Johnny Can’t Read?

johnnyIn his wonderful little book, T. David Gordon seeks to answer Why Johnny Can’t Preach. He has a few answers, and one of them is fairly simple – Johnny can’t preach because Johnny can’t read.

And, Johnny can’t read because he never rarely reads anything. He watches TV, he surfs the internet, he binge-watches Netflix on his tablet. But, he doesn’t read. He has little to no exposure to classic English and American literature. His literary instincts are infantile, because he rarely reads anything.

Text is passe. Now, images are key. Twitter, with its 140 characters, rules the world. Facebook memes influence millions. Every day, some new video goes “viral.” Now, the cultural conversation isn’t advanced by clear, reasoned and impassioned written or even spoken debate (ala Lincoln v. Douglas). Now, people prop their smartphones on dashboards and record rambling, often incoherent rants inside their cars, post them to Facebook, and watch the “likes” roll in.

Gordon rightly described the impact this shift has had on how we read:

Electronic media flash sounds and images at us at a remarkable rate of speed; and each image or sound leaves some impact on us, but greater than the impact of any individual image or sound is the entire pace of the life it creates. We become acclimated to distraction, to multitasking, to giving part of our attention to many things at once, while almost never devoting the entire attention of the entire soul to anything.

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009; Kindle ed.), KL 448-450.

You see, if you haven’t made it a habit to read texts closely; to appreciate the beauty of a well-constructed sentence and/or to critically follow an argument from a more scholarly tome, then you won’t be prepared to notice these in Scripture . . . and that means you won’t be able to bring this out when you preach. Your preaching will have as much pizzazz as a flat diet coke.

Gordon explains:

Culturally, then, we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular. We scan for information, but we do not appreciate literary craftsmanship. Exposition is therefore virtually a lost art. We don’t really read texts to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point; we read texts to see how they confirm what we already believe about reality. Texts are mirrors that reflect ourselves; they are not pictures that are appreciated in themselves. This explains, in part, the phenomenon that many Christians will read their Bibles daily for fifty years, and not have one opinion that changes in the entire fifty-year span.

Texts do not change or alter or skew their perspective; texts do not move them or shape them; they merely use them as mnemonic devices to recall what they already know. They have no capacity to expound a text, or to describe what another has said and how he has said it; and they retain only the capacity to notice when something in the language of another appears to concur with their own opinions. To employ C. S. Lewis’s way of stating the matter, they ‘use’ texts but do not ‘receive’ them.

Why Johnny Can’t Preach (KL 437 – 446).

This is interesting stuff. There is an inevitable, compounding effect at work here:

  1. Many Americans don’t read,
  2. Pastors in America are usually, well . . . Americans,
  3. Therefore many Pastors don’t read, either
  4. Therefore they don’t practice critical reading and comprehension
  5. Therefore they also cannot appreciate good literature (which the Bible certainly is)
  6. Therefore, what they preach is often a more diluted product of their own already anemic literary skills

I read a lot. I read fiction, history, and theology books. Right now, I’m reading an apologetics book by Athanasius (ca. 4th century) about the Christian faith. But, one thing I don’t do is read poetry – except for the Psalms. I’ve never been “into” it. I do remember reading a lot of Walt Whitman for American literature, back in my university days. Maybe, if I tip-toed back to poetry one day, I’ll be able to appreciate it better now. Perhaps I’ll pick up a poetry anthology the next time I’m at the used book store . . .

One thing is clear – if a Pastor doesn’t read much, he won’t get much out of the Bible, and the congregation will suffer. I think, from a technical standpoint, seminaries that are committed to expository preaching (and make no mistake, many are not!) are doing an outstanding job. Textbooks abound, and there are resources are aplenty. But, you can’t make a man read. And, if he doesn’t read, then he won’t preach well.

Can Johnny Preach?

johnnyT. David Gordon doesn’t think so:

Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor. But I have come to recognize that many, many individuals today have never been under a steady diet of competent preaching. As a consequence, they are satisfied with what they hear because they have nothing better with which to compare it.

Therefore, for many individuals, the kettle in which they live has always been at the boiling point, and they’ve simply adjusted to it. As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel of spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there. So let me provide just some of the lines of evidence that have persuaded me that preaching today is in substantial disarray.

I candidly admit that one line of evidence is subjective and anecdotal. For twenty-five years or more, I routinely have found myself asking my wife, “What was that sermon about?”—to which she has responded: “I’m not really sure.” And when we have both been able to discern what the sermon was about, I have then asked: “Do you think it was responsibly based on the text read?” and the answer has ordinarily been negative (matching my own opinion that the point of the message was entirely unsatisfactory).

I would guess that of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point; I could say, “The sermon was about X.” Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read. That is, no competent effort was made to persuade the hearer that God’s Word required a particular thing; it was simply asserted.

Such sermons are religiously useless.

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009; Kindle ed.), KL 105 – 118.

The Old Testament is Dying

Picture2If you’re a Christian, look at your Bible. Does the fake gold trim still gleam on the first 3/4 of your Bible? Flip through the pages; do you still hear that crisp crackle of virgin pages? Do some of these pages still stick together, pure and fresh as the driven snow?

Have you ever read Deuteronomy, perhaps the grandest book in the entire Bible? Do you know the Old Testament law, from Leviticus? If you do, you’ll realize how sincere Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, was when he pledged to reimburse all whom he’d wronged at 400% each (Luke 19:8; cf. Lev 6:1-7).

Listen to this:

[T]he Old Testament is dying. Much needs to be said about this claim to explain it, let alone establish it, but for me let it gloss it further by stating my firm belief that for many contemporary Christians, at least in North America, the Old Testament has ceased to function in healthy ways in their lives as sacred, authoritative, canonical literature.

These individuals — or in some cases, groups of individuals (even entire churches) — do not regard the Old Testament in the same way (or as highly) as the New Testament, do not understand the Old Testament, would prefer to do without the Old Testament, and for all practical purposes do exactly that by means of their neglect and ignorance of it, whether in private devotion or public worship or both.

All of that is what I mean by the shorthand claim “The Old Testament is dying.” Indeed, in many circles, the claim “The Old Testament is dying,” as stark as it is, is not nearly stark enough. “The Old Testament is dead” is far more accurate.

One Old Testament scholar has lamented,

. . . there remains a distressing absence of the Old Testament in the church. It is possible to attend some churches for months without ever hearing a sermon from the older testament, which represents well over three-fourths of what our Lord had to say to us. This vacuum is unconscionable for those who claim that the whole Bible is the authoritative Word of God to mankind.

Well . . . ?

On “Vision Casting” and Other Stupid Clichés

visionThere are certain phrases, buzzwords and slogans that make the rounds every now and then. I remember, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, when “the bomb” was a common way to express how interesting or amazing something was. Of course, nobody in his right mind would use that term now. Its too passé . . .

No one is immune to these fads. We’re prisoners of our culture and social context. Christians are no different. There are certain phrases that percolate in the pastoral sub-culture, each more mindless and idiotic than the next. One is “vision casting.”

Theoretically, this is a process whereby a dynamic and really spiritual “leader” conceives a vision, a path forward, a roadmap to bring his congregation from where it is, to where it simply must go. Eager and enthusiastic, this hip pastor “casts the vision” to the congregation. Of course, they see it, get it, and sign on for this “vision.”

If you’re a young pastor, you gotta “vision cast.” It’s, like, the cool thing to do.

Pardon me while I retch. In the real world, this is otherwise known as leadership. But, I understand. Leadership doesn’t sound cool. It lacks that sense of deliberate ambiguity, of abstract mushiness, that “vision casting” has.

There is no need to “vision cast,” because the Bible already gave us our mission. We just need to follow it. In this teaching lesson from 1 Peter 2:4-10 (our second one from this passage), the apostle tells us what congregations ought to be focused on. He tells you what you ought to be focused on.

  1. What is a church’s purpose? Its mission?
  2. If you’re a Christian, what is your most basic purpose in life? Why did God save you?
  3. If you’re a Christian, what role do you play in your church’s mission? Where do you fit in?
  4. What are the implications for you? For your work? For all the relationships and circumstances which comprise “your life?”

You see, there’s no need to “vision cast.” Pastors don’t need to catch visions, or cast them to church members. Peter tells us all about our mission, and its clear as day. What are the answers to these questions? How do you find your place and purpose in life, as God intended it to be?

Read 1 Peter 1:1 – 2:10, and think for a little while. Or, do that and listen in as we talk about all this. Drop me a line, or leave a comment if you’d like to chat.

The PDF notes for this week’s lesson are here. As always, all audio and PDF notes from the entire 1 & 2 Peter teaching series are here.

 

Nasty Sinners, Little Babies and Mystery Milk – Peter on the Christian Life

Here, in the picture below, is tomorrow’s passage for Sunday School! Some real food for thought about how Christians are supposed to interact with each other in a church. So many questions to answer:

  • What, exactly, do these sins look like? What are they?
  • Why do they happen so often?
  • What can we, as Christians, do about these problems in our personal lives, and in our corporate lives as members of a church?
  • What is this “genuine, pure milk?” Why does the KJV add ” . . . of the word” to the end of that phrase, even though it’s not there in Greek?
  • How do you “taste” that the Lord is good?

What are the answers? Well, you’ll just have to WAIT, won’t you . . . !?

1 peter 2

On Floating Axheads and Hungry Dragons

The Bible sounds weird to people today. There is no denying that. It is a compilation of 66 individual books, written over a very long period of time, in three different languages. It communicates God’s word in the idiom, speech and garb of a culture that perished long ago. This is why, in every seminary text on homiletics, there is a lot of discussion about how to communicate the Bible’s message to a contemporary culture.

In fact, in my sermon notes, I always included this picture from a preaching textbook[1] as a reminder about what my role was – to faithfully communicate God’s word to the people in the congregation.principalizing-bridge

Millard Erickson wrote a good bit about this conundrum, and the unbelieving response of the theological liberals. What he wrote is worth pondering:

One problem of particular concern to the theologian, and of course to the entire Christian church, is the apparent difference between the world of the Bible and the present world. Not only the language and concepts, but in some cases the entire frame of reference seems so sharply different . . .[2]

The average Christian, even the one who attends church regularly, lives in two different worlds. On Sunday morning, from eleven o’clock to noon, such a person lives in a world in which axheads float, rivers stop as if dammed, donkeys speak, people walk on water, dead persons come back to life, even days after death, and a child is born to a virgin mother. But during the rest of the week, the Christian functions in a very different atmosphere.

Here technology, the application of modern scientific discoveries, is the norm. The believer drives away from church in a modern automobile, with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, AM-FM stereo radio, air conditioning, and other gadgets, to a home with similar up-to-date features. In practice the two worlds clash. In the Christian’s biblical world, when people are ill, prayer is uttered for divine healing, but in this secular world, however, they go to the doctor. For how long can this kind of schizophrenia be maintained?[3]

All this is surely true. Thus, Erickson continues:

Here we must ask the question, What must we retain in order to maintain genuine Christianity, or to remain genuinely Christian?[4]

Erickson went on to list a few of the answers different people and institutions have given to this problem. What makes somebody a Christian? What is it about “the faith” which transcends cultures, from the 1st century to the 21st?[5]

  • Is it the institution of the church itself? This is Roman Catholicism’s answer. But, perhaps, some passionate Baptists ought to chime in here with a hurrah, as well (for very different reasons!).
  • Is it the cultural interpretation (and reinterpretation, and reinterpretation, etc.) of how God has acted in history?
  • Is it in the shared experiences people of faith have always had?
  • Is it the outward behavior, the zest for social justice, equity and democracy which is true Christianity?
  • Or, is it in the rule of faith, the doctrines and teaching of the Scriptures?

The Christian has always replied that doctrine defines what the faith is, and that doctrine is contained in the Holy Scripture, that “perfect treasure of heavenly instruction . . . the true centre of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”[6]

So, then, how do we contemporize the Christian message for men, women, boys and girls in 2017? Here we come to the great divide, the great chasm.

Erickson wrote that some men see themselves as translators; they seek to retain the same Biblical content, but re-package it in a more intelligible form. Anybody who has tried to teach older people how to use a computer has done this. I remember (years ago) trying to explain “File Manager” from Windows 3.11 to my grandfather.

“Imagine it’s a big file cabinet,” I said. “Inside this cabinet are all sorts of files, where everything on your computer is organized.”

I translated “File Manager” for my grandfather. I accurately explained what it was, but I used his own contemporary phrases and reference points as a bridge to explain this mysterious technology to him.

montoyaOthers, however, are transformers. These people seek to make major and systemic changes to the content in order to communicate it the modern listener. “[T]hey do not really regard the essence of Christianity as bound up with the particular doctrines that were held by ancient believers. Thus, it is not necessary to conserve or preserve these doctrines.”[7] Often, these folks use Christian language, but they mean something completely different. As the learned Spanish philosopher Inigo Montoya remarked, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means . . .”

You find these transformers in the so-called “mainline denominations.” These are those denominations which have been hemorrhaging members for decades, dying a slow and pitiful death, because they abandoned true Christianity a long, long time ago. These men do not regard doctrine as containing the true essence of Christianity. They cling to other things, like personal experiences, a perpetual reinterpretation of God’s in biblical history, subjective shared experiences, or an external social ethic.

As J. Gresham Machen noted so long ago, this is not Christianity at all – it is another religion. It is opposed to everything Jesus taught and came to fulfill:

It is perfectly clear, then, that the first Christian missionaries did not simply come forward with an exhortation they did not say: “Jesus of Nazareth lived a wonderful life of filial piety, and we call upon you our hearers to yield yourselves, as we have done, to the spell of that life.” Certainly that is what modern historians would have expected the first Christian missionaries to say, but it must be recognized that as a matter of fact they said nothing of the kind.[8]

Hear, hear!

When we preach and teach the Bible, whether as loving parents, long-suffering Sunday School teachers, bible study leaders or Pastors, we must be committed to be translators of the Word, not transformers. We must read the text, study the text, understand the essence of the doctrine being taught in a particular passage, and build a strong bridge from the Bible to 2017 – and back again.

Note that we are not giving a ‘dynamic equivalence’ of the biblical statement. What we are doing instead is giving a new concrete expression to the same lasting truth that was concretely conveyed in biblical times by terms and images that were common then.[9]

Amen.

NOTE: For an excellent discussion of this “interpretive journey,” see J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 39-49.

Notes

[1] J. Scott Duvall & J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 46.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 116.

[3] Ibid, 117-118.

[4] Ibid, 118.

[5] The list which follows is from Erickson (Christian Theology, 118-122).

[6] 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1, “Of the Scriptures.”

[7] Erickson (Christian Theology, 123).

[8] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (reprint; CrossReach Publications, Kindle ed.). KL 359-362.

[9] Erickson (Christian Theology, 129).