Afraid of the mirror? On evangelicals and wagon-circling

Afraid of the mirror? On evangelicals and wagon-circling

Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr both published important books, recently. They’re both well-credentialed historians. They’re both conservative Christians. They’ve both drawn the negative attention of a particular group of conservative, male, Christian theologians. They call Du Mez and Barr (along with some other folks) “wolves.” They say these women are a threat. They say they’re paving the slippery slope to ruin. They’re undermining scripture–putting lived experiences, feelings, and sociology in the driver’s seat. The bible is denigrated! To arms!

What’s the problem? I’ll briefly introduce the two books, look at some examples of culture driving bible interpretation, take a look at the alarmist response to Barr and Du Mez from some quarters, then offer some brief analysis.

The women who wrote the books that started this great war

Kristin Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation argues that “evangelicalism” is less a set of doctrinal commitments (like, say, the Bebbington quadrilateral) than a sociological or cultural phenomenon with its own values, mores, and gatekeepers. And, this sub-culture sometimes has little to do with scripture itself. Her focus is a particular framework for masculinity, with John Wayne as the archetype. She writes:

Although foundational to white evangelical identity, race rarely acts as an independent variable. For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity. Many Americans who now identify as evangelicals are identifying with this operational theology—one that is Republican in its politics and traditionalist in its values. This God-and-country faith is championed by those who regularly attend evangelical churches, and by those who do not. It creates affinities across denominational, regional, and socioeconomic differences, even as it divides Americans—and American Christians—into those who embrace these values, and those who do not. In this way, conservative white evangelicalism has become a polarizing force in American politics and society.

White evangelicalism has such an expansive reach in large part because of the culture it has created, the culture that it sells. Over the past half century or so, evangelicals have produced and consumed a vast quantity of religious products: Christian books and magazines, CCM (“Christian contemporary music”), Christian radio and television, feature films, ministry conferences, blogs, T-shirts, and home decor. Many evangelicals who would be hard pressed to articulate even the most basic tenets of evangelical theology have nonetheless been immersed in this evangelical popular culture. They’ve raised children with the help of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio programs or grown up watching VeggieTales cartoons. They rocked out to Amy Grant or the Newsboys or DC Talk. They learned about purity before they learned about sex, and they have a silver ring to prove it. They watched The Passion of the Christ, Soul Surfer, or the latest Kirk Cameron film with their youth group. They attended Promise Keepers with guys from church and read Wild at Heart in small groups. They’ve learned more from Pat Robertson, John Piper, Joyce Meyer, and The Gospel Coalition than they have from their pastor’s Sunday sermons.

Jesus and John Wayne, pp. 6-7

She continues, in her introduction:

Contemporary white evangelicalism in America, then, is not the inevitable outworking of “biblical literalism,” nor is it the only possible interpretation of the historic Christian faith; the history of American Christianity itself is filled with voices of resistance and signs of paths not taken. It is, rather, a historical and a cultural movement, forged over time by individuals and organizations with varied motivations—the desire to discern God’s will, to bring order to uncertain times, and, for many, to extend their own power.

Ibid, p. 14.

It’s fair to say that these are fightin’ words, to some Christians.

Beth Allison Barr, in her volume The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, takes aim at a complementarian understanding of gender roles. I reviewed her book, earlier this year. She is a medieval historian, and mines history to suggest culture is driving a particular interpretation of gender roles that marginalizes women:

This was my understanding of biblical womanhood: God designed women primarily to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers. God designed men to lead in the home as husbands and fathers, as well as in church as pastors, elders, and deacons. I believed that this gender hierarchy was divinely ordained. Elisabeth Elliot famously wrote that femininity receives. Women surrender, help, and respond while husbands provide, protect, and initiate. A biblical woman is a submissive woman.

This was my world for more than forty years.

Until, one day, it wasn’t.

Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 2.

Barr continues:

You see, I knew that complementarian theology—biblical womanhood—was wrong. I knew that it was based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog, as Ben Witherington once commented—meaning that cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context. So much textual and historical evidence counters the complementarian model of biblical womanhood and the theology behind it. Sometimes I am dumbfounded that this is a battle we are still fighting.

As a historian, I also knew that women have been fighting against oppression from the beginning of civilization. I knew that biblical womanhood, rather than looking like the freedom offered by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, looks much more like the non-Christian systems of female oppression that I teach my students about when we discuss the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Greece. As Christians we are called to be different from the world. Yet in our treatment of women, we often look just like everyone else. Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression. I can’t think of anything less Christlike than hierarchies like these.

Ibid, pp. 6-7

Culture does drive interpretation, at some level

Both Du Mez and Barr are using history, in complementary ways (pun intended), to say something like, “don’t you see that cultural forces you don’t even acknowledge are shaping what you believe ‘the bible says,’ even right now?

This is not a revolutionary concept. It’s a good insight. We learn from history, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Here are a few examples:

Peter and Cornelius

In Acts 10:28-29, the Apostle Peter visits a Roman soldier’s home, in Caeserea. The man’s name is Cornelius. Peter is there because God, in a vision, told him to go. Cornelius and his assembled guests (Gentiles, all) are waiting. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.

He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”

Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home.[1] You wanted them OUT.

And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, said what he said to this eager audience. He’s supposed to preach the Gospel (and he eventually does; cf. Acts 10:34-35), but what a bizarre and cruel way to start a conversation!

Why did Peter act this way, when Jesus so clearly did not (cf. Mt 8:5-12; cp. Isa 42:1-9)? Simple. His culture was driving his interpretation.

Augustine and Ambrose

The other day, as I studied to teach through Psalm 114, I saw that both Ambrose and his spiritual son, Augustine, interpreted that lovely passage to be about Christian baptism (see especially vv. 3-4). I hate to break it to you … but that passage has nothing to do with baptism. It’s about God’s power. His authority. He’s the one who indwells His people, who are His kingdom, rule and dominion. He’s so powerful that the Red Sea flees, the Jordan pulls a U-turn, and the mountains and hills quake!

Why would Ambrose and Augustine butcher this text into … an apology for Christian baptism? Simple. They believed in baptismal regeneration, like most Christians did in the ante and post-nicene period. Their culture warped their interpretation.

Rev. A. T. Holmes

In 1851, an Alabama minister named Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote an essay on the topic of the duties of Christian masters towards slaves (“The Duties of Christian Masters,” ca. 1851, in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South―A Brief History with Documents, ed. Paul Finkelman (Boston: St. Martins, 2003), pp. 96-107). He wrote it for a contest sponsored by the Alabama Baptist Convention. This was in the antebellum South, of course, where slavery reigned. His tone was condescending and paternalistic–blacks are ignorant, inferior, simple. Masters have a “Christian duty” to “show them the way,” as it were. Slaves were property in “our” care. God will judge us if we fail to do our duty, Holmes declared!

The good Reverend painted a whitewashed, fictional portrait–a tissue of lies:

A kind word, a pleasant look, a little arrangement for his comfort, assures him that there is one who cares for him; and, notwithstanding he goes forth to his daily labor, and toils at his daily task, his heart is light, his song is cheerful, and he seeks his humble couch at night, in the happy consciousness that his master is his friend.”

Duties of Christian Masters, in Defending Slavery, p. 103.

This is a Gone With the Wind-level, air-brushed plantation fantasy! Slaves must be taught the master is the protector, so they’d be less likely to run away. Masters must set the Christian example―souls are at stake! Indeed, slavery is the vehicle for evangelism: “Christian master, entered the dark cabin of thy servant, and with the lamp of truth in thy hand, light up his yet darker soul with the knowledge of him, whom to know is life eternal …” (Ibid, p. 103).

One is very tempted to see a parallel between the slave with the “dark cabin” and the “darker soul” with his dark skin, and the white master who wields the “lamp of truth.” Are these allusions an accident? I doubt it.

Rev. Holmes won $200 from the Alabama Baptist Convention for this essay. How could a Christian man actually believe this? Simple. His culture.

For more on the slavery issue and biblical interpretation, see especially Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), and James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: OUP, 2021).

Capitalism or bust?

Deuteronomy is an oft-neglected book. That’s too bad, because there’s some important stuff there. God tells us that debt must be reset and wiped out every seven years, and that this magic date is fixed and repetitive. If a covenant brother or sister is in need, you must loan to him. Is the “reset date” only 14 months away? Too bad. Is it true that you’ll never collect the money back from the guy in 14 months, if you loan to him? Yes, but too bad (Deut 15:1-6).

That’s not fair, you say! Well, God says fair ain’t got nothing to do with it. He knows you’re tempted to refuse the loan for those very reasons (Deut 15:9), and he says “[y]ou shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging …” (Deut 15:10).

What does this reveal about God’s heart for his future kingdom society? A few things come to mind:

  1. God does not like vast economic disparity.
  2. He takes the side of the poor. He doesn’t penalize the rich, per se, but puts a floor in place to stop the poor from falling and falling, and falling some more.
  3. This suggests an economic system which encourages vast wealth disparity, either by design or by default, does not reflect kingdom values.

These observations should raise the eyebrows of a conservative Christian steeped in the doctrines of the Moral Majority, Reagan-era GOP. If that’s you, then you’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of the government. They’re up to no good. They need to get outta the way. After all, the most terrifying thing in the world is to be told, “Hi! I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” You’ve seen the Reagan quotes on Facebook, usually shared by people 50 or older. George Packer, writing about this particular version of America, notes:

The majority of Americans who elected Reagan president did not vote for the destruction of the blue-collar workforce, or the rise of a new plutocracy, or legislation rigged in favor of organized money. They weren’t told that Free America would break their unions and starve their social programs, or that it would change antitrust policy to bring a new age of monopoly, concentrating financial power and strangling competition, making Walmart, Citigroup, Google, and Amazon the J. P. Morgan and Standard Oil of a second Gilded Age. They had never heard of Charles and David Koch—heirs to a family oil business, libertarian billionaires, who would pour money into the lobbies and propaganda machines and political campaigns of Free America on behalf of corporate power and fossil fuels. Freedom sealed a deal between elected officials and business executives: campaign contributions in exchange for tax cuts and corporate welfare.

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), pp. 65-66.

Over a century ago, Walter Rausenbusch described the plight of the average factory workers who comprised his flock, in the heyday of the industrial revolution:

The fear of losing his job is the workman’s chief incentive to work. Our entire industrial life, for employer and employee, is a reign of fear. The average workingman’s family is only a few weeks removed from destitution. The dread of want is always over them, and that is worse than brief times of actual want. It is often said in defence of the wages system that while the workman does not share in the hope of profit, neither is he troubled by the danger of loss; he gets his wage even if the shop is running at a loss. Not for any length of time. His form of risk is the danger of being out of work when work grows slack, and when his job is gone, all his resources are gone.

Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan & Co, 1907; reprint), p. 61.

He railed, not so much against individual cases of social and economic misery, but at the system that produced it:

The officers of the hospitals and the officers of the street railway company were not bad men. Their point of view and their habits of mind are entirely comprehensible. I feel no certainty that I should not act in the same way if I had been in their place long enough. But the impression remained that our social machinery is almost as blindly cruel as its steel machinery, and that it runs over the life of a poor man with scarcely a quiver.

Ibid, pp. 63-64

Why does this matter? Think Amazon. They know their workers are too often badly-educated and have little power. Amazon can force them to accept low wages because they have fewer options. Think Wal-Mart. Think the gig economy. This is all still true. Should Christians champion an economic system that abets a system that makes rich people very rich, and some people very poor?

You may be tempted to respond with a GOP talking point. Fair enough. Read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, and consider what God’s values are, regarding economics. Then look to Reagan, then back at Moses. Is there a disparity? What does that mean?

Rauschenbush declared:

Regeneration includes that a man must pass under the domination of the spirit of Christ, so that he will judge of life as Christ would judge of it. That means a revaluation of social values. Things that are now “exalted among men” must become “an abomination” to him because they are built on wrong and misery. Unless a man finds his judgment at least on some fundamental questions in opposition to the current ideas of the age, he is still a child of this world and has not “tasted the powers of the coming age.” He will have to repent and believe if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense of the world.

Ibid, p. 88.

Why is this short discussion likely to irritate some people? Simple. Your culture has conditioned you to default to Reaganomics. You can read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, but you don’t see it. You don’t hear it. It’s mute, to you. You might even invent reasons why it can’t really mean that, or say it doesn’t apply to the New Covenant, etc. You might also turn to Wayne Grudem, who wrote a long book titled Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) that somehow manages to dovetail quite well with the GOP platform (“[t]he Bible’s teaching on the role of government gives support to the idea of a free market rather than socialism or communism,” p. 275).

But … does the bible really advocate a free-market economy, a la Reagan? Or, is that your culture talking? As you consider the cattle-like operations of the Wal-Mart and Amazon worker, I offer one more salvo from Rauschenbusch, then I’ll leave it: “The preventible decimation of the people is social murder,” (Ibid, p. 62).

When evangelicals attack

I say all that to say that the history Du Mez and Barr are doing need not be a threat. Culture does impact interpretation! If you know it, acknowledge it, you can correct for it. You can adjust. Yet, some conservative male theologians think these women are a threat.

In the Fall 2021 edition of Eikon, the journal of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, one author declared these two women (among others) “all share a dangerous approach to theology via the disciplines of sociology and history.” If culture really does impact interpretation, our author fears the end result is that we won’t be able to be sure we know anything at all! The author fears Du Mez and Barr are the road to the fast train to apostasy–“their methodological approach makes such an outcome inevitable.”

In the latest issue of 9Marks Journal, its editor, Jonathan Leeman, sounds a similar alarm:

Postmodernism’s heavy emphasis on the role of interpretation is, quite simply, too heavy. It tempts Christians to believe that the Bible cannot be objectively understood, or that we cannot articulate objectively true doctrines, or that everything we might say about the Bible warrants suspicions because it only reveals our cultural context and sinful self-interest.

Cultural forces do exist, Leeman allows, but “the Bible alone is the norming norm.” He worries Christians will read Barr and Du Mez and unwittingly forsake the Bible as the structural foundation for reality, in favor of lived experiences and feelings:

Denny Burk, a Southern Baptist theologian and President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, echoed Leeman in an exchange with Du Mez:

Burk then queried Du Mez repeatedly on her views on LGBTQ issues, which he sees as a corollary to her (to his eyes, at least) compromised view of scripture regarding gender roles. Du Mez replied with a short article in which she acknowledged she is re-thinking her stand on these issues. Burk then declared his suspicions were confirmed!

Du Mez is wrong to re-consider the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics. Indeed, it’s interesting that the saints whom God protects from the tribulation during the last days have two distinguishing characteristics: (1) they’re not sexually immoral (whatever Revelation 14:4 means, this interpretation is surely a top contender), and (2) they follow Jesus wherever He goes. But, the LGBTQ issue has nothing to do with Du Mez’s scholarship on the evangelical theory of masculinity! Consider this–I enjoy Rick Atkinson’s history books. I’ve no idea what he thinks of sexual ethics. If he approved of LGBTQ, must I now throw his books away? Should we all burn our copies of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history of the Reformation? Absurd! Why, then, is Du Mez so uniquely “dangerous”?

This is the odd part. We learn from people with whom we disagree all the time. If I only read books authored by my particular flavor of Christian, on any subject, then I wouldn’t be reading much. Why are gender roles and masculinity such a unique threat?

  1. Why is it ok to quote John Calvin, who would have had Burk and Leeman trundled out of Geneva for believing in believer’s baptism, but “dangerous” to learn from Du Mez and Barr?
  2. Why is it fine to admire Huldrych Zwingli for his reforms in Zurich, during the Swiss Reformation, when he had Felix Manz murdered (by drowning) for holding to believer’s baptism? Does not my endorsement of Zwingli lead Christians to murder their theological opponents?
  3. Why should we quote from Augustine’s Confessions or City of God, when the man held to baptismal regeneration? Is this not “dangerous?” Shall I burn the copy of Confessions in the church library, lest someone be led astray by this wolf? The Gospel is at stake!

Critics may reply that these doctrinal differences were textual, not sociological. That would miss the point. Every convictional Christian looks to the text. The issue is whether we’re willing to account for our own biases and context, so we can interpret it correctly. Calvin, Zwingli, and Augustine held to the particular positions I just mentioned, in part, because of their peculiar context–their culture. Church historians recognize that. Consider the state-church context in which Zwingli and Calvin operated, then consider poor Felix Manz! And yet … I doubt the Bible Presbyterians across the street from the Baptist church where I pastor are hatching plans to bind me in chains and toss me into the Puget Sound! Why not? Because that ain’t how we do things, today.

So, I ask again, why are Du Mez and Barr so uniquely “dangerous” to a confab of conservative, American, male theologians? I’m not sure. But, I suspect their culture has something to do with it.


[1] On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.

A ho-hum book on the psalms

A ho-hum book on the psalms

Psalms, Psalms and Psalms!

Mark Furtado’s Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook is part of a larger series from Kregel titled “Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis.” Because, the editor proclaims, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting Scripture,”[1] the series covers all the Old Covenant genres in different books. Paradoxically, the editor then enforced an identical six-part structure on each author, for each handbook.[2] One-size-fits-all, indeed!

Furtato explains the nature of the psalm genre, offers some suggestions for considering the psalms as a unified literary work, principles for interpretation, and instruction on how to interpret and proclaim the text, and an example of what it all looks like, in practice. The editor envisions the work as a textbook for graduate-level exegesis courses.[3]

Furtato wants you to understand Hebrew poetry to interpret it better. He wants us to “see” the psalms in their original context. He wants us to understand the different genres of psalmody, so we are not prone to wander into exegetical fantasy. He also wants us to preach “with clarity and conviction.”[4]

Is it Worth it?

Furtato’s book is ho-hum. It does its job as a graduate-level introduction the same way a Geo Metro gets you to and from work. In seminary, my professor assigned C. Hassell Bullock’s Encountering the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), which covered the same ground. I prefer Bullock, but perhaps that is just nostalgia.

Furtato sometimes spends time discussing matters that are less than helpful:

  • Parallelism. He states C.S. Lewis personifies an “old way” which sees the second cola as saying the same thing, with different words. Furtato demurs and suggests parallelism is when the second cola says “something similar … but with a difference.”[5] This is a rather underwhelming revelation.
  • Following patterns. Furtato likes patterns. He spends time discussing linear, parallel, and symmetrical patterns.[6] I have never gotten much out of these distinctions―they are about as helpful as talks on verbal aspect theory in Koine Greek. This may well be my own failing, but I do not believe these technical notes help to accurately interpret a psalm. 
  • Purpose. He claims the psalm’s purpose, as wisdom literature, is to instruct us about happiness and holiness.[7] This is a startling reductionism―Furtato has flattened the psalms into a stale pancake. What about teaching us how to lament? How to be honest with God when the world is dark? How to cry out in pain when our lives are ruined? To bear the burden of sadness, and yet still hope? As an umbrella category, “happiness” is inadequate.

Reflection and Interaction

My remarks here are a continuation of those in the preceding section. Furtato has not written a poor book. In the classic movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s father (“the Old Man”) sips champagne on Christmas morning and remarks to his wife, “This champagne isn’t bad! It’s not good, either …” That is Furtato’s book. It is a Kia Forte. Utilitarian. It does its job. It is not sexy.

  • Headings. He spends three pages discussing the historicity of the psalm headings, all to declare they are not meaningful.[8] This is not helpful.
  • Textual criticism. Furtato is brave to discuss textual criticism in the span of four pages.[9] He should not have tried. This is not a discipline that can help a pastor in his day-to-day activities―certainly not in preaching! Leave the textual criticism to the Old and New Testament introduction classes.

I will park at Psalm 13 for a moment, because Furtato used it to illustrate outlining.[10] He says the psalm is about “how to deal with distressing situations in your life.” His three “points” are to (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. Furtato butchers this psalm. He rips out its soul.

The psalm tells us David has lost hope.[11] God has forgotten him. More than that, God has deliberately turned His back on him! David is lost. He cries out, but only has his own counsel to keep. Sorrow fills his heart day and night. Enemies are exalted over him. Implicit, but not said, is that God has allowed this to happen―but why? How many of us feel that way? Neglected? Abandoned? Betrayed? Victims of injustice that God has somehow allowed to happen? Is He not good? Why, then, do I suffer? This is raw honesty. The kind of honesty that makes you, in the solitude of your drive home, ask aloud, “What the hell is going on!? Answer me, God! Please!”

How Furtato managed to smash this Psalm into his outline, I do not know. But, his practical interpretive skills are weak in this example. It is disappointing when an author marshals everything he has discussed into practical reality and the result is … a ho-hum, stale, boring three-point outline that flattens Psalm 13 into (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. It does not reflect well on the book.


[1] Mark Furtato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), p. 13.

[2] Ibid, p. 14. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 17. 

[5] Ibid, p. 38. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 49-53. 

[7] Ibid, pp. 59-71. 

[8] Ibid pp. 119-122. 

[9] Ibid, pp. 125-129.

[10] Ibid, pp. 203-204. 

[11] Due to space constraints, my comments only follow the highpoints of Psalm 13:1-3.

Good book on preaching the psalms

Good book on preaching the psalms

In his splendid book, How to Preach the Psalms, Kenneth Langley’s burden is not to teach you how to interpret the psalms. Plenty of folks have already done that. Nor is it about exegesis―there are already far too many guides to what Abraham Kuruvilla maligns as a “hermeneutic of excavation.”[1] Instead, Langley’s aim is to help pastors preach the psalms as the literary treasures they are.[2]

Langley explains that, early in his ministry, he avoided preaching the psalms. They were too raw. Too emotional. Perhaps even unsuited to preaching.[3] When he tried his hand at the genre, he felt like a failure. It was flat. Stale. Cold. Something was missing. “I had been faithful to the meaning of the Psalms, but their emotion, imagination, and aesthetic appeal never quite made it into the sermon. I had not captured the poetic essence of these texts.”[4]

It is this disconnect that Langley seeks to bridge. It is a well-earned cliché that newly-minted seminary graduates will be poor preachers for several years. We may be able to discuss verbal aspect theory vs. traditional tense form. We might point with pride to our dense syntax analysis of Psalm 1. But, can we communicate truth as the psalm presents it? Or, do we deliver stale, scholastic ice for 45 minutes? “Many preachers have felt the force of this argument. We remember with embarrassment sucking the juice out of a psalm and then preaching a shriveled rind of a sermon.”[5]

Langley divides his suggestions into seven categories encompassing 14 “strategies:”

Figure 1. Langley’s strategies for preaching psalms

Buy the Book

Each strategy is very practical; there are no ivory towers here. In style and feel, this little book greatly resembles H.B. Charles’ On Preaching.[6] The chapters are short, the advice punchy, the content extraordinarily practical.

I see two reasons why Langley’s book is needed more than ever. The first is that pastors, like many people, read less than they used to. I am skeptical one can “teach” a feel for genre, style, mood, tone, or the implicit force of a text. This knowledge only comes from years of reading fiction, history, biography, prose, poetry―from reading a lot. Aside from a curious mania for Narnia and Tolkien (both massively overrated!), too many Christians read far too little. This means their interpretive abilities are often stunted. It also means pastors may give lip-service to tone and implicit feel,while happily crushing a psalm into a didactic mold. “This sucks the life out of a poem.”[7] But, if we consciously stop, think, and make the poem real to us, there is hope we can go beyond a deductive outline.

The reason why Langley’s little book is so valuable is that it teaches pastors to interpret, frame and present poetry differently. “The psalms do not open their treasures to preachers who insist on treating them like epistles or theological arguments.”[8] This is the great tragedy―because so few of us can escape this trap. We want to excuse away Job 23, and we are uncomfortable with the raw emotion of Psalm 109. We are addicted to the “audiobook commentary” style of preaching championed by John MacArthur, who not only epitomizes the “hermeneutic of excavation,” but actually built the excavator.

Using the Book

I will illustrate this book’s usefulness by relating some anecdotes from a recent sermon I did on Psalm 113. I preach through the psalms on Wednesday evenings. We meet in people’s homes, not in the building, which means this is a cozy, intimate setting―sitting in a circle on chairs and couches, with a cat or two purring in someone’s lap. These sermonettes usually last 15 minutes, give or take.

Strategy 3 tells me to follow the logic of the psalm. I followed Fred Craddock’s advice and did not declare “the point” of the psalm at the beginning and then deductively “prove it.” I quickly advanced through vv.1-3, which is a plain vanilla declaration of praise to God. I did not linger to explain why we ought to praise Him. If I had done that, I would have robbed the psalmist, because he was about to do that for me.

The setup is in vv.4-6, which emphasizes how “high” and mighty God is. Above the nations. Above the heavens. Seated on high, gazing down on little people like us, far below. If I had read Langley before 11 November 2021, I would have stressed the gulf between heaven and earth forcefully so as to make people think, “Well, He’s too important for the likes of me and my problems!”  

The mind-blowing moment is in vv.7-9, where we see that, despite His great heights, God cares. He cares enough to notice and help the most powerless, most vulnerable people in society. There is no partiality or favoritism. The God who is so high loves to stoop so low, for His people. Now, when the psalmist repeats His command to “praise the Lord,” it really means something. The psalm is precious because it shows us that the God of Isaiah 6 cares about you― especially you.

Strategy 4 tells me to re-narrative the psalm. Christians in 2021 cannot really connect with the “poor” and the “barren woman” in the way the psalmist intended. These are the most powerless people, the most vulnerable. Who are these people, in today’s society? What about that fellow in your church who works an unskilled job for a multi-billion corporation, makes little money, is in poor health, and is in debt? He is exploited by a billion-dollar juggernaut for pathetic wages, in constant fear of losing his position to other poor unskilled workers. He is disposable, and the corporation knows it. He is the product of a cultural system that has locked him into a cycle of poverty.[9] He is the powerless believer, crushed by forces he cannot understand.

Yet, God looks down from the commanding heights, raises him from the dust and sits him alongside princes. He cares about him. He really cares. Of course, the Torah does not envision crushing debt and poverty lasting longer than seven years (Deut 15:1-11), but real life is cruel. There is perhaps a subtle rebuke here to the wickedness of a society that permanently crushes its most vulnerable members. “The preventable decimation of the people is social murder.”[10]

In this fashion, Langley’s strategies can make a psalm sing. He can help you communicate reality in Psalm 113, rather than another stale lecture about providence. It is an excellent book.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, A Manual for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), p. 7. “[W]e preachers are consumed with what is best labeled a ‘hermeneutic of excavation’ and have been trained to shovel up loads of dirt, boulders, potsherds, arrowheads, and fishhooks. We dump it all on our desks. Everything in the text, it seems, is equally important and crucial, and there is hardly any discriminating inference or integration that leads to an understanding of what the author is doing—the theology of the pericope. Like cows at pasture, we munch on every available blade of grass, and commentaries abundantly furnish those pieces of herbage for our consumption.”

[2] Langley observed, “It seems to me that what preachers need is more of what Tom Long did in Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Fortress, 1989) and Jeffrey Arthurs did in Preaching with Variety (Kregel, 2007). Long steered preachers in the direction of genre-sensitive preaching ‘based on the relatively simple idea that the literary dynamics of a biblical text can and should be important factors in the preacher’s navigation of the distance between text and sermon.’ His chapter on Psalms is the seed from which the present book has grown …” (Kenneth Langley, How to Preach the Psalms (Dallas: Fontes, 2021), p. 13).

[3] “I was almost prepared to agree with Donald Gowan that the psalms do not want to be preached, that they are speech directed toward God and do not adapt well to speech directed toward the church,” (Langley, Psalms, p. 15).

[4] Ibid, p. 15.  

[5] Ibid, p. 16.  

[6] H.B. Charles, Jr. On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 2014).  

[7] Langley, Psalms, p. 46.  

[8] Ibid, p. 51.  

[9] Walter Rauschenbusch writes, “Our national optimism and conceit ought not to blind us longer to the fact. Single cases of unhappiness are inevitable in our frail human life; but when there are millions of them, all running along well-defined grooves, reducible to certain laws, then this misery is not an individual, but a social matter, due to causes in the structure of our society and curable only by social reconstruction,” (Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan, 1907; reprint: CrossReach, n.d.), p. 63).

[10] Ibid, p. 62.  

Thinking about Israel and the Church

Thinking about Israel and the Church

Here are some slides about a difficult topic. You shouldn’t mistake this presentation as a definitive assessment, or even fully representative of major positions. There are too many nuances, even within the same circles, to capture here. But still, these slides do a credible job of laying out some broad guardrails to think about this issue. I present three different options, and devote several slides to each one (check the headings).

Here you are …

On preaching the Psalms

On preaching the Psalms

Here’s an excerpt from Kenneth Langley, How to Preach the Psalms (Dallas: Fontes Press, 2021), p. 20:

… most of us intuitively bring this genre sensitivity to our reading of Scripture. We do not read Proverbs the same way we read the Decalogue. We do not expect narrators to argue like the book of Hebrews, or Hebrews to tell a story like Ruth. We do not interpret apocalyptic the way we do Acts, or read psalms the way we read parables. When we encounter the words, “you shall not,” or “the kingdom of God is like,” or “the word of the Lord came to me,” or “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” we recognize cues that what follows is to be read as legal material, parable, oracle, and epistle. And it’s a good thing, too. We could never understand what God says in the Bible unless we had learned to read different kinds of literature differently. Genre-sensitivity is an essential part of reading competence.

Unfortunately, we do not always preach Scripture the way we read Scripture. The genre-sensitivity with which we approach the varied forms of biblical literature is shelved when we craft sermons on those forms. We make the sophomoric mistake of thinking that when you paraphrase a poem you have said the same thing in different words. What we read in the study is, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” What we say in the pulpit is, “God can be counted on to provide for his people.” And we do not realize that the sermon has not said what the text says. The affective, imaginative, and aesthetic appeal of the original line is forgotten, down the hall in our study.

What has probably happened is that we have learned to preach just one genre of sermon. We have grown comfortable with a preaching form that works well with, say, epistolary material, and then tried to make that form work for every genre of Scripture. Sermons on proverbs sound like sermons on Philippians; sermons on psalms sound like sermons on Luke. Every week it’s three main points, or problem/solution, or perhaps even a narrative structure—a welcome alternative to the older propositional preaching, but one which can all too easily become a new rut. Sunday after Sunday we cram parables and proverbs, laments and lyrics into our homiletical grinders and out comes something that tastes just like last week’s sausage. Preachers will never do justice to the psalms until we put to rest the notion that a single sermon form will fit the varied forms of biblical literature.

Peter and the echo chamber

Peter and the echo chamber

Acts 10 is a bit of a puzzle, because God gives us a beautiful missionary story … and a missionary who isn’t very enthusiastic! Peter does not want to be at Cornelius’ home―he makes that clear in the rudest way possible. What’s the deal? We can begin to understand if we begin a little closer to home, in a galaxy not so far away, where we have a similar problem but a different date.

At mid-century, Brown v. Board of Education was the lightening rod that oriented most Christian responses to racial integration. There have always been crude fighters like, say, Billy James Hargis―loud, racist braggarts who courted controversy. But, there have also always been more “sophisticated” versions of the same―polished sweetness camouflaging a “kinder, gentler” form of racism.

At mid-century, the “freedom of association” plea was the argument de jour among the more cosmopolitan racists.[1] Briefly, this argument claimed the Supreme Court could not force individuals to associate (i.e. integrate) against their will. Nelson Bell gives us a good example of this “freedom of association” pitch. Bell was a Virginia-born medical missionary to China, along with his wife, for 35 years. He was Billy Graham’s father-in-law. For years, he had a regular column in Christianity Today, that bastion of sophisticated, northern evangelicalism.  

In 1955, Bell published an article in his denomination’s periodical, Southern Presbyterian Journal, titled “Christian Race Relations Must be Natural, Not Forced.” He declared “… it is un-Christian, unrealistic and utterly foolish to force those barriers of race which have been established by God and which when destroyed by man are destroyed to his own loss.”[2] He said race distinctions were “God ordained,” no matter what Brown v. Board of Education said,[3] and integration has “nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity.”[4] Indeed, Bell proclaimed that by way of unnatural, forced integration, “the right of the individual is violated.”[5]

What on earth is happening, here? How could a conservative, God-fearing man who gave the best years of his life to serving Christ in China write these words? How could he think them? Believe them? How could Bell’s denomination (also R.L. Dabney’s denomination, arch-racist that he was[6]) advertise a segregated “negro” ladies synod meeting in 1954,[7] and just below it include a poem that gushed:[8]

O, Word of God! Oh, blessed Book! Into that store of wealth I look, To seek, with awe and fearful care, To learn of Wisdom written there

How could a local pastor, in the same periodical, pen an article on Amos that same month and declare “[o]ur economic and social life must be permeated by the principles of Christ …”?[9] In short, why do we do things like this, which people “removed” from the time can see is totally opposed to the Gospel of Christ?

Our look at Peter and Cornelius will tell us the answer, because while we have different dates, we have the same problem.

The Two Visions

God presents us with two complementary visions, each intended to force a meeting between two very different men. First, we meet Cornelius. He’s the archetype of a Gentile convert. He’s a Roman soldier. From Italy. He gives alms. He prays continuously. He’s devout. God sends an angel to speak to him, who explains God has noted his prayer and good works. Cornelius must send men to Joppa, south along the coast, fetch Peter and ask him return with them.

Meanwhile, Peter receives a vision of his own. As he waits for lunch, he falls into a trance. God opens the heavens. A white sheet descends slowly, held as it were from the four corners so Peter cannot see what it contains. It touches the ground and, behold!―unclean animals! Lunch is served! God commands him to eat. Peter, perhaps suspecting a divine test, demurs. The voice from above responds forcefully, “what God has cleansed, don’t ever call unclean!”[10] The sheet returns and lowers twice more, then God takes the whole kaboodle back into heaven. Clearly, He doesn’t have any ritual purity issues with the animals!

Peter is confused. What does this mean? Let me ask you―is this really just about Old Covenant food laws? Jesus already declared dietary laws obsolete,[11] and while Peter may be a bit thick (just like the rest of us!), is this dramatic vision really necessary to get that point across? Why is this the divine revelation God gives to Peter, just as Cornelius’ messengers arrive? Or, does it really stand for something else?

The Summons

At that moment, Cornelius’ messengers obey their GPS and pull to the curb outside. God speaks to Peter, ordering him to go with the men “without hesitation, for I have sent them.” He lumbers down the outside stairway to hail the men at the gate, and they all agree to hit the road for Caesarea on the morrow.

When morning comes, Peter does something unusual. He takes some believers from Joppa with him. Peter has traveled alone, until now. He’s gone to Samaria to inaugurate the Samaritan Pentecost after Phillip evangelized the area. He’s gone hither and thon throughout Judea and Galilee, visiting established congregations. But, he’s not yet gone to see an arch Gentile like Cornelius. He didn’t care about traveling alone before, but now he feels compelled to drag witnesses along. Strange …

After a stop at the Wendy’s drive thru for a tasty breakfast, they hit the road and arrive at Cornelius’ home late the same day. The soldier is waiting. Not only that, he’s gathered his relatives and close friends. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.

He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”

Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home.[12] You wanted them OUT.

And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, tells this eager audience, “I can’t talk to you. It’s against God’s law. But, you already knew that. Still, God told me I could talk to you now. So, here I am. What do you want from me?”

Horrifying. He doesn’t like Gentiles. Nor does the hardline faction in Jerusalem―they’ll call him on the carpet as soon as he returns. What made Peter respond this way?

The Echo-chamber

It’s the same reason Nelson Bell penned his little essay. Peter’s problem was that he lived in an interpretive echo-chamber and, like Nelson Bell, he used scripture as a blackjack to reinforce cultural prejudices. He didn’t see it, of course. God had to confront Peter, as forcefully and emphatically as possible short of a direct order. Instead, he dropped very obvious breadcrumbs and left Peter to follow the trail to the obvious conclusion.

You see, we’re all catechized into some degree of conformity based on our “social bubble.” There’s a reluctance to use language like “systemic” or “structural” today, because we fear appropriating culture war rhetoric. But, people believe in all sorts of systemic “injustices” that go beyond the level of the individual to the “system” itself. You might believe “the system is rigged” in the media world to suppress conservative political ideology. You might believe “the fix is in” on college campuses to coddle students who cower at the realities of real life. You may believe America is a “Christian nation” which “they” (whoever they are) are trying to destroy. And so it goes. We don’t have a problem with the concept of “systemic” or “structural” forces. We acknowledge them all the time, but rarely recognize when we’re the one’s caught up in the echo-chamber.

Peter didn’t. It’s why God arranged this meeting. It’s the same with Nelson Bell. What God is doing in this passage is showing us that anyone who fears him and obeys Gospel is accepted. There is no partiality. There is no elite caste in the Christian world. The Gospel is for everybody.

And, of course, God demonstrated that in the most vivid way imaginable by orchestrating a Gentile Pentecost that evening in Caesarea. The witnesses Peter dragged along are shocked―the Holy Spirit is for Gentiles, too? Mind. Blown.

Takeaways

Here are three red flags to spot echo-chambers in your spiritual community. They don’t stand on their own but, together, they form a grid that is pretty reliable.

The more removed it is from the plain meaning of scripture it is, the worse it is. If the teaching is not explicit or implicit in the text, be very careful. Can you read the scriptures and really walk away with the idea that Israelites could never speak to someone who wasn’t a Jew? Absurd!

If most Christians throughout history have never heard of it, it’s bad. The Spirit guides the Church into all truth. A broader historical sweep helps us spot interpretive weirdness in our own age.

If a scripture passage’s original audience wouldn’t have understood what you’re doing with the text, it’s probably bad. Moses married a black woman from Cush (Num 12:1). Do you think he agreed with Peter about Gentile defilement? Would Ruth? Would Isaiah (Isa 56:1-8) agree with Peter? Would Ebed-Melech (Jer 39:16-18)?

Nelson Bell’s article produced an avalanche of positive responses.[13] Two months after it ran, the editor proclaimed that it had nearly exhausted two separate print runs of 10,000 copies. He summed up readers comments as saying “it is the nearest to a truly Christian statement of what race relations should be than anything which has appeared anywhere in print.”

Yet, two years after Brown, 90% of the white population in South Carolina still opposed desegregation in schools. Most Baptist pastors in the state tried to keep quiet on the issue rather than risk alienating their congregations[14]―just like Peter in Galatians 2.

One South Carolina pastor, angry about pro-integration SBC literature, wrote that his congregation was asking: “Are the leaders of our denomination intimating, suggesting, or projecting the idea that we as Baptist Churches should open our doors to our colored brother and invite him to come and worship with us?”[15] We naturally respond with, “yes, what color is the sky in your world?” Yet, this is akin to Peter’s companion’s stunned reaction to the Gentile Pentecost in our passage!

What’s so evil about Nelson Bell’s editorial is that it puts culture into the driver’s seat of interpreting scripture. It uses the bible to banish people to the segregated margins of God’s coming kingdom community, which is exactly what Peter was pressured to do in Antioch, and what he wanted to do here. God orchestrated this entire encounter to show Peter how wrong he was … and to show us, too!

Peter realized this when Cornelius ignored his insulting greeting and explained his own vision. I wonder if Nelson Bell ever did.


[1] See especially “Here’s Text of Majority Report by Sibley Committee,” Atlanta Constitution, 29 April 1960, pp. 12-13. See also Barry Goldwater’s comments along this line in the context of criticizing forced busing in “Right ‘Not to Associate,’” New York Times, 27 October 1964, p. 30. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2ZCmLmH.

For historical context, see James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 380-406. See also Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), ch. 6.

[2] Nelson Bell, “Christian Race Relations Must Be Natural, Not Forced,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 17 August 1955, p. 3. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte14dend/page/n280/mode/1up?view=theater.

[3] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”p. 4.

[4] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”p. 4. 

[5] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”pp. 4-5.

[6] See R. L. Dabney, “Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes,” (Richmond, 1868). https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_Relation_of_Negroes.  

[7] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte13dend/page/n20/mode/1up?view=theater  

[8] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15. 

[9] Rev. J. Kenton Parker, “Amos Condemns Social Injustice,” § “The Terrible Social Sins of Israel: 8:4-7,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 26 May 1954, p. 13.

[10] v.15 is my own translation. The strong, emphatic negation is missing from the ESV. 

[11] See Mark 7:19 and consider the broader implications of the New Covenant for moral and ritual impurity.  

[12] On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.  

[13] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 October 1955, p. 21. See also Ibid, 16 November 1955, p. 3.

[14] J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy (New York: OUP, 2021), p. 22.

[15] Hawkins, Bible Told Them, p. 23. 

Preaching a new way

Preaching a new way

In this article, I’ll include excerpts from a recent sermon and share some thoughts about sermon preparation and delivery. Every pastor prepares sermons differently. My goal here is a combination of mechanics and approach―how to best capture and communicate what God is doing with what He’s saying, and to deliver shorter, more effective sermons.

All the examples which follow are from a sermon on Acts 8:2-25, titled “Peter and the Magician.”

Introductions

The introduction and conclusion are now the only portions of my sermons I script. Here is the introduction:

I use Abraham Kuruvilla’s acrostic “INTRO method,” which takes strong discipline but is well worth it (A Manual for Preaching: The Journey from Text to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), ch. 7). I leave it to the reader to seek out his text and read the approach for yourself, but you can see it in my outline.

You begin with a striking image that grabs people’s attention, to get them to commit to listen to the sermon in those first crucial minutes. I never use books of illustrations or scour the internet. I read quite a bit and my illustrations usually come from (1) news stories I read, (2) historical anecdotes, or less often (3) stories from my law enforcement and investigations career. You must be able to make some kind of tangible leap from the illustration to the substance of the sermon.

You then pivot to ask probing questions, to get the congregation to see why they ought to listen―why they must listen. You should never tell people the application or reveal “what God is doing with what He’s saying” in the introduction. Do. Not. Do. It. You are not a lawyer, making an argument. Don’t lay out a precis of your “case,” then spend the sermon “proving” it to a jury. Just ask questions that provoke introspection, related to the application move that is implicit in the text. In this case (see above), you can see where I go with my questions.

I then switch to a general statement of the topic, usually in the form of a question to be answered. Again, do not unveil your application or the force of the passage.

Then, state the passage text and lay out a “contract” of sorts by providing the structure of the sermon―the “moves” you’ll be making, so the congregation can follow your progress. Kuruvilla sums it up well (Manual, p. 191):

The Image says: Get ready to hear this sermon.

The Need says: This is why you should hear this sermon.

The Topic says: This is what you are going to hear.

The Reference says: This is from where you are going to hear it.

The Organization says: This is how you are going to hear it.

I try to keep my introductions to four minutes. I made it with this sermon. However, this past Sunday (16 October 2021), it ran to 5:30. You can’t win them all … I did this introduction in about four and a half minutes:

Move 1―The Scattering

Here is where my newer method for preparing my notes takes form. I include virtually no notes at all. I simply highlight key things I wish to emphasize, and insert terse comments on things I want to be sure I don’t blank out on as I’m speaking:

This is where my choices for emphasis might raise some eyebrows. As I said in a previous article, I don’t think “audiobook commentary” preaching is real preaching at all. So, I don’t comment on everything in the text. I leave a lot out. I only highlight the key points that I believe God would have us “see” in the text, in light of what I believe He’s “doing with what He’s saying.”

So, this means I do not dwell on the nature or extent of the persecution. I basically let the text float me along and only make a few comments. I note Luke’s interesting word choice to describe Paul’s fanaticism, but move quickly. I cover vv.1-3 in perhaps two minutes. I believe it is a mistake to park here and chat about persecution. That is a worthy topic, but it isn’t Luke’s point in this passage. It is an appropriate topic for the confrontations with the Council at Acts 3-4.

Acts 8:4-8 present another challenge, and another opportunity to resist audiobook preaching. How many of us are tempted to stop with Acts 8:2-8? The problem is that this is only setting the stage for the real point of the passage―Simon’s conversion and his confrontation with the Apostle Peter.

Don’t get me wrong―you can do something with Acts 8:2-8. I just don’t believe you’d be sensitive to the “connectedness” of the passage if you did. This section sets the stage; it isn’t meant to stand on its own. Don’t cut it here and make a sermon about persecution + evangelism, then conclude with a flourish with something like “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!” What are your people supposed to do with that information? They’ll have heard a lecture, not a message aimed at transformation.

So:

  • I resisted the urge to speak on the apostolic sign gifts. I mentioned them, but didn’t park there. I emphasized they were markers of God’s kingdom power breaking into a black and white world with brilliant colors.
  • I spent more time emphasizing the “paid attention to” remark, which Luke repeats several more times. It’s critical to understanding Simon’s mindset, and his actions.

I covered vv. 4-8 in four minutes. The entire sermon is 11 minutes long, as I finish v. 8.

Move 2―The Magician Joins the Family!

Now we move to the heart of the passage, and this is where I spend most of my time:

My notes speak for themselves, so I won’t belabor the point. Notice that I have no “notes,” in the traditional sense. I’m working entirely from highlights, with some occasional cryptic notes that I want to be sure I remember to emphasize. My hermeneutical aim is to focus on the way Luke juxtaposes the allegiance shift from Simon to Phillip. This is critical. You cannot miss this in favor of speculation about the genuineness of Simon’s faith. Commentators will do this. Ignore them. It’s irrelevant to Luke, it’s irrelevant to you, and it’s irrelevant to your congregation. Luke is not interested in Simon’s salvation―he’s interested in his reaction to Peter and John when they mediate the gift of the Spirit!

It’s the allegiance shift that’s important, because it sets up Simon’s reaction at the forthcoming “Samaritan Pentecost.” Notice that the Samaritans previously “paid attention” to Simon, but now they’ve “paid attention” to Philip. Notice also how Simon encouraged people to give him quasi-worship. This should be your focus. But, again, it cannot end here. Don’t cut your sermon and tell folks to return next week―that would be awful! Move quickly to the confrontation.

I covered vv. 9-13 in five minutes:

Move 3―The Confrontation (Pentecost 2.0)

I’m still not quite at the crucial part of the sermon. Rather, we have here the final piece of the puzzle that sets up the event:

I spend little time on this―I want to hasten on. My focus is not on the theological implications of the Samaritan Pentecost, though I do mention it. Instead, my focus is on the fact that Simon, the magician who had used dark arts to deceive many, literally sees something more powerful, more awesome than anything he’s ever seen before. What would a man like Simon do, in this circumstance? He’s an immature professing believer―what will he do?

My short notes reveal I don’t tarry long, here. I do something unusual and script a list of rhetorical questions to ask the congregation, because I want to get this right. I cover vv. 14-17 in less than two minutes:

Move 4―The Confrontation (Simon and Peter)

Now, we get to it:

This is the heart of the sermon. This is where Simon’s request to Peter can be seen in a holistic light. The guy is reverting back to type; he sees a chance to obtain some of the notoriety he once had while still serving God. He’s bitter, envious, chained up by his own sin. Simon wants his social position back, and he sees a “good” way to get it.

This is more “real” than viewing Simon like a Looney Tunes character and declaring he was a heretic, or “immature.” That’s no good. He was a real person. We’re real people. We do things for the wrong reasons. We lie to ourselves. We “know better,” but we do it anyway.

Again, I script a few particularly important notes, but I basically survive with highlights and terse comments in the margin. I covered vv. 18-24 in just over seven minutes, by far the longest time I parked during the sermon:

Exhortation

I again follow Kuruvilla’s formatting, here, and use a “Tell + Show + Image + Challenge” approach. In this sermon, I ditched the last “image” and only used three elements. Again, I fully script the conclusion because it’s important to land this plane well:

Some final thoughts

My burden here is to share my new method for sermon preparation: no manuscripting, highlights for important things, terse comments in the margin for very important things, and scripted comments only for the most critical items.

This style requires a certain comfort with extemporaneous speaking, within limits. It also takes ruthless message discipline―a quest to go beyond exegesis to synthesis, a sensitivity for genre, an eye for natural thought-units, and an ability to sift the considerable chaff out of the commentaries. It also demands a relentless focus on application―on practical sanctification. How will God’s implicit movement to action in this passage make our congregation more like Christ, corporately and individually? What does God want us to do with what He’s saying? Concretely, exactly, not abstractly?

I’ve found this new style is working for me. The sermons are shorter, tighter, more focused, more direct, more helpful. They take much less time to prepare. It may not work for you. But, then again, perhaps my thoughts here can be helpful to you.

Thoughts on preaching

Thoughts on preaching

I’ve been intentionally experimenting with my preaching over the past few years. I am grateful for the expository preaching model I was handed at seminary. It’s a good model. It’s the best model. But, there are different flavors within that broad framework. The past few Sundays, I’ve tried something radical for my sermon preparation. It is radical for me, but perhaps not for you. I shall share it, anon.

But, first some observations about expository preaching, as it is sometimes practiced―as I used to practice it!

Against audiobook commentary preaching

I have grown increasingly disappointed with a style of preaching I shall call “audiobook commentary.” This is where the pastor is basically an Audible version of an introductory bible commentary. Abraham Kuruvilla, whom I consider to be the ablest preaching teacher working in North America today, summarizes this pretty well:

This I call the hermeneutic of excavation—the exegetical turning over of tons of earth, debris, rock, boulders, and gravel: a style of interpretation that yields an overload of biblical and Bible-related information, most of it unfortunately not of any particular use for one seeking to preach a relevant message from a specific text.

Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 13.

Last year, my wife and I attended a conference where we were subjected to this very approach. During a time while we waiting to be “refreshed,” I dutifully listened to a pastor (with both an earned DMin and a PhD) explain the alleged Latin etymology for the English word “sword.” This pastor was a disciple of John MacArthur, and preached just like him. Indeed, MacArthur personifies this audiobook commentary style of preaching. He is a faithful expositor and a steadfast shepherd, but I don’t believe he is the best preacher. This observation is heretical in some circles, but here I stand. I understand if you disagree.

Exegesis is not preaching. It’s a waypoint on the road to preaching.

You don’t need more commentaries

You don’t need another commentary. There is nothing new to say. I promise. I swear. I just read C.K. Barrett’s remarks on John 4:23 (The Gospel According to St. John (London: SPCK, 1958), pp. 198-199), then cracked open D.A. Carson (The Gospel According to John, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 224). He appears to have copied Barrett, down to the choice of specific phrases, without citing him. At the very least, Carson echoes Barrett to an eyebrow-raising degree. I’ve no idea if he did it deliberately, nor do I care. My point is there is likely nothing new to be said.

You want an exegetical commentary? The language work has been done. It really has. You hopefully had language training yourself, too. Barrett will do you fine. So will Calvin. If you get yourself a small, trustworthy stock of exegetical commentaries, you won’t need to buy anymore.

Most commentaries have little value for preachers, because they specialize in hermeneutical excavation. They don’t help you understand the passage as a passage. As literature. As a composition. As a pericope that God is doing something with. Instead, they often major on grammatical observations, syntactical nuances. They summarize oodles of scholarly literature, then sometimes forget to make observations of their own. They’re good for technical reference, perhaps, but you probably have enough of those.

Their interpretive filters are too often cardboard. I just read R.C.H. Lenski declare Peter uttered an imprecatory curse at Acts 8:20. This is unlikely. Maybe … (and call me crazy) … just maybe Peter utters an angry exclamation! Maybe there’s no theological weight behind his short statement, which I translate colloquially as “you and your money can go to hell!” (cf. Phillips’ translation).

Here’s another example.

If you’re preaching on Stephen’s sermon before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1), a discussion on whether Stephen properly applied Amos at Acts 7:42-43 is useless to you. It means nothing. It does not help you communicate God’s message to your congregation. It might interest you. It might intrigue you. It might pique your interest for an article. It does nothing to help you preach the passage. That’s why most commentaries are unhelpful homiletical aids.

You probably don’t need more commentaries.

Preach by passage, not by verse

How many sermons would you use to preach Stephen’s speech before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1)? Six years ago, I did it in four sermons. A few weeks ago, I did it in one sermon that totaled 50 minutes … and I think it was 10 minutes too long.

I almost titled this section “read the bible as literature,” but thought better of it. However, it’s true. You should try to capture the bible’s flow of thought pericope by pericope, or passage by passage. We express thoughts in paragraphs, in sections. We don’t do it in sentences. Sentences are pieces of a whole. But, that’s too often the way we preach. I just saw a pastor announce on social media that he planned to wrap up his series on Jude, by preaching vv. 20-25. This means he cut his last sermon at v. 19. Why would you do that?

We’ll do one sermon covering Stephen’s false arrest (Acts 6:8-15). Another on God’s promises to Abraham (Acts 7:1-16), where we bring in some Genesis tidbits and wax eloquent about the Abrahamic Covenant. Then, we’ll discuss Moses’ origin story, praise the Hebrew midwives who refused to bow to Pharaoh, etc. (Acts 7:17-23). If we’re adventurous, we’ll fold Moses’ flight to the desert into that sermon (Acts 7:23-29). And so it goes, until we finally dispatch Stephen into Jesus arms by mercifully concluding the miniseries at Acts 8:1.

The problem is that’s not what Stephen did. He selected and deliberately framed (and re-framed) key incidents from Israel’s past in order to make a powerful accusation to the Council. The shape of his sermon should be ours. It was one sermon. One message. It had rhetorical force because of that shape.

“But,” we object, “it would take two hours to preach Acts 6:8 – 8:1 verse by verse!” Yes, it would. That’s why you don’t preach it verse by verse. You preach the passage. You hit key points paragraph by paragraph, discerning and following the shape of Stephen’s argument.

To borrow another insight from Kuruvilla, scripture isn’t a window we point through towards an object inside. It’s a stained-glass window we point at, like a curator at a museum. We show it to people. We describe it. We explain it. Then, we show them what this beautiful picture has to do with their lives, so they can be more like Christ.

It would be criminal to cut Stephen off, to atomize his speech into a miniseries. To turn his denunciation into a sermon about Moses in Egypt. To spend five minutes explaining why Stephen correctly applied Amos 5:25-27. Leave that bit to MacArthur.

Shorter sermons

I believe that if you go over 40 minutes, you’re going on too long. I know the objections. I understand that, if people consume all sorts of awful content the other six days of the week, they ought to be able to listen to a 50 or 60 minute sermon. I agree. But …

I suspect that, like me, you really don’t have 50 minutes of content. I think you could have made your point better by cutting some stuff out. I’m willing to bet 10-15 minutes of your sermon was unnecessary; the debris from all that excavating. I suspect you “feel” your sermons are better when they’re shorter. If that’s your experience, I don’t believe it’s an accident you feel that way. It’s because they are better when they’re shorter.

Maybe this is all just me. Maybe I’m not gifted enough to fill 50 minutes with dynamic content. Maybe you are. Maybe your pastor is. Maybe you’re awesome, and I’m just ordinary. It’s possible. But, maybe we’re both just ordinary people, and neither of us should really be preaching for 50 minutes?

My goal is 35 minutes. I rarely make it. But for the past three weeks, driven by a quest to be more efficient with my time as a bi-vocational pastor, I’ve changed my approach to sermon prep. This approach has yielded shorter, better sermons (31, 38, and 35 minutes, respectively). They’re tighter, more focused, and more direct. I ruthlessly ditch rabbit-trails that are unnecessary to the author’s point in that passage. In the latest sermon, on 10 October 2021, my notes ran to a mere 866 words―506 of which were the scripted introduction + conclusion. My notes for the body of the sermon ran to 360 words (this is not an outline, but notes regarding the text). I also finished my prep on Thursday, which is unusual for me because I’m bi-vocational.

In the next article, I’ll share a sermon manuscript and how I now prepare my notes. I’ll also embed the video of a sermon.

For now, I’ll leave you with this sermonic gem from Abraham Kuruvilla from a recent chapel session at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he lately took up residence as Professor of Christian Preaching. The content is good, but note particularly the homiletical technique he uses. I’ll explain more, later. For now, behold his sermon: