Preaching and Discovering Incarnation

National Flags of Russia and United States. Superimposed over them is the National Flag of Syria in the form of a map of Syria. For those aware of current political dynamics, this image is potent and full of meaning.

If the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement ranked claims that ‘validate’ its interpretation of the Christian faith, strong preaching would be one of the top two. Yet the movement itself would never endure pointed preaching. If exceptions exist, IFBs have little patience for in-depth exploration of Scripture. Thoughtful questions little interest them, and those who want depth will find their way out of the IFB movement.

Over the years, I’ve practiced a self-made spiritual discipline that places highly disparate perspectives beside Scripture, and then teases out a kind of dialogue between them. The extra-biblical texts intentionally contain deep social antagonisms.

The intent in doing this is not to create a simplistic parody. That is not right, desirable, honest or even possible. Rather, the intent is to think about the text and social conditions creatively, deeply and incarnationally. Often, more questions than answers result. But the questions generated in this way can broaden and deepen our understanding of faith and life.

Social Antagonism:

As the Presidential election spectacle unfolds, the unmentionable reality is that US/Russian relations are quickly metastasizing with substantial risk of direct military confrontation with Russia. This means a new world war.

This also explains why Clinton’s campaign attacks Donald the Despicable from the right as being soft on Russia/Putin. A Clinton victory can then be twisted to infer that the election was a referendum on war on Russia.

The Disparate Reading:

‘With boundless hypocrisy, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that Russia had failed to maintain its end of the bargain…’

‘Moscow has instead made increasingly clear that it is unwilling to back down in the face of US threats to encourage Islamist terrorists to direct their attacks against Russia. After Kirby menacingly declared last week that extremists could attack “Russian interests” and even Russian cities, an ominous pronouncement given Washington’s long-standing collaboration with Jihadi terrorists, Russia shot back that any US escalation in Syria would lead to “total war” and cause “tectonic shifts” throughout the Middle East.’

— Jordan Shilton, Oct 4, 2016 in US Suspends Talks with Russia

Terrorism, Patriotism, Nationalism, Preaching

US citizens know that they are often held in contempt. But they might be surprised to learn that in part, this is because we are sometimes seen as a supporter of terrorism. Seems absurd, right? Yet it does no violence to read John Kirby’s words to mean, ‘do as we say about Syria, or we’ll introduce terrorists into Russian cities and destabilize your country.

The point here is not to debate ‘facts,’ premises or politics, or to decide who to blame. Instead, this is held up as a kind of ‘still picture’ in which the spiritual dynamics at work in the cited commentary are studied.

The Biblical Reading:

‘While He was on the way to Jerusalem, he was passing between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine– where are they? “Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well”‘ [Lu 17:11-19].

— Revised Common Lectionary, Gospel lesson for Oct 9, ’16.

Beginning Dialogue:

What are God’s kingdom interests in the John Shilton quote? How might the antagonisms of the Shilton quote inform our reading of Lu 17:11-19?

How do we understand ‘disease’ in the Biblical text? We know Hansen’s Disease [leprosy] results from bacteria; and we cannot endow bacteria with personality. But in the Biblical world, leprosy was understood to have a spiritual and religious dimension, not so unlike demonic personalities. What, if anything, might this suggest about the Shilton quote and how we understand the demonic potentialities of US/Russian relations?

How might the symbols/imagery of the story connect these two readings? If only in an ‘hypothetical’ sense, can we ‘see’ disease as spiritual power? Is it possible for us to ‘see through the eyes’ of disease? Or is it possible to see political relations as ‘diseased’ or through the eyes of disease? Can we relate the antagonisms between Jews and Samaritans to relations between the US, Russia, Syria, Israel, the Occupied Territories, Iraq, Iran, China and others? If so, what does Lu 17 suggest about these relations?

What are the worst effects of disease? Do we desire to be rid of them? Or do we cling to disease as a weapon to be used? What would it mean if the ten lepers refused to keep their distance? In today’s world, what does ‘showing yourself to the priest [i.e., to be ‘clean’] mean? Is this like transparency? Is this revealing ourselves? In what ways might threats of war or of unleashing terror relate to possession/ownership of disease?

What is revealed about spiritual pathology in ‘keeping one’s distance?’ What do alienation and reconciliation mean in the Biblical reading? What do alienation and reconciliation mean in Shilton’s quote? What is revealed about Dread and Death as demonic powers of this age? What does it mean that Christ overcame all earthly powers? How do the healed lepers in general, and the Samaritan leper in particular say about preaching Christ and praising Christ in our world?

In such a world, what does it mean to ‘turn back,’ prostrate one’s self, give thanks, praise, or be made whole? What does ‘faith’ mean in such a world? Understanding ‘prostration’ as a relinquishing of power/will, at whose feet have we ever prostrated ourselves — as a people, a nation, a church or as individuals? Will we ever do this? What might that suggest about our relationship with God as alienation or reconciliation? What does this say about our faith and wholeness and wellness?

The first question asked in this ‘Beginning Dialogue’ section was, ‘what are God’s kingdom interests in the John Shilton quote.’ If we can find no indication of God’s kingdom interests in that quote, how might that relate to the nine whose praise to God is absented from the picture? And if we can find nothing to say about God’s kingdom interests and praise in our world, what does this reveal about our church/nation grasp of the gospel?

Concluding Question:

Suppose that after prayer, a pastor’s next step in sermon writing was to prepare a list such questions for their text, and keep that before her/him as [s]he brokered issues of disease/alienation/faith/reconciliation in the life of members, the church, nation and world with the Biblical text.

What difference would that make for preaching?

Discovering Preaching:

Those who embrace what that means will never be IFBs. And we DO need that list. Whether the story is a young, unarmed man shot in the back by police, the breakdown of a cease-fire, or a story of rescue or perhaps of deep reconciliation at great, personal cost — it is simply imperative that preachers incarnationally connect faith to life. And that means that one seeks out points where life and the cross intersect.

Where life and the cross intersect, they interpret each other. And at that point, incarnational preaching happens.

Preaching Practices on Easy Street

Preaching Donkey wide-header

Preaching has many ironies. Many are sure they are good preachers; but many congregants feel their is a famine of God’s word. Some preachers struggle weekly trying to find things to say. Others couldn’t be shut down with a gun pointed at their heads. Some preachers are deemed ‘brave’ because they dare to call out the ‘gay agenda’ and bathroom politics. Others are deemed cowards because they educate their congregations on issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, and more. Again, some preachers are a lifetime learning this work. Contradicting that are tonnes of ‘improve your preaching in three easy steps’ gimmicks.

Preaching, Entry Level

IFBdom Preaching

A local IFB we’ve met mainly in civic-related matters recently wrote a few paragraphs on preaching. Among his points, Kevin Folger says that preachers should:

  1. …Approach the text…without preconceived ideas, notions or thoughts.
  2. …Approach the text simply — let Scripture say what it says.
  3. …Approach the text as a student, mining the text for truth.

Evaluating IFB Practice

The first point is explained by saying that the Bible should form our thoughts for us, rather than our bringing preconceived notions to the Bible. Maybe he thinks this results in a purer reading of the Scripture.

He may not know it, but Mr. Folger adapts a version of Aristotle’s ‘tabula rasa’ for Bible interpretation. John Locke and others held versions of the ‘mind as a blank tablet’ idea. Some take this on a ‘we are the sum of our experiences’ path. Other philosophical derivatives may exist also. The fact is, it simply isn’t possible to do what Mr. Folger suggests. His assertion that we bring no prior ideas to the text is itself a prior idea that shapes his own approach to the text. This is called a ‘self-negating premise.’

The second point on the surface attempts a good show. But it has at least two problems. The first further illustrates the issue with the earlier point.

Mr. Folger must make gigantic assumptions that the English language words in my text mean exactly the same thing as words written millennia ago for an alien culture and in languages we don’t know or use.

Moreover, ‘simply’ in ‘approach the text simply’ too easily ‘translates’ into speaking against any heavy lifting with the text. It’s as if we’re hearing, ‘read it a couple of times and you’ve got it.’ Now go and live it.

I addressed preaching and preparation in the ‘Leaving Fundamentalism’ series. Approaching Scripture and ‘simply’ allowing the text to say what it says doesn’t exactly encourage the diligence that preaching requires whatever Mr. Folger’s third point may say.

Hearing Scripture

1Pe 1:10-11 explains that the prophets preparing questions and took them to the Scriptures in order to know what person or time Christ’s Spirit in them indicated, and what was spoken about his sufferings and glory. The Bereans also formulated questions and brought them to the Scriptures for insight into their value and correctness [Act 17:11].

Questions about faith arise from life. In stable faith traditions, believers discuss, study, pray and think about issues. Questions are formulated with care, prayer and in concert with others. Adjustments are made as needed. These questions are then brought to the Scriptures, which are searched in the spirit of 1Pe 1:10-11. God’s people listen for the dialogue in the Bible on these questions and issues.

When disagreements arise [in healthy traditions, they always do], you go back to reevaluate your questions in light of that fact, and review your process of study. This matters more than fundamentalists may suppose.

In Fundamentalism

  • Presumes that it comes to the text with no assumptions.
  • Presumes that the text means what it says on the surface.

So when disagreement arises, it’s obvious that you’re disobedient.

Beyond Fundamentalism

  • A rational process is followed at each step of the Biblical journey.
  • Study follows a self-correcting path in concert with others.

And agree or not, the result is better theology and better preaching.

Ge 1-3, Fundamentalism and Authority

IVP Academic
John H. Walton, ‘The Lord World of Adam and Eve,’ pg 19.

If this post doesn’t convince you to buy and read John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve,’ perhaps comments here will.

Anyone encountering Evangelical/Fundamentalists learns quickly that the appeal in each case stands or falls on the Authority question.

…any challenge to scriptural integrity had the potential to undermine Christianity as they understood and practiced it.

That paragraph from Walton’s book identifies several errors to avoid. We are not to…

  • Read modern ideas into the text.
  • Arrogate authority to ourselves and our ideas.
  • Interpret the text as if it references modern science.
  • Define the role/function of authority outside the author’s intention and audience’s understanding [which would alter the text’s meaning].

Walton’s book might leave fundamentalists flummoxed. At the very least, it would be an expected turn. Fundamentalists: lectured for disrespecting Scripture… for undermining its authority by making it speak to modern, scientific questions? That sounds suspiciously like one of Ken Ham’s complaints with Pope Francis.

‘What the pope and many other religious leaders are saying is that God—and His Word—is open to change as society’s opinions change.’

Ken Ham censures Francis saying:

Pope Francis has compromised biblical authority in favor of man’s ideas in the area of origins.

I think Walton’s point is good. So as I see it, Ham falls under the censure of his own pen. Not that Ken Ham’s pen is so impressive.

So convincing are Ken Ham’s answers in ‘Answers in Genesis’ that Ian W. Panth adopted an evolutionary view of the cosmos because of him. Yet rather than ‘compromising’ biblical authority, Panth makes it clear that he was led to his conclusions by a rigorous study of Scripture. It was not his intent to overturn but to understand. A scholar in training, Ian Panth studied Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. His scholarship surpasses many Evangelical/Fundamentalists. And of Ken Ham, Ian Panth says:

He is not open to genuine dialogue with those he judges to be ‘compromised Christians.’

Unless one accepts Fundamentalism’s premises, there is little reason to embrace its conclusions. So this is about authority. When people think for themselves, when they question or offer alternatives to fundamentalism’s premises, the isolating/vilifying begins. This is especially damaging when the questions are asked honestly and seeking a way to believe…

Panth reads Walton with appreciation and recommends him to us. Ditto here. Like many others, Panth embraces a non-literal reading of Genesis 1-3 NOT to jettison faith, but to hold it fast. Panth also says that wherever Ken Ham’s version of things arises, it needs to be challenged vigorously on exegetical and theological grounds.

Well said!