Listening with the Prophets
AI George Carlin, Clubhouse, and hearing Quakers talk about Trump
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
1 Samuel 3:1-3
Maybe it’s the snow squall outside. Maybe it’s the high winds we’ve had sweeping through at 2 am, bending the wood frames, scraping a dead tree’s limbs against the living room window with squeals. Maybe it’s the endless scrolling static of a Twitter feed saturation. Maybe it’s David Byrne of the Talking Heads singing of a mail bomber in a minor key (above) in a society that makes so much sense it doesn’t. Maybe it’s the NFL playoff commentators filling the air with one of our last common-ground shared parasocial relationships, the soundtrack and last strings of glue of many male friendships—and thank God for that! Maybe it’s the election noise starting to rumble. These are just some of my radio dials for listening to the wind.
Why does carving out time to listen to God feel like a chore? Why must it take effort to turn my ear his way? And why must so much prayer devolve into crafting perfect monologues instead of falling into an intimate dialogue?
And as I’m always wondering in this bleak mid-century winter, where are the prophets? How are the prophets?
Maybe they’re nowhere to be found, because maybe we kill them. Because more than actual prophets, we love people who imitate the prophets of our dispositions. We want to listen to the imitation prophets, be entertained by them in our self-righteousness, and be moved to act into our “revolutionary” self-interest. We want this much more often than we want to listen with the actual prophets, the ones who listen to God.
George Carlin: Not Dead Enough
But now, with the help of machine learning, we don’t even need to rely on human powers for almost-prophecies. We have machines who will recursively listen to themselves—no, whatever we tell them to, which is endlessly listening to ourselves.
In yet another point for the Amish, the internet has birthed a new AI-generated comedy special from the long-deceased legend George Carlin , “I’m Glad I’m Dead.” And as covered all over, George’s daughter Kelly expressed her disgust: “My dad spent a lifetime perfecting his craft from his very human life, brain and imagination. No machine will ever replace his genius. These AI-generated products are clever attempts at trying to recreate a mind that will never exist again. Let’s let the artist’s work speak for itself.” Closing with a line only her father’s daughter could say, “Humans are so afraid of the void that we can’t let what has fallen into it stay there.”
One reason Carlin’s counterfeit feels especially offensive to many of us in our dystopian sensibilities is the comic’s status as a modern prophet. In fact, Carlin is a big reason the whole “standup comic as tortured philosopher” thing became overdone. This was not without real-world consequences, creating a whole shadow industry of never-famous narcissistic open micers (guilty) who propped up failing dive bars and terrorized innocent Los Angeles cafe customers for years.
But Carlin was prophet-ish, if not quite prophetic. Take this clip posted by Matt Cardin to X from Carlin’s 1996 Charlie Rose interview:
“I found a very liberating position for myself as an artist: I sort of gave up on the human race, and gave up on the American dream and culture and nation, and decided that I didn't care about the outcome. And that gave me a lot of freedom from a kind of distant platform to be sort of amused, to watch the whole thing with a combination of wonder and pity.... "[I don't have] an emotional stake in whether this experiment with human beings works. I really don't care. I love people as I meet them one by one. People are just wonderful as individuals. You see the whole universe in their eyes if you look carefully. But as soon as they begin to group, as soon as they begin to clot, when there are five or ten of them, or even groups as small as two, they begin to change. They sacrifice the beauty of the individual for the sake of the group. I decided it was all under the control of groups now, whether it's business, religion, political people, or whatever, and I would distance myself from wishing for a good outcome. Let it do what it's going to do, and I'll enjoy it as an entertainment.... “We've all seen a lot of comedians who seem to have a political bent in their work. And always implicit in the work is some positive outcome, that this is all going to work. ‘If only we do this, if only we pass that bill, if only we elect him, if only we do that.’ It's not true. It's circling-the-drain time for humans. I honestly believe this, not just as a comedian....That's why I could say in [my 1992 stand-up show] that the planet is fine, but the people are f*cked. Because the planet will outlast us. It will be here, and it will be fine.”
—George Carlin, interviewed by Charlie Rose, March 26, 1996
Carlin’s “planet” line is a famous one he would repeat. You can watch the full interview here:
I remember hearing this interview years ago. But what struck me this time was that Carlin’s view is only a few degrees removed from the famous 20th-century Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, the young Niebuhr was at the start of his pastoral formation as a “Christian realist,” which is to say, a pessimist on human nature. And if you change that famous “planet” line to “God,” you can almost hear Carlin channeling him: “God is fine, but the people are f*cked. Because God will outlast us. God will be here, and God will be fine.”
Like prophets of the Original Testament, Carlin’s pessimism was making an appeal to us on multiple levels. Carlin and the prophets place the vast majority of blame on nations for betraying what is true and good, selling out divinity for cheap injustices. God, who seems to know each reformational call will be ignored like the last one, ultimately chooses individuals to cut through the masses—the prophets—whose words, in turn, appeal to us as individuals even if our groups betray. Likewise, Carlin may have spoken of our collective rot, but always had hope and love for the individual. We may be screwed together, but a single person may snap out of our ongoing hell as Carlin did.
But I have to say Carlin was just almost prophetic, not quite the real thing. One reason is because of Carlin’s (very justified) decision to perch himself above society with detached bemusement, while true prophets are deeply invested in the stakes of their people. As I wrote two years ago in learning from Abraham Joshua Heschel, prophets also have hope—not a hope in humanity, but a hope in God who loves us in spite of how terrible we are, including in spite of how terrible our religions are. I don’t blame Carlin for lacking hope; I lie between Niebuhr’s tamed cynic and Carlin’s decidedly un-. Like giving the Shell station guy your last $20 for a half tank, I have to ask God for just enough hope to get through the next year.
Prophets also have humility. While I believe the authentic Carlin had plenty of it, his stage persona did not always, and the digital version has even less when it champions and taunts the human listener with the inevitability of AI-generated art: “I might be the first standup comic brought back from the dead by AI but I certainly won’t be the last. Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Bill Hicks, Robin Williams, Dick Gregory, Andy Kaufman, Mom Mabley, Sam Kinnison…Everybody’s coming back and we’re all gonna have our own 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year stream commenting on everything that’s happening in the world as it happens.” Oh…thanks.
Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
1 Samuel 3:10
A Short Story About a Short-lived App
For a couple of months in Spring 2021, just a year into the pandemic, there was a very popular new social media app called Clubhouse. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, it was all voice-based. You could start a voice chatroom on any topic, for anyone in the world to join. Imagine having a conference call, but it could be thousands of people listening in and participating. I was super invested in it for a couple of months, starting up the now-defunct Psychedelic Christian club (where I did make some authentic and lasting connections). Because of the pandemic, we were all still stuck at home, so this exciting new thing felt so enriching to hear people’s voices from all across the world, to get their full emotional context, to receive a little more of their soul than we can when reading text.
Clubhouse is still around, but after being once popular enough to warrant a multi-billion valuation, I think it’s basically died out (with Twitter Spaces barely more active), and they recently cut their staff. There are many reasons for its demise, like, you know, being able to go outside again. But what happened over time was people started feeling how much focused time it took—unlike other stuff with our smart phones, where we can pick them up and set them down and get back in whenver we want, you had to pay, no, invest close attention. But the bigger issue was that once you got to rooms of a certain size—20, 30 people—it was often less about listening as it was just waiting to talk. Instead of a dialogue, it would often be waiting for sometimes one to two hours for your turn to speak, so everybody’s just thinking about what they’re going to say.
I share this story because it’s an example of what we don’t want our prayer life to be all about. Yes, prayer is certainly about sharing our intimate thoughts with God, but we sometimes forget it’s a two-way street.
Once again, enter the prophets.
Samuel’s Time and Our Times
As I heard pastor Delmer Chilton mention earlier, while Samuel’s famous response to God is, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening,” far too often our attitude is, “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking.” As a new preacher, I’m dealing with that within me all the time, and my professional duties can be a terrible enabler of this habit.
The prophets of the Old Testament are filled with things to say—they are perhaps the most gifted speakers, preachers, and poets in the tradition. But all of them only did so after first listening. And they were not avid listeners to cultural wisdom—though they were astute observers of culture—nor were they simply artistic geniuses with a gift for turn of phrase like a Carlin. No, every prophet is a prophet because they have a strong dialogue with God. The prophets do not simply deliver their newsletters. They are first recipients.
In a time of church demise and cultural fraying, is easy to see ourselves in Samuel’s time and culture: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” The eyesight of Samuel’s elders had gone dim and grown tired. In the context of the Bible, 1 Samuel picks up at the end of the period marked by the Book of Judges. It is a time of increasing violence, atrocities, and ruin, with God’s people treating each other worse and worse. Individual libertarianism had overtaken collective responsibilities and shared values. The book ends with the famous, “There was no king in Israel in those days; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
And yet, 1 Samuel says, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out.”
Yes, hard times are ripe for prophets. And, as it turns out, ripe for wannabe digital prophets. Now, of course, there are benefits to what social media allows, giving us access to perspectives and voices that would never be heard. Atrocities are documented that would have been ignored, but along with it, gamification of them and misinformation about atrocities. We know there are more healthy ways to use social media than others, and sometimes we are filled to the brim and bursting to tell the world about what is beautiful, good, just, righteous, and true.
But without the humility of the prophets—without the deep listening of the prophets—we will not be sharing a holy dialogue, but our inner, self-recursive noise. We will just be sharing our personal inner artificial intelligence.
In our prayer life, we may never hear English words of God speaking to us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be deeply listening. Can those of us who want to be prophets hear a prophetic word ourselves? As the wind gets noisier, what would it mean to listen more deeply?
A Short Quaker Story
I’m not a Quaker, though I was dangerously close to becoming one. I have a lot of fondness for Quakers. One of my favorite musicians is a Quakerterian—part Presbyterian, part Quaker—named David LaMotte, a peacemaker and gentle soul. There are other heroes of mine like Mary Dyer, who is enshrined on the Boston Common as a martyr for religious freedom, or Lisa Kuenning, who found her moral compass from her Quaker Christian roots in the middle of a quickly deteriorating 1960s counterculture among Harvard elites.
You may not know much about Quakers, and while many are not Christian anymore, they were originally a Christian group who believed everyone shared “the Light” of God within them. And so their “meetings” are sitting around in silence, waiting until they feel the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to speak. It’s more complicated than this, but that’s the gist and how things seemed to go from my few times attending Quaker services in my twenties.
Seven years ago, I was still trying to find my spiritual community, and I happened to attend a Quaker meeting on the inauguration weekend of Trump’s first presidency. Now, mind you, this was a very progressive group of Quakers, as most Quakers these days are. But on a week that filled many liberals with funeral despair, it was different than the usual noise.
I was living near Pasadena, California, and it was a rare rainy day. I rush in with my jacket, warm myself in the kitchen while a stranger strikes up a whisper conversation about consciousness I wasn’t totally ready for, politely excuse myself, and sit down.
In the main room of the meeting house, people are sitting in silence in four quarter-filled pews facing each other. I find a seat by myself. During the silence, I start to fall asleep. I awake to someone sharing their Light. As I would years later on Clubhouse, I quietly think of my own things to say, pitching myself different premises that would surely get me Quaker nods for being so wise.
First, a woman in her 60s stands. “Despite what the media says, most conservatives are good, kind people who just see the world differently.” Next, a woman in her 50s reports she's been Facebook fighting a Trump supporter for months, but last night they told each other they loved each other. A woman in her 30s says she's struggling because her brother believes in retaliatory violence, followed by a man in his 70s who says he had been stabbed before, but that even if you die without reliation, non-violence is a contribution towards bettering the collective consciousness. Someone else rises. “There is not much pure evil in the world, but a whole lot of stupidity.” Another man muses, “I bruised my tailbone last week and it hurts to sit, which I am taking as a sign to get off my ass and stand for what I believe in.” Spaced between all of them is silence.
It still seems we will dance around the room’s elephant, as is polite in spiritual settings. But finally, a woman in her 60’s, trembling with anger, offers a simple prayer: “Mr. Trump….Mr. Trump. The Holy Spirit in me bows to the Holy Spirit in you. Namaste.”
She sits back in the silence.
Not too long after, without saying a word, the designated leader stands and shakes the hand of her neighbor. Soon, we all follow. The meeting is over.
Most of us not going to be Quakers. And one key difference between most modern Christians and most modern Quakers is that most Christians believe that part of our listening to God is encountered through Scripture more than most Quakers believe. There are other theological differences we would have with Quakers, too, which once caused heavy conflict among our denominational ancestors.
But we could do worse than remembering the Holy Spirit dwells in all of us. We could do worse than remembering how important it is to listen to God. These are not profound reminders. We are just so forgetful.
Practicing What I Preach
To avoid any charges of hypocrisy this time around, I invite you to silence wherever you are. Pay attention if you find yourself getting bored, aimless, listless, or anything else. This is not quite meditation, though that’s fine, and not quite Centering Prayer, though that’s fine too. I just invite you to what God invites us all to do, as he told the psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Just listen. And if you’re playing along, I invite you to close your period of silence with prayer, sharing your true thoughts with God. And then listen again. This is something we can do every day to grow as prophetic listeners. Perhaps sometimes this year, as the noise picks up, we will hear him through the wind.
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