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Neil Postman vs. Joel Osteen

I just finished Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. This important work, from a communications professor and cultural theorist, is more relevant now than when it was written in 1985.  I will be digesting it for a while, but the chapter on religion was especially interesting.  Postman’s basic thesis is that Western culture has shifted from a typographic culture to a television culture.  Challenging a common misconception that a medium is neutral to the content it transmits, Postman looks intently at the sea change that television has wrought across Western society and predicts dire consequences.

Reading him 30 years after the fact, where the Internet has taken over from television, Postman is even more prescient.

The last half of the book is mostly spent looking at these consequences as they have played out in particular slices of culture including education, politics, news, and religion.  In the chapter on faith, Postman quotes a former Executive Director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association:

“You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”

This serves as a kind of summary statement for how television has shaped the expression of faith that comes over the airwaves.  The medium (television) is thus anything but neutral to the shape and telos of the content:

“You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader – from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther – who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user friendly.” It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.”

I literally wrote the word “Joel” in the margins the book beside this paragraph. (Yes, it’s a paper book, because they are better than those electronic monstrosities, as recent sales figures show.) We don’t need to rehash all the issues with the prosperity gospel in general or Joel Osteen in particular; we’ve covered the basics before here.  But, whether you like what Joel does or not, I think it’s easy to see the connection between the marketing/consumerist goal of “offering people what they want” and Joel’s platform as a combination of “good cheer,” celebrated affluence, and celebrity.

Postman’s chapter-long take on religion and television will put not only Joel but many of those popular televangelists in a stark light.  While he wrote in the era of Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart, others – include Joel – have taken up these gilded mantles.  I’m not sure even Postman at his most cynical could imagine preachers asking for $60 million luxury jets, for instance.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a must-read that will make you rethink the way you engage all forms of media, not just television. I would also recommend Deep Work, in which Cal Newport draws on Postman and others to recommend a new approach to work based on the temptations of social media and other features of electronic culture.  I’ll give Postman the final word, as he concludes that the effect of television’s influence on preachers can result not just in a difference of quality, but of kind:

“I believe I am not mistaken in saying Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

 

 

Source: Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books), 121.

 

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Sentimentality Kills

In Rodney Clapp’s eclectic little book spanning the life and work of Johnny Cash, country music, American culture, and Christian identity he tackles the sentimentality that he believes is at the heart of ecclesial degeneration in America today:

“Because idolatry is the most destructive of sinful conditions, the greatest danger to the true faithfulness of the American church comes not from without but from within. That danger is not persecution or victimization or accusations of hypocrisy, but our own all-too-easy tendency to sentimentalize our faith. To sentimentalize the faith is to instrumentalize it, to make it a tool of our ambitions, our comfort, and our security. Sentimentalization is mild-mannered idolatry, sin sweetened and trivialized. Sentimentality kills vital faith with bland complacency.” (60)

My teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote,”The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 526) He wrote a blurb on the back of Clapp’s book, and  I imagine he would agree with Clapp’s assessment.

What he describes as sentimentalization is all over North American protestantism. Many of the regnant forms of preaching and worship that pastors are encouraged to adopt are designed to comfort rather than convict, to sell self-actualization rather than exhort cruciform living.  Sentimentalization is the cross reduced to a decoration made of diamonds and silver; discipleship reduced to Instagram Bible verses; asceticism sacrificed on the altar of low expectations – it is Christian faith made into a series of Precious Moments figurines.

Sentimentality is a milquetoast approach to faith designed to be unobtrusive and inoffensive.  But a gospel that does not offend is no gospel; the Word brings not peace but a sword, and divides sinew from flesh. (Matthew 10:34, Hebrews 4:12) It is the kind of Christian life a marketer would design to sell to middle class Americans with overstuffed lives and underdeveloped souls.

Sentimentality is killing us.

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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!

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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.

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Preachers: Don’t be a Hack

I think there are a lot of connections that can be helpfully made between the work of excellent stand-up comics and that of preachers.  Particularly helpful is the term “hack.”  A universal definition would be difficult to find, but this one from About.com is sufficient for my purposes:

Definition: “Hack” comes from the word “hackneyed,” which means that something has lost its meaning or impact by being overused or repeated too many times. Jokes can be “hacky” when they are too obvious or familiar, but comics can be considered “hacks” as well. Comics who use the same old material, or who use jokes that are known to everyone (and which that comic most likely did not write — they more likely came from an off-the-shelf joke book) are typically known as hacks. Some comics quickly develop the reputation as hacks for other reasons. Dane Cook has widely been called a hack by his detractors mostly as a shorthand for comparing his massive success to his perceived lack of talent (and also for often falling back on the same kind of shtick). Carlos Mencia has been called a hack after being accused of stealing material from other comics; even without those allegations, his reliance on Latino stereotypes for his comedy has a reputation for being “hacky.” Carrot Top has been labeled a hack in some comedy circles because his comedy is dependent on props; the same goes for watermelon-smashing Gallagher. Being called a “hack” is about as dismissive a label a comic can receive, at least among other comedians.
Also Known As: cliched, tired, familiar, corny, outdated, unoriginal
A preacher I respect very much once said in preaching seminar: “Don’t do the sermon that everyone is expecting you to do.  Don’t take it some place everyone has been.” That is, I think, “hack” preaching. Like hack comedy routines, hack preaching relies on established directions that are crowd-pleasers, very accepted and established, i.e. “successful.”  Done well, “hack” preaching is very popular.  But it isn’t what Seth Godin would call art.  It isn’t original. It isn’t bold.  And since the congregation has likely heard it time and time again, it is unlikely to be transformative.
Pulpit colleagues: our calling is high. Our work is complex. We deal in texts with intimidating pedigrees, with which many servants of the gospel have wrestled for centuries.  It is hard not to be a hack.  But our calling is worthy of that effort.
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Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet

by Drew 0 Comments

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”

-Charles Wesley

Are you a preacher? Are you a Christian? You should read this.

Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching.  He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content.  Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit.  True theology, however,  is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”).  We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.

My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today.  In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:

“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)

Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian.  The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long.  Tear down this wall.  Let the twain meet.

 

 

*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury.  It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.

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“Only God is Great”: A Homily for Election Day Communion

“Only God is Great”

Romans 13:1-10 & Psalm 146

http://electiondaycommuniondotorg.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/edc-image-quotes-026.jpg?resize=576%2C432

Courtesy http://electiondaycommunion.org

Louis XIV was one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known.  He sat on the French throne for over 70 years and is still famous today for solidifying the power of the monarchy and claiming  Divine Right of rule.  He was called the Sun King, and he was called Louis the Great.  In 1699 he called a priest named Jean-Baptiste Massillon to be his personal chaplain.  When Louis died in 1715, he had left meticulous instructions with Massillon about has lavish funeral.  He wanted a dramatic affair worthy of such a great king of France.   He was to lie in state in a golden casket at the Notre Dame cathedral so that his subjects could come and pay their respects to him.  The funeral was to be lit by a lone candle in the vast cathedral, for dramatic effect.  Father Massillon carried out Louis’ instructions to a ‘t’, but when it came time to deliver the funeral sermon he added his own touch.  As he began his sermon he went to the candle that stood over the King’s casket and snuffed it out, saying, “Only God is great.” (1)

We gather tonight in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the election eve to tell the world, “only God is great.”  Whomever we elect, whomever sits in the Oval Office, real power and hope and authority resides in Jesus.  Best of all, we don’t vote for him, we don’t have to elect him, he is already the one who is Elect, the One called by the Father in the strength of the Spirit to be our King and Lord and Master, to save us and to redeem the world.  His Kingdom has come, is here, and is coming.  We get to the live into that reality, remembering that the gospel means that Jesus resides not just in our hearts, but in our homes and places of work and in our neighborhoods.

We gather tonight as a sign of unity in the world divided; the talking heads say that this is the most divided campaign season in decades.  It could be a long time before we know who the next President will be.  We have spent recent days and weeks being bombarded with phone calls and fliers and commercials.  Some of us have gotten into arguments with friends and family about who to vote for; others of us have dodged those conversations like the plague.  I’m a preacher and I find politics interesting, which means I can never have a polite conversation anywhere I go!

Where do we put our real trust and hope?  Christians are called to remember that Jesus does not want to be a part of our lives, but the center.  Jesus is not one ruler among other rulers, the “spiritual” authority alongside other authorities, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  If we believe the hype, our hope and security and future rest in a candidate, not on God.  How many ads have you seen whose purpose is to frighten you into putting your hope into one of the candidates?  If we take the advertising at its word, everything is up to the next President: your health care, your jobs, your personal safety, your gym membership, your tomato patch, and whether or not you will have to replace your spark plugs this year.  If we believe the practical atheism of the election season, it’s all up to the President.

The Bible has some different thoughts about this.  I thought of Louis XIV’s funeral story when I read the opening of Psalm 146: Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Human authorities have their purpose and their role, but don’t put your trust there.  Trust God.  Romans 13 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about the purposes of worldly power, reminding us that our rulers (when they are doing their God-given work) are instruments of God to maintain peace and order.  Paul says to be subject to the state because it is God’s servant, and give what is due (whether taxes or honor or respect) to all.  Above all, give love, because love does not wrong a neighbor.

And love is in short supply these days.  We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable, we get so wrapped up in holding the right position that we forget that being a Christian says something about HOW we hold our positions.  John Danforth, a longtime US Senator who is also an Episcopal priest, writes “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.” (2)  As Jesus followers we are called to a different way: the way of peace, the way of reconciliation, the way of unity and love.  We go to the Table tonight to remember the things that bring us together, the things that cannot be won or lost by a vote, the things that are God’s good gift to His children: faith, hope, and love.

Today, like many of you, I voted.  Before I voted, I went to the bank.  As I drove from my branch to the Presbyterian church where I vote, I thought, “this is where the world says all the power is.”  The world says that power is found in the dollar, in bank accounts and hedge funds; that peace and wholeness and hope can be voted in or out of office.  As Christians, we are called to say a defiant “no” to a world that has forgotten the truth.  Jesus is Lord.  To be a Christian is to cast your vote not for a President or Governor, but for a Savior, Lord, and Master.  It is a vote for the poor, for the oppressed, for the prisoner and widow; to vote for Jesus is to vote for all of those the world would rather forget.  Politicians go on and on about who will represent the middle class; Jesus says to remember “the least of these.”  Politicians say, “peace through strength,” Jesus reigns from a cross.  Politicians say, “vote for me,” but Jesus says, “I died for you.”  Do not put your hope in kings, in Presidents, in any earthly power.  Jesus is Lord.  Let the church worship her king, and remember her first loyalty.

I close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas:

“Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humor our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. Amen.” (3)

  1.  From: http://massillonchurches.com/JBMassillon.phtml
  2. John Danforth, Faith and Politics (New York: Viking 2006), 10.
  3. http://thedrum.typepad.com/the_drum/2012/11/an-election-day-prayer-from-stanley-hauerwas.html
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“Have you met the Lord today?”

In his brief but potent book The Lord’s Supper, Martin Marty has some too-close-to-home comments about the presence of the preacher at the Table.  Describing the preaching that takes place before the meal, he comments,

If you are unfortunate, you will get a book review, a comment on world affairs, some how-to advice for personal success, or some doctrinal comment about the word.  A good homily or sermon relentlessly plumbs a text and lets its depths reach you…preachers are fallible, but this meal is also for them and for their forgiveness, including forgiveness for sins they may demonstrate in the very act of preaching.  And yet we call what they are doing “preaching the word of God.”

…[Afterwords,] someone asks, “Have you met the Lord today?”  “Yes,” you say, “in the stumbling words of a laborious preacher.”

Thanks, Dr. Marty, for the reassurance that God can be met in bumbling, flawed folks like me.  And thanks be to God, who uses our weakness for His greater glory. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)

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The Gospel: Liberal & Conservative

The following is an excerpt from the sermon delivered last Sunday, part of a series I’m doing on how to follow Jesus in a polarized culture.  I used Deuteronomy 4 to discuss the constant (conservative) call of Israel to remember God’s work among them, and Jesus’ controversial sabbath healings as an example of his (liberal) tendencies to stretch the bounds of acceptable law observance.  I’ve received inspiration from Adam Hamilton for this series, especially from his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White.  Here it is:

When it comes to thinking through and living out our faith in the world, our culture has set us up to fail.  Our talking heads tell us that everything has to be one way or the other: left or right, donkey or elephant, blue state or red state.  When we come to the faith assuming that everything can fit neatly into one of two boxes, we lose something very precious: the gospel itself.  Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, but all too often we try to argue that the view of the world we prefer must have been the view of Jesus.  Father James Schall put it this way:

“The division of the world into “liberal” and “conservative” on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us. If we are not what is considered popularly a “liberal,” then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a “conservative,” or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.” (1)

The gospel is certainly something so marvelous, so transformative and beautiful and powerful, that a simple “left or right” is not remotely close to being able to describe it.  Today we are continuing in our series The Extreme Center: Following Jesus in a Polarized World.  I’m going to show today how the gospel is both “liberal” and “conservative.”  That, of course, is just another way of saying that the gospel is not easily defined one way or the other.  The message of Jesus refuses to be pigeonholed into our simple categories, it shatters them, it stretches us, and challenges us with a third way that is neither solely “liberal” or “conservative”: the way of cross and resurrection…

The gospel, then, is liberal and conservative. It’s both, which is also to say that it is neither.  The way of Jesus is higher than those cultural divisions.  Recognizing that is one way that Christians of all sides and stripes can seek the extreme center together: like Jesus, all of us seek to conserve some things and change some things.  None of us are a simple as these labels, even if we claim them strongly.  The gospel, the good news that God has entered the world as a human and opened up salvation to all people, also cannot be reduced to one of these categories without making it something unrecognizable. 

A few years back there was a commercial on TV that opened with two infants trying to learn their shapes.  They had those toys that hollow out different shapes in plastic, like a triangle, a circle, a square, and a rectangle, and the goal is to match them all up.  They are both struggling with the square piece, pushing and yelling and twisting, trying to get it to fit into the round hole.  Then it flashes forward, both of them are grownup mechanics under the hood of a car.  One of them is struggling with a battery, trying to make it fit right into its cradle.  He’s banging it with a hammer, and over his shoulder his buddy is yelling, “Just keep hitting it, it’ll fit eventually.”  Of course, the lesson was that you don’t want mechanics like this working on your car.  All they are going to do is damage your car.

Trying to fit the gospel into the convenient confines of a box like ‘left’ or ‘right’ also does damage.  In our polarized culture, Christians of every political persuasion want Jesus on their side, and so he is trotted out to bless this position or Scripture is quoted as simple justification of this legislation.  Parties and candidates try to convince us that they are God’s choice, which means that the other side must be against God.  All of this does great harm to the gospel.  It reduces the message of Jesus to a tool to gain power.  It renders unto Caesar what is God’s.  On a practical level it harms evangelism, it will turn off all those on the other side who may be searching for God but are suspicious of a God who looks tailor-made for this or that party or issue.

Chuck Colson, a writer and activist whose life was transformed after being put in prison as part of the Watergate scandal wrote this:

“…Christians should never have a political party.  It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology.  Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead believe in the revealed truth of Scripture.” (2)

Friends, the world doesn’t need more ideology.  We fight over it; families split over it; countries are torn in two by it; those in power kill for it.  The world needs Jesus.  Each and every person on this big, round rock need to know the transformative power of Jesus’ love.  But party politics masquerading as faith won’t do it.  People can smell ideology from a mile away; it stinks to heaven.  The gospel, on the other hand, is something so sweet it is unmistakable.  The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is too glorious to be contained by our simple categories.  It is its own party, its own “side”; the gospel bids us to show love rather than claim power, because Jesus was exalted by rejecting power and submitting to death.  So, too, all of us, who find ourselves drowning in a sea of partisan politics, of ideology, of talking heads and pundits, must reject our desire to be “right” and give our desire to win over to Christ.  The extreme center, the way of the cross, is the way that asks us to sacrifice everything to him.  To play with Paul a little bit: in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, republican, democrat, left, right, progressive, libertarian, socialist, anarchist.  However it is we participate in the world, whatever our views are, we are to present them at the foot of the cross, the throne of our true Lord, who bids us to be about Kingdom business.  In a world that asks us to choose between black and white, left and right, the only way to win is to refuse to play the game.  Let us follow Jesus not with timidity but extremely, with abandon, with gusto, keeping him at the center, and led out these doors by the Spirit to show a divided world a better way.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

1. “On Being Neither Liberal Nor Conservative,” http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/schall_libcons_may05.asp

2. Quoted in Lyons and Kinnaman, UnChristian.

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Dragging Fosdick Into the Present

While preparing for an upcoming sermon series that deals with the cultural polarization that has infected our churches, I reread Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”  I found the following sentences as applicable today, in our current controversies, as they were in the 1920’s.

Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this – shall one of them throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested?  The Fundamentalists say not.  They say the liberals must go.  Well, if the fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation – multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs.

Within my own denomination, all inclinations are that we are becoming incapable of staying at the table with those with whom we disagree.  We are talking, but at one another and past one another, not to one another.  We have fallen into camps that are little more than a sad mime of cable news.  As Adam Hamilton asks in Seeing Gray, “Are Jerry Falwell and John Shelby Spong our only options?”

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