In 1995, Lorraine Cichowski found a fit. Her team played a prophetic role at USA TODAY. In 2005, Henrik Syse found a fit. For two years, he played the role of prophet, or gatekeeper, at Norges Bank Investment Management. These two stories are, however, exceptions proving a rule. Jesus predicted prophets experience difficulty finding a “fit.”
On September 15, 1982, USA TODAY was founded amidst much fanfare. By 1995 readership was declining. USA TODAY President Tom Curley tapped Lorraine Cichowski to fix the problem. She set up a skunk works, bringing in people from the outside, housing them on a different floor than the paper’s staff. Initial results were disappointing. The problem was isolation. Cichowski’s team didn’t “fit” with the senior executive team. Curley rectified this by moving Cichowski’s team to the same floor. Performance improved even though several senior executives resisted the innovations. Curley stood by Cichowski and over the next five years dismissed 40 percent of his senior team.
In 2005, Knut Kjaer was looking for someone to provide a “moral compass” for the Norwegian government’s Petroleum Fund. He hired Henrik Syse, a philosopher steeped in Plato.1 Syse admits he didn’t at first know the difference between a stock and bond. He did however know history. Syse served as a prophetic voice for the Norges Bank Investment Management from 2005 to 2007. As gatekeeper, he would ask provocative questions such as: Is this really the way we want to go?
These stories are exceptions proving a rule. Jesus said prophets find it difficult to find a fit. “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt. 8:20). Son of Man is a title denoting Jesus straddling two worlds – divinity and humanity. “Son of Man” denotes Jesus as gatekeeper, or prophet. As prophet, Jesus had nowhere to lay his head. Religious institutions of that day operated as not-for-prophet enterprises. Jesus made religious leaders feel on edge.
Richard Rohr says this is “the unique and rare position of a Biblical prophet: He or she is always on the edge of the inside. Not an outsider throwing rocks, not a comfortable insider who defends the status quo, but one who lives precariously with two perspectives held tightly together – the faithful insider and the critical outsider at the same time. The prophet must hold these perspectives in creative tension.”
Prophets are not long hair loonies or finger-pointing firebrands. Rohr writes that they are, “each in their own way, orthodox, conservative, traditional clergy, intellectuals or believers.” Their gift grates, however. It “allows them to critique the very systems that they are a part of. You might say that their enlightened actions clarified what our mere belief systems really mean. These prophets critiqued Christianity by the very values that they learned from Christianity. Every one of these men and women was marginalized, fought, excluded, persecuted, or even killed by the illusions that they exposed and the systems they tried to reform. It is the structural fate of a prophet.”
This fate continues to this day. Americans “live now (and always have) in the future tense,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks.2 Prophets don’t fit in American society because Americans generally don’t prefer to remember. They’re like Gatsby, who “believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Prophets have no place in this kind of culture.
But prophets do have a place. Reminders can serve as a kick in the seat of the pants. Prophets are a pain in the ass. That can be a healthy pain. In his 1993 book, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, Paul Brand describes discovering how leprosy is actually a disease, the destruction of nerve endings. Lepers feel no pain, so they inadvertently destroy their bodies. The blessing of pain (not too much, however) is that it saves our lives. A degree of pain also increases our capacity to endure more pain. We grow up. However, the converse also holds: the less pain a person experiences, the less they can endure. They remain immature. Prophets help people grow up. Brand saw a need for this in American society, a therapeutic culture adverse to almost any amount of pain. The need might be there, but therapeutic societies don’t like kicks in the seat of the pants.
The Marines’ battle cry is Semper Fi, short for Semper Fidelis – always faithful. The battle cry of the European Reformers was Semper Reformanda – always reforming. Reforming is renewing. Renewing is innovation. Innovation ought to be ongoing. Prophets ensure this happens. They continually ask provocative questions. And that’s why they often wear out their welcome. For example, prophets see “vision casting” as misguided. They seek to offer guidance. In a therapeutic society, this can feel threatening. That might be why Cichowski left USA TODAY in 2004. And that might be why readership began declining the very same year. Innovation ought to be ongoing.
Finding a fit is only one facet of what Rohr calls “the structural fate of a prophet.” Jesus noted a second aspect. That’s where we’ll pick up this conversation next week.
1 “Oil-Rich Norway Hires Philosopher As Moral Compass,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2005.
2 David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).