I try to read a couple of books each year about the art and science of preaching and/or writing. I’m not content with what I already know. And I’m not content with my abilities as they are now. I want to be and do better. So I study and I practice. I've only just started reading Intersections: Post-Critical Studies in Preaching[i] - I’ve only read the first two (of the seven) essays – but already I'm quite impressed, and thinking ways to improve my own preaching.
The first essay, by Thomas G. Long, is entitled The Preacher and the Beast: From Apocalyptic Text to Sermon. If ever there was a title designed to catch my eye, this would be it. (Feel free to call me a nerd. Many have already.) But while it might appear obscure and irrelevant to most, what Long says about preaching from apocalyptic texts can (and should) be applied to preaching from any scripture text.
I often find myself quite bored while listening to other preachers. And not just bored, but irritated too. I usually dislike listening to other preachers because too often it’s not really preaching –it's merely motivational speaking dressed up and churchified with a few (out of context) scripture verses.[ii] I hate it when I hear sermons that jump immediately from a reading of, say: David and Goliath to asking “what are the Goliaths in your life?” I hate that. Hate it. HATE IT.
“…the preacher assumes that something about this text will prove to have contemporary relevance.” [iii]
My high school English and Journalism teacher, Mr. Howard Spanogle, taught us that we should to ask three questions about a text – whether it be a poem, a novel, a song, or a newspaper article. These three questions have stuck with me and I continue to use them as I prepare sermons.
1) What does it say?
1) What does it say?
2) What does it mean?
3) What does it mean to me?
3) What does it mean to me?
Those preachers who ask “What are the Goliaths in your life?” seem to have the idea that questions 2 and 3 are one and the same. But they’re not.
The stories and teachings contained in the Bible are very old. They originated in another part of the world, in different languages, in different cultures, in a very different time. And we cannot properly address a text’s meaning until we have probed its historical setting – the author, the audience, the culture, the values, the history, etc… If one skips question 2 “What does it mean?” and proceeds directly to question 3 “What does it mean to me?” then one has untethered the text from its historical setting and is free to arbitrarily create any meaning at all for the text. This is how heresies and cults are started. This is how books like Chicken Soup for the Soul get written!
And this is where I must admit some of my own homiletic failure. In my irritation with preachers who sound like motivational speakers, I sometimes swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and spend my pulpit time explaining language and custom and culture and historical setting –without ever adequately addressing question #3 “What does it mean to me?”
Preachers must, somehow, face the question of how to transfer the text’s meaning from one historical setting (the text’s) to another (the contemporary congregation).[iv]
Long suggests that best way to approach a biblical text for preaching is to view it as “performative language.”[v] That is, to understand that the text is not merely communicating information but challenging us to do something with that information, and that the meaning of the text is at the intersection of this information and action.
The example that he provides is the sentence: “The door is wide open.” The information communicated in this sentence seems pretty clear. But to understand the meaning of this sentence I need to, in a sense, read your mind and understand what you want me to do with this information.
“If we are, at the time, strolling through the neighborhood and you are pointing at the house of neighbor who is away on vacation, you are trying to convey puzzlement, suspicion, even alarm at the fact that the neighbors’ door is wide open. Moreover, you are trying to arouse that same reaction in me. But if we are sitting in your office and I have just launched into a juicy and confidential tale, your telling me that the door is wide open is your way of urging me to either lower my voice or to get up and close the door in order to ensure privacy. In short, when you say ‘the door is wide open,’ you are not merely transmitting information about a door; you are trying to do something with that information.”[vi]
Long’s essay applies this homiletic ideal to the difficulties faced in preaching from apocalyptic texts, but I hope to better apply it to all my preaching. I want to more consistently move from merely communicating information to bringing a sound scriptural challenge. Imagine my horror when I realize that I need some of the motivational speaker’s toolbox!
But at the same time I want to challenge my fellow preachers (especially those who are in reality merely chicken soup for the soul styled motivational speakers) to recognize the second of those three interpretive questions. “What does it mean?” Needs to be asked (and answered as much as possible) before moving on to “What does it mean to me?”
I wrote this post last night. This morning I sat through a sermon that began with a reading from 1 Samuel 17... David and Goliath. I groaned. Out loud. The preacher didn't jump immediately to "what are the goliaths in your life?" but instead played hopscotch through the bible landing on all the verses about the "anointing of God" And then came to the question "What is the anointing of God in your life?" I groaned again.