Open Letter to Preachers #1

Dear Preacher

I’m writing to you because I’m concerned that you’re not doing your job. Sure, if you’re the average preacher, then you’re preaching to a robust group of a hundred or two, you manage to stay out of the TBN gutter, you try hard to craft topics that are Biblically faithful, and you also manage to keep your talks lively and encouraging. What more could any Christian ask, right?

Well, I wonder if you’ve spent any time recently considering where spiritual Dark Ages come from? This question bothers me a lot, because it seems to me we might be heading there soon enough. Consider this quote from our friend Richard Dawkins:

“As long ago as 1954, according to Robert Hinde in his thoughtful book, Why Gods Persist, a Gallup Poll in the United States of America found the following. Three quarters of Catholics and Protestants could not name a single Old Testament prophet. More than two thirds didn’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. A substantial number thought that Moses was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. That, to repeat, was in the United States, which is notoriously more religious than other parts of the developed world.” (The God Delusion, ch.9)

So 50 years ago, in a self-consciously Christian America, Moses was an apostle, for all they knew. And I can’t imagine that Christians are doing vastly better since then. One of those prophets that two-thirds of Christians couldn’t name gave us a fair clue as to the nature of spiritual famine:

“The days are coming, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

Amos speaks of days when people will long to hear the Word of the Lord, but no-one will be speaking it. No doubt, Amos was referring to the 400+ years of prophetic silence from God before finally John the Baptist spoke up, but I’m equally certain that this verse is true of any age in which preachers begin to fail in their one and only task. I think, friends, that we are heading into those days.

“Nonsense!” you will protest. “Thousands of preachers continue to speak boldly about the gospel and the scriptures!” Well, yes and no. The problem is, we’re content to see the ‘Word of the Lord’ as any quotation from the Bible, and preaching as ‘a talk with a Christian theme’. But is a bit of scripture the same as ‘the Word of the Lord’?

Well, a single Bible word won’t do, obviously, because it might have come from anywhere; we need at least two. That brings us into ‘shortest Bible verse’ territory, so we’re doing well. But people can (and do) make little bits of Bible say anything they want, as long as you don’t worry much what the Lord meant when He uttered those words. So, to avoid being tricked by tongue twisting, we need to have a good idea of what our Bible quotation meant in it’s original setting. And to do this, we need to know what whole books of the Bible are saying. And to do any of that, we also need to know where the book fits into the whole picture of the Bible. And so before you know it, you discover that, for us to have a fair shot at hearing ‘the Word of the Lord’ at any given place in scripture, we need to be working with the message of whole books, and indeed the whole Bible. It’s called ‘exegesis’ in the study, and ‘exposition’ in the pulpit.

But when I look around at the churches, the good, vibrant, full churches, what do I see? Topics. Topical preaching. That is all. Almost without exception. There are Bible verses being used, to be sure, but do you think anyone knows what they really mean? Probably not. They’re taking your word for it, dear preacher, because they have no idea what was said before that verse, or what will be said after. And Moses might as well have been one of Jesus’ contemporaries, because we jam their words together all the time, but do our listeners now how to untangle our links? They know some of the things that the Bible says, but do they have any idea what the Bible means?

You still don’t believe me? Allow me to suggest a helpful social experiment for you. Preach from a novel for a month. A nice, long, little-known novel. Choose random pages, write down quotes of about 3 0r 4 lines a piece, and take a few of them into the pulpit each week. Feel free to group quotes into themes if you like, and preach about whatever the quotes seem to be saying. At the end of a few weeks of this, get your congregation each to write out a plot outline of the book.

How do you anticipate they’ll do? I think they’ll do horrifically. We routinely practice the belief that to understand a novel, we must read it from start to finish. But when it comes to the Bible, we expect that we’ve done our job if we string cheery aphorisms together. And so our people make a horrible mess of trying to understand books of the Bible, because they’ve never been confronted with what it means. Even if you happen to know what’s going on in scripture, I shudder to think what the next generation will have understood and what they’ll be teaching. Our people are fed with plenty of words, some of them even Biblical, but they starve for lack of the Word of the Lord.

Preaching the ‘Word of the Lord’ is not actually about words. It’s about a message. It’s about meaning. And how are your people ever going to hear a message emerging from the text if you don’t start explaining it to them, from the beginning of a book to the end?

“But that’s going to take work! Lot’s of care and study and prayer!” Yes, it is. And that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since I began.

I’ll talk to you again soon,
Jordan

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7 thoughts on “Open Letter to Preachers #1

  1. Phillip says:

    Dear Jordan,

    Thank you for your letter. I’ve only received it this morning but fortunately didn’t do any preaching last night!

    I really appreciate your challenge and with God’s help I will respond by taking it to heart. Your words have made my life a whole lot more difficult because I find it much easier to mostly speak from my own experience and find that the rules I’ve created for myself are easier to teach than what God actually says. The truth is that when I arrive at a passage it takes a lot of time to figure out what it meant to the original hearers. Also, I feel that God’s word needs some help at times to make it more palatable for modern hearers. I have found that people would rather have 5 easy steps to follow on relationships, money, parenting, work or whatever they are struggling with at the time, than the hard slog that comes from listening to God’s actual words that are supposedly made powerful by the work of his Spirit, words that, I’ve heard, work to change our deepest thoughts and desires. I’ve found it much easier to package God’s word as a self-help manual but since it wasn’t written for that purpose, I can’t really teach it in the way you suggest.

    Please write to me again soon because I have a real desire to speak God’s word and not my own.

    Kind regards,
    Preacher

  2. Dean Richards says:

    Very true on most points. Unfortunately, the biggest threat to almost any Christian argument is someone who knows his bible well. Of course, most controversial biblical content is defended with “What he’s trying to say here is” or “what he means is ” etc etc. The truth is, of course, you don’t really know. On its own, without any “interpretation”, much of the bible is indefensible, contradictory and (quite frequently) confusing. I suspect many preachers realise this and hence stick to “the good stuff”. Can’t remember when I last heard anyone complain about women not covering their heads in church…

  3. Jordan Pickering says:

    Hi Dean. Thanks for writing.

    You say: “On its own, without any “interpretation”, much of the bible is indefensible, contradictory and (quite frequently) confusing.”

    This is the kind of comment that needs to be made from a position of knowledge and not ignorance (although I’m assuming you’re untrained; I hope not unfairly so). Otherwise, you’re making an argument from personal incredulity, i.e. that seeing as you can’t see how it works, no-one else could possibly do so either. Granted, scholars who are committed to finding controversy and contradiction in scripture find themselves able to agree with you, but among those who take it seriously and (importantly) practice standard principles of exegesis, there is remarkably broad consensus around the world. In other words, without prompting one another, exegetes routinely agree with one another. This is only possible if there is in fact a defensible consistency and perspicuity about scripture. [I do fully acknowledge that there are many puzzles and points of disagreement, but that is less surprising than the degree of consensus.]

    Secondly, I find it strange that you are cynical about interpretation. It is not possible to read without a degree of interpretation. There is no such thing as the Bible ‘on its own’, as though it ought to be read as a series of unconnected universal aphorisms, without any sense of harmony and context. As soon as you treat the Bible as literature (which it patently is), you have to pay attention to its original context, its unity and its possible relevance now. This requires interpretation. But that is not to say that interpretation is subjective and infinitely malleable. On the contrary, it prevents those things. There is a world of difference between someone who knows how to interpret the Bible accurately and someone who knows how to use the Bible to advance his own arguments. The former is an exegete, the latter is a charlatan.

    Finally, the head covering thing does still happen, but I think the people who teach that it ought to happen misunderstand the purpose of that command, and therefore fail to apply it accurately to our context. The do the form and miss the meaning.

  4. Dean Richards says:

    Hi Jordan,

    Thanks for your response. :-)

    “seeing as you can’t see how it works, no-one else could possibly do so either”. This is a little unfair, but I appreciate your approach. I think I fall more in the “willing to hear a view on how it works, and make a judgement call on the quality/likelihood of that view” category.

    Certainly, I am “untrained”, so I’d be grateful if you did bear with my limited understanding. From much of what I’ve read, I’ve not sure you’re entirely correct about exegetes. For starters, are you talking about rational or revealed exegetes? Catholic or Protestant? Or even, I suppose, Jewish for that matter. If serious exegetes were in as much consensus as you make out, such division would seem wholly pointless.

    Having said that, it also doesn’t particularly surprise me that different people reading the same/similar book might come up with similar ideas, independently. You’d be hard-pressed to find any text where that wouldn’t happen. I’d be far more
    impressed if anyone could make all the pieces fit convincingly, and, correct me if I’m wrong, that has yet to happen.

    Lastly, if you could explain the context, purpose and meaning of the command, I’d be interested to hear it.

  5. Jordan Pickering says:

    Hi Dean. Thanks for writing back, especially in such a friendly manner. I certainly hope I didn’t come across as being condescending about your untrainedness. I value training, but anyone can be wise and insightful (and training is definitely no guarantee of those things either).

    I’m afraid you’ve got me on what revealed / rational exegetes are. I’ve never heard of those categories before. But what I mean is this. Exegesis is the attempt to come to an understanding of the author’s intended meaning, to establish context. One always does it when one reads, but it is more noticeable and more difficult the further removed one is from the author’s context. So in Shakespeare, for instance, we need to bridge time, language and culture differences in order to have a shot at understanding him. Having got that far, we then need to apprehend the meaning of the whole plot in order to grasp the function of the parts. If we do all of that, we should see in the play more or less the same things that other informed readers have. You may have a particular genius for remembering and bringing together threads from across the work, or you might understand the author’s sense of humour better than the next guy, but the broad strokes will be fundamentally the same. It is highly unlikely that there is so much ambiguity that two careful readers could reasonably hold widely divergent views.

    With Scripture, it is much the same. If you have good research into context at your disposal, and if you read and synthesise well, there is general consensus as to what is being said. There are numerous obstacles to consensus views, though, some of which I wrote this post to address. They include laziness, unwarranted spiritist views of the Christian’s life and duty, and rebellion against what scripture says (i.e. an unwillingness to read in a text what one really doesn’t want to hear).

    Another significant problem is loss of interest in /dismissal of the Old Testament, and loss of apprehension of the shape of the whole Biblical story. This means that people read NT texts without their OT foundation, and without any idea of where and how parts fit into the whole. This leads to a whole host of misinterpretations.

    Another big problem is the sheer volume of material in scripture. It is not impossible to keep the whole thing in balance, but it takes a good memory and lots of work, which is beyond the limit of what most Christians are willing to put into biblical study. Indeed, this is true of far too many preachers too. So, people happily teach things that contradict what the Bible says elsewhere, or they teach something categorically while being ignorant of balancing or interpreting statements elsewhere. [Jesus rebukes the devil and the pharisees for doing this, in matt 4:6-7 and mark 7 respectively].

    For instance, the as-seen-on-TV brand of Christianity loves the bits that seem to suggest that God will do your bidding and prosper you if you say the words ‘in Jesus name’, as long as you have faith, but they have neglected to attend to caveats in those texts, and to the full-orbed meaning of words like ‘name’ and ‘faith’, and to warnings in scripture that completely contradict what they’re trying to make those texts mean.

    Long story short, I am convinced that humble, hard-working literary analysis and context study, combined with belief in the unity of scripture and knowledge of its contents, leads to a surprising amount of consensus in interpretation. I think that the pieces do fit together rather nicely, personally, although not without a fair number of passages that contain puzzles.

    As for the command about covering hair, it does contain a number of puzzles too, there’s no doubt about that. However, it is clear that the issue hinges upon what hair signified in that culture (it is not so obviously disgraceful to us for men to have long hair, for example, though it may have been then if it symbolised shrine prostitution). In view of God’s creation of orderliness in marriage relationship, a woman is under the authority of her husband (cf. my wedding speech dealing with this idea on this site somewhere), and head covering is specifically said to be a sign of that authority in 1Co. 11:10 (and probably a sign of modesty, as in many middle eastern cultures today). Given that it is no longer the case in our culture, it is pointless to insist upon the sign when it no longer significes that for which it was designed. So, we don’t insist on head covering. We rather insist upon applying these principles (women should display orderliness and modesty) in ways that DO have cultural relevance still.

    In a related anecdote, early missionaries in Natal compelled Zulu women to remove head coverings on the grounds that they believed them to be part of ancestral religion, when they actually functioned as signs of their husbands’ authority, much like they did in Corinth, it seems. Removing them was unintentionally feminist, and too far before its time. And so Christianity ignorantly undermined a very important Christian principle, and so angered Zulu men, who understandably weren’t too interested in what the missionaries had to say.

    I hope that this novella of a post helps.

  6. Simon Gottschalk says:

    Amen!!! I’ve really enjoyed reading your writtings Jordan. I fully relate to this post. I’ve visited 2 churches this year that I will leave unnamed and I was appauld at what was being taught at the one and clearly saw the topical teaching at the other. Topical teaching can be helpful, but it’s not something I couldn’t read and understand out of a book myself. Thank you for the time and effort you put into your posts. May God richly bless your works for His glory.

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