When a Prophet Dies

I find it useful to emphasize what’s said over who’s saying it. We live in a society so committed to an individualist ethic that we forget how much our environment influences our behavior. We want people to be responsible for their actions. We don’t want their actions to be the product of their environments. This not only makes it easier to assign blame—and to regulate conduct—it also makes complex problems seem simple. Environments are infinitely more complex than individuals. If we focus on what’s said rather than who’s saying it, we must acknowledge the complex set of social relations responsible for human beings and their bizarre, erratic, and unpredictable behavior. We have to admit that nothing is ever very simple.

When Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, I tried to let the person fade from view in favor of the words. I had no need to mourn, I told myself. Her death did not come as a shock. She had lived a long and productive life. Why not celebrate what she said rather than grieve for who said it? But at 88 years old, Le Guin still possessed the moral authority to challenge established norms and fight for change. Five years ago, when the National Book Foundation honored her lifetime achievement in literature, she said, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

Here in Mormon Country, the people we call “prophets” clamber to positions of power within institutional frameworks that favor entrenched privilege over divine inspiration. The people do not choose their prophets based on who inspires them the most. The people accept that the next “prophet” will be whoever was “next in line.” Le Guin had no need for such profane institutional politics. She spoke and, in a prophet’s voice, she inspired. She inspired us to look beyond gender, race, and class to see the people our society disregards and ignores. She inspired us to imagine alternatives to the status quo and to implement them, if not in our lives, then at least in our thinking. She inspired us to be more than what we are. We’ll be waiting a long time for another Le Guin, but then, that’s how it goes when a prophet dies.

In the strictest sense, a prophet is someone who proves prophetic in their predictions of the future so as to help us prepare for what’s coming. I think that, by expanding our definition of prophet from “one who speaks prophetically” to “one who inspires future change through critical engagement with the past and present,” we might find inspiration outside the cold and sterile halls of churches. We do not need religion. We need for the people who read and ponder what’s been said about the human condition to demonstrate how ideas can transform reality. We need people to recognize their sources of inspiration and act upon their words. Yes, what’s being said may indeed be more important than who’s saying it. But insofar as a person ignites a prophetic conduit between the sacred and the profane, we would do well to locate the signal through the noise, or the individual in the crowd.

Once we’ve all had time to mourn—and we return to the world to agitate and organize—let’s take a moment to raise our glasses to Le Guin and to her “realists of a larger reality.” May she rest in power surrounded by people who bring her peace. May we follow in her example, subject our reality to ruthless criticism, and transcend it with half as much grace as she did.

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