The psychic Jeane Dixon first gained fame as a result of a 1956 Parade Magazine article in which she predicted John Kennedy’s assassination. Or did she? Her actual prediction was that an unnamed Democrat would win the1960 presidential election and that he would die in office, either by assassination or by some other cause. On closer examination, her uncanny prediction turns out to be something closer to a lucky guess, particularly in view of the fact that she later covered her bets by forecasting that Richard Nixon would win the 1960 race.
The mathematician John Allen Paulos coined the term “the Jeane Dixon effect” to describe the media’s tendency to hype lucky guesses while ignoring all the bad calls. To be fair, Dixon did occasionally hit the nail on the head. But she also predicted World War III would start in 1958, the Russians would land on the moon first and a woman would be elected president in the 1980s. The trick with oracular statements, it would seem, is to make them so vague they cover almost any eventuality. Or as the humorist Ashleigh Brilliant once quipped, "To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first, and, whatever you hit, call it the target.”
Uncertainty about the future has been grist for soothsayers since antiquity. Rising apprehensions fuel still greater demand for their services, as witness the robust business reported by psychics and astrologers during the current economic downturn. Wall Street has always sought expert prognostications about future financial trends, but recent hard times have prompted some to seek reassurance through nontraditional channels. Nancy Reagan famously sought counsel from astrologers on behalf of her husband. Even Richard Nixon reportedly consulted with Jeane Dixon in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Munich during the 1972 Olympics, notwithstanding Dixon’s earlier botched call on the 1960 election.
Oracles were a common feature in many ancient civilizations, and they still may be found in a few today. However, the Western world has had nothing equivalent to the Old Testament prophets, who wore out their welcome long ago. The prophets were never exactly soothsayers; certainly, there was nothing soothing about what they had to say. Their job was to speak the truth to power, which is why no one in his right mind ever volunteered for the job and also why the powerful often went to great lengths to silence them.
Among Old Testament prophets, Jonah is noteworthy on several counts, not the least the lengths he goes to in trying to dodge his calling. Dispatched to Ninevah to inveigh against its wickedness, he sets out in the opposite direction, boarding a ship bound for Tarshish. A storm blows up, and the crew tosses him overboard to appease an angry God. Jonah spends three days in the belly of a great fish, where he has a chance to reconsider his position. “Deliverance belongs to the LORD!" he cries, whereupon the fish disgorges him upon the dry land. Wetter and wiser, Jonah proceeds to Ninevah and is mightily displeased when the inhabitants heed his warnings and repent. Having gone to all the trouble of denouncing the local populace, he feels the least God can do is to wreak vengeance upon them. But no. “I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil,” he complains to the Lord. He is so unhappy he just wants to lay down and die. To teach Jonah a lesson, the Lord causes a plant to grow over him to provide shade, then causes the plant to wither. The Lord tells Jonah he shows more pity for the plant than for Ninevah.
The story ends ambiguously. Did Jonah get his wish and die feeling sorry for himself, or did he once again reconsider his position? We’ll never know. Either way, Jonah comes across as a complete sorehead. But then, such is to be expected from those who are condemned to speak the truth. Some truths, it would appear, are too hard even for prophets to bear.