Preaching: Don’t Kite Checks

(Foreword: I frequently think of advice about preaching when I hear sermons that instantiate counter-examples of the principle I’m propounding, and since I blog among people with whom I also worship, I end up not blogging what I thought, so as not to be perceived as criticizing this or that particular sermon or preacher. Last week’s sermon at St. Luke’s bore no relation to the following jeremiad.)

My students can hardly have sat through a whole term of one of my classes without having heard me insist, at some point, “Don’t write checks you can’t cash.” I’m not solely offering sound financial advice (though evidently clergy need a reminder about this one from time to time), I’m trying to help students with their preaching by prodding them to acknowledge the difference between “things I can claim on the strength of my own study and research” and “something I read in a book” or, sadder still, “what clergy, as experts, know.”

You can’t really blame students and clergy for eliding these categories. The church wants people who graduate from seminary to be able to speak with authority on theological topics, on the Bible (weekly in sermons), on all sorts of things; at the same time, the church offers few incentives to study and think critically, and tends to reward people who can speak with glib confidence about what “scholars have concluded” or whatever bosh they want. Not every seminary can offer a curriculum that guides its graduates toward comfortably critical assessment of theological topics. Under the circumstances, compliant tempers will tend to assert the truth of what they learned in an introductory class, or in the latest book they read, or in the interview they heard on “Fresh Air” or “Speaking of Faith” the other day.

The problem arises when claims that preachers may have apprehended only partially, or which may not have been well-founded in the first place, or which were widely-held at one point but which have fallen into scholarly disfavor, are presented as solid facts (in sermons, study groups, and so on). I’m not referring here to partisan disagreements, though these will intensify the problem; I’m talking about circumstances where a preacher asserts something with a surety incommensurate with what she or he can back up critically-evaluated knowledge. Someone with a conservative view of the authorship of Colossians can expound that text in a way that communicates both the confidence that Paul wrote the letter and the awareness of some of the problems with that claim. Someone who just knows that Paul wrote Colossians risks not only being wrong, but being willfully wrong for bad reasons that he or she opted not to deal with.

All of this goes doublemore than double, square it or cube it — for “he must have been thinking” or “feeling” points. Look, I’ve spent nearly thirty years in very close communion with Margaret, and only rarely would I venture to state firmly what she “must have been thinking,” and even then I’d frequently be subject to error. Telling a congregation what Moses or Judith (yes, I know, “when was the last time you heard a sermon on Judith?”) or Jesus or Paul must have been thinking almost always means displacing some of the preacher’s fantasies onto some alleged historical figure. Not good historiography, not good homiletics, and not good for anyone’s soul.

If there’s some novel (or traditional) idea that tickles your homiletical fancy, but you don’t have the time or inclination to examine it for soundness, please think twice about preaching it as true. There are lots of ways to qualify claims without waffling; careful use of words such as “if,” careful restriction of your claims to warrantable assertions (“I was taught in seminary that. . . .” or “I’m intrigued by the possibility that. . .” or some such conditional rhetoric will begin to do that work. More to the point, cultivate the humility that will allow you to stand before a congregation without posing as a greater authority figure than you can back up with real scholarship. Say what you mean, speaking from something you know, and people will hear a difference, the saints will affirm your wisdom, and you’ll be building up the truth. Insofar as it’s been given em to know the truth, that is.

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