Duly Noted

Anyone who has gotten a paper back from me with the annotation “asserted, not argued” should recognize Patrick’s entry concerning Prof. Marianne Meye Thompson’s expectations of her students. You may not like it, but I’m not the only one who expects students to write thoughtfully and argue a case.
I got to Patrick’s page from Judy’s Research Blog, which was discussing Tim’s link to Mark’s comments about preaching. Since, in a moment of insanity, I have acceded to a contract for a book about preaching, I’m heavily invested in this topic —but this morning I’ll merely note that the vast preponderance of preaching that I’ve heard functions at the level of “it could be worse” or “mildly enjoyable.” If preachers depended on the quality of their exposition and presentation for their bread, a great many would be in different lines of work. One result is that preachers and churches have a notion of “evangelism” or “mission” that involves “inducing people to do things that they know aren’t so pleasant, but really are in their best interests, and not as bad as they might be” rather than “You really have to hear this!” or “Come on and do this with me, it’ll be a blast.” It’s castor-oil evangelism, and it’s utterly self-defeating; it guarantees a lukewarm result. It institutionalizes a sense of our mediocrity, but with the weird rationalization that we ought not do better (it might be “inauthentic” or “a performance”). After all, priesthood of all believers, let the greatest among you be a servant, blah blah blah — ignoring the “varieties of gifts” and “different parts of the body with different functions” passages that pertain more cogently.
I’ll name this elephant: “Incompetent Self-Justifying Vanity.” “Incompetent,” because so few preachers show the capacity to read and interpret Scripture sensitively, responsibly, carefully, and express themselves clearly and effectively; “Self-Justifying,” because so many fall back on pallid pseudo-theological rationales for this state of affairs; “Vanity,” because so few willingly to face the implications of their relative mediocrity.
I’d write it off as my just having a headache this morning, but Tim’s and Mark’s and Judy’s comments embolden me. Honest, if you expect people to take the gospel seriously, would it be so unthinkable to suggest understanding it well and communicating it effectively?

8 thoughts on “Duly Noted

  1. Greetings for the new year!

    I am the one who made the link between elephants and preaching.. which led me to your blog.

    In reading the about you page it occurs to me you might be interested in a project I am involved with. I lead the Anglican community in the virtual world of Second Life. It all started about a year ago when I undertook some research into ministry in a web 2.0 environment. I stumbled across Second Life and we now have 5 services a week held in a virtual Cathedral on our own virtual island (Epiphany). The community has grown to more than 300 people from around the world. The aim is to provide church wherever you are, whatever your circumstances may be.

    For more info see: http://slangcath.wordpress.com/

    And for my thoughts on ministry in the virtual setting see:

    Mark Brown

  2. Have I mentioned lately of how thankful I am to have attended SWTS where the attention to preaching detail has made all the difference?

    No? Well, I am.

    Oh — and I never did get a paper back with the “asserted, not argued” comment. Guess you were out sick that day.

  3. Becoming a better writer is a tough and tedious process. I’m grateful for Prof. Thompson’s nudges in the right direction, but it hasn’t been easy on the ego, that’s for sure.

    Thanks for the link, AKMA!

  4. Some people would rather protect their egos, Patrick, than take up the tough process of improving. I’m glad for you (and for Marianne!) that you’re willing.

  5. I didn’t end up teaching preaching this semester but in the first lecture I’d outlined in my head, I identified the three biggest problems with current American preaching as a lack of respect for the Scriptures, a lack of respect for the congregation, and a lack of respect for the Holy Spirit…

  6. Hi there,

    I tried to post the following on your blog, but kept getting a message saying it was blocked, so I thought I’d email it to you instead:

    First, it’s quite common at my university to expect students to back up their assertions with arguments, if they want good grades, anyway.

    But secondly, re preaching — I agree wholeheartedly. If what we are preaching is indeed good news, surely it is OK, or even mandatory, to be
    enthusiastic about it and to present it in such a way that the hearer understands why it might be good news for them? One of the stewards on the
    door on Sunday was bemoaning the lack of a notice sheet (we don’t have them in January) because it would mean that he had no reading material if the
    sermon proved tedious. I tend to tune out and plan something that I need to do during the week. Clearly neither of us encounters God in the sermons on a regular basis!

    OTOH, quite a few preachers are also expected to do quite a few other things in their weeks, so they may well find that getting the time to spend “to
    read and interpret Scripture sensitively, responsibly, carefully” is very, very difficult at times. I know there were weeks when I was a parish minister when I’d get to Saturday and the only preparation that I’d had time to do for the next day was to select four hymnsand ring them through to the organist. Which sometimes meant that I was stuck with hymns that really didn’t fit the rest of the service. The feedback I used to get was that I preached well, but I didn’t do anything like the amount of pastoral visiting that the congregation would have liked.



  7. In a bizarre effect of pattern-filtering, I had to omit one phrase of Judy’s from my transmission of the comment above; it had to do with the four hymns, which (according to Judy) derived “from a list of those that fitted in with the next day’s readings.” Something about that phrase made the comment-filtering engine go bonkers when her words were submitted, but not just now when I typed the words in. Digital life is strange.

    I responded to Judy (approximately) as follows:

    Dear Judy,

    Not sure why you got that message; I can post your response in a comment box, if you’d like. [She assented.]

    Glad to hear that people expect arguments at UNE. Alas, I have encountered students who have a hard time making sense of the difference between arguments and assertions (Patrick’s testimony applies here).

    I find that sermons make a very thought-provoking time for working on whatever writing projects I have floating around my head. If I had half a day to spend listening to bad sermons and half a day to spend writing and dictating, my published output would skyrocket.

    The “expected to do quite a few other things” category is tricky. Once it becomes clear that a congregation doesn’t expect much of a sermon, a preacher who does other things better is liable to operate from his or her strength and concentrate on organizing a really bang- up potluck or devoting a high proportion of the day to parish visits. Maybe that’s as it should be — but over here, I wonder whether parishes haven’t started expecting more administrative and therapeutic presence from the clergy as compensation for the fact that they aren’t going to get good sermons (even if the preacher does devote a lot of concentration to those homiletical efforts).

  8. I am a little late to this party, but:

    While joking with my sister-in-law about letting her grade my students’ papers for me, I told her that she need only memorize two phrases for her marginal notes:

    1: “Warrants for this claim?”
    2: “Relevance for your thesis?”

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