Finding a Fit

Michael Metzger

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 Fidelisalways faithful. The battle cry of the European Reformers was Semper Reformandaalways 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.

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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).

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7 thoughts on “Finding a Fit”

  1. Mike-

    Thanks for your research and care in writing these helpful articles. It would be even more helpful for me if when you reference something like “prophets see ‘vision casting’ as misguided,” you would also link to an article that explains that.

    Brody

  2. Mike Metzger

    Will do. It mostly has to do with the warning in the Book of James: “You do not know what you life will be like tomorrow.” Vision casting is presumptuous. It claims to see tomorrow. This foster optimism, what Bonhoeffer called a “false virtue.” No human being can see the future. The ancients instead spoke of hope, not seeing what lies ahead but rather who holds the future. The problem with optimism is that when its fantastical forecasts fail to materialize, cynicism sets in. A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. They’re hard to resurrect. The better route is laid out by our friend Leonard Sweet: “You cast vision; I’ll cast metaphor.”

  3. That’s excellent. Thank you again. How does that jibe with the oft-cited Prov 29:18 “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

    Is there a distinction in these types of “visions?”

  4. Brody, lets see what Mike says, but I believe the Hebrew word there again refers to “special” prophetic vision and I believe that’s why the “but” connects to the law…it better be from God.

  5. Mike Metzger

    Brody:

    I don’t see “where there is no vision” as lamenting the absence of what some churches call “vision casting.” Here are some reasons: The Hebrew words translated ‘vision’ is chazon, from the root chazah which means vision in the sense of ‘a vision’ (as in an oracle from God), not just the general capacity to see – or to see into the future. I.e., it’s revelation from God. That’s why there is so much variance in translations of Prov. 29:8. For the NKJV reads: Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; But happy is he who keeps the law. The reference to law makes “revelation” the commands and precepts of God’s Word, not some sort of prediction regarding the future. The NIV reads: Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction. It’s reasonable to assume that for the Jewish readers, vision/revelation is a synonym for the Law (Torah). The Law binds us. When we do no heed to the Law, we cast off what ought to bind us.

  6. The ‘vision’ is the unique yoke shaped for us that enables us to live as Christ’s workmanship. I appreciate Mike’s prompt that any measurement that devalues the Torah is encouraging weights, measures and balances that of man’s creating not God’s. Compassion provides a safe enclosure for care not a prison to be excluded from or shackled in.

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    Matthew 11:28-30
    The Message (MSG)
    28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

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