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Will the Real C.S. Lewis Please Stand Up? (re: that fake quote)


A very popular quote – but it’s not from Lewis!

The quote to the right has been making the rounds on social media lately, purportedly from C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters.  This is Lewis’ imaginative account of a senior demon (Screwtape) training up a younger tempter (Wormwood).  While the quotation in question sounds very much like the real thing, it is in fact not from C.S. Lewis.  It is what Mickey Efird, a retired professor from Duke Divinity School, would call “pious fiction.” I am not sure of the origin, but I would imagine it was made as an homage to Lewis, though with perhaps not enough clarification that it was essentially fan fiction.  I’m not sure if the author intended this connection, but it reminds me of a line from Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,”

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Lewis did, however, conclude chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters with this reflection on politics that says much to our contemporary situation:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift ? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle

To my mind, the real Screwtape quote is even more relevant today than the fictive pericope.  Certainly there is a word we need to hear from the latter about focusing on the drama and immorality of others instead of trying to increase in virtue ourselves.  The real Lewis, however, offers a subtler and more important point on the dangers of manipulating faith for our own personal and ideological ends.  Many, if not most, forms of popular Christianity (read: Protestantism) are proffered either a) as a means of personal advancement or b) as a means of societal advancement.  Both fit demonic desires. Screwtape tells Wormwood they want their victims to “treat Christianity as a means,” preferably to selfish ends but also to more noble ends if necessary.

This is a subtle but crucial point – a “little rift” as Screwtape calls it.  Christianity turned into a means is thus embraced not because it is true, not because, say, Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true Lord (N.T. Wright’s lovely formulation), but because Christian faith gets you from point A to point B.  Even if point B is something desirable like “social justice,” we (Screwtape’s victims) have successfully reduced Christianity from an end to a means, from the truth on which the world turns to just another way of achieving some desired outcome.


St. Augustine noted long ago, there are things that can be used and things that can be enjoyed.  Only God can be truly enjoyed, for all other things are to be used or enjoyed only in reference to God.  The temptation to make faith a means to anything else is to attempt to use God rather than enjoy God.  This makes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into little more than a glorified genie.

Much like fictive quotes associated with John Wesley, the real Clive Staples is better than the invented.  There is a reason he is still influential decade after his death.  Few have put so eloquently or so readably what is at stake in Christian believing and Christian living (which, in his brilliance, he did not divide).  So perhaps we’d be better off if we made this last quote famous, since it cuts to the heart of all our idolatries.  What better way to honor a teacher and writer whose legacy is the simple but radical project he named “mere” Christianity?

What are you other favorite quotes from Lewis?  How else do you see the temptation today to turn Christianity into a means rather than an end? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!

Source: Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 253.

P.S. The first Methodist to say that social justice is a core aspect of the gospel because they’ve conflated it with social holiness loses points.


Christian Living & Christian Believing

sayersDisciples of Jesus are not allowed to choose between living the Christian life and believing Christian teaching.  This is, and always has been, a both/and, and not an either/or. To divorce Christian morality from Christian doctrine is to separate stem from root, or creek from ocean.  Decades ago, Dorothy Sayer made this observation:

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not now matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” (28)

To name just a few examples of how Christian morality and Christian dogma are intertwined:

  • Opposition to slavery is based on theological anthropology which views each person as a precious creature made in God’s image.
  • A belief in human freedom and autonomy is grounded in a God who is free, and a God who grants human beings free will.
  • Opposition to abortion and the death penalty are based in a vision of life as a sacred gift from God, who alone determines life and death.
  • A disdain for adultery and appreciation for marriage is finds its origin in a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Israel and the Church, who alone is always faithful.

As Wheaton’s Beth Felker Jones recently put it, both “deeds and creeds” matter.  To choose between them is to miss the mark completely.  One way of viewing the 21st century West, in fact, is to see it as the attempt to prop up human rights and other ethical precepts derived from historic Christian commitments without any undergirding dogmatic claims.  The other temptation, to emphasize creeds and not care about deeds, is also not without its concerns.  This, per Professor Jones, is deeply flawed:

To dismiss deeds in favor of creeds in an enticing lure. It promises to attend to real life, to stuff that really matters, to bodies. But that dismissal turns out to be one more way of dehumanizing our neighbors, reducing them from image-bearers to projects. That dismissal is one more bifurcation, one more failure to remember that God created and loves the whole world and the whole of people and that God calls us to share the goodness of the Gospel with all that we are—heart, hands, mind, and soul.

This false divide wreaks of what Kenda Creasy Dean and others have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief system unconciously followed by many Western young people in which a basic belief in decency and is combined with a vague sense of a distant God who simply wants us to be happy (in a happiness grounded in our own sense of flourishing, at that).  As Sayers later puts it, “you cannot have Christian principles without Christ.” (31)


From the 1914 minutes of the NC Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. Personal Photo.

Earlier generations of Christians knew this to be the case.  Note the above picture from a 1914 journal of the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church.  An elder is approved and ordained “so long as his life and doctrines” remain sound and in accord with the Bible.

Hear that? Life AND doctrine.  We are not permitted to choose. Deeds and creeds matter – because they are ultimately inseparable.


The Purpose of Doctrine is Not Church Growth (or, A Correction to @RNS)

Tom Krattenmaker over at Religion News Service wrote the following a while back in a piece unfortunately titled, “Why a stout theological creed is not saving evangelical churches”:jesus crying

For many years now, it’s been treated as common knowledge in some circles that the liberal beliefs of mainline churches have been the instruments of their decline. As the story goes, if you want to know why the Episcopalians, Lutherans and others like them  have suffered precipitous drops in members and cultural clout since the 1960s, you need look no further than their acceptance of society’s changing sexual mores, women’s equality and so on.

Conservative churches and their strict, unbending doctrine, we’re told, are why they have held onto, and have even grown, their numbers.

The whole piece is worth a read, only so you can follow me as I dissect it.  The bottom line: this is not so much a piece of helpful analysis as it is a thinly veiled exercise in schadenfreude (rejoicing in someone else’s misery) by someone who is attempting to be a leading “secular” voice.  In other words, he’s simply rejoicing that his enemy (religion) appears to be in retreat.

A few points:

  • The headline – “a stout theological creed” is misleading.  Free churches, represented by the Southern Baptists he cites, are non-creedal.  A journalist of religion should have better grasp on the language of religious practice and denominational history than this.
  • The confusion of doctrine and social ethics is unhelpful.  Evangelicals make it too, and I’ve talked about it before.  But all the historical creeds deal with primary doctrine: the nature of God, the resurrection of Christ, etc.  It’s hard to know if Mohler and Moore, as quoted, are talking about basic doctrine or ethics, but this confusion of terms from the outset is problematic.  Liberal theology and progressive social policy are not the same thing.
  • There are evangelicals who are not Southern Baptists.  What Krattenmaker does not account for is the degree to which an even more precipitous mainline decline is hindered because of a remnant of evangelicals in denominations like the UMC.
  • Krattenmaker seems to have no sense of the global religious scene.  The church is growing rapidly in the developing world, and their Christianity is not the progressive Protestant variety he seems to prefer.  The American Church as a whole may be declining, but the growing global church is largely evangelical and, especially, charismatic.

The point of Christian doctrine is not church growth but identity. The value of creedal Christianity is not a guarantee of growth but the blessing of a tradition not invented last week. There is a “faith once delivered” (Jude 6), there are certain truth claims that are constitutive of Christian worship and piety.  Churches and religions that can pass on their particular faith stories to young people effectively tend to retain more of the next generation.  On this, research by Christian Smith and others is clear that Mormons and evangelicals tend to do this well, while mainline Protestants and Catholics tend to do this badly.  Even in the largest of the Mainline denominations, the UMC, the fastest-growing churches tend to be evangelical.  Krattenmaker and others might not like this fact – Progressive Methodists invent new levels of obfuscation every time these statistics come out – but it makes it no less true.

I can appreciate that Krattenmaker wants to be an emerging voice for “secular” people.  (Although, most folks I know who are secular don’t identify that way.)  But this is self-serving narrative masquerading as informed analysis.  Something that says “Religion News Service” at the top of the page should have better standards.


Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better?

by Drew 5 Comments
Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Should the preacher follow the lectionary or preach topically, via series?

This is not a question with which every preacher is faced.  It’s largely a Mainline Protestant debate; Catholics and Orthodox follow pre-selected readings each week for the homilies that are attached to the primary liturgical action of the eucharist, while Baptists, charismatics, and “non-denominational” traditions are often completely unaware of what the lectionary is, much less its possible benefits.  In the gray zone are Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, and perhaps a few others – I’m not as familiar with typical Lutheran practice, while most Episcopalians I know are strict lectionary preachers.

As a United Methodist, the lectionary is encouraged – particularly in seminary and at the denominational level – but it is certainly not required or even especially encouraged by our bishops and other supervisors.  Indeed, most of the pastors who are held up as exemplars for us rank-and-file preachers are almost exclusively series preachers.  Often these are folks like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter who have cut their teeth on the series ethos that dominates most church planting models.  You might find lectionary preaching at large, downtown “First” or “Central” UMCs, but I’m comfortable saying that the vast majority of our largest and fastest-growing churches see much more series/topical preaching than lectionary-based preaching.

Which is better?

In some ways, this is a foolish debate, a faux war akin to the “left Twix vs. right Twix” commercials.  There are benefits and drawbacks to both.  Some contexts lend themselves more to one or the other.  The giftedness, training, and method of preparation of different preachers will also have a role in which style best fits the voice and skills of a particular proclaimer.

If I’m honest, I think lectionary preaching is harder – but I tend to preach in series.  I like the long-term preparation I can put into series preaching, and I the musicians with whom I lead worship appreciate knowing, far in advance, my texts and themes.  For my first couple of years in full-time ministry, I preached almost exclusively lectionary, but since then, I’ve preached mostly series.  I tend to follow the themes of the liturgical calendar – hope and promise in Advent, discipleship and the cross in Lent, etc. – but without tying myself to lectionary texts.

Is this, in some ways, a false divide? Yes. One can certainly plan sermon series based on the lectionary.  I’ve done this in two ways: a) looking ahead for 4-6 weeks and seeing if a thread emerges from the various lectionary texts onto which I can hook, or b) sticking with a particular book for a period of time and making it a series on Mark, or the Psalms, or 1 Timothy, etc.  I’ve enjoyed both, and commend both methods to you.  But of course even this kind of planning, via, the lectionary, takes away some of the benefits for which proponents of the lectionary advocate.

Major benefits of both kinds of preaching:

Lectionary Benefits

  • Challenge of being confronted with a text (or texts) rather than choosing them with a particular reading in mind
  • A plethora of liturgical, preaching, and other resources (many of them free)
  • Follows the liturgical calendar
  • Broad ranging texts across both Testaments
  • Week-to-week planning enables easier flexibility if something happens that necessitates homiletical flexibility (such as a sudden loss in the community or a national tragedy)
  • Revisiting the same texts every three years demands creativity and a depth of exegesis that can be lacking in other forms

Series Benefits

  • Ability to build on themes over a period of time
  • Freedom to preach texts not included or marginalized by the lectionary
  • Ability to tie preaching themes to the rhythms of time other than the liturgical (a New Years or Back to School series, for instance)
  • Long-range planning is (arguably) easier
  • Can speak to particular needs in a sustained manner (i.e. recovery, eschatology, theodicy, rather than waiting for them to pop up or twisting lectionary texts to find them)
  • Easier to communicate content and ethos to unchurched people

My own take is that lectionary preaching lends itself best to liturgical contexts.  There is clearly, from what we’ve already said, a correlation between liturgical worship and lectionary-based preaching.  Why might this be? Certainly a strong tether to the church calendar is part of it.  But also, lectionary preaching, which via most teachers is often tied strongly to just one text, lends itself naturally to the shorter 8-12 minute homilies one finds in more liturgical contexts – churches where, to be blunt, the eucharist takes precedence over proclamation.  More Protestant contexts where the preached Word is emphasized often expect sermons of 20-30 minutes, or even longer, which tend to range over a variety of Biblical texts rather than simply mining one pericope.

Which is better – for you, for your context? Should our bishops, synods, and denominational offices take a harder stand on this?

I won’t presume to answer the question for you, but I would conclude by offering this: try a kind of preaching that is outside your comfort zone, that stretches you.  Are you a series preacher? Make yourself stick to lectionary texts for a month.  Are you a lectionary preacher? Use the somewhat bland summer months to try a series, even if it is crafted from the lectionary readings themselves.

Both forms of preaching can be God-honoring and transformative to the listeners.  Both can also be dreadfully dull springboards for eisegesis, therapeutic indulgence, and personal agendas.

Which works best for you? Why? Where do you see excellence in series preaching? Who are our examples of quality lectionary preachers? Join the conversation below!


Edwin Friedman on Herding Families, Communities, & Congregations

by Drew 5 Comments

failure of nerveI’m a big fan of Edwin Friedman, a Rabbi, therapist, and leadership consultant best known as one of the fathers of Family Systems Theory.  Friedman built on the work of folks like Murray Bowen and applied it especially to congregational life in his classic Generation to Generation.

My favorite of his works is A Failure of Nerve, in which he applies his systems principles to leadership.  We discussed some of Friedman’s chief ideas on a recent WesleyCast episode (also available via iTunes).  Especially interesting to me of late are Friedman’s ideas about what he calls “herding.”

Friedman argues that, evolutionarily, progress depends on a careful balance between togetherness and individuality.  Anxiety in a system (read: a family, a company, a community, a church) causes a “herding instinct” that is anti-progress because it seeks to “smother” those forces of individuality.  Here are some nuggets I found particularly insightful, drawn from pp. 67-69.

  • “In the herding family, dissent is discouraged, feelings are more important than ideas, peace will be valued over progress, comfort over novelty.”
  • “…the herding family will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers.”
  • “…so rather than take stands with the most disturbed members and support those who stand tall, the herding family will adapt to the symptom-bearer…and at the same time undercut anyone who attempts to define himself or herself against the forces of togetherness.”

For Friedman, this herding mentality that results from anxiety is a textbook example of why societies, families, synagogues, and other institutions regress.  You might recognize this phenomenon if you’ve known someone who was the first in their family to go to college and did so against their family’s wishes, or observed how whole families will enable an addict rather than stand up to their dysfunction.

We see this kind of behavior in many anxious churches, where a herding congregation would rather continue to live with and tolerate toxic behavior from, say, a leading family’s son, because they are too afraid to take a stand against that person, even though his actions are harmful to the whole system.  Thus, in Friedman’s terms, they adapt to the dysfunction rather than stand up to it – and shut down or even shun anyone who would stand up to the origin of the dysfunction.

Do you see this played out in your family, your community, or in your church?

Tolle lege. Take up and read.  Give Friedman a hearing. No matter your profession, you’ll be glad you did.


Centrifugal Sin & Church Unity

Basic-ChristianityHuman beings were made for each other.

“It is not good for man to be alone” from Genesis is not first an indication of the need for romantic love, but a basic teaching about the nature of human beings: we were made for each other.  Like many other aspects of human life, this is distorted by sin; we are made for one another, but sin urges us a) towards unhealthy relationships (to adultery and lust, to using people as objects rather than treating them as sisters and brothers) and b) to dissolve relationships and attempt to live without others.  Sin, in a well-worn sermon illustration, distorts both our vertical (with God) and our horizontal (with others) relationships.

John Stott, in his classic little work Basic Christianity, observes:

The tendency of sin is centrifugal. It pulls us out of harmony with our neighbors. It estranges us not only from our maker but from our fellow-creatures too. We all know from experience how a community, whether a college, a hospital, a factory or an office, can become a hotbed of jealousy and animosity. We find it very difficult to ‘dwell together in unity’.  But God’s plan is to reconcile us to each other as well as to himself. So he does not save independent, unconnected individuals in isolation from one another, he is calling out a people for his own possession. (102)

Another evangelical Brit, John Wesley considered “social holiness” an essential of Christian faith.  This is not, how it is often misunderstood, about social action – he certainly emphasized that, but called it something else – but about pursuing full sanctification in accountable small groups.  The early Methodists knew that disciples grew best not as single potted plants, but as part of a well-tended garden.

To put it simply:

The Spirit draws us together.

Sin drives us apart.

Take a look around at the church and at our world.  Which one is winning?


What the #UMC Episcopacy Should Look Like

13th century Bishop's crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

13th century Bishop’s crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There has been a great deal chatter recently about episcopal elections in the UMC.  As usually happens, there has been a mix of joy and tears, of relief and weeping (and gnashing of teeth).  But regardless of whether you are celebrating or grieving the newest crop of bishops, there is an ancient and apostolic standard for bishops and their relationship to the rest of the church.  Consider the following nuggets culled from Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch less than a century after Christ.  Ignatius, in a letter to the Magnesians, offers wisdom to the church through the ages in the following guidance:

1) Follow the lead of the bishop
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.

2) Bishops and presbyters (elders/priests) should be united, and thus can they be trusted because there is one prayer/mind/hope/love/joy/etc.

As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.

3) Doctrine unites God’s people, along with the bishops, presbyters, and deacons, to Christ and the apostles
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.
The office of Bishop, therefore, is not merely earthly and bureaucratic, but spiritual and apostolic.  Historically, the episcopacy has been the locus of unity in the church, both because of the apostolic role in ordaining and overseeing (episkopos means ‘overseer’) other clergy, and because of the teaching office that is concomitant with that calling.  It is supposed to go something like this:
  • The bishop is united to Christ and the apostles, and with other bishops
  • The presbyters and deacons are united to the bishop
  • The whole church, led and equipped by the three-fold ministerial office, is united in the doctrine of Christ and the apostles, upheld by Word and sacrament, reaching out in mission, service, charity, and justice

Any distortion of this order can cause chaos within the whole. An individualist or apostate bishop, rebellious presbyters, or a separation between the pulpit and pew can cause a break (schism) in the church.

The United Methodist Church is a Protestant denomination that, in truth, would prefer to not have bishops. We consecrate bishops as part of our Anglican heritage, but our American, egalitarian, democratic, and evangelical leanings mitigate against the classic understanding of the episcopal office. Thus our bishops are little more than bureaucratic presiders, dutifully moving about chess pieces but unable to really change the game. One wonders why prominent pastors would even seek episcopal office, since a megachurch pastor or influential author often has more raw influence than the typical United Methodist bishop.

If you want to know just how despised the office of Bishop is in the UMC, consider a vote taken in 2012. In a General Conference famous for frustration, otherwise bitterly divided conservatives and progressives seemed, for once, to agree (and thus voted down) a set-apart President of the Council of Bishops to provide oversight and voice to the Executive branch of our church.  Having personally observed a very capable and gifted bishop serve as both the President of the COB and the leader of a very large Episcopal Area, I am not exaggerating when I say we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing a practice that is a) inhumane, in that asks an individual to fill two almost impossible tasks simultaneously and b) foolish, in that it is virtually guaranteed to render whatever poor person gets talked into that role those roles ineffective.

not how any of this worksI am doubtful anyone who was elected last week will be able do much to reverse the tide toward schism; some will likely propel us faster toward that end. This is, at least in part, simply due to a flaw of our polity: bishops, by design, just can’t do very much – and, in an increasing number of cases, they aren’t willing to do the bare minimum of what their office demands.

Looking back at the 2nd century vision for church leadership bequeathed to us from Ignatius (and before him, from the Bible and the Tradition), I see very little I recognize in the UMC at present. In a very real way, the episcopal office is a holdover from our Anglican heritage whose authority is not desired by the right or the left. I truly wonder, in a split, if the evangelical and progressive branches would maintain bishops. The most progressive denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) and most conservative denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) resort to congregational autonomy with little oversight. Culturally, in the midst of what Jeffrey Stout has called “the flight from authority,” hierarchy is a dirty word and bishops feel a bit like the ecclesial equivalent of posts to which one ties their horse.

I suppose I’m just sad. Not sad at the particular outcomes at Jurisdictional Conference(s), nor at the state of the church, though it is imperiled. Rather, I am struck by just how much distance there is between what the Church Mothers and Fathers called a bishop, and what United Methodists mean by that term.  And that is a deeper issue than anything that’s gone on in the last week or the last few years.

All that leaves me with a question: do we have the form of religion without the power?


William Placher on “Critical Retrieval” in Theology

placher retrievalWhat if there were a way to call on the best resources of the past while avoiding naïveté about their faults and simplistic rejection of all that came later? Enter the task called “critical retrieval.”

In his wonderful tome The Domestication of Transcendence, the late William Placher of Wabash College describes the task this way:

To say this – or to make any other criticism of some turn modernity took – is not to propose a simple return to the premodern. We could not go back to that world if we wanted to, and we would not want to if we could. It was a world of terrible injustice and violence, and some aspects of its theology both reflected and even contributed to these horrors. Christian theologians supported oppressive social structures and all sorts of bigotry; the male bias of the tradition is only one of its most obvious faults. if contemporary theology engages in critical retrievals of insights from premodern theology, then the retrievals must indeed always be critical, keeping in mind that what we retrieve was often embedded in contexts we can no longer accept. To engage in such critical retrievals while acknowledging our debts to modernity is to synthesize something new. As already noted, I am not much interested in whether the results should be labelled postmodernism. What matters is that we find, from whatever sources, ways of speaking about God as faithfully and truthfully as we can. (2)

What might such a ‘critical retrieval’ look like in practice?

The example that comes immediately to my mind is culled from David Steinmetz’s brilliant article “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” one of the most famous of the late Reformation scholar’s works.  He argues, among other points, that the medieval and patristic four-fold sense of Scripture offers more accurate and fruitful exegetical possibilities than the regnant historical-critical method of the 19th-20th century:

His bombshell of an article concludes:

The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.

While asserting the superiority of pre-critical methods, Steinmetz neither denies the usefulness of higher criticism nor desires a simple recovery of 8th century techniques.  This is the essence of ‘critical retrieval,’ reclaiming the best of the past while staying in touch with the insights of the present.  One party at Vatican II, that great Catholic council, was getting at something similar when they encouraged ressourcement, a return to the sources (particularly of the Patristic period).  Wesleyan theology of the last 50 years has been marked by a similar retrieval of Wesley and early Methodism after fruitless detours down avenues like Boston personalism and process theology.

But this is not a longing for the past or a kind of immature nostalgia. On Placher’s reading, critical retrieval acknowledges both the virtues of the present age and the vices of past, while seeking to bring once more to the forefront of the church the greatest gifts from her bygone eras.

And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ (Matthew 13:52, NRSV)

What are some other examples of critical retrieval? What ideas or practices ought we to retrieve today?


David Mamet on Preaching

mamet bookWhat do acting and preaching have in common?

I am a fan of writer/director/playwright David Mamet’s work. This is the only reason I picked up his True and False: Heresy and Common Sense For the Actor when I came across it at a thrift store a couple of years ago.  I am not an actor by any means, though I hoped – besides just wanting to read something from the master storyteller – to get some notes on performance that might be useful to the preaching craft.

My hopes were well-founded.

Consider this jewel early on:

Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at the crossroads with a stake through the heart.  Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment. (6)

Preachers, at least in the post-Christian West, possess an increasingly unpopular vocation.  There was a time when actors were loathed and priests admired. Today the admiration is reversed.  Moreover, similar to actors of old, preachers possess a meddlesome calling.  While too many pastors see their role as primarily care-giving, the wise preacher knows her role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

As such, preaching is not “about” us.  Like Mamet’s noble actor, the preacher’s intent should not be convincing the audience of one’s own talent or giftedness.  Only sanctified intentions lead to “pure and clear” performance in the preaching craft:

Art is an expression of joy and awe. It is not an attempt to share one’s virtues and accomplishments with the audience, but an act of selfless spirit. Our effect is not for us to know. It is not in our control. Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make our intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate….our performances become pure and clear. (24)

Great preaching, like inspired acting, points away from itself to something greater.  For that reason, the best sermons draw us, not to the skill of the proclaimer, but to the wonder of the Proclaimed.  Like great acting, truly transformative sermons are not dazzling but “simple and unassuming”:

The greatest performances are seldom noticed. Why? Because they do not draw attention to themselves, and do not seek to – like any real heroism, they are simple and unassuming, and seem to a be a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the actor.  They so fuse with the actor that we accept them as other-than-art. (79)

Mamet has been involved in number of successful projects, including writing the screenplay for The Untouchables.

Mamet has been involved in number of acclaimed projects, including The Untouchables.

Mamet goes on to make an interesting case about the relationship of the actor to the script.  Acting at its best neither adds to nor subtracts from the script, but rather the actor simply shows up and performs. The actress does her best by neither inventing nor denying, but by being “truthful.”

For preachers, our “script” is the canon of Scripture.

Here is where I find the parallel to Mamet’s advice the most helpful.  Preachers also should neither invent nor deny.  Similarly, it is not the preacher’s job to make the text “interesting.” Our vocation is to preach truthfully:

Here is the best acting advice i know. And when I am moved by a genius performance, this is what I see the actor doing: Invent nothing, deny nothing. This is the meaning of character…[i]t is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor’s job to make the performance truthful. (41)

That’s why preaching, like acting, is not about talent but truth and bravery:

I don’t know what talent is, and, frankly, I don’t care. I do not think it is the actor’s job to be interesting. I think that is the job of the script. I think it is the actor’s job to be truthful and brave – both qualities that can be developed and exercised through the will. (98)

Truth and bravery both induce fear. It is easier to be inauthentic. Going with the grain is usually met with reward.  In preaching and in acting, it’s almost natural to feel like a fraud.  Thus, Mamet notes,

Most actors are terrified of their jobs. Not some, most. They don’t know what to do, and it makes them crazed. They feel like frauds. (118)

Feeling fraudulent or not, the show must go on.  Courage is only possible in the presence of fear, not its absence. I have heard of acclaimed preachers who still vomit every Sunday morning.  Nagging lies always come with us when we seek to give our best to a craft.

Get out on stage anyway:

You are going to bring your unpreparedness, your insecurities, your insufficiency to the stage whatever you do. When you step onstage, they come with you. Go onstage and act in spite of them. Nothing you can do can conceal them. Nor should they be concealed. There is nothing ignoble about honest sweat, you don’t have to drench it in cheap scent. (119)

No preacher or actor should ever get too comfortable. The script, biblical or otherwise, challenges us to performance that is truthful. Whatever the craft, any attempt at excellence will be be met with resistance.

Go out to the pulpit anyway, be true to the script, and preach from joy and awe.


What other connections are there between preaching and acting? Are their other arts whose habits are relevant to preaching? Leave a comment below! Don’t forget to subscribe and get new posts sent directly to your inbox.


Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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