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The death of a paradigm.

I have never spent much time among the Lutherans in the limitations of my career, for New England was very stony soil for Lutheranism and your ancestors, and there are very few seeds that survived even to sprout, let alone to become trees. Clearly I was deprived. So, when the Lutheran chaplain at Harvard--who is really a missionary who brings the Lutheran gospel to a place which hasn't heard it before--persuaded me that it would be good for me to do this Hein Fry thing, I accepted. I like new opportunities, challenging contexts, and venturing to foreign lands, and I said I'd do it.

Only then did I ask what it was that I was to do, and I discovered that I was to visit four of the eight Lutheran seminaries and to hold forth under the auspices of this foundation on the subject "Biblical Preaching in Babel." Also I discovered that Barbara Lundblad, whom I do not know well but happened to have had preach for me last year, was also going to do this.

At first I imagined all sorts of scenarios, none of which turned out to be the case. I thought that maybe she and I were coming together, and that she'd do one and I'd do the other; maybe she was Hein and I was Fry, and we would do a little hand-off. Then I discovered that that was not to be the case, and I said, "Well, maybe she goes first and I come to correct her after that," and I discovered that that was not to be the case either. She has gone to your other four seminaries. In some sense it is the proper Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, plus Johann Sebastian Bach; and I think if I were you I would be very grateful to be Bach in that quartet.

I am delighted to be a part of this, and I understand the task that is before me, which is to try to make sense both of the title and of the lecture description which others have written for me. We all know the curse of the title. We Baptists are keen on sermon titles--I don't know whether or not you Lutherans use them, but we are keen--because only if we can give it a title do we know what it is we are talking about.

The title that has been given to this series is "Biblical Preaching in Babel: Preaching in a Post-Christian World," and there is a set of questions that this brochure poses, which I trust you have seen, which Professor Lundblad and I are to deal with in one way or another. I actually am going to try to do that. Here are your questions. I didn't formulate them, but I shall certainly try to answer them.

1. What does genuinely Christian preaching look like in this extraordinary, complex cultural and linguistic situation?

2. What challenges must be addressed? (This is the subject of the present lecture.)

3. What dangers threaten in this context and what new resources and opportunities does this situation present? (That is the subject for the next lecture.)

Now, you may wonder, to what situation do these formulations refer? They refer to the first paragraph of your brochure:

One feature of contemporary life that indicates that we live in post-Christendom is the fact that a preacher cannot suppose that her hearers generally share a broad familiarity with the Bible. Few of its stories are common currency, much of its vocabulary rings strange in many ears, and a great number of persons never or only rarely employ its declarations, themes, and images in interpreting their lives and the world. The preacher today cannot presume that they all speak any common language, large migrations have mixed formerly isolated groups, and rapid change has so differentiated generations that even many small-town communities are now astonishingly diverse. The supplanting of mass media by niche media, such as 200-channel cable television and the Internet, makes it less likely that people share common experiences and stories. The great question is, in that context, in that setting, how does one preach, and how does one preach biblically, if in fact we are speaking different languages and often languages in conflict with one another?

So, it is to the dilemmas, the challenges, the opportunities of biblical preaching in what this paradigm describes as a "post-Christian world," that the formulations refer.

Well, I want to challenge the paradigm, which is why I have called this first lecture "The Death of a Paradigm," and I hope to exhume the paradigm, examine it, perform a proper autopsy on it, and then give the paradigm a decent burial so that we might get on to other matters.

I have to address, however, the question straight on, and the assumption behind it is that "post-Christian" means that nobody speaks our language; that is, nobody has the shared experiences or expectations or vocabulary which our ancestors, our predecessors, could have presupposed. The second assumption of that paradigm is that nobody is interested in our language, that what we say and what we write is of no particular consequence to anybody in general or in particular. We preachers are, in effect, literally speaking in someone else's sleep, and as a result of that we are continuing to use the same images, languages, and theorems that we have always used, but it is as if people are overhearing what we are saying in a badly-remembered foreign language.

I used this instance in a part of The Good Book, (1) when I said that it was very much like people having been educated in high school French. We all know how terrible high school French can be: three years, and we can't even read the menu in a third-rate restaurant. Then we go on a school trip abroad to Paris, and in the most humiliating of all experiences we listen to people who actually do know French and are speaking in French, and we overhear and understand maybe one out of fifteen words and no syntax. It is frustrating, and eventually we give up.

In some sense that is the theory behind our dilemma of preaching in this postChristian age. The consequence of accepting that paradigm is that we have grown comfortable with it, and we actually don't expect anybody to understand what we say, but rather we expect to go through the pantomime, go through the motions, and as long as nobody calls the other on the motions we maintain for this enterprise, this sort of rhetorical shadowboxing, we accept this paradigm and we go with the assumption, joined by the general dumbing-down of everything. We reduce it all to the shortest possible level of complexity, and in a way find ourselves living not a mural nor a painting, not even a drawing nor an etching, but a cartoon; and not altogether a favorable cartoon but a small representation of what once was.

Now, there are a couple of ways of responding to the paradigm without disputing its truth. One is a certain kind of cultural nostalgia, and lots of my friends in religion love this kind of cultural nostalgia. "In the old days, you know," they say, "this church used to be filled on Sunday morning. We had an evening service, too, we used to present sixty or seventy people for confirmation, and Pastor So-and-So was a very learned man and was listened to by the School Committee, and people tipped their hats to him as he walked down the street; in the old days we used to have that sort of thing." You can fill in the blanks; every one of you has someone in your church who is an expert on the way things used to be. Most of them run your churches, and at the drop of a hat there is a cultural nostalgia about the fact that the culture has run away from us, yet we're still doing the same faithful and good things; the culture has just gone on to other things.

This is not just a lay phenomenon; it is also a clerical phenomenon. You get the clergy together in continuing education or on retreats or on governing bodies' activities, and sooner rather than later a nostalgia for an imagined golden age will come, and the golden age is always five years after you have left wherever you last were. That is how the golden age is defined. Something is missing, we have lost something, we have been deprived of something, and hence our response to this lost golden age is either to try to recover it in some way, figuring out what worked then and trying to bring it back, which usually doesn't work, or simply to concede the whole thing as a lost cause and try to figure out how we can turn what we do into the closest semblance of the David Letterman show or the Jay Leno show or any other of the cultural artifacts that seem actually to work in our time.

I suggest that this is not the only way to respond, and in our effort to answer the questions about biblical preaching in Babel we have to ask some basic questions about the nature of Babel, in the first place, and the nature of preaching, in the second, and where we stand. That is what I would like to do now.

I begin with three pieces of writing, with which at least two will be relatively familiar to those of us who are seminary types. In my sophomore year in college, in the fall term of 1963, we were given a book that we had to read in Religion 101. Now, if you want to know one of the lost paradigms, it is Religion 101. In the olden days, everybody who went to any decent liberal arts college in North America took Religion 101, and when you didn't "take" it, it was forced upon you as a required course. It was assumed that every 17- to 18-yearold student going to private liberal arts colleges, most of which had some Christian origins, would be provided a kind of thoughtful introduction that would undo everything they had been taught in Sunday School and give them something a lot more demanding and better. Religion 101 was one of the basics of our education into a larger culture, now largely vanished in most schools.

It was in Religion 101 at Bates College in 1963 that we were given by our rigorous young instructor a thin little book to read, called Honest to God, (2) by an obscure--at least to us--English bishop, John A. T. Robinson. I read Honest to God in a single sitting, which was easy to do with that thin book, and it was surprisingly easy to read, and I was suspicious of the book because I seemingly understood it; and my basic theory about theology was that if I understood it it wasn't very good, and that the more obscure it was, the better it was for me--sort of a Lutheran principle there, don't you think? The harder it is, the better is for you ! So when I started to read Honest to God and discovered that I understood it and, surprisingly, that I agreed with it, and, third, that I found that it was reassuring to discover that this 18-year-old kid from the country and a country school had ideas that were affirmed and developed and carried forward by one of the great theologians of the church, it was an exciting moment for me. I didn't have to put up with the scissors-and-paste attempts of my pious but terribly uninformed Sunday School teachers to try to make sense of the questions that any intelligent Christian would propose to ask.

So, here was something that actually addressed my condition; and I would say, contrary to the controversy that Honest to God provoked in its own time and a little bit afterward, that instead of challenging my faith in the wrong way and tossing me off my theological, hobby-horse, it actually preserved the Christian faith for me. It made me, I hope, a thinking and thoughtful believer. Up to that time, I thought that these two elements were in opposition: that you either believed something and weren't very bright, or you were very bright and didn't believe anything. I wanted to be very bright, that's why I went off to college and why my parents were paying the exorbitant fees of $2,500 per year to send me: I jolly well wanted to be bright; but how was I to do that and retain the second-grade theological education that I had got in Sunday School? How could I live off the rather anemic diet of my well-beloved pastor, who really hadn't moved very far down the road? Honest to God helped me to do it, and Honest to God put these two things together; but Honest to God also introduced a paradigm that suggests, even today, that if you're going to be honest to God you're going to have to leave the church and the Bible behind. That is not what Bishop Robinson said, but that is the easy construction that many people have put upon it.

Two years later I was in my first year at Harvard Divinity School. You see, Honest to God took, and I decided that Harvard Divinity School was where I wanted to go. My church prayed for me because I was going to Harvard Divinity School, and although I had thought they were praying God's blessing upon me, they were praying that God would move me toward a Christian school and not to Harvard Divinity School. God sent me there, however, and in the fall of that year another book was given to me to read, The Secular City, and this was by my present colleague Harvey Cox, and if there were doubts announced by Honest to God in 1963, by the time The Secular City came out, most pious Christians felt that the world was pretty rapidly moving farther away from us than we were willing to go, and the paradigm of the postChristian age was very much set into place.

In 1977, a good deal later, a third piece of writing came out, not anywhere nearly as ballyhooed as the first two, but to my mind perhaps the most accurate marker of the second half of the twentieth century. It wasn't by a theologian or even by a Christian. It was an article by the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, and it was called The Return of the Sacred, and its thesis, in the middle of assumptions about the secularization process and the modern religious world, was the theory of the exhaustion of modernity. In other words, it took a sociologist to recognize that while there may be problems with the church and problems with the Bible and with individual communities of faith surrounded by an emergent and self-confident and arrogant secular world, there was nothing that really could be done with the fundamental questions that continue to be asked by people: Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I meant to do? What is the meaning of life?

What is my origin and destiny? Those are questions that cannot be suppressed, nor can they be satisfied, and ultimately modernity's attempt to do so--to say we have the answers or the questions aren't worth answering--were not satisfactory. What Bell says is that when modernity itself is exhausted as an unsatisfying solace and even bankrupt concept, what remains when unbelief has gone?

All of this is to suggest, at least as far as I'm concerned, that the paradigm that is dead is the paradigm of modernity and its absolute sense of self-confidence and self-assurance. It is dead, and what remains when unbelief has gone presents a tremendous opportunity to the communities of faith, and to the Christian faith in particular, and to preachers of the Christian faith and the Bible. It presents an opportunity to likes of which we have never experienced. This is why I wish to declare to you that I think this is the most exciting, demanding, thrilling time to be around. It is the most exciting moment for preaching that I can imagine, and I would not exchange twenty-four hours with John Wesley, or Dwight L. Moody, or John Bunyan, or any of those great preachers of the past. I wouldn't give five minutes, with all due respect, for a conference with Dr. Luther, fine as he was, and fine as he is, because that's not where it's at, so to speak. Those fellows had their moments and their day, and they lived in a world remarkably different from ours. I am thrilled to be here now, for this may well be the first time the world is ready, and perhaps even willing, to hear the good news, because it has lived so long with bad news. That means that it is a great moment for preachers and for preaching.

Let me illustrate. When I went to The Memorial Church as an assistant in 1970, and succeeded my senior in 1974, people laughed at me and said, "Poor you! You are going to go to a place filled with people who are smarter than you are" (which is definitely the case) "and who really don't care or know anything about the one thing you care about and know something about."

I thought about that, and the analysis was that these people had moved well beyond the Bible, and that most of these people had never moved into the Bible; it is a foreign book, it is a phenomenon very much like the paradigm described in the opening paragraph of your brochure. No one speaks the language, nobody has the vocabulary, nobody has the words, they think the epistles are the wives of the apostles; they don't know the difference, and does it matter to them? So, pity me, standing up there armed with only these sixty-six canonical books, trying to speak about the Bible to people who are well on the other side of that language.

I thought about that for a while, and then I realized what a golden opportunity I had, what a first-rate chance this was for a preacher!

Now, if I went to my little First Baptist Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with seventy elderly souls there on a Sunday morning, and proceeded to preach on the Prodigal Son, how many times do you think those seventy people in their eighty years have heard about the Prodigal Son? Been there, done that, and there is not a thing you can tell them that they don't already know. They think, "Oh, he's going with the father; oh, he's going with the elder brother; no, he's going with the swine.... "They've heard it all. If you have a congregation of very intelligent people who know nothing, however, you have arrived in homiletical heaven!

So, for thirty-two years I have preached to the most intelligent, biblically ignorant people I know, and as our introducer has said, it has made my reputation. I don't know whether you would have invited me were I the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Plymouth, but I doubt it very much; you might not even have invited me had I been at Yale. You're all snobs, and you invited me because I'm at Harvard, and you assume that if I've survived there I must have something to say.

Well, I have a lot to say, and the thrilling part is that I have a lot to say to people who are prepared to listen, because this is the one thing they don't know very much about; and no one compels them to come, there is no social reward or academic credit for doing so. They come because they're interested. Most of them come not out of habit, because most of them are not from church families or brought up in a house of faith, and this is new to them, terra incognita. So, I pass this along as a paradigm for the much larger situation: Most of us are now preaching to people who know less about the Bible than their parents and their grandparents and their great-grandparents. Rather than seeing this as a moment for despair and tossing in the towel, though, and saying, "Well, we must find a new book to preach from," maybe it is just this moment, just this opportunity, that we can take to make the old book new, and perhaps find that people are amazed to discover what's in it.

Yesterday I was preaching in The Memorial Church. After Easter I always try to manifest the fact that the gospel is alive and that Easter is not just the end of Lent but the beginning of a whole new dimension and dynamics, so yesterday I was talking about "Things Worth Fighting For," and it was a sermon based on Paul's advice to Timothy to fight the good fight of faith. In 1 Timothy 6 there is a list of things worth fighting for, which are listed in the confession of the faith, such as righteousness, kindness, gentleness--one of those lists of virtues. I tried to suggest that the fight that Paul is inviting Timothy to proclaim and to engage in is not a kind of militant thing with our political or cultural foes, but in many ways a fight between the two levels of our consciousness--the easy wrong, the difficult right--those warring members of which St. Paul speaks. If that fight of faith is managed and maintained, then we are armed and empowered to fight the greater battles with which we must contend every day.

It is a small point, but a point worth making, and it was a new point to most of these people. I illustrated it with the very familiar story of David and Goliath, and I said to them at the beginning of the sermon that I was sure they were all relieved that in the first lesson of the morning was a story that they vaguely remembered. They remembered who won; David won over Goliath--David was the little one, Goliath was the big one. They got it. So far, so good! The point, of course, was that even in the text in 1 Samuel, the battle which David waged with Goliath was relatively easy compared with the ultimate battle that he had to wage with himself, which he lost. That battle between the good fella, who knew that it wasn't a nice thing to be spying on Mrs. Uriah the Hittite, and the bad thing, about which God always reminded him, which caused him to cause Uriah to be killed in battle so he might make off with his widow. It was easier to slay Goliath with a sword than to prevail in that internal trouble, and that was why he lost. Even though he remained the apple of God's eye, that was why he lost the battle for faith, of which Paul speaks in Timothy.

Now, I don't offer that as the last word or the most urbane or sophisticated reading of those texts, but I was able to say it because I knew these people would listen because they hadn't heard it before, that they were not so overly familiar with it that they would just ho-hum and fast-forward to the end and wait for the last hymn; and that there was some possibility for newness in there that could actually be applied to their own circumstances, to their own existential being. This is why I say it is exciting to be alive and around for preaching at "such a time as this," as we remember from the book of Esther, because this is not only a "teachable moment," as the pope is fond of saying, but it is also a listening moment.

If you have noticed in your congregations, since September 11 of 2001, people are prepared to listen a little more closely than they might have before. We can't build our whole edifice, our whole household of faith, upon the embers of that tragedy, but it is noteworthy that a woman of my congregation said to me, oh, in about the middle of November, "Are we using a different translation of the psalms?" I said, "No, it's the same old one. Why do you ask?" She said, "They certainly sound different to me now." I will say that September 11 didn't bring this all on; September 11 is just one more piece of where we are now, which means, in my opinion, that we have never had a more propitious moment for a favorable work.

Let me illustrate this again, in another way. Last Commencement day at Harvard [2001] we had the usual three student speeches. We are blessed at Harvard in not having some imported windbag sound off to us in the Commencement exercises in the morning. They do it in the afternoon, but in the morning, where the students are, and their parents and friends, and thirty-two thousand other people in the College Yard, we do what we have done since 1642: we have student speakers, now only three. One speech is given in Latin by a College senior--so, effectively, there are only two speeches that you have to listen to--one in English by a College senior, and the third, also in English, by a professional degree candidate.

The undergraduate English oration was given by a student whom I have come to know very well and for whom I have enormous regard. Now, if you have sat on the Commencement platform for thirty-two years, you feel that you have heard it all and that there is very little new that can be said and few cliches that have not been run around the track. So, you sit back and wait for lunch. This boy, however, stood up and gave the usual recital of the Harvard greats: John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Harvard graduates; Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, Harvard graduates; John F. Kennedy, Harvard graduate; Helen Keller, Radcliffe graduate; and he went down the list of all those great and heroic names because of whom we pay thirty-five thousand dollars a year to go to Harvard. At the end he said, "What have they all in common?" There was a collective breath taken in by the audience, and he answered his own question: "They're all dead ! That's what they have in common: they are all dead! That Was then, this is now, and this is our moment." Knowing that he had his audience, he continued, "What will be our invitation, our summons, to noble purpose?" He said, "I am 22 years old, and when my father was 22 years old he was dealing with the war in Vietnam; when my grandfather was 22 years old he was dealing with World War II," and he went back and forth. Then he asked, "What will be our moment? What will summon greatness to us? What will we hear for the first time in our time that will make a difference?"

That was on the eighth of June. On September 11, this boy heard the siren call and enlisted where he now is, in the Officer Candidate School of the United States Marine Corps, to the horror of his parents and consternation of his friends. His astonishing sense now, which he communicated to me on Easter Sunday when he came back, having just been commissioned, is that he doesn't have all the answer--he isn't one of those smarty-pants who has all the answers--but he felt for the first time in his life that here was an opportunity to serve a moment of noble purpose, and he was hungry for such an opportunity.

I think people across our culture are hungry for such an opportunity. The blush has gone off the rose of modernity. We are not such self-confident, self-assertive people as we once thought we were; we don't know all that we thought that we once knew. We wander in confusion. We look and wonder, "Has anybody else ever been in this situation? Are we the first people to encounter turbulence, tribulation in the world? Are we the first people to ask about the mysteries of birth, the compounding realities of life, the ultimate mystery of death? Are we the first people to be able to ask these existential questions about meaning, and are we satisfied with the answers that are offered to us twenty-four hours a day on three hundred cable channel television stations, talk radio, and in USA Today? Is that meeting our fundamental needs?

You know that the answer to that is No! People are starving. There is a spiritual anemia which is manifesting itself in strange and bizarre ways. You go into the book stores, any of the big chains, and once upon a time there was a section called "Religion." You'd go there and you'd find The Interpreter's Bible, which you were all brought up on, you'd find a lot of stuff from Billy Graham, there would be Catherine Marshall--a book a day by Catherine Marshall--a lot of religious education stuff, and so forth. Well, go to a book store today, and the Religion section has become very small, if you've noticed, with really hardcore Bible stuff, and the "Spirituality" section has got bigger and bigger and bigger. You can find the Spirituality section in any bookstore because that is where the incense is burning; you just follow your nose, and there will be some beanbag chairs and some very strange people, and that is the Spirituality section.

Now, I don't knock spirituality. I think it is one of these vague buzz words, but I know what it means. It means that people have not yet found satisfactory answers to their questions and have not even yet found a satisfactory way to ask the questions, which leads me to think that we have been here before.

There is a whole book about all of this, this human dilemma, this connection between the spiritual and the divine, this great wandering after false gods and then this claiming and being called "home"; this sense of giving priority and purpose, that takes difficulties and dangers seriously and offers no quick, no cheap, no easy answers but only the ultimate direction in which to look for them. That book is our book, the Bible. We, strangely enough, have custody of it, because the culture by and large is not all that interested in it. It is ours--ours to open, to proclaim, to teach from, as it were, for the first time.

Let me ask you: Where in the world is it--in your experience, either firsthand or anecdotal--that the Christian faith is flourishing? This will be a very hard question for you Lutherans to address, for it is not flourishing in the land of Luther, it is not flourishing in western Europe. Do you know that less than one half of one percent of the British population attends a Christian church once a year?--and that is in a culture which has been so nourishing of the western Christian tradition. Go to France: even less. Go to Germany: I'm not altogether sure, but you know that there are no bonfires of faith burning on the continent of Europe.

So where is it flourishing? It is in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and it is in the burned-out regions of urban North America and in strange suburban places in North America. The Bible comes to life where people are in a position to appreciate both the reality of tribulation, of trouble in the world, and the reality of a hope that transcends that tribulation and flourishes where people can be assured that they will hear from it, and that in hearing from it there will be a word that they can take seriously and be compelled by.

We live in what I call that difficult valley between history and hope. We have the glorious history of the past, which is fascinating and interesting and a noble and glorious inheritance, and yet we have this hope that is before us, which none of us has yet achieved, and we are in a valley between history and hope. As the hymn puts it, "Standing in the living present/Memory and hope between.... "

What does that mean? First, it means that the Bible has to be seen as a book about the future and not about the past, and that is very counterintuitive to your church and to mine. We think we have this treasure that we must hold onto, which was once appreciated and understood and is now in danger of being lost; and the only way we can hold onto our time and our people and our book is to let nothing happen to it that didn't happen to it in the past. This is called orthodoxy, and sometimes it can be very destructive. The thing that one must remember about the Bible, both in its construction and its content, is that it is a book that has always by definition looked forward and not backward. It is only the people who look backward. The book looks forward.

So, if you ask, "When was the golden age of preaching?" I would answer that there never was a golden age of preaching, there never was a golden age of the faith, there never was a golden age of spiritual attainment. We have not yet got there. Our journey is not to go back to some previous moment; it is to take the momentum of those previous moments and be pushed forward to that great and perfect day which is yet to come. This means that preaching's task is always constructive and not simply reconstructive. It is always moving forward, it is always realizing that God is always out there ahead of his people, his people are always trying to catch up; and our task as preachers and as friends of preachers is to facilitate that forward motion and direction.

At Easter we all say the same thing. When I was a very young man about to enter the ministry, I was terrified by the fact that after I preached my first Easter sermon there would be nothing else to say. What do you say? "He was dead. He was in the tomb. He rose. He lives." What other variations can you make on that? It's pretty difficult. Well, I've somehow managed to find something to say each Easter for these many years, and it usually is not quite the same thing, but there are three fundamental elements that are always there, and sometimes they provoke, but I hope in most cases they persuade people to do what I think was done on Easter morning.

1. I tell them that Easter is not just about Jesus, but about us. It is not just Jesus who is dead and raised, but we who are dead are to be raised, so don't just leave it all on Jesus.

2. It's not just about death being vanquished; it's about life being renewed and affirmed in the power of the Spirit.

3. It's not just about the past, and trying to prove the circumstances of Easter morning according to whichever synoptic you want to use. It's about the future, where the operative words that Jesus says to the women and to the apostles is, "It is as I said it would be," and the angel said it just right: "He goes before you, even as he said." He's always ahead of us, and we have to catch up.

It seems to me that that is the power that a world that is literally stuck in its tracks needs to hear. The things that the Christian church can proclaim through the witness of the Bible are the very things that this world does not know how to take very seriously.

Let me illustrate. I'm sure we can all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11, and more than that, we can remember the Sunday following September 11. My ushers were overwhelmed. My church begins at 11:00, and at 10:30 every seat in an eight-hundred-seat church was taken, and people were standing--and not like they do on Easter, though it was an Easter-sized crowd. Easter crowds are filled with very un-Christian people: "I want that seat! I have that seat; that seat was saved for somebody else; get outta there!" There are really bad scenes on Easter morning in most of our churches, but this wasn't like that at all, though it was the same kind of crowd. There was a very different demeanor, with a kind of listening moment that was extraordinary; and it seems to me that the sermons that will last from those days will not be the sermons of cheap and easy comfort, the sermons of a tinny patriotism. Those sermons will go to that great black hole where all bad sermons go.

The sermons that will last are those that suggest how to learn to live in the middle of adversity, not prosperity. Where did our faith begin? In adversity, not in prosperity. What was the fire that tempered the seal of our faith? It was not security, but suffering. What is the danger of which any faithful people have to be aware? That they are too good for bad things to happen to them. You will not hear that in The New York Times, you will not hear George Bush tell you that, you will not hear 90 percent of television and radio preachers and evangelists tell you that, because that is too hard to take except for those of us who have been nurtured in the gospel of Jesus Christ and who take tribulation seriously because we know "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Remember, "In this world ye shall have tribulation. So be of good cheer," says Jesus; "I have overcome the world."

It is only by the taking of tribulation seriously that we can take hope seriously, and hope is not mere optimism. Hope is what you have left when everything else, including optimism, has been taken away from you. You don't learn that in philosophy courses, and you ought to learn it in history but most people don't, but it is the meat, the marrow, and the morsel of the Bible. That is why that book is so precious to us, and it is why I am convinced that if it is rightly, wisely, and imaginatively opened, it will receive a new hearing among people hungry and thirsty for it.

How do we bring this to a useful conclusion, about this post-Christian age? Let me make it as clear as possible. I do not believe, my dear friends, that there ever has been a Christian age, so how can there be a post-Christian age? What age will you offer to me as an example of how the Christian life was properly led, from which we have departed? I defy anybody in this room to give me even a Christian decade, let alone a Christian age, in which this has all been done. You can't, and the reason you can't is that we're not there yet; we are still a work in progress. We are still trying to build the kingdom, we're not trying to reconstruct it--it's never been constructed. What is that great line? "Christianity is not a faith that has been tried and found wanting; it's a faith that's been wanted and never tried."

Here is a moment, a wake-up call, an opportunity; and so we're not living in a post-Christian age. Maybe the way to get people's attention is to say that we are living in a very sophisticated pre-Christian age, an age very much as the apostle Paul would recognize, with sophisticated pagan ideologies, temptations and seductions all around, dangers on every hand, and a huddled, shattered, faithful few hoping for the coming of the kingdom. We are much closer to the first half of first-century Christendom in the life of the apostle Paul than we have been at any point, it seems to me, in the last two thousand years.

Now, you just take that from one ordinary preacher, one ordinary church historian; you can chew it up and spit it out if you want, but you can't say you didn't hear it, and if you do say you heard it, please say you heard it from me.

This means, I think, that we have to--and this is where Jim Forbes likes to say that I stop preaching and commence to meddling--this is where I think we have to bring an end to what might be called--dare I say it?--conceits of the Reformation.

Now what might those conceits of the Reformation be? I'll give you three:

1. We can understand and explain everything. That is a conceit of the Reformation. The medieval Roman Catholic Church didn't try to explain very much, and it certainly didn't expect you or me to understand anything: great mystery, great confusion, great problems too, and I can understand that, but not this notion that somehow we can boil it all down and make sense of it. I go into the libraries of these four seminaries--I hope to go into yours tomorrow--and if I go into the right section I will see a shelf the length of that wall filled with red and blue bound volumes of the complete works of Dr. Luther. There was not a thought he had that he didn't commit to paper, and there was invariably somebody to translate it from German into English two and three times, so you have a whole wall full of all there is to know. Well, that is all very well and good, but that is not all there is to know, and this notion that we somehow, as Protestants, can understand and explain everything--not just as Protestants but as western Protestants, and not just as western Protestants but as American western Protestants, and not just as American western Protestants but as American western modern Protestants--that we have it all down; and that's why there's no more fun in it. It's all there, there is nothing left to break forth from out of God's marvelous word, and so we go on to other more interesting things. That is one conceit we should do away with. We can understand and explain everything? No. We can't.

2. Another Reformation conceit we may want to put away is that things are getting better. Well, all you have to do is reach the age of consent, or even the age of puberty, and you know things are not getting better and better and better; they're getting complicated, they're getting demanding, they're getting ambiguous, and in certain cases they're getting worse. That's an invitation to a certain kind of cultural modesty on our part, which is not one of those high virtues of Protestants, as we are not a modest people; we won, we say. Somebody has said, "One of the things the pope is going to ask the cardinals tomorrow, when he gets them all in front of him, is, 'How is it that the Roman Catholic church in America is the largest Protestant church in America?'" He's going to be very interested in the answer to that question. Some of us do say, "Yeah, right, if you only become like us you'll be all right, it'll all go away." Things are not getting better; that's an invitation to modesty.

3. The third conceit is that we are getting better. Some of you are old enough--I can tell by looking around, so don't pretend you're not--to remember M. Coue's idea, in the twenties and thirties, "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better and better." Things may not be getting better, but we are, we think, and we know that that's not true. We are in that position that T. S. Eliot wrote about nearly sixty-five years ago, in one of the Four Quartets, when he said that we spend all our energy "dreaming of systems so perfect that no one need ever be good."

Well, what's the bottom line? As my old predecessor and great teacher of preaching George Arthur Buttrick used to say, "What's the good news? Where's the good news in all of this for the culture, for the Bible, and for preachers?"

There is one thing that people need to hear, and that we need to say, and that is this, in the words of Bishop Fulton Sheen: "God does not love us because we are valuable. We are valuable because God loves us."

Remember Bishop Sheen, the Loretta Young who used to sweep in in his swirling robes, and do his thing? That was Bishop Sheen's line that has made its way into the anthologies, and it is a great word for a troubled and ignorant time; and that's where we are, in a troubled, ignorant, and fearful time. God doesn't love us because we are valuable, but we are valuable because God loves us; and who in the world will be able to proclaim that God loves us, but us? Where do we get proof of that but in this book, which is uniquely ours to share? Fred Buechner has a line addressed to those of us who are in this business, talking about our calling, our vocation--for nobody would do this who has any other option! I tell my students in the Divinity School, "If you have any other option, take it; don't do this, there are easier ways to make a living, and you'll make a much better living than you will if you go out as a preacher or a teacher. You will have to put up with the most difficult of people, live in drafty rectories, deal with ignorant superiors, and be scoffed at by your spiritual and intellectual inferiors. There are other ways, but if you can't avoid it, then you are truly called, this is your vocation;" and Buechner defines vocation as "That place where your great joy meets the world's great need." That's a wonderful line.

I have to confess, though, that joy is not the first word that leaps to my mind when I think of Luther. I know you're earnest, I know you're well informed, I know you're serious, and I know you're sincere; but joyful? I don't know about that. Maybe I've been listening too much to your great evangelist Garrison Keillor, and maybe he should change his lines; but how about a little joy? It is almost as if you might think that it may be true, and what a terrible thought, if it's all true, my God! Well, it is all true, and Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Your grimness will get you nothing, and nowhere, but your joy is contagious, and I suspect that there's a great deal more joy than earnestness in heaven. You don't have to be earnest in heaven, because you're there, it's done, it's achieved--"achieved is the glorious work"--and you're not earning up credits anywhere.

Here on earth, I know, we have to do a little work: how about a little anticipatory joy?

(1) Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (William Morrow, 1996; reprint, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).

(2) John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (Westminster John Knox, 1963; reprint 2003).

Peter J. Gomes

Plummer Professor of Christian Morals

and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Title Annotation:modernity's self-assurance
Author:Gomes, Peter J.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Aug 1, 2003
Words:7986
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