Arrival & Ellen Davis' Five Prophetic Perspectives


With laughter and the sharing of this week's events the tribe settled into our living room last night as we prepared to venture into the imaginative world of a good movie called Arrival. Snacks and drinks in hand, I love how the stories of film, fictional or otherwise, seem to stretch deep into the connective tissues of transcendent truths and the practicalities of today's eminence.

Recently I've begun reading Ellen Davis' book 'Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry'. While for years I thought of the prophet as someone who spoke for God; it was in her first chapter that she opened me to the greater understanding that a prophet does not speak for God, as though he needs anyone to speak for him, rather they act as interpreters between God's Word and the contextualized concrete realities we find ourselves in today.

"At a given time," Davis writes, "any Christian might assume either role: Huldah’s, of offering an interpretation, or Josiah’s, of listening to one; the apostle Paul suggests that every member of the church should be engaged on both sides of the interpretative process (see 1 Cor. 14:26–31)." Reflectively, you might expand the thought into the roles of disciple and apostle; we are both created and formed in the practices of listening and learning while also being sent apostolically to share and contribute into the revealing narrative story of life and its beauty.

With the lights dimmed and the Arrival beginning, it struck me that this is a movie about prophets! "Colonel," Dr. Louise called for the soldier's attention from the door, "When you talk with Donnelly, ask him the Sanskrit translation for the word 'war'." A few days later, Colonel Weber returned, "Gravisti. He says it means 'an argument.' What do you say it means?" Louise replied back, "A desire for more cows." With the tensions of science and language, interpretation and and the perspective of the interpreter can have dramatic results as the movie would articulate.

So how does the practice of prophetic listening and interpreting take root in our life? Ellen Davis suggests five prophetic perspectives in biblical understanding.

1. The radical concreteness of prophetic expression, which both engages hearers in particular contexts and makes vivid God’s engagement with the world.

Life is such a beautiful thing! Sometimes I like just taking a few moments to close my eyes, take a deep breath in, and slowly let it out while allowing my senses to connect with everything that is around me. Its like a small moment in time where things seem to stand still and I hear things that I would have otherwise missed, smell the crispness in the cool air, and feel the closeness of the people as they walk around me. In a way, it's like waking up and realizing I am not the center of the world, there are others who are a part of this story called life, and as we entangle with one another we become part of something bigger then just ourselves.

From time to time I think we need reminders like this; places and moments where the experience of God's transcendent concrete presence reveals itself in the midst of our finite and eminent lives.

Similarly the character Ian Donnelly in Arrival experienced this truth as he expressed, "You know I've had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn't meeting them. It was meeting you." Ian spent so much time searching for the mystical magic and beauty of life in the far reaches of science and space that he nearly missed the reality of its existence being right here in front of him.

2. The prophetic demand for moral, economic, and religious integrity in human communities (Israel or the church) and the recognition that human integrity in these several dimensions is fundamentally related to the God-given integrity of creation.

Creation and the role of humanity finds root within an integrity to the proper identity and purpose it was created in. Embracing a perspective that we are in fact part of a whole, places a responsibility upon us to act and perform with moral and ethical integrity to truths that bind us to all things.

Focused solely on the needs of nationalistic humanity, Colonel Weber in Arrival demands answers to the question of, "Why are they here?" "What purpose do they have?" He is unwilling to see the responsibility that he may have to greater humanity and perhaps, even towards the visitors themselves.

Opening Weber to this greater truth and responsibility, Dr. Louise pleads with him, "And 'purpose' requires an understanding of intent. We need to find out, do they make conscious choices or is their motivation so instinctive that they don't understand a 'why' question at all. And-And biggest of all, we need to have enough vocabulary with them that we understand their answer."

Humanity is just one dimensional part in the whole of creation. Our moral and ethical identity is tied not only to our own context and culture but to that of all creation. The prophetic perspective of interpreting this truth catalysis human identity in both the choices and actions we make today and in the relationship we have with the future.

3. Prophetic participation in the suffering of the vulnerable within the created order and the social order, and prophetic witnessing to the suffering of God.

Several years ago I can remember being in a conversation with a homeless man on the streets while waiting to enter the shelter for supper. He came up to me asking why I was in a wheelchair. I shared with him my story and explained that my life was forever changed by the car accident I was involved in but, I did not see the challenges I faced as being quantifiable to any one else's.

In hearing me sharing this, he bent down and asked if it was ok that he prayed for me. I was a little taken back as I thought of his suffering in homelessness but I consented and he placed his hands on my legs and prayed.

For others to see the concrete reality of God's presence, the prophet finds a greater perspective by practicing the open armed embrace of physical participation to others amidst their sufferings and struggling.

Stripping away the outer layers of the safety suit Louise was wearing, she stretched out her hand and placed it upon the barrier that was between her and the visitors. With a startling thud, the visitors reflected her greeting. "Now that's a proper introduction." Louise exclaims.

Sharing in the incarnational experience of embracing flesh on flesh, the prophetic perspective binds the joys and the sufferings of present realities with future hopes in all creation.

4. The prophet as the trusted friend of God, entrusted with a ministry of protest, prayer, healing, and reconciliation.

"Is this the beginning of the movie?" David asked as the film's opening narration in the living room of Louise's house started. I chuckled a bit thinking about the philosophical undertones of the story and said, "Well, define the beginning David? It is the opening of the film, yes. But no, it's not the beginning."

Ironically, in narrating Louise states, "But now I'm not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived."

Seeing the movie completely, you begin to understand as flashes of Louise's life reveal that they fold in on themselves so that what she sees in her future actually impacts that which is happening in the present, and perhaps even in her past; depending on your perspective.

Perhaps what most articulates this thought is when she realizes that the words the Chinese General would share with her in a future encounter would become detrimental to the present contexts she was currently in. She had the choice to act upon these realizations with the understanding that by doing so she would be protesting her current realities while possibly reconciling future potentialities.

This prophetic perspective calls humanity to both individually and communally act missionally in the present reality according to their understanding of transcendent potentialities in the future.

5. Prophetic witness to the theological significance of those who do not worship Israel’s God, which is potentially a witness of reconciliation.

Several days ago while watching a documentary on architecture I had a revelation to the thought that the prophetic perspective sees what the world calls an uncrossable barrier as a relational meeting place. While I think this thought could transcend into any theme or context, it perhaps at its core speaks to the way in which we might perceive diversity of thought in our society and social structures.

Colonel Weber in fear of the visitors states, "And remember what happened to the Aborigines. A more advanced race nearly wiped 'em out." I laughed out laud when he said this. What makes him think humanity is either more advanced or capable then that of others? Where is he able to determine the motivations of others simply by the comparative acts of that which they are different from in current context?

Prophets more often then not are placed in situations and events that they are able to witness to and speak towards the relational implications of separation while working towards the breakdown of such barriers for the purpose of reconciled understanding and unified significance. Radically changing our perspective, prophetic presence takes that which is perceived to be an ending and makes it a new beginning.