a movie like Magnolia (New Line Productions, 2000) comes along, a Christian might consider taking it in. Yes, it has an R rating, but apart from some brief nudity the rating reflects the ongoing assault of profane language that several of the characters rely on like a crutch.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: THE LANGUAGE IS SO RELENTLESSLY hard that it s like standing in a stiff wind of violent emotion. The characters who rely on it--a wealthy dying man, his distraught "trophy" wife, his estranged and morally twisted son--are limited people who feel trapped by their circumstances, and in their desperation they reach for the most uncreative expression with which to define their narrow world. We may think of it as the primitive howl of the hunted, wounded animal that is cornered and senses there is no escape.

These folks have made brutal choices, and only brute words are left to describe their experience. As distressing as such language is in large quantities for those of us who don't talk this way, we might recognize that these people are nearly paralyzed in thought and speech by the profane world they have created.

And what kind of world is that? It is fraught with alcoholism and drug abuse, misogyny and macho posturing, infidelity, incest and child victimization, humiliation, failure, shame, not to mention a huge heap of loneliness and death as the centerpiece. In other words, it's a world not entirely unfamiliar to us on this side of the silver screen.

It would be fair to say that Magnolia touches on as many of the taboos that have been excised from polite conversation as possible. If this were scripture, a good half of the morally dark characters in the movie would have been left out of the lectionary.

Yet there are other characters who represent the virtuous, struggling people we find like diamonds shining in the dust of our culture. A police officer, whose simple desire is to be a good cop and a good companion, and a genuinely loving male nurse attending the sick man top the list of the gentle-spoken people whose service is the glue that binds the shattered lives around them back together.

At the heart of the movie is a TV game show titled What Do Children Know? It is the question Magnolia seeks to answer, and the answers will not make us comfortable. Children keep the secrets that adults fear to have divulged. Children are neglected, overruled, and exploited regularly to suit the agenda of the elders around them. They suffer in silence, and some of them carry that suffering into adulthood in moral confusion and the inability to form meaningful relationships.

We come to the realization that all of us remain somebody's children, bearing the sins of our elders, consciously or unconsciously, into the next generation--unless we stop and reflect and make a deliberate effort to turn our lives around.

ARE THESE CHILDREN, AND ALL THE INNOCENT ONES IN OUR midst, prophets in the traditional, biblical sense? Does being a keeper of the truth qualify a person for the prophetic role? Although part of the prophet's job description is to know the truth, an essential aspect of the job is obviously to say what you know. This is not the same as the call to confess your sins. Confessing our sins makes us honest; that's not the same as being prophetic.

The biblical prophet speaks for God and not simply to get things off his chest. The prophet's truth-speaking can make everyone quite uncomfortable, but its intention is to instigate conversion.

For example, when Moses warns Pharaoh that God is displeased with him and wants the Israelites to go free, the goal of the confrontation is not merely to share information but to turn the tide of history and liberate the people. The 10 plagues that result from Pharaoh's resistance are punitive but fundamentally intended to coerce him into changing his mind. It's a showdown, and God is demonstrating to Pharaoh that there are stronger forces at work in the universe than a demigod ruler might dream of.

This month in the lectionary, many of the prophets will be coming out for a bit of exercise in saying what they know. Ezekiel will remind us that the pharaohs of the world are still hard of heart and rebellious against God's will. Amos finds his harsh denunciation of the rich and powerful entirely rejected, as he is expelled from the land where God sent him to prophesy. Jeremiah brings a message of woe to the leaders who have utterly failed in their commission to guide and care for the nation. And Elisha, one of the classical prophets, performs an early version of the multiplication of the loaves to demonstrate God's abundance for those in need.

Even Jesus will emphasize his prophetic role as he experiences the rejection of his challenging message at Nazareth, mournfully noting that a prophet is most often dismissed by the people who are nearest to him. After Jesus performs an exponentially more remarkable multiplication of loaves and fishes, the people compare him to Elisha, marveling, "This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world." To the crowds, this meant Jesus should be king. To Jesus, it was a clear indication that it was time to get lost.

PROPHETS OFTEN HAVE WORDS OF CONSOLATION AND HOPE to declare to a downtrodden and repentant people. But that is not the general mood of the nation, then or now, so the sweet words of Isaiah and the gentler days of Jeremiah are less frequent than the stormy speeches we identify as traditionally prophetic.

"What is truth?" Pilate once famously asked. He meant the question to be rhetorical, perhaps--but truth is, more than anything else, remarkably hard to swallow. If given the choice between hearing the truth about ourselves spoken by a friend or charming lies purred by an enemy, many of us would ditch the friend for the enemy in haste.

But the truth can also be a friend to those who have been unknowingly manipulated. A telling scene near the end of Magnolia involves the awakening of moral courage in a child who has been treated like a saleable commodity by his father for a long time. As awareness of the truth dawns on the boy, he walks into his father's room and wakes him up. "You have to be nicer to me, Dad," he says simply. The father dismisses the revelation: "Go back to sleep," he groggily orders the boy. Fat chance. His son repeats his message, smiles, knowing what he knows, confident that he has finally spoken those words aloud. He does not go back to sleep. It may be the most prophetic moment in the story.

I should mention that many critics hated this movie, not because of the content but because of the peculiar storytelling technique and a large cast of seemingly unrelated characters milling about in their own tragic little worlds. Critics were especially piqued at the infamous "frog scene"--although anyone who caught the placard reference of Exodus 8:2 early in the movie had to know what was coming.

There will be judgment, the cop tells us at the end of the movie, and there will be forgiveness, and all of us will be in line for one or the other eventually. We get these things not because God wants vengeance or plays favorites. We get these things because we need them and we invite them by our willingness or refusal to open our lives to the truth.

For this reason, God continues to send prophets in every age to say the hard things none of us wants to hear.

After a long and difficult season for the U.S. Catholic Church in which we have all been scandalized, horrified, and mortified, it may be time to listen to the children, to finally let them prophesy to us. Up ahead is judgment and forgiveness, and we have a choice as to which we receive. This could be a prophetic moment for the whole church if we hear the word of God being spoken here and act on it.

Confession of sin is the beginning of wisdom, but we have to go beyond confession to receiving the truth about ourselves and allowing it to turn us around and direct us in a new way. Sometimes we need judgment, and sometimes we need forgiveness. God waits for us to decide which it should be.

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to Catholicism (2001) and The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow and Glory (2003), a new book of meditations, both available from ACTA Publications.
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Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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