Guy Nicholson: We are all talking about modern-day "prophets" with a certain skepticism, and yet some of the most respected figures in religious history were known for their prophetic teachings. Can anybody square that circle for me?
Lorna Dueck: Prophets in the Bible were often misunderstood in their own day and respected only later, once the wisdom of their words was evident, once events foretold had actually come true. In my own dependence on science, it's hard for me to believe anyone who shows up with the gift of prophecy, but in fact, that is a gift which still operates in the universe. For example, I think Bishop Desmond Tutu operated prophetically when he saw that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a way to heal South Africa. He used to go off to a monastery every month for a few days of silent prayer with God, nothing could interrupt that, and when he emerged, he had prophetic insights into how to engage his society. That was a gift of prophecy we could test with respect and awe.
Michael Higgins: I am not sure that the biblical sense of prophecy implies prognostication or divining the future so much as reading the present in the light of God's will, whatever that be at any given time. Prophecy is not fortune-telling; it is a searing, no-holds-barred insight into the "now."
Lorna Dueck: Yes - I like that Michael, I agree. God, help my unbelief, is my response to that. I wonder if your description is what Oprah Winfrey was divining in her last show when she exhorted people to be listening and asking God for what to do in the "now."
Howard Voss-Altman: Perhaps modern-day prophets are those who remind us that racism, injustice, poverty and refusal to care for the Earth are simply unacceptable in light of our religious texts. Such prophets may be just as reviled as the biblical ones, but they are no less relevant to our understanding of the role religion can play in our society.
Sheema Khan: Howard, I wanted to return to your earlier point about the fanning of flames, as well as Michael's point about the media's role in giving attention to those who have no business spouting their garbage to the world. Guy, you are a media professional - what are the guidelines for covering the pronouncements of a controversial individual?
Lorna Dueck: I think the angle to take on the reporting of a religious belief would be to have journalists go to source material and qualified experts in that content, rather than simply repeat what a minister happens to be saying. Go ask an expert in eschatology what to make of Harold Camping, and report that, rather than simply parse out a sound bite that titillates.
( Note to readers: The Globe's Ian Brown recently produced a piece that resembles Lorna's description: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/ian-brown/cloudy-with-a-chance-of-armageddon/article2038239)
Howard Voss-Altman: Yes, let's place Mr. Camping's belief in context. Then the media provides some education, and Mr. Camping is exposed as a charlatan. It's a win-win.
Guy Nicholson: Media professional! I need new business cards. Sheema, it would depend very much on the type of media. People working for The Catholic Register, The Globe and Mail and the National Enquirer would make different assumptions about whose pronouncements are controversial and whose pronouncements are worth covering, let alone how to cover them. I would like to think that all editors and reporters take the time to consider how much attention is worth giving their subjects, but their audiences, business models and underlying philosophical assumptions might make for different answers.
Howard Voss-Altman: The problem today is that the filter has completely disappeared. I remember, not too long ago, when legitimate journalists actually used their professional judgment to determine what content was considered newsworthy. Now, in the age of the Internet, the filter has disappeared, and the ravings of a religious lunatic are explored and dissected. Now it's all part of the great unwashed news cycle that covers anything and everything, as long as it grabs the public's increasingly child-like attention span.
Guy Nicholson: It's true, the new model puts more responsibility on the reader. Maybe the media are like the so-called prophets - some have more credibility than others, and it's up to the listener to determine who's reliable.
Everyone, we're out of time. Thank you for your thoughts on an interesting topic.