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.

Good blasphemy?

One movie that I liked well enough to add to my small collection is a slightly odd mockumentary called Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). It satirises beauty pageants and the abuses related to that industry.

One particular scene has always stuck in my mind, mostly because as a Christian, I am sensitive about blasphemy and this pushes it a bit far. Watch it here:

denise

In the clip, we see the ‘talent show’ part of the beauty pageant competition, in which the beauty queen finalists all have to show off some sort of talent to prove that they are more than just a pretty face. The woman introducing the next contestant (Gladys) is the organiser and judge of the competition, as well as the mother of the next contestant, who is called Becky. Both of them are dishonest, evil characters who will stop at nothing to win. Gladys introduces her daughter as follows:

“Now, it’s with overwhelming pride that I introduce contestant number six, who is also the president of her class – two years running – an honor roll student and the new President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club – Ladies and Gentlemen, Rebecca Ann Leeman!”

Becky sits on stage with the spotlight on her and says,

“You know what? The rumours are true. I do have a special fella in my life. And if nobody minds, I’d like to sing a little song, just for him.”

She proceeds to sing ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and as the chorus begins and the ‘special fella’ emerges from the wings to do the dance routine, we discover that this ‘fella’ is a ridiculous Jesus mannequin pinned to a cross on wheels. Becky takes his outstretched arms and begins an up-tempo dance with him.

Now this is clearly meant to be blasphemous and therefore to offend the Christian audience. If the movie were any bigger or happened to appear at any more momentous an occasion than its setting in 1999, I imagine that it could have precipitated the proverbial dung storm (in the parlance of our times).

Nevertheless, I decided to use this clip for a lesson on satire at GWC, the Bible college at which I teach. While it’s not normally the sort of place in which blasphemy is appreciated, it was a calculated risk that I thought important. Why? Because Christian leaders are particularly bad at responding to media in general, and to public acts of blasphemy in particular. How does this movie scene help? Well, consider what satire is for.

If you’ll pardon the source, Wikipedia’s article called ‘Satire’ (accessed 8 Oct 2013) says:

Satire is a genre of literature [etc.]… in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”… This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. (Emphasis mine)

Wiki adds that exaggeration is a common technique in satire.

In short, satire is a form of criticism that aims at shaming people into changing their bad behaviour. We expect it to mimic that bad behaviour in ironic and exaggerated ways so that the wrongness of the behaviour is both clear and embarrassing. When the recipient fully feels this embarrassment, the hope is that it will provoke change. Often the offence is all that is felt, and this is why satire is subject to more misunderstanding, criticism, and controversy than perhaps any other genre.

Even though Drop Dead Gorgeous is surely being blasphemous, consider how this scene fulfils each of the requirements of satire:

  1. Exaggeration:  Dancing with a crucifix is clearly preposterous, but most of the crowd more-or-less laps it up.
  2. Seems to approve of the bad behaviour: Although the film-maker seems to be blaspheming in this scene, the ‘straight character’ (Ellen Barkin), who represents the film-maker’s opinion of the clear thinker on this matter, reacts to this dance with shock and ridicule. The film-maker knows that it is unacceptable.
  3. Uses shock to shame the abuser: This is the key issue. Who or what is this ‘bad behaviour’ supposed to be shaming?

If you can take a step back from the offence of this scene and consider its purpose, you should notice a few things. Firstly, the scene in no way is criticising Christianity, or saying anything good or bad about Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is not really there—he’s a mannequin—and he is consequently passive in the scene. He is acted upon, and not an active participant. Rather, the criticism is being directed primarily against people who use Christ’s name as a tool of audience manipulation. When the popular vote is needed, Jesus is trundled out to be paraded in front of the unthinking Christian audience. It doesn’t matter how wicked some people are behind the scenes, as long as they pay lip-service to Christianity, they have public trust.

Now think about what the Bible says about blasphemy. The Bible obviously acknowledges that unbelievers are blasphemers in their own way, but the strongest criticisms for blasphemy are actually levelled against those who are supposedly God’s people. Take for example St Paul’s summary reading of the Old Testament material on this subject:

Romans 2:23-24
23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

[See also Isaiah 52:4-5, Ezekiel 20:27-28, and Ezekiel 36:16-23 for more examples.]

The main sort of blasphemy that God prohibits is not the sort perpetuated by His enemies, but the sullying of His reputation at the hands of His own supposed representatives. This film clip seems to me to be making a similar point: those who claim to be representing Christ are often doing so only for appearance’ sake, whereas they actually blaspheme Jesus by their lifestyle and by their hypocritical public use of his name.

So while I would not usually condone blasphemy, satire is a medium that fights fire with fire. We get offended by a movie character dancing with a crucifix, but we don’t get offended when politicians stab one another in the back and dedicate the knife to Jesus? Perhaps we are the bigger blasphemers.

The second contribution of this scene is the attack on offensive Christian sentimentality. Becky addresses Jesus in terms associated with a boyfriend. In the original script, a dance move was supposed to cause Jesus’ loin cloth to slip, and in order to prevent it falling off, Becky was supposed to be left holding Jesus by the crotch. Even the film-makers seem to have decided that this would be going too far, and so there is no such scene in the film itself. Nevertheless, it does aim a slap at the incongruity of using ‘in-love’ language of Jesus (and other superficially romantic ways of speaking about faith). However much you might be able to drum up butterflies in the tummy about your relationship with Jesus, the Bible actively promotes the idea that our relationship now is partial and in a waiting period, not complete and immediate. For example:

1Corinthians 13:9-12

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (See also 2Corinthians 5:6-7)

So by all means be excited about being forgiven, and being adopted into the family and the very being of God. Just don’t be fake and sentimental and showy about it. As Drop Dead Gorgeous points out, overdoing how close you claim to feel to Jesus can just come off as obscene. A bit more realism and a lot more sincerity would probably do the public face of Christianity a lot of good.

Satire Side-bar!

Satire is a very ancient genre and may well have found its way into scripture. Sections of Daniel, for example, seem to be ridiculing the Babylonian emperors who had taken Daniel and his compatriots into exile. The book of Jonah also casts the prophet in an exceptionally bad light: for the whole book he represents an attitude of unforgiveness towards Gentiles and disregard for their lives that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of God that the book teaches. This too might be intended as a satire of Jerusalem’s ‘pious’ people who have none of the love and mercy that their God does.

Josh Garrels

I wrote a post a year or three ago about two musicians I had come across: Josh Garrels and Mumford & Sons.

Having listened to more albums from each of them, I have found that M&S tend to be more repetitive and sentimental than they first appeared, and Josh Garrels is fast becoming one of my favourites of any kind. M&S are now becoming one of the world’s biggest acts, and they’re doing cool ironic videos with Jason Bateman. Josh remains relatively unknown, but you should undoubtedly give more of your time to the latter. Profound, poetic, and unusual.

The Resurrection and Christopher Hitchens

Today is Easter, the celebration of the day on which Jesus was supposed to have been resurrected, an event upon which the entirety of biblical Christian faith rests. As St Paul once wrote,

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Corinthians 15:17-19)

While many Christians have disagreed with Paul and have tried to find ways of distancing Jesus from such ‘embarrassing’ claims, the resurrection of Jesus is still the place in which I find my doubts most often stilled, and where proselytising atheists would do well to aim their attacks. In tandem with the incarnation (God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus), this is the central miracle of all the biblical miracles.

Christopher Hitchens was a much-loved atheist who sadly died of cancer recently, and he was one such opponent of the resurrection and the miraculous in general. Here is a clip that encapsulates many of his arguments that I’ve heard:

hitch

In the clip, he argues that the definition of ‘miracle’ is the ‘suspension of the natural order’. There may be some minor quibbles with the wording (Hitchens’ opponent in the video, for example, tries to insist on the word ‘intervention’), but it is basically good. Hitch then goes on to present David Hume’s old argument: Which is more likely? That a suspension of the natural order occurred in your favour, or that you’ve made a mistake?

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Historical Criticism of the Bible In Pictures

Historical criticism is the imaginitive process of taking the Biblical text, treating it as an unreliable source of incorrect chronology, and then chopping the text into tiny bits and using very cleverly to see into the true history that lies behind the text. It’s a bit like a combination of The da Vinci Code and The Emperor’s New Clothes for people with PhDs. It’s like getting a join-the-dots picture with two dots on it and inferring the Sistine Chapel. It’s like this (courtesy of somewhere on the internet):

Pictured: Historical Criticism

Pictured: Historical Criticism