Monday, December 03, 2007

The Dishonesty of Preaching

I recently heard a sermon based on the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. The emphasis was on the imperative to meet the needs of our neighbors -- all eloquently stated. But I noted that nothing was said about the consequences of not doing so, you know the part about the non-loving being cast into the eternal fire, i. e., verses 41 and 46. The ethical mandate was there, but the eschatology was absent, totally ignored, whereas in the story itself, ethics and eschatology are inseparably joined. Is this dishonesty?

Liberal Christians generally do not believe in an everlasting hell for the wicked. It would not be fitting for a nice God, and the liberal God in nice middle-class congregations must above all be nice. Lots of commendation and exhortation but hardly any judgment, and seldom any wrath at all.

Conservatives quote Leviticus 20:13 condemning male homosexuality but ignore the rest of the passage that says both men shall be put to death. They also ignore other passages in which practices are condemned that are commonplace today among all citizens and believers, e. g. , wearing garments combining two types of material. Is this dishonesty?

Conservatives and liberals alike are equal opportunity practitioners of avoiding in Scripture what is unpalatable.

In liberal churches I have attended miracle stories are read or told as if they are to be taken literally. Seldom are any qualifications offered. The same is often true of the creation story, the second coming of Jesus, and other staples of orthodoxy when I know the pastors have a different point of view than the one that seems to be offered without question.

The Christmas season is upon us. The wondrous birth stories in Matthew and Luke will be read. Pageants will reproduce the ancient drama. Will anyone suggest how improbable it is that these startling events occurred just exactly like they are reported -- a pregnant virgin visited by an angel, wise men from afar led by a star -- unerringly-- right to the very stable where the baby was born (what a GPS that was!), a choir of angels in the heavens addressing some shepherds, and the like. Will any hint be given anywhere that these are imaginative stories, beautiful and powerful, but not literally true in detail?

Of course, everybody ignores Matthew 10:8 in the institution dedicated to continuing the ministry of the Apostles. Or do you know of some churches with a ministry of raising the dead (excluding Oral Roberts).

Students in schools like the one at which I taught are given the modern critical tools for dealing with the Bible in historical terms that highlight the humanity and cultural relativity of all these magnificent texts. Non-literal versions of the creation, incarnation, last judgment, the return of Jesus, etc. are offered in books by contemporary scholars and theologians. Students learn to speak of myth and symbol that deepen and enrich a mere literal rendering of the Bible and the creeds. But what happens to all this apparatus when they become pastors, teachers, and preachers in churches?

In my youth when there was much more freedom in the Southern Baptist Convention, I heard biblical scholars who wrote material for Sunday School classes talk about how it got watered down by the editors in Nashville, who removed any hint of the historical-critical approach to Scripture that was then being taught the seminaries of the denomination. The result was a harmless pablum absent of any of the wisdom of modern scholarship that forever left children and adults alike locked in a naive reading of the Bible. Preachers trained in these institutions left all their sophisticated learning behind as they became obsessed with larger churches, larger budgets, and having the largest number of baptisms in the association, if not in the state. Must not rock the boat, you know.

I could go on with endless examples, but the implications are clear -- at least to me. It seems like dishonesty to me but maybe I am missing something.

In the latter years of my tenure as a seminary teacher, I pestered everyone with the this teaser: "Is it possible to use the Bible with integrity?" My answer was that it was possible but the actual occurrence was so rare that it was a miracle worthy of note. I find no reason to change my mind.

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