"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, June 04, 2007

One for DAS

This post has prompted better comments than I could have hoped for. I can only hope I've given replies worthy of them.

But this time 'round, the focus was on what message clergy -- Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Moslem, etc. -- give in preaching and in other sorts of scriptural exposition vs. what congregants expect. Often clergy, at least those educated in mainstream seminaries, and even many of us lay preachers, are steeped in Biblical scholarship and can communicate in some detail various aspects of how the Bible came to be the document it is, what the deeper meanings of Biblical lessons teach us, how the Bible (and in our case, the Talmud) construct morality, etc.

But many people don't come into a church or synagogue or mosque or temple seeking enlightenment or even moral instruction -- they come in for a sense of community (which role is very much acknowledged in Jewish tradition, e.g. calling a house of worship also "a house of meeting" or even the term synagogue, which, IIRC, referred to Christian houses of worship before it referred to Jewish one), a sense of hearing familiar prayers and stories, etc.

To hear a Pastor preach about the goals of the Deuteronomaic school or even to hear a Pastor teach the Biblical message of sacrifice is often not why people come to church in the first place.
But, in part, it used to be. Re-read the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Cotton Mather. John Donne preached in his shroud to remind everyone of their mortality, was the Dean of St. Paul's in London, and was so popular a speaker people came from miles around to hear him. "No Man is an Island" is from one of his sermons, and it ends with that great line: "Therefore, send not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Imagine hearing that as a funeral sermon today!

You are right, on the other hand: the word that was drummed into us in seminary was 'community,' and my seminary worked hard to prepare us pastorally as well as theologically. But there is still a fundamental difference between a seminary and a Bible College, and no amount of education teaches you how to deal with the clients, so to speak. I think there's a wholly separate problem of the old-fashioned "generation gap." At my last church I preached to people who had grown up coming to that church in a horse and buggy (literally!) and to young people who spent their time on the Internet, for whom the moon landing was ancient (and largely unremarkable) history. What narrative do you use, except the narrative of either the liturgy of the church (Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian) or the narrative of that "ol' time religion"?

Which is why, at bottom, I don't think it's because fundamentalists "tell 'em what to think." Their popularity stems from a compelling and familiar narrative, one they think is as historical as "Inherit the Wind" (which has as much to do with history as "Birth of a Nation", though it's a better movie. Still, both are meant largely to be propaganda, not history.) That, and they offer, as you say, the Church of Meaning and Belonging, not the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. Which is not to say the best preaching comes from being "steeped in Biblical scholarship and can communicate in some detail various aspects of how the Bible came to be the document it is" or even "what the deeper meanings of Biblical lessons teach us, how the Bible (and in our case, the Talmud) construct morality, etc." Sometimes people just want to hear that they belong.

Which brings us back to the narrative, though, doesn't it? It's true that God loves stories: but what stories do we tell, and why? No, there isn't an answer to that question; or at least, not an easy one. There is a direction toward an answer, but that direction is not necessarily toward the "good." As Wittgenstein observed: "You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other. The good is outside the space of facts." Still, even that's a bit tart for a congregation to suck on once a week. How does one set about the craft of pastoring, without simply pastoring people into being comfortable with who they are and what they prefer? That, of course, is the challenge. Maybe so long as the confession of faith remains inseperable from the structure of the story....


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