Faith's Fourth Estate

Michael Metzger

Weeks before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi urged Islamic leaders to look at their faith from another angle. Shortly after the attack, David Brooks urged all religions to do likewise. They’re referring to faith’s fourth estate.

In 1887 Edmund Burke coined the term “fourth estate” to describe the press. Parliament has traditional three estates: The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons. The Lords Spiritual are the 26 bishops of the established Church of England. The Lords Temporal are the nobility of the House of Lords. The Commons represents the commoners. The press became the fourth estate, satirists and provocateurs looking at issues from another angle.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called for this angle in late December. Speaking at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he urged Islamic clerics to “take a long, hard look at” their hypocrisy in excusing an ideology making “our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world.” He urged Islamic scholars and clerics to take at a look at the faith “from the outside.”

Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, David Brooks chastised Americans for their hypocrisy. Americans lionize the slain journalists but had they tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus “it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds.” They would have been accused of hate speech even though satirists “serve useful public roles.”1 They expose the “stupidity” of passionate religious folk who are often “incapable of multiple viewpoints.” True, provocateurs act in an “unguided missile manner,” Brooks adds, but they’re “saying necessary things that no one else is saying.”

This is why Edmund Burke called on satirists to save Parliament. In the 1770s, King George III was acting hypocritically, seeking to expand his powers while restricting the American colonies’ rights. Burke argued that the king’s actions were not against the letter of the constitution but they were against its spirit. Burke was ignored and the war came. Parliament would have benefited from seeing their colonies from another angle. Burke believed the press provides this view. It became the fourth estate.

It’s worth asking whether today’s church is similar to yesterday’s Parliament. Interestingly, the four estates correspond with the four offices of Jesus—prophet, priest, king, and savior. The Lords Spiritual represent the priestly role. The Lords Temporal represent nobility, including the king. The Commons represents the common man, just as Jesus as savior represents humanity. Parliament, however, didn’t heed the prophetic voice. What about today’s church? It honors Jesus as priest, king, and savior. What about prophets? The faith’s fourth estate exposes inconsistencies and idolatries that passionate people often ignore. It says necessary things that no one else is saying. It would certainly benefit Islam, but how about the Christian faith as well?

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 David Brooks, I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” The New York Times, January 8, 2014.


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  1. Unfortunately, we know what so often happened to the prophets of the Old Testament. For Islam, having enshrined a single man as The Prophet, it would appear that the role is no longer a viable one and that any attempt to operate in that role is a punishable presumption and heresy. For Christianity? We may pay lip service to the idea of the prophet role, but we so often excommunicate the messenger (if not worse).

    The word picture we have of “a voice calling out in the desert” is apt. Unless we’re out in the desert, we’re unlikely to hear the voice. . . .

    It is certainly worthwhile to call people to listen for the prophetic voice. But do we really expect a big audience? Apart from God’s Revival, not so much. Thus, are we expecting people to really listen to the prophetic, or just ensuring that there is a ‘space’ for it? I have to question just how prophetic a prophet is, operating in some kind of “protected space” called the Fourth Estate.

  2. Marble:

    You raise many good points (questions) but I have to say the space is anything but protected. You’re correct that prophets are often voices crying out in the wilderness. That’s partly because they are outsiders, but partly because they have been discounted and shoved out. Rather than go out to the wilderness, my hunch is God would prefer we give them a place at the table. Since that is unlikely to happen (as you correctly note), the value of this column lies mostly in trying to be faithful in remembering how things ought to be. Something to be said for simply remembering. Thanks for your reminders as well.

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