Monday, April 20, 2009

Some Developments In My Thinking

I've felt like my blog has been a bit neglected in the last couple of months. I guess the appearance is that presently, I have nothing to say, though I'm sure you must all think I have a limitless supply of pictures of my cat. :-)

My problem has been quite the opposite. I can't seem to find time to make posts long enough to cover what's on my mind. I'm seriously contemplating some different series of posts around a few subjects of interest, but it will have to wait until I have time to do it. I'm getting ready for the summer, which means VBS, Camp, lining up Bible class teachers, and a calendar full of youth activities.

In the last few months, I've been encountering some concepts that have really impacted me; particularly in things pertaining to preaching and teaching. I've had a weekly class with Dr. David Fleer at Lipscomb, and it's definitely been one of the most meaningful of my entire grad school experience. Some of what I've been thinking about are ideas that Dr. Fleer has presented in class, though most of my thinking has been under construction for a long time before now.

I've been in a cocoon for a while, and I think it's time for me to break out, and put some of my ideas in writing to see if they can fly. This will be a long post, but I would be interested in hearing your reactions to some of this stuff.

Here are some things that have been on my mind:

1. Effective Communication - What is the best way to teach and speak in order to not just say what we have to say, but be heard in ways that inspire our audience to conviction and action?

1A. Rhetoric. I've been consuming books on Rhetoric; the art of persuasion. I've been studying the different techniques of arranging words, and building phrases for the sake of making an impact in what I say. I consider these things as tools in a speaker's tool chest. In fact, I've already had some good success in using them in a couple of sermons. A few weeks ago, near a climactic point of my sermon, I made a point, using a rhetorical device to build one phrase upon another, and I got a resounding "Amen" response from several people. This stuff works. I'm 100% convinced that in school, our children would be much better served to have classes in Rhetoric than in Calculus.

What concerns me about becoming too consumed with rhetorical studies is that Rhetoric has no soul. It is like power or money. It's not inherently good or bad; it's all in how you use it. There is the ever present temptation to manipulate listeners by crafting arguments around desired outcomes. I do believe in right and wrong, and I think it is vital that students of rhetoric ensure that their rhetoric remains in service to the truth, and not in service primarily to their own agenda.

I've been wanting to start a series of posts on rhetoric, because it has helped me so much in both speaking and in analyzing what others say to me. Mastering rhetoric is like becoming a Jedi. You can definitely do the mind tricks, and if the rhetorical "force" is strong with you, you become much less susceptible to the linguistic tricks that others will try on you to persuade you. I'm convinced our current president got into office based on his rhetorical skills, more than on any other credential. We're still learning who this guy is, but he sure knows how to captivate an audience.

1B. Indirect Communication. I've become infatuated yet again with Fred Craddock's work. If you've never heard or read any of Fred Craddock's sermons, there's simply no one else like him. I've been reading up on his techniques for sermon preparation, and have recently finished his book Overhearing The Gospel. This book explains a lot of where he comes from.

When we utilize the I-Thou method in our communication, we tend to isolate our listeners. If you get up and speak at people, saying, "You..., you..., you...," then your listeners might be putting up their defenses against what you'll try to convict them to do.

But there's something about listening in on other people's conversations that helps us keep our defenses down. Craddock says the most effective way to communicate is not with rhetoric directed at people, but by speaking to them indirectly. Saying what you want them to hear, as if to another person, and letting them overhear your points. He argues that in order for this to happen effectively, there has to be both distance and participation.

Imagine walking past a cemetary, frustrated about your home life or your spouse. You overhear two people talking about a person who is buried there, and they speak about what a great father he was, how much they'll miss him, and how in spite of his short comings, they wouldn't trade him for anything. They speak of the kind things that they never said, but they wish so much that they would have said. One speaks with deep regret about a period of time when they had not even been on speaking terms, and of what a terrible loss that had been. You might be moved to tears, thinking, "I should be more grateful. I'm so lucky to have my family. I shouldn't take my own for granted, and I should get over myself and appreciate what I've got."

If this were to happen, you would have distance, as you were not part of the conversation. You would also have participation, because as a listener, you would be bringing your own emotions and thoughts to the experience. Doesn't our audience always do this? Had you not heard their story, and had the two people turned to you directly and said, "You should be ashamed! You should appreciate your wife! You shouldn't gripe so much!" you might have gotten defensive, or ran away.

Craddock believes we should try to recreate those kinds of experiences in sermons where we impact people by letting them listen in on our conversations with and about the Gospel. We let them explore the text with us, talking about our discoveries and emotions along the way. We try to speak in the first and third person perspectives, while minimizing the use of the audience-directed, second person "you" statements.

This approach is very different than what we're used to in most churches of Christ, but I'm experimenting with it. My goal is to be the most effective communicator I'm capable of becoming, and hopefully this will help me toward that end.

1C. Providing No Rabbits To Chase. In trying to develop a more narrative/indirect homiletical technique, it's easy to get too carried away with the stories sometimes. Fleer has given some good advice about how to use stories and illustrations; namely to trim them down well. The metaphor he used was that of the dog racing tracks, where they send those little rabbit things flying around the circle, which the dogs chase.

He said we have to be careful that our illustrations don't send the people's minds flying away from our topic. He said:
If you're going to share a bit of wisdom from a statement your wife made to you about a subject, you might set up the whole scenario: "Two weeks ago, my wife and I saw that new Batman movie together, then we had a nice dinner at Olive Garden. We got home, and while she was in the bath tub, we were talking about the idea of Mercy, and she said something really profound..."

You just sent half a dozen rabbits running off that people will be tempted to chase. Some will think about Batman. Some will think about Heath Ledger's Joker portrayal. Some will think about Adam West. Some will think about bread sticks at the Olive Garden. Some might be thinking about your wife in the bathtub. But if any of those are the case, it will be all your fault for sending out those rabbits!

All that is really needed here is to say, "I was talking with my wife the other night about the idea of Mercy, and she said something really profound..."
2. Contemplative Prayer. I've read a couple of books recently that have been helping my prayer life a lot. One is by Mark Thibodeaux called The Armchair Mystic. It's a book specifically about how to do contemplative prayer. The other is called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. Scazzero does a terrific job about presenting the Christian life in very holistic terms, involving every aspect of the person. He used two balloons as an example of how we often balance our lives between activity and contemplation. The balloons were tied to opposite ends of a single string, which had an anchor at the bottom. Most Christians have the activity balloon full to the point of bursting, while letting the contemplative side be almost completely out of air, getting tugged around by the activity side. I saw that illustration and said, "That is me."

I've been working a lot on personal spiritual growth over the last several months, and finally feel I am making some progress in this regard. I've been strongly convicted of the importance of not only learning how to talk to God--or talk at God--in prayer, but that prayer's purpose is beyond just saying things or asking for things; it's about being with God. I'm working on this.

3. Postliberalism. I've been trying this on for size, and there are aspects of it that fit me well, while other aspects seem to leave me feeling uncovered. This is not a political stance or a doctrinal stance as much as it is a world view issue for me. Liberalism is what gave rise to the modern, and now postmodern, eras of our history. Liberalism is what got people so hooked on Science and existentialism. Liberalism has produced our mentality that everything is relative, and that nothing exists unless it can be measured, broken down, and studied in a test tube. It is western culture's dominant epistemology.

There are many Christian groups and companies out there who spend a great deal of time and energy on apologetics. I used to love apologetics, but for a while now, I have come away from apologetic works feeling empty, like the authors are somehow missing the point, though I couldn't express exactly what I felt was lacking.

Postliberalism has helped me clarify what it is that's been bothering me. Both the atheists and the theists who are having these great debates about God's existence, Creation, dinosaurs, etc., are really two sides of the same coin. Both typically share a world view that is dominated by the understanding that Science rules over all, and that in order for anything to be valid or valuable, it must be within the realm of scientific possibilities, with a provable scientific explanation.

Even those arguing for Christ are accepting the presuppositions that the Bible must also bow down to scientific theory, and they spend much ink and paper trying to show how what appears unscientific in the Bible actually is scientific. But I often find myself asking, "What difference does it make?" If Creation happened in six 24-hour days, or if it was in six vast time periods, or of God spoke it into existence instantaneously, and inspired Moses to describe it in six movements so that we can understand it better, what critical difference does that make for me and the people I'm teaching every week? We can't hop on a time machine to learn what happened, so we either accept it or we don't.

Let me not overstate my case here. I believe with all my heart that Scripture is Truth, and is inspired by God, and that it is exactly what God wants me to know. It teaches me how to live, and it teaches me how to know and understand God. My critique is not that we should abandon scientific thought, or that this stuff doesn't matter. My argument, though, is that I do not hold a world view that Science reigns over and above all things, or that I must submit all that I think or believe to Science for it's stamp of approval.

I believe that such an approach holds too low a view of Scripture. I'm increasingly believing Karl Barth's reasoning that Christ is a Lion. As he put it, when you're out in the jungle with a lion, and another beast comes to attack the lion, do you defend the lion? The lion is king of the jungle. Step back, and let the lion defend himself. By the time of my baptism, I accepted the belief that Scripture is God's Word, and I don't have to reprove that to myself every time I come to worship. From time to time, I get it back out again, and wrestle with it, but I'm still satisfied with my original conclusion. Sometimes I think our efforts at apologetics are a lot more effective in preaching to the choir than they are in convincing the opposition.

After all, why do you read Scripture? How often do you have someone present you with a Bible and say, "(insert your name), I have been on a quest for the most Scientific book ever written. I have read through this book, looking for new things to learn about Science that are presented in the most Scientific ways possible. This book is superb Science. This book is...the Bible."

Of course not. We continue to read Scripture because it moves us. We can read it 100 times, and still find new ways to understand it. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, Scripture seems to interpret us faster than we are able to interpret it. Its words seem distant and lofty, yet they cut me to my core, they give me hope, they inspire me, and they challenge me. Scripture contains many things which are scientifically provable, but that isn't why I read the Bible. The Bible is different--and more valuable--than that. It can speak of morality, mercy, and forgivness; things about which Science has nothing to offer.

Regarding the various studies of the world, I say we use God's advice to the Israelites at the time of the Exodus and we "plunder the Egyptians." Let us take the best of what Science, Technology, Economics, Rhetoric, Literature, Mathematics, Social Sciences, etc., can offer, and use these things in the service of God. But let us not harness and restrain Scripture so that it fits the fashions of the day.

Too often, our preaching has involved taking the luscious fruit of Scripture, then boiling it down until there's a little stain of meaning at the bottom of the pot, then we try to find the way to make it "apply to our lives today." I'm becoming convinced that rather than interpreting Scripture in light of our own lives, to fit our ways of thinking, instead, we should bring our lives to Scripture, and let it interpret us. We should submit to it entirely, and trust it to lead us in the paths of righteousness. It isn't enough to preach my own ideas with a couple of texts to prove my point. I should treat each Scripture with enormous respect, and with a sense of awe and discovery which demand me to ask, "If this verse is really true, what does it mean I will have to be doing differently in my life, regardless of the immediate consequences?"

Such a worldview can be dangerous to your health and safety, but I'm increasingly convinced that this is the view God desires for his Church. We must let Christ reign over all aspects of our lives, trusting the Shepherd to lead us; accepting that we don't always know what's "best" or "relevant."

Postliberalism, often referred to as Narrative Theology, argues something like what I'm arguing here. It is focussed on the story of God, and in becoming part of that story. I love the idea of letting Scripture be the authority of my world, over and above all other areas of study. I'm confident that the leaders in this type of thinking would say I haven't defined it correctly here. I'm really not trying to. I'm simply saying that these are some tenets which I've gained from this philosophy, which I believe have some deep and meaningful potential to them.

The parts of it I like less have to do with the areas of truth and relativism. Even though I've grown tired of many of the same old arguments, the Christian faith is grounded in space and time. It is based on realities that happened to real people in real places. Postliberalism is wonderful in that it rejects the Liberal assumptions about the nature of reality, but it often does a poor job of taking stances on facts.

Paul said that if Christ wasn't really resurrected, then our faith is in vain, the Church should not exist, and every Sunday morning I am loosing a lot of valuable sleep time. More than that, we may well be enemies of God who teach lies about him. Postliberalism is more interested in the story of Scripture and what it has to say for us, and it really doesn't even seem to want to join in on the discussion about "what actually happened," nor is it quick to take defined stances on doctrines.

It makes a difference whether we're reading true stories of real people versus reading fairy tales to inspire benevolent actions.

In this particular aspect, though it is cliche, the "slippery slope" argument is relevant. If we return to the Genesis, 6-day creation example, if it's okay to discount the historicity of the creation, then why not also Jonah? If Jonah, why not Christ's miracles? If the miracles, why not the resurrection? They are all connected, and it's very dangerous to be too quick to discount any part of it.

I'm uncomfortable enough with some of the shortcomings that I cannot entirely pitch my tent among the postliberals, though there is much about what they are doing that resonates with me.

So to whomever is reading this, these are some things that have been almost constantly on my mind for the last few months. I hope to uphold the complete Lordship of Christ in my life and my ministry, and I wonder if these concepts will help me or hinder me?

What say you?


  1. Interesting post. I like it.

    When I think about the church and communication, I often turn back to something that a professor in college used to repeat over and over... "Communication is a circle, and true communication hasn't happened until the sender gets feedback from the receiver."
    I think this applies to the church in that our communication is often just one-way. We talk at people, not with people. We send messages, but are rarely receptive to feedback about our message. We so often present Christ as a take-it-or-leave-it sales presentation instead an ongoing conversation.

    PS, you can never have too many pictures of your cat.

  2. Hey Mark!

    I'm glad you're thinking about all these things.

    I agree with you entirely on rhetoric. It's a tool -- neither good or bad. But it's a tool we should learn to use better, in part, as you point out, because once we know how it works, it's a lot harder for others to slip one by us.

    I also enjoyed your paragraphs on postliberalism. Whether we like it or not, it's already the method of choice to address the modern problem among believers. I'm also happy to see you're being thoughtful about its uses. Once again, it's a tool -- neither good or bad. It's a way of answering questions with a method that makes sense given the questions of our time.

    While it's necessary to realize and point out to enthusiasts, as you do, that narrative theology cannot be applied wholesale to each of part of the Bible (the slippery slope you mention), I don't think that its consequences are quite as dramatic as you seem to suggest, though. One part of the narrative method is to recognize and understand genre and its uses and limits. So the creation story is written to fit the Ancient Near Eastern genre of creation stories with its tropes like linking the days of the week with different stages of creation to provide a sense of rhythm and order; so the story of Jonah uses a metaphor -- the belly of the whale -- that works equally well whether it factually occurred or not: That doesn't mean that the gospels, which are explicitly written as historical accounts much like Chronicles or Kings, and much like the biographies in the Roman and Greek traditions at the time, equally are "just" metaphorical. The fact that rainbows existed before the Flood (if water and light then were what water and light are now, which is likely) doesn't mean God can't walk on water.

    Once again, as with rhetoric, the necessity is first to understand and educate ourselves on how the tool of narrative theology works -- and then to see its limits and strengths -- before we panic about its possible excesses.

    Thanks for pointing that out.

    Please keep writing about these sorts of issues. Good post.

  3. Jeff: Thanks for weighing in. We have been far too satisfied in church, I think, to say, "Well, I told 'em. If they don't want to use it, that's their fault." I think we really do need to expect more from ourselves.

    Jonathan: I'm really glad you weighed in on this. With a post that lengthy, I figured most people wouldn't take the time to read through it.

    I probably overstated my hesitance, partially in light of some of the people I know who read my blog. I don't want to paint myself in a light that would give some people an impetus to attack me for holding some sort of perceived heretical views. I had been very nervous about making this post, but these things have become so important to me, I didn't want to hold them in any longer.

    Even though I think there are some apologetic cases that can be made about things here and there, I think you're right, that in most cases, the passages are just as powerful when read for what they are without fretting over matters of historicity. I love the idea of getting into the text and trying to interpret our own world with its light, rather than trying to squeeze out a "relevant" point from the text which fits comfortably into our own context.

    Whether or not I completely accept a Postliberal epistemology, I am about 90% on board in adopting a Postliberal homiletic. It's amazing how well this approach has the power to unite people, based on a common appreciation for and submission to the Biblical text. So many "issues" become irrelevant, because all we care about is really understanding what a particular Scripture is trying to say.

    Thanks to you both for commenting. This is all stuff that's very important to me.

  4. Thanks for sending me this one, man. I'll be chewing it over for some time.

    I'd love your thoughts on the comments that went down on this post, if you've got a while to read it...