How can we determine if we should believe everything prophets of the 21st century are telling us? Religious studies professor and researcher Dr. Julia M. O’Brien spoke about this topic at Elizabethtown College Sept. 28 at 7 p.m.
Her research goal was to determine if what prophets say is true and how a society of believers and nonbelievers should comprehend this information. There were two assumptions that O’Brien wanted to challenge.
The first was that those who believe in prophecy believe everything said in God’s name and second was that prophets always speak against the ways of institutions.
Sophomore Sara Allocco came to the event because she was invited by Carl W. Zeigler Professor of religion and department chair Dr. Christina Bucher as a part of her honors course.
“I wanted to experience this presentation because we are learning about prophecies in my class,” Allocco said.
Another Etown student attended the lecture because of her religious studies course. Sophomore Sara Holsing found the information intriguing and “relevant.”
“It is interesting to hear about how this topic relates to modern times,” Holsing said.
O’Brien graduated from Wake Forest University with a bachelor’s degree in religion. She also has a master’s degree from Duke Divinity School and a doctorate degree from Duke University in Hebrew Bible and Semantic studies.
O’Brien has also written books, including “Micah,” “Challenging Prophetic Metaphor,” “Nahum” and “Nahum through Malachi.”
O’Brien co-edited a book with Chris Frank titled “Aesthetics of Violence in the Prophets.” She currently works as an editor-in-chief for “Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies.”
O’Brien first became interested in religious studies when she took an Old Testament course at Wake Forest University.
“I thought I would not like the course,” O’Brien said.
However, after taking the class, her interest for learning more about religious studies quickly developed. She continued to take religious courses and was encouraged to do so by her professors.
To challenge the first assumption of prophets, O’Brien researched Ancient Mesopotamia Mari and Nineveh. This work dated back to 700 and 800 B.C. At this point in time, there was a wide range of religious professionals who performed different duties. They believed in gods and thought that they could speak to them directly.
The words of prophets were taken with caution and evaluation. The religious professionals would cross-check information against accepted forms of revelation. They would consult an oracle. The religious professionals would wait to see if the prophets’ predictions were true.
O’Brien discovered that individuals who believe in the gifts of spirits do not believe in everything that is said in God’s name, even if they do believe in prophecy.
The second assumption she challenged was that prophets always speak against institutions. This phenomenon is described as the “grand narrative,” which characterizes prophets as people who are alluring and disagree with the rules of institutions.
However, based on the Hebrew Bible, this is not entirely accurate. The scribes later edited the prophets’ work, making them appear to act as a warning of the institutions. The editing occurred after the falls of Jerusalem and Samaria. These nations fell because the people did not listen to what the prophets said.
O’Brien learned from her research that the prophets possessed connections with kings. The scribes had edited the prophets to make them appear as anti-institutional. Therefore, O’Brien learned that prophets have not always spoken out against institutions. But rather, it was the scribes who resented the ways of institutions.
Through her studies, O’Brien has learned that people have many differences in their ideas, ways of thinking and beliefs than she does. She discovered the uniqueness of individuals when engaging them in conversations regarding her research.
“I generally think people are more similar to me than they actually are,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien learned information not only about those around her, but also discovered things about herself.
“I never realized how much where I grew up, my culture, and my beliefs shaped how I view the world today,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien recommends that people engage in conversations with others.
“Claims to prophecy are messy, it’s important in the public realm as well as the religious one,” O’Brien said.
She deems it is essential to recognize that even if people identify as nonbelievers, they most likely have relations with people who are believers. Regardless of whether or not people believe in a divinity, O’Brien believes they should think critically when others call themselves prophets.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” O’Brien said. “You don’t have to accept everything people tell you about God.”
O’Brien recommends that people should not be afraid to question information that is given. She suggests people look deeper into the information and engage in conversations and research to help them determine what is valid.