Monologue on exegetical preaching

Digging up some old notes from a class I no longer teach, I found this little introduction to a lecture about exegesis. It is an exhortation to prospective preachers on the importance of their task and the necessity that they remember that they’re not celebrities.

The Preacher’s Profile

Dear Preacher,

I encourage you to look in the mirror each morning and tell yourself two things:

You are boring.

You are not funny.

If you were a philosopher, motivator or an entertainer, how many people would come willingly to hear you speak? For most of us: about zero. Given that this is true, how fair is it of you to imagine that the audience is there to hear you, when they are clearly only there because they feel they have to be? Because you have a captive audience who believes that it is God’s command that they are there, they will sit through almost any garbage you can throw at them, and they’ll appreciate it no end when you make your speech more tolerable for them through anecdotes and jokes. Their appreciation – the fact that they laugh so hard when you say something lame about sports – might delude you into thinking that you are a treat to listen to. No; you are boring and you are not funny, and the longer you remember that, the better. You are to resist the temptation to make yourself a minor Sunday-morning celebrity. The only thing that makes you valuable up front of the church on a Sunday is that you have been tasked with the awesome responsibility of speaking God’s words.

You are boring. The Bible is not.

I get so disappointed when I go to church, and the preacher never goes any deeper than what this or that verse very obviously says on the surface. The passage says something about God’s love, and so the preacher starts talking about four kinds of love, including an anecdote here, an illustration there, a neat application etc. Boring sermons are criminal, NOT because we should be interesting, but because the bible IS interesting. It’s deep and inspiring and challenging and surprising. It is God speaking to us. We believe that God has spoken in his Word, and that the text therefore says the most important things in the world. How can that be boring?

Exegesis is like digging a mine. Digging is hard work and it’s time-consuming. We don’t do it because we like holes, but because we expect to find gold. If you haven’t laboured to understand why God had a passage preserved for you for millennia, and if you haven’t seen the surprises and challenges in the text, and if you haven’t been excited by what God says, you can bet that almost no one else will be.

Being orthodox is extremely important, but not saying anything wrong is not the same as saying something right. You can be not wrong without ever preaching an expositional sermon. To exegete a text requires that you actually listen to what the text is saying. It means scratching beneath the surface. It means asking ‘why?’ all the time.

Consider James 3:14-15. You can preach that text unthinkingly: ‘Envy and bitterness are bad. Got it.’ And you’ll never need to ask yourself why James has to point out to his reader the massively obvious fact that envy and selfishness are not wisdom from heaven! Why am I not surprised by something that the author expects that I’ll find surprising?

I am certainly guilty of expecting the Bible to be all religious and austere, and so will your congregation. When we expect it to be boring and conservative, we don’t really notice that it contains humour and irony and hyperbole. You don’t notice that Paul is including a bad joke about Cretans in Titus, or that the story in Judges about Micah’s idols is supposed to be a farce. You notice those things when you ask ‘why?’.

So, all this hard labour aims at clarifying what God has said, so that when you stand up in front of your audience, you can speak God’s words — the most important words in the world — instead of trying to make your generic theologisms more interesting by being a Sunday morning entertainer.

Expert Exegesis

I’m teaching some biblical exegetical classes at the moment, and one of the things that I feel it is necessary for aspiring exegetes to understand is that teaching the Bible responsibly is more than just pointing out and explaining some things that lie on the surface of the text. Exegetes need to use original languages, background study etc. to investigate the setting of the text and to fix the relationships between its component parts. Exegetes need to take a view that goes well beyond what is demanded of the usual reader.

I found an interesting parallel of this in an article about some expert football commentators who are renowned for their eye for detail. The article describes the view of the game that these experts prefer:

“Watching Neville and Carragher watch football is an education. Their favourite toy is boot-room cam, a camera providing a view of the entire pitch so they can monitor the whereabouts of all 22 players at all times. “The viewer wants to see where the ball is and what’s going on around it, so we watch it differently,” Neville says. (Source: Guardian)

While it gives a less dramatic view of the game, watching all players at once gives them an idea of the movement, positional play and tactics being employed at any one time. Obviously, it would be turgid and boring if the experts discussed all the details and interrelationships that they observed, or if they mentioned the unseen just to show off. But their expertise enables them to give insight into the game that other viewers would have missed, and it prevents them from making superficial judgments about an event or player’s contribution.

This is the kind of thing that makes someone an expert, rather than a paid amateur. If it is valuable in football, how much more should Christian teachers be encouraged to deliver expert insights into the text. We also want to avoid mentioning things just because they’re things that everyone else (say, without a Greek Bible) might not have noticed, but of all disciplines Christian teaching should be keenest to eradicate shallow teaching and superficial judgments.

 

 

It’s safest to assume I’m right

Sciencey types often criticise Christians for choosing faith over science/reason (although there is actually no need for such a messy divorce), and yet this is not a Christian problem; it is a human problem. Christian faith isn’t actually the same thing as belief-without-foundation, but many believers treat it as such, yet this seems also to be the way in which most people relate to the world around them. Knowing something takes work; laziness and presumption are easy substitutes.

Amazing feats of presumption are everywhere. Take these three examples that I’ve come across in recent weeks.

1. ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ hates Ritalin

Fake_CandH_ritalin

Pinterest tells me that this cartoon is the saddest thing some or other user has ever seen, and not because it’s a fake Calvin & Hobbes cartoon.

The idea is that Calvin’s parents finally succumbed and started giving him ‘pills’, presumably Ritalin, and as a result he no longer allows his imagination to carry him away on adventures, and look! by the end Hobbes is just… Hobbes has… died! Hobbes! Noooo! I hope that homework was worth it, pills!

It would be sad if indeed this is what Ritalin does, but is it? Does it actually alter the personality? Medically speaking, it wears off after 4 hours and leaves no trace of itself. Even if Hobbes did disappear, he’d be back again after a short while, and Calvin would have his homework out of the way too. Sure, it’d make a worse cartoon series, but not a worse child.

More to the point, is there a link between the inability to concentrate and a flourishing creative mind? Is imagination really just the same as lack of focus?

There is a pervasive (and childish) view of artists that they brood their way from place to place in fits of temper wreaking havoc and then instantaneously wrenching beauty and profundity from the chaos. Art is lightning bolts of inspiration—flashes of genius—and it is the gift of the true artist to barf out fully formed, finely crafted masterpieces.

From what I know about many of the world’s best artists and writers, their work ethic and ability to focus for long periods of time was phenomenal. Great art came from rigorous planning, continual rewrites, thinking, agonising, redoing. Some great art may happen in an instant, but most of it takes focus. Picasso could draw the essence of a bull in a deft flick (or two) of his wrist… but only because he spent thousands of drawings trying to learn what the essence of a bull is.

The unquestioning assumptions behind this cartoon play nicely into some of our favourite narratives: that the ‘creative’ person is quirky and weird and unique and impulsive; that medicating children is the imposition of some kind of chemical slavery, forcing them to become ‘just like everyone else’. On what grounds do we know any of that to be true besides ‘intuition’?

Kids who need Ritalin are sometimes incapable of functioning at a level that enables them even to become literate. Attention problems can (in these rare cases) be utterly debilitating. In most cases it is merely the difference between enjoying school (and keeping up), or finding everything a struggle. If there is a study that shows that Ritalin kills the imagination, I’d like to see it. Otherwise stop stigmatising good medicine on stupid grounds.

2. Preservatives and McDonalds

I hate the Fallen Arches as much as the next guy, but my eldest daughter has returned from school this term with an irrational fear of ‘preservatives’ because the phys-ed teacher taught them about the evils of fast-food.

The gist of it was that evil food is full of preservatives, whereas good, wholesome food is of the earth and made by mamma at a roaring hearth somewhere. The evidence? There is a 14-year-old McDonalds burger that has not rotted and is good as the day as it was bought. The only thing that rots is the pickle: the only natural, green thing in sight.

See? Preservatives are mummifying you from the inside.

I hope I look this good when I turn 14

I hope I look this good when I turn 14

Does it look the same as the day it was bought? No. It looks repulsive. Sure, but why hasn’t it rotted? As this excellent experiment points out, it’s because things that dry out don’t rot (the beef-jerky principle). The home-ground, 100% pure burger of similar thickness doesn’t rot either. And the pickle? Ironically the pickling process is a preservative measure, and yet it does rot.

Again, the preservative scaremongering plays into our favourite fables: All chemicals are bad, and they’re poisoning us. Mother Nature is all good all the time, if only we’d let her in. Classifying things as ‘chemicals’ is not precise enough description to function as a workable category—certainly not one that we can dismiss in totality as harmful when it is convenient to do so—and conversely, ‘natural’ in no way guarantees that a thing is not horrifically dangerous.

All natural goodness. No artificial colours or flavours.

All natural goodness. No artificial colours or flavours.

Healthy eating is great, and I’m pleased that school is taking an interest in nutrition. But do they really need to propagate a good message by means of misinformation? It was a teacher who told them that there is a 14-year-old McDonalds burger being kept in showroom condition by preservatives, simultaneously misrepresenting the facts and inventing its cause by mere presumption. A minute of googling revealed that a scientific mind has already done the work for us of investigating the true cause. A teacher couldn’t even drum up the curiosity to google it.

3. Car Seats and Vaccines

A third thing that I came across this week that demonstrated the loose grip that we all have on good thinking and secure knowledge came via a friend who posted a link to a provocative article that points out how car seats are a danger to our children, cause autism, and are all just a corporate, money-grubbing conspiracy anyway (it’s a spoof on the anti-vaccine movement, but really quite enlightening). You should read it here now.

Enjoy your deathtrap, kid.

Enjoy your deathtrap, kid.

It exposes the barking-mad reasoning that so many of us use to justify certain conclusions—opposition to vaccinations in this example. Now it’s not especially important who ends up being right about vaccines; perhaps all those diseases did go away by themselves and Big Corporate is laughing all the way to the bank. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the methods by which many or most campaigners have reached this conclusion, which clearly are wrong-headed and opposed to science and reason. These are the same muddled methods by which people justify all sorts of misleading and even downright evil conclusions (the idea that your car seat is made of poison and autism spores would qualify).

So here are three things from separate sources that have crossed my path in the last month, all of which are examples of the non-rational, presumptuous ways in which all kinds of people seem to deal with information, and all of which can be greatly helped (if not outright solved) by the application of logic and science. We could put an end to a lot of stupid opinions—both religious and secular—if we based our conclusions on hard-won knowledge rather than arm-chair presumption. Christians sometimes think of science as belonging in the ‘poison’ category, and vice versa. I hope that is one more unhelpful presumption that we can each leave behind.

NT Wright on Science, Scientism, and the New Testament

NT Wright delivered a lecture earlier this year in which he addressed the question, ‘Can a Scientist Trust the New Testament?’

As is his custom, he manages to get at the problem in an arresting and unexpected way. He argues that much of our trouble with the New Testament—even those of us who have chosen to trust it—has come about because we’re all victims of a worldview that has a mixed up view of science, fact, and knowledge. Although this worldview is largely discredited, most of us still are clinging on to it, whether it’s the atheist who thinks that ‘progress’ has left religion in the past, or the Christian who thinks that God is only visible in ‘the gaps’.

I reckon this article is a must-read for atheist and Christian alike. Full version in the link directly below, and a couple of teaser quotes follows after that:

PDF Version

“Every time someone says ‘Now that we live in the modern world’, or ‘in this day and age’, or even ‘now that we live in the twenty-first century’, they are appealing implicitly to a narrative to which we are all supposedly signed up, a narrative in which a new day has dawned, bringing freedom, especially from the constraints imposed by older tyrannies, including that of the church. The word ‘progressive’, used by columnists in the Guardian as the catch-all term for a whole range of agendas, expresses this belief. There is an almost touching faith in this story of inevitable progress. One might have thought that the history of the last nearly three hundred years, which is full of wars and genocides and atom bombs and terrorism, might have shaken it. One might have thought that the postmodern critique, showing the dream of progress to be riddled with corruptions of one kind or another, might have undermined it. Perhaps the real question today is, Can Someone in the Twenty-First Century still Believe in Progress? – and the answer ought clearly to be No. But this great myth still dominates popular and public discourse. And – this is the point – it has got muddled up with the quite different story of science proper. And when that happens we have something we might call scientism.”

“But let me just stress two things [about the Resurrection]. First, beware of the idea that it is only through modern science that we discovered that dead people don’t rise. This is a classic example of ‘scientism’, not only to make claims not only about what we ‘now’ know but to suggest that nobody knew it before. Whenever the topic of resurrection comes up in the ancient world, the poets and philosophers all know the answer: of course it doesn’t happen. It isn’t the case that prior to 1750 people didn’t know the laws of nature, so were ready to believe in resurrection, whereas now we do so we aren’t. As C. S. Lewis says, the reason Joseph was worried about Mary’s pregnancy was not because he didn’t know where babies came from but because he did. The resurrection of Jesus was just as difficult to believe in the first century as it is for us – equally difficult, but no more. Believing that Jesus was raised from the dead always takes a worldview-shift. It cannot be fitted into any other existing framework.”

Practice what you preach when you preach

This is addressed to preachers. Especially the evangelicals: those who believe that the Bible is the written word of God.

Let’s imagine that your church were visited by an outside researcher. An alien perhaps, or an angelic being if you’re not into the alien thing.

Imagine that this researcher was trying to determine what you believe about the Bible just by examining what you do with the Bible. How would you stack up?

What should we say about scripture?

As evangelicals, we believe that ‘all scripture is breathed out by God’, and so in spite of the fact that it was written by many human authors over many centuries, there is also an overall unity because God’s mind lies behind it all. So God has communicated with the world through the scriptures that He has preserved for us.

And what is God’s book like? Is it a coherent philosophy full of universal truths? Eternal wisdom on topics of spiritual interest? No, as we know, it is a raw collection of many different types of literature, including stories, prophecies, letters, and even poems and songs. The eternal truth and wisdom that it contains emerges from the storylines of the histories and the Gospels, or from the careful argumentation of the letters to the churches.

Are these books written to the believers across the aeons? Are they equally true and accessible to all readers? Indeed, they are written for all believers, but not to all believers. Each book had its own particular audience, bound to a particular time and culture.

This is how we believe God chose to speak His word to us—through this Bible. Yet when we preach every Sunday, does our practice bear this out?

What kind of preacher are you?

When an attentive outsider observes how you preach, what conclusion would they draw about your doctrine of scripture?

1. The Medieval Roman Catholic

Imagine you are the researcher, transported back in time to a Medieval Catholic church. The service is given entirely in Latin, including the message read from a collection of sermons. You don’t understand Latin, and so you are completely baffled, but no matter—none of the people beside you in the pews understand Latin either.

How would you judge the beliefs of this church? Where would they have found ‘the word of God’? Clearly they didn’t find it in the intelligible communication of scripture. Tradition and church order was obviously more important, even if nobody (not even the preacher!) understood what was being read.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God’s word is mediated by the Church, and the Bible is a document of Church order.

2. The motivational speaker

Now imagine you’re transported into a church in which the speaker is styled as a ‘life coach’. Perhaps the preacher discusses current affairs in order to provide some wisdom or encouragement to his listeners. The preacher may use the Bible, but only to help you towards ‘a better you’.

Many churches have declared their lack of confidence in the Bible, and teach this way as a result. Others teach this way because they are attempting to be Christianised versions of Oprah. Either way, the Bible is clearly of peripheral interest and only drawn in when a verse can be found that says something of service to the topic at hand.

More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible contains much wisdom concerning the best way to live.

3. God’s word to us today

The previous two preachers are the kind that we as evangelicals love to hate, but how do we stack up in comparison?

In a church that I know and hold in high regard for many reasons, the sermons regularly affirm an orthodox doctrine of scripture, are based on biblical texts, and show deep reverence for the Bible as God’s word. However, the church is suspicious of academic study and intellectualism, and so its preaching usually prizes openness to what the Spirit is saying to the church now. They prefer to preach freely and without notes so as not to stifle the Spirit. Neither in its sermons or its cell groups does the church work systematically through books (or even chapters) of the Bible.

What conclusion would an observer draw about their doctrine of scripture? The sermons may be helpful exhortations to love, faithfulness and good works, but they are rarely if ever sustained explanations of the Bible.  Texts are separated from their contexts, and because there is no continuity week-by-week, there is never any sense of the storyline or argument of which each verse is a part. In practice, the Bible is a point of departure for a message generated from other sources.

Although messages are inspired by or based on the Bible, the preaching does not explain the message of the Bible in the terms in which it was written. The ‘word of God’ seems to be something that God ‘lays on the heart’ directly.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God speaks to His church, and this is often inspired by what is written in the Bible.

4. Direct application

A wedding sermon I heard this week (while playing ‘alien observer’ in another church) nicely exemplified the ‘direct application’ method of preaching.

The message was from Psalm 45, which speaks of the groom (seemingly the king) wielding the sword and the bow, the bride dressed in gold, and their children being princes in the land for generations. To his credit, the preacher moved through the text piece by piece, which would seemingly acknowledge that God’s word is related to the message of the text as it was written.

However, the text was assumed to be about every marriage (not the wedding of Israel’s king), and each of its details was assumed to be directly applicable to the couple being wedded that day. So allegories were constructed to account for the sword, arrows, and golden fabric, and the preacher even insinuated that it was the literal duty of the couple to have children.

Does it not matter that the psalm was written to Old Covenant Israel? That Jesus’ coming has changed things? That children played a special role in the OT that they do not in the NT? That Israel’s king and his children were theologically important in a way that does not translate any longer?

The preacher was at least explaining the text, but without the controls of literary and historical context that help to uncover what the text originally meant. He ignored the progression of time and revelation, and made no reference to differences in covenant and culture. He treated the Bible as though it were written to us, not just for us. Under those rules, I’m just pleased the message wasn’t about God’s command to be circumcised.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God supernaturally makes His word apparent to readers of the Bible (or perhaps only to specially chosen readers).

5. The topical preacher

Evangelical preachers seem most often to preach topically, that is, their sermons try to give the Bible’s view on justification, or homosexuality, or marriage etc. I have no major objection to topical preaching, but again, what would the observer deduce about our doctrine of scripture? The Bible itself is not arranged in this way. God’s word is not topical—the message emerges from material that is carefully arranged into plots and arguments, or structured as poetry. It has order, progression, context.

It is obviously helpful to distill out of these texts a theology of this or that, but should we consistently neglect how the Bible has been written in favour of a compendium of neat verses arranged around our theme for the day?

While topical preaching is often commendably biblical, it does not preach what God has said in scripture (at least not in the way that He said it); it preaches what God would probably say on a certain subject if we could ask Him.

More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible provides enough information to allow us to uncover God’s word on various subjects.

‘What’s your point?’

I don’t mean to point fingers at other churches or to imply that my denomination (or our preaching) is more evangelical than yours. Who cares whose church is more at fault? Nor is this an attempt to provoke church members to become dissatisfied with their churches, or to suggest that the only valid preaching is exegetical preaching. Perhaps my hurried analysis of evangelical preaching is malformed and unfair. I’d welcome better suggestions concerning the relationship between our doctrine of scripture and our preaching of it.

This is merely a provocation. Our evangelical beliefs about scripture seem to be strongly worded in our doctrinal statements, but weak in practice. If we say that God has spoken in the Bible as we have it, why do so many churches neglect exegetical preaching almost entirely? The Good News is a message that is narrated by scripture. If we don’t work hard to understand that message in the terms in which it was given, we are likely to be presumptuous and to misunderstand it. And if we misunderstand the source material, our preaching can only ever be false (or, at best, true by accident). Is there any task more important than trying to attain deeper understanding of the message of the Bible?

Unless the Bible is the word of God in some mystical magical way, then the word of God is accessible to us only by exegesis. Yes, exegesis is hard and it demands painstaking study (maybe even in Greek and Hebrew). Understanding the message that was intended when it was written requires us to understand how each text connects to the next one, why a writer said what he said when he said it, and how his reader thousands of years ago would have understood it. Yes, it is somewhat academic, and yes it makes things rigid. But no, it does not limit the Spirit. It limits the spirit of the preacher, but not the Spirit of God. It is precisely the word of the Spirit that we have in scripture—why would His own words be a limitation?—and it is the minister’s duty to handle it with care (2 Timothy 2:15).

As evangelicals, we may preach that the Bible is the written word of God, but do we practice what we preach when we preach?

Throw a brick at this theological college

I work at George Whitefield College at the tip of Cape Town, South Africa, and we are busy raising funds for a building project. It is called the Hope Motlhope Centre, named after one of our star students who drowned trying to save someone in distress. The building will provide much needed room for our teaching and residence facilities to grow.

The trouble with these sorts of projects—in my opinion anyway—is that most of us are of thin budget, and who can afford to bank-roll a building? I’m pleased, therefore, that our wise staff have set up a facility by which you can purchase your very own brick in the new building for a mere ten bucks ($1 US, give or take). Most of us have a loose tenner for which we can part for a good cause, so if you have any good-will feelings towards our work, consider throwing a a brick our way.

Buy one here (it is a reasonably painless process):

http://www.givengain.com/cause/4240/projects/14408/

Not sure if US donors can use that facility; if not, here’s one for general donations:

http://www.americanfund.info/charity_payment_form.php

Is scripture clear?

I’m hardly a doctrine expert, or particularly well-read on this topic (and so please treat the following as thoughts in progress), but I was struck by the comments today of a visiting Christian author concerning the clarity of scripture. On more than one occasion, he mentioned how there are things in scripture that we don’t understand, BUT—on that great day in which we see God face-to-face, when all is made apparent—we will realise that it was not scripture that was unclear, but we small-minded people that were at fault.

I don’t really understand his line of argument. Is there really any difference between something that is unclear, and something that is unclear for humans? I am struggling to picture God’s explanation on that day as being, ‘I wrote it perfectly clearly; just not in a way that you could understand.’

I personally think that the Bible is often unclear. Some of the reason is that it is merely unclear for us. We don’t belong to the same era or the same culture or the same frame of reference as the original writers and readers. We also aren’t privy to all the reasons for writing or the conversation into which many of the books (certainly the letters) were written. Some of it gets lost in translation.

But the lack of clarity is more than that. Even Peter (without all the temporal and cultural difference) says that some of Paul’s letters are ‘hard to understand’. Similarly, the Early Church was hardly impeccable in its understanding of Christian theology. For all their privileges of proximity, they were still just at novice level.

The stories in the Old Testament are illustrative of the issue. The writers often get criticised for their failure to pass clear verdicts on the behaviour that they describe, and in fact some bad behaviour seems almost to receive their approval. For example, in Judges 14, when Samson wants to marry into a family of the enemy and oppressor, to the complaints of his parents, the author reports, ‘His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord,’ which prompts most of us (incorrectly) to conclude that this means his behaviour was acceptable or even good.

The more I study Hebrew narratives, the more struck I am by how much communication of even essential ideas is taking place below the surface, encoded in subtle allusions, pointed repetitions, puzzling juxtapositions and incongruities, and so on. The author’s theological emphases and ethical judgments often lie partially submerged on this artfully ambiguous level, where there are rarely ‘model answers’ for the conclusions that we must draw.

If there is one thing that is clear from these stories, it is that clarity is not the primary goal. We are invited to puzzle over the grey areas, and it seems to me that there is most to be gained from that struggle.

I’m not convinced by the claim that the Bible is clear and it is us that is muddled. We undoubtedly are guilty of muddle, but the thing that draws us out of the blur is the sharpening of our moral and theological reasoning, and mature thinking is never birthed without struggle.

So I’d suggest that the Bible isn’t always clear, but I take it that is the point.