Read an Excerpt
Undone by Easter
Keeping Preaching Fresh
By William H. Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
My subject is how to preach the faith of the church—again? We preachers repeat ourselves. To be a faithful preacher is to be willing to preach the truth again and yet again. We've got fifty-two Sundays a year, without interruption. The Common Lectionary requires texts to roll around again every three years, like clockwork. I've preached the death and resurrection of Jesus repeatedly—at least 135 times (not counting a botched attempt as a seminarian in 1969). I ought to know something of the challenge of preaching even so stirring a story as Good Friday and Easter again. The Second Law of Thermodynamics declares that even the most heated outburst of energy immediately entropies. Everything is moving toward average, even the most brilliant sermons.
In one of my early congregations, Hubert Parris could always be counted upon, if the service stirred him, to stand and recount the story of his conversion again. He had narrated his conversion so many times I watched as young children mouthed the words before Hubert could repeat them—a little girl on the front row mouthing, in unison with Hubert, "I was sunk in sin. I was lost, lost, I tell you ...." The story of Hubert's Damascus Road Experience (which actually occurred on the highway headed toward Gainesville) went limp in the retelling. It was the again that got us.
Hubert is us preachers, even on Easter. The modern world makes neophiles of us all. That which is new is self-validated simply by being novel. Truth becomes truth when it is endorsed by my subjective recognition of it as new, by my excited acclamation, "How fabulously fresh!" Inner, subjective validation, in which my subjectivity becomes the supreme arbiter of all truth, is just one inheritance of modernity, that epoch that thought it had ended inheritance. Schleiermacher created modern theology when he made "God-consciousness" the proper subject matter for theology. Note that "God" is no longer the concern of theology now but rather our subjective "God-consciousness." Human experience of God is made more interesting than God.
A confession: as a child of modernity, I too am servant of novelty. One of the weaknesses in my preaching is the enjoyment of novelty engendered in me by twenty-five years of ministry in an academic community that tends to confuse innovation with intelligence and to hope that originality is a safeguard against mediocrity. That's the worst sort of book review: "This book tells the truth, but alas, it says nothing new." Every university town is Athens where, to paraphrase Acts 17:21, "they spent their time in talking about something new" (Greek: kainos).
I therefore confess a bit too much delight in cleverness—the gospel delivered with a lime twist. I have thrilled to some academic emerging from Sunday at Duke Chapel muttering, "That's so-o-o interesting! Haven't heard the story of the prodigal son from the point of view of the fatted calf. How deliciously novel!"
As a young pastor I imbibed Fred Craddock's Beecher Lectures, Overhearing the Gospel. Our problem, said Craddock, is that the gospel has been "over heard," preached and preached again until it went limp. We preachers must therefore find that Kierkegaardian ironic side door into the gospel, that stunningly new means of presentation whereby our hearers hear again as if for the first time.
Kierkegaard had the problem of boredom and faith ever before him. S.K. said that he took as his task "reintroducing Christianity into Christendom" after Christian language had become boringly wilted with thoughtless overuse. He attempted this by avoiding traditional Christian language, attempting to speak of the faith "in other words." Having no intention of theological innovation, S.K. wanted to say the same thing that Christianity had always said, but "in other words." The language of the church is bankrupt. Boredom is the great modern malady. Now all must be said "in other words."
Craddock's lectures traded heavily on Kierkegaard's statement that "in a Christian land there is no shortage of information about the gospel, what is needed is a new hearing of the gospel." (I discovered, in my own preaching since the seventies, that this is not a "Christian land" and there is a "shortage of information about the gospel.") Notice that what's needed is, according to S.K.'s construal of preaching, something about us rather than something about the gospel.
Back in the seventies, pastors were either guardians of the tradition— the faith delivered by the saints—or young bucks (like me and my buddies) who assaulted the tradition and mocked the saints. Today I spend most Sundays in congregations who are contemptuous of tradition, empty their auditoria of all historic Christian symbols, and try to look as much like a mall as possible, or as some say on their signs out front, "church for people who hate church."
"Take off that tie!" shouts an usher as I make my way in from the parking lot. "Do you take your latte with a touch of amaretto?" It is so much easier to change that which we fear (the gospel) than to risk change in ourselves by someone as challenging as Jesus.
All but one of my most rapidly growing congregations see themselves as aggressively innovative, making all things new. Churches that once prided themselves on being careful custodians of the past and cautious protectors of the status quo, have now become celebrators of and aggressive advocates for the current age. The eager discovery of "the next thing," once the province of theological liberals, has now become the specialty of so-called Evangelicals. Theological minimalism and reductionism among Evangelicals, where everything about the faith is reduced to "the message," conspire to produce a naive, enthusiastic embrace of the media of contemporary culture in worship with little worry that the content of Christian worship may be radically changed in the experiment.
Neophilia has become the status quo demanded by a capitalist economy. Neither Scripture nor the Christian tradition told these churches that "new" is the chief virtue of a church. What passes these days for new tends to be an uncritical capitulation to the culture, subservience to a "tradition" of the past three decades under the guise of innovation. In loving the new more than Jesus, we lay bare our deep accommodation to a capitalist culture. The market demands new in order to keep functioning. More consumers than believers, we shop for the "new and improved model" of faith "that works for me." Any church that acts like a shopping mall is sure to be treated that way.
Don't you find it curious that High Holy Days get "old" mostly for us preachers? Most of our people come to church on Christmas or Easter hoping to sing the same old hymns, to hear a familiar story. No layperson ever asked, "Easter? Again?" Most laity come to church on these high days hoping it will all be "again."
Is our boredom with the gospel simply an occupational hazard of being a preacher, of having to handle holy things repeatedly until they droop? Are our laity on to something in their inchoate sense that here our faith rises or falls, that here we are at the center of the story that can't be improved or expanded but only be reiterated? Perhaps our laity, failing to receive the benefits of a first-rate theological education, are less well defended against Jesus than we clergy, therefore to them, the good news of Jesus Christ stays news.
The Temptation of New
In 1913 the French writer Charles Péguy exuberantly pronounced "the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years." The birth of modernity was accompanied by unparalleled hubris. At last humanity had succeeded in doing something wonderfully new, newer than Jesus.
Modernity's self-congratulatory spirit was contested just a few years later by a bloody, pointless war, the invention of modernity's new world order. The brave new world—seen from the muddy mess of World War I—was cruel on a scale unknown in warfare thanks to a deadly concoction of the technological discoveries with the political science of modernity. And soon afterward the Second World War demonstrated that, morally speaking, we had learned little from the First. The modern world gave us not only better and bigger bombs but also the philosophical means to deploy them against civilians without even a twinge of conscience. Of course, like all modern wars, both World Wars were fought in order to make the world a better place.
Prominent German theologians told us that Christianity had overcome the primitive, archaic faith of Israel. Jews were not only questionable citizens of the New Germany but also relegated to the worst of fates—their religion was vestigial, out-of-date. Nazi ideologues exhibited the more somber side of the grand European Enlightenment. Voltaire not only gave us a world in which God had been left behind as the world moved onward and upward but also the bloodiest century we had ever known. Voltaire's snide references to the Jews were somehow connected to the smoke of Dachau. As Dostoevsky ironically commented, without God, anything is possible.
The self-importance of the modern, the sense that humanity was making all things new, continues into the present day which some call "postmodern." Postmodernity may be the latest phase of modernity's faith that novelty is progress, that destruction of the old is necessary to make way for the new and improved model, and that we are—all evidence to the contrary—progressing forward. What is called "postmodern" may simply be modernity raised to an even higher level of hubris—"most-modern."
Art critic Robert Hughes says that the primary emblem of the modern was the Eiffel Tower, finished in 1889, built as the centerpiece for the Paris World's Fair—a grand mechanical exhibition on the centenary of the godless French Revolution. Gustave Eiffel (an engineer, not an architect) designed a great tower with its top in the heavens (Genesis 11:1-9 leaps to mind) that would thrust itself, phallic-like, into the now emptied heavens. Having tamed the earth as our dominion, la France moderne would now claim the air. The past—previously esteemed by the human race—became the enemy, something limited and earthbound, something dreadful to be defeated. The tower would support a radio antenna, the source of new, humanly engendered revelation in a world now bereft of a Revealer. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire, ex-Catholic, in a mocking poem compared the tower to the Second Coming of Christ. Where Christ once left the earth to ascend into the heavens, now the tower "climbs skywards like Jesus," leading all blessed modern humanity in its wake.
A century after Péguy it is more difficult for us to muster ebullient delight in the avant-garde. The ascent of the tower was followed by a plummet into the grubby trenches of the Great War. About the time that work was begun on the glorious new tower, we invented the recoil-operated machine gun.
Not everyone thought positively about the new and the modern. Back in 1818 Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Some warned that the mechanical paradise would lead to a desolate hell. Today when we see an automobile, we tend not to think of one giant step forward for humanity but rather of toxic pollution, a mechanical servant that has become our menacing master. It's difficult to get anyone to say a good word for the godless, technologically induced future other than intellectual throwbacks like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. For those who think more deeply, modernity appears anything but grand. The new has been subjected to almost a century of critique as we learned the hard truth that not every step forward is evolutionary progress and that in each new dawning day, while something is gained, something is lost and the loss may be painful. The modern notion (a mix of Enlightenment and Romantic delusions) that history is actually moving somewhere—onward and upward—has been exchanged for postmodern cynicism that history is going nowhere.
The real killer of the idea of progress is evil. As a young pastor, Karl Barth picked up the morning newspaper and there read a "Declaration of Support" for the Imperial German war effort, a statement signed by some of his most admired seminary professors. That declaration made Barth question what he had been taught by his professors, realizing that all of his received theology was tainted by the lies of modernity. Thus began Barth's great theological rebirth, which was also an escape from the debilitating grip of the new.
As Liberal Protestantism dies, the last words upon its lips are, "Progressive Christianity." In modernity, even those who are falling down and backward have the illusion that they are climbing upward and forward. "Progressive Christianity" will never take hold in Germany. Progressive is a peculiarly American appellation for the Christian 0faith, sign of our failure to come to terms with the somber side of modernity. The Germans learned too much about themselves—the hard way—in the twentieth century, to think of the term progressive as anything but ugly.
The Christian story is not about humanity gradually, but surely, going onward and upward—Progressive Christianity!—but rather about a God who descends in the darkness to rescue humanity from its downward spiraling plight.
The Temptation to Be at Home in Time
The Bible is obsessed with time, containing over eight hundred references to the subject. While Scripture frequently depicts sacred places, holy space, it more often is concerned with sacred time. "What, then, is time?" asked Augustine. He answered that he knew well enough what time is, but if anybody asked him to explain time "I am baffled." Although I respect the difficulty of attempting to analyze time, much less explain it, even for so great a mind as Augustine, I doubt that many of us really know, even inchoately, what time is, or more importantly, what time is now. One of the pressing questions before the church, anytime we gather, is "What time is it?"
The world's time is not kept by the church. "The church is not the world." On this "humble fact," says James McClendon, theology begins. John Howard Yoder said that the church has friction with the world because what Scripture names as "world" is "structured unbelief," a "demonic blend of order and revolt" from the world's true Lord. The world's time is a component in Yoder's "demonic blend." As Karl Barth said (in Evangelical Theology), "Israel means 'contend against God,' not 'contend for God.'" The church's contention against God takes many forms. One form of Constantinian resistance to the gospel is to sanctify the world's order, to become dependable patriots rather than restless pilgrims, for the church to be at home in the world's time. Yoder called it the "Solomonic Temptation"—the sacralization of the emperor's time in order to make the state the functional equivalent of God. Visit the mall in Washington, D.C., and you will note large, heavy, pagan-inspired granite buildings, all bigger than they need to be, all made to look as if the United States is eternal, as if Thomas Jefferson is forever.
There is a reason our civic architecture is indebted to imperial Rome. Classical literature, philosophy, and art have as their theme the capturing of the eternal. Pagan civilization rests upon the fear, expressed as a question by Aristotle: "Can it be that all things pass away?" By thinking this, or building that, or endowing this chair in the university (or publishing this important book!) we shall not die. We shall go on forever. We have it in our hands—through Platonic philosophy or steel frame construction, to be immortal.
The first three miracles in John's Gospel are Jesus' direct challenge to three great gods of the imperial world—Dionysus who presumed to have a monopoly on turning water to wine, Demeter who thought that she was the source of bread, and Asclepius who reputedly managed the health care delivery system. My point here is that Jesus also challenged Chronos, retrieving time from the grip of a fake god. True, Scripture definitely depicts time as the cycle of recurring seasons, natural time (Gen 1:5, 2:1-3; Eccl 1:4; Ps 78:5-7). Yet the Bible seems more concerned with disrupted, eschatological time, time in which God takes time for God's own purposes, thus disrupting cyclic, natural time (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 6:2).
As William Cavanaugh notes, the purpose of the Constantinian (that is, pagan) eternality project was to make ourselves at home in the world's time. Caesar has a stake in people believing that the cyclic passage of natural time is all there is. Cavanaugh calls Constantinianism "an escha-tological heresy." This age, as we have developed it, is normal. There is nothing more. What we have built will last. It is normal. We shall be like gods, for what does any pagan want of a god other than eternality?
Excerpted from Undone by Easter by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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