Is Cornel West (or Michael Eric Dyson) a Prophet?

February 2013 cover of The New RepublicWhen the editorial staff of The New Republic resigned last year in a clash with new ownership, I pretty much resolved never to read the venerable magazine again. But I’ve found myself clicking those links again, most often when they address a topic that was never exactly a strength of the old TNR: religion.

Most of this is thanks to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, who is an uncommonly insightful writer about the relationship of religion to politics and the economy. See her recent dual review of books on capitalism and Christianity. Or her assessment of Pope Francis as a spiritual warrior. Or best of all: her deeply Christian argument that “aside from the illegality and irrationality of it, naming Christianity the United States’ national faith would do damage to the faith and faithful even if it did somehow shore up national morality.”

But perhaps the most striking example of how The New Republic has suddenly become must-reading for Christians and those interested in Christianity is Michael Eric Dyson’s long (long) piece on “The Ghost of Cornel West,” which broke Twitter on Sunday evening.

It’s an uncomfortable read, since at its core, it’s about a former student savaging his mentor. Dyson dissects what he sees as the “pronounced and decades-long scholarly decline” of a once-brilliant philosopher, the “dramatic plummet from his perch as a world-class intellectual.” It’s unsparing and unkind.

Which isn’t to say it’s wrong. But I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to evaluate Dyson’s assessment of West as a scholar, or political activist.

But even given my limitations, I found “Ghost of Cornel West” to be a fascinating, challenging read. In part because of Dyson’s reflection on the nature of scholarship — and the centrality of the discipline of writing for that work.

But I was especially interested in what Dyson has to say about religion:

West, Prophesy Deliverance!
According to Dyson, this 1982 book from West “validated the intellectual passion I’d courted in my youth…”

AN ESSENTIAL TENET OF WEST’S ARGUMENTS, and the centerpiece of his public identity, is his belief about prophets, and more important, his claim to be one….

Prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition draw on divine inspiration to speak God’s words on earth. They are called by God to advocate for the poor and vulnerable while decrying unrighteousness and battling injustice. Among black Americans, prophecy is often rooted in religious stories of overcoming oppression while influencing the moral vision of social activists. Black prophets are highly esteemed because they symbolize black resistance to white supremacy, stoke insurgence against the suppression of our freedom, inspire combat against social and political oppression, and risk their lives in the service of their people and the nation’s ideals. They remind us of the full measure of God’s love for the weak and unprotected, especially in an era when prophecy has been co-opted, turned into a bland cultural commodity, and marketed as the basis for enterprising exploits of major corporations or for political gain.

This leads Dyson to two related critiques. First, that what West means by “prophet” is fuzzy:

Despite the profusion of prophecy in his texts and talks, West has never bothered to tell us in rich detail what makes a person a prophet. He doesn’t offer a theory of prophets so much as announce their virtues and functions while grieving over their lost art and practice…. This limp understanding of prophecy plays to his advantage because he can bless or dismiss prophets without answering how we determine who prophets are, who gets to say so, how they are different from social critics, to whom they answer, if they have standing in religious communities, or if God calls them.

Second, that West himself isn’t much of a prophet. Dyson ridicules him as a hypocrite, hungering for the spotlight and cozying up to the rich and powerful. (The other key theme of the piece is West’s rejection of Barack Obama, which Dyson suggests stems from West not receiving a ticket to the 2008 inauguration.) But more importantly, he argues that West claims all the privileges of the prophet and none of the responsibility:

Michael Eric Dyson in 2012
Dyson in 2012 – Creative Commons (Medill)

West most closely identifies with a black prophetic tradition that has deep roots in the church. But ordained ministers, and especially pastors, must give account to the congregations or denominations that offer them institutional support and the legitimacy to prophesize. They may face severe consequences—including excommunication, censorship, being defrocked, or even expelled from their parishes—for their acts. The words and prophetic actions of these brave souls impact their ministerial standing and their vocation. West faces no such penalty for his pretense to Christian prophecy.

West might argue that not being ordained leaves him free to act on his prophetic instincts and even disagree with the church on social matters. Thus he avoids the negative consequences of ordination while remaining spiritually anchored. That’s fine if you’re a run-of-the-mill Christian, but there is, and should be, a higher standard for prophets. True prophets embrace religious authority and bravely stand up to it in the name of a higher power. The effort to escape responsibility should sound an alarm for those who hold West’s views about how prophets should behave. One need not be Martin Luther King to qualify as a prophet. But when you claim to be a prophet, you are expected, as the classic gospel song goes, to live the life you sing about in your song.

Of course, this might make you think Dyson is defining “prophet” in his own image, since he is ordained.

But “who’s a prophet?” is no doubt an important question for Christians to consider (as is Richard Lischer’s distinction between a “central” and “peripheral” prophet, adapted by Dyson), and it returns me to a thesis that has come up from time to time at this blog: That for the vast majority of us — and perhaps especially those of us whose race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, academic tenure, etc. give us significant power, safety, and comfort — our vocation is to listen to prophets, not to pretend to speak like them.

One thought on “Is Cornel West (or Michael Eric Dyson) a Prophet?

  1. Isn’t a prophet validated by developing followers and a movement that becomes historically vindicated? They might be a “false prophet,” but we can only see that from a standpoint of resistance to them (maybe via other prophets and martyrs) or retrospectively on the other side of the false prophets’ defeat. (E.g., Bonhoeffer/Naziism, Barth/Apartheid) A prophet stands in the open contingency of a historical moment as a vessel for Providence. Even if it kills them, they live. Retrospectively it’s easy to mythologize the prophet to the point that their radical nature and moment is obscured, twisted, and even lost.

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