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The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching
Becoming Responsible for the Faith We Proclaim
By Robert Stephen Reid, Lucy Lind Hogan
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
What Bob remembers the most is the moment during his sermon on the evils of gambling when the preacher stepped over the line. The preacher was earnest and clearly well meaning. He clutched his Bible as he spoke, as if its visible presence substantiated the truths of his lesson. The moment occurred while he was deep into describing how the sin of gambling is one of the principal ways the devil takes hold of the soul of a man to devour him.
Gambling parlors, we were told, were dens of iniquity to be avoided at all costs. A young person then, Bob had no idea where he might go to gamble, let alone why it would be a parlor. Slot machines, roulette wheels, cards, and the other paraphernalia of gambling were lifted up one by one in the sermon and properly vilified as the means of traducing men away from their godly commitment to provide for their families.
Then came the moment when the preacher singled out the evils of dice.
Something about dice clearly transfixed this man. Dice were not just used for immoral purposes; they were "evil in and of themselves." To hold dice in your hands was to actually be in the grip of evil.
Brash teenager that he was when he heard this sermon, Bob waited for the greeting line to thin out. With his friends watching and with all the impertinence of youth, he shook the pastor's hand and asked, "Pastor, if dice are evil in and of themselves, is it evil to play Monopoly?"
The pastor paled; he loved to play Monopoly with his family. Yet, the implications of the sermonic claim had been challenged. What most people present had experienced as simple, down-home, country-style preaching, carried away in naming and warning parishioners to avoid the temptations of sin, had been called out. In his effort to underscore his point about temptation, the pastor had engaged in the preacherly practice of overreaching to make a point. It was hardly irresponsible behavior. But right there, in the greeting line, is where the true sermonic misstep occurred.
"I'll never play Monopoly again."
It was as if Bob had caught him in an unknowing sin. Having become aware of it, his only option was to forswear now and forever any recourse to its seductions. That was the moment the preacher stepped through the looking glass. Both he and Bob knew there was nothing wrong with Monopoly dice. But rather than back off of a simple sermonic embellishment, rather than risk appearing to be an unreliable interpreter of God's word, he dogmatically reified his claim: all dice are evil. He had been pushed to a pastoral precipice and chose to step off the edge rather than allow his reliability as a faithful interpreter of God's truth to be placed in peril.
Of course, the irony is whatever faith Bob and the other watching teenagers had placed in their preacher's interpretive office was dispelled that day. His unwillingness to back off of a patently absurd claim made him appear unreliable in their eyes.
Bob's story is hardly an isolated instance of watching a preacher misstep. Some cases are more egregious than others, but there is no end to the stories that can be told of preachers who misstep and misspeak in matters of faith. Lucy and Bob would be the first to admit that in their thirty years of preaching each of them can recall many occasions when they realized, in hindsight, that they stepped over a line. So when does a misstep become irresponsible?
Most parishioners are more forgiving than brash teenagers. They overlook the occasional missteps on the part of their pastor who has demonstrated his or her care in so many other ways. Just as in friendships and marriage, missteps on the part of one person in a relationship are instances of normal human failings and idiosyncrasies. We all experience these regularly, forgive them, forget them, or simply see them as minor and sometimes even endearing flaws in the people we love. But when missteps become a pattern that gains prominence in a person's behavior, they often lead to irresponsible practice. In the pulpit this tendency can lead to what we call irresponsible preaching—a situation in which our trust in the minister should be called into question.
More than any other issue, the question of plagiarizing sermons has made preachers acutely aware of how the misstep of namelessly borrowing sermon material can turn from a time-crunch temptation into a pattern of practice. And although Bob was simply amused at his pastor's misstep, a colleague of Lucy was far from amused when she discovered that her pastor was preaching other people's sermons without attribution. That pastor had arrived as a highly respected preacher to occupy a premier pulpit in Washington, DC. Yet, soon after his arrival she realized he was preaching sermons downloaded from the Internet. Lucy's friend felt betrayed. How could she trust anything her pastor said or did once she realized his preaching ministry was pretense?
Homileticians Joseph Jeter and Anna Carter Florence claim that regular borrowing and outright stealing from the extraordinary amount of resources available to preachers on the Internet can become an addiction. What begins as research thoughtfully engaging a biblical text can easily become a timesaving choice simply to copy and paste someone else's witness to faith and then present it as one's own. It's a problem because it's not just the words that are borrowed; it's the witness that is borrowed as well. Good sermons arise as part of the preacher's dialogue with Scripture, self, potential listeners, experience, a theological tradition, the culture's questions, and with the reflections other preachers have tendered on the subject. When it stops being a dialogue, then it stops being a sermon. It becomes a reading of someone else's sermon or a pastiche of sermonic reflections by others. In the end it is an issue of trustworthiness. Is the preacher giving witness to his or her own faith or the faith of another? Can the congregation trust that what the preacher proclaims is honestly his or her own convictions about God and faith? We will return to a discussion of this vice in the next chapter.
Plagiarism is simply one of a number of bad habits preachers can fall into as a practice. Most preachers would be chagrined to discover that people—even their own parishioners—might view some of their pulpit practices as unethical. Formal ministerial codes of ethics as formulated by denominations rarely if ever venture into the waters of identifying responsible and irresponsible pulpit conduct. And when the subject of ethics is raised in seminary homiletics courses it typically is treated as a theological concern of preaching rather than as an expressive function of its practice. Textbooks on practical ministerial ethics are more apt to discuss responsible and irresponsible behaviors in the pulpit. Yet even here most of this advice is reserved for the interpersonal activities of pastoral ministry rather than for the homiletical practice itself. And when they do take up the subject it tends to be occasional (what comes to the minds of the writers) rather than something grounded in a particular approach to ethical practice. What appears to be largely absent in current literature on preaching is a practical book that identifies a continuum of the virtues and vices of pulpit practice.
NEEDED: A PRACTICAL ETHNICS OF PREACHING
Most preachers do not set out to misspeak or to preach irresponsibly. It is the rare preacher who graduates from seminary thinking, "From now on I won't ever have to write another paper or sermon again. I'll just download my sermons from the Internet."
Nevertheless, irresponsible preaching represents an ethical failure by the minister. In part it occurs when the braking system that should keep such failures from occurring is somehow ineffective or absent. It also occurs when preachers fail to either identify or at least truly make their own some criterion of responsible pulpit practice. These need to be practices that both honor God and honor the preacher's listeners.
In this book we invite you to identify and reflect on both the virtues and vices that preachers do well to observe. Our goal is modest. Though it certainly participates in the genre of ethical reflection, this book is not intended to serve as a fully developed ethics of preaching. Rather, we offer it to readers as a contribution to virtue ethics literature. As such, we begin by grounding our notion of Christian ethics in the character of the preacher. Historically ethics has tried to arrive at a descriptive notion of the good and derive from it prescriptive notions about moral oughts. But contemporary philosophical ethics is fraught with problems in trying to arrive at the criterion for all this. The question always boils down to whose good and which oughts? In this volume, we do not assume that there are commonly accepted grounds for determining what ethics is (its description) or what it is for (its prescriptions). For this reason we take the approach that a practical ethics of preaching should be grounded in the character of the individual and in a tradition of virtues that support practices characterized by integrity.
An illustration may help here. One cannot determine whether an action should take place without first considering whom the person is who is taking the action. Most of us believe it is wrong for a person to fire a weapon at another individual for the purpose of maiming or even killing that person. We can, however, imagine that this action could be responsible and appropriate for an officer of the law. But even when an officer-involved shooting occurs, we believe that the character of that officer should be examined. Has this officer been involved in too many such shootings? Did the situation justify excessive force? The character of the individual and how a community understands the action that took place are all involved in determining whether the practice should be considered a responsible or an irresponsible exercise of force. The fact that we believe the character of the officer involved in the shooting should be examined is a way of admitting that, drastic as the situation that called forth the action may have been, it can still be considered virtuous. Acceptance of what otherwise would be a terrible action functionally supports a notion of civility in our common commitment to living together in community.
If we apply the same consideration to the practice of preaching, character is always at the center of ethical conduct and clergy should speak and act virtuously in the pulpit because not to do so, over time, is to model a vision of character incapable of sustaining what it means to participate in a communio sanctorum. This is Calvin's phrase for the community of saints divinely chosen to fulfill their vocation in glorifying God's name. When a preacher borrows material and presents it as his or her own, or regularly chooses to pander to the trendy interests of listeners rather than to present the gospel, that preacher shapes the character of what counts as faith and faithfulness for the congregation, whether he or she is aware of the pretense or not.
What matters from this viewpoint is not the fateful decision to engage in some unethical or less-than-responsible activity. In our experience preachers rarely face the yawning chasm of a do-or-die ethical choice in preaching. Rather, irresponsible preaching happens because a minister discovers that unthinking mistakes did not raise any dust. Going down this pathway, what we term a misstep may actually be quite well received by a congregation. What started as a misstep eventually becomes justified as the preacher's acceptable norm of practice, and the seed of irresponsible preaching is born. It is the sum of steps that create a practice, whether for good or ill. However, when individuals rely on the integrity of making responsible choices in preaching, they contribute to forming the communio sanctorum.
Our commitment to this belief leads us to affirm that a responsible ethics of preaching is embodied in both how choices are made and in the character of the one who makes the choices. Where traditional ethics often focus on the anticipated end products of actions, this conception of ethics assumes that the issue of who is doing the preaching and the choices he or she is making is what matters formatively for the faith of the community and for that person's own faith formation. Our approach participates in the tradition of ethical reflection on virtues as a way of looking at how consistent moral behavior, seen or unseen, sustains an ethic of homiletic faithfulness to God and reliability for listeners.
SIX DEADLY SINS? I THOUGHT THERE WERE SEVEN!
We all love lists. Turn to USA Today or any number of websites and you will find lists of everything imaginable, from the best and worst places to live to the ten fruits and vegetables guaranteed to melt away the pounds. This love of lists is nothing new. Moses traveled up the mount to meet God and returned with what? A list. In Proverbs we are told that:
There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination ... haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family. (Prov. 6:16-19)
Paul loved lists, too. His letters are filled with them: gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-11), fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), the various members of the body (1 Cor. 12:27-30), and the dreaded works of the flesh—sorcery, quarrelling, and carousing, to name only three of fifteen (Gal. 5:19-21).
For years, Lucy has invited students in her introductory preaching class to write reflections on the preachers they want to be like and preachers they do not want to emulate. Then she asks them to identify the qualities, the characteristics, and the virtues and vices of these preachers. Their reflections stimulate a lively discussion and fascinating lists of "Good Preaching/Preachers" on one side of a blackboard and "Not-Good Preaching/Preachers" on the other. What surprises Lucy each year is that the "Not-Good" list is much longer, and the discussion of those preachers/characteristics is much livelier.
When Jerusalem met Athens, the "Thou Shalts and Shalt Nots" of the Hebrew commandments met the Greek and Roman classical preoccupation with virtues and vices. The Apostle Paul's lists provided a starting place for the theologians of the church. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I formed what has become the definitive list of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Of course, human vanity knows no bounds when it comes to inventing new ways to be irresponsible. So the development of one list led to forming another—a list of virtues. The virtues list named qualities of character as habits church leaders wanted Christ's followers to cultivate. Did that leave any room for the gifts and graces of the Spirit, or were they walking down that Pelagian path? They came up with two lists. One identified four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, which were to be developed by human effort. The other added three theological virtues infused by God: faith, hope, and charity/love.
Needless to say, a list of the virtues and vices of preaching could be a very long book. Although it is crucial to discuss and describe the habits and efforts of preachers, we must also leave room for the gifts and graces of God. So, how did we do this? We began by identifying the relevant theological measures and then turning to the rhetorical tradition to identify communicative resources that can serve either responsible or irresponsible ends.
Identifying Theological Measures
We believe that congregations want preachers whose pulpit practice is both reliable and faithful. Should reliability be used as the term to measure theologically responsible versus irresponsible pulpit speech? And what of faithfulness? There are several reasons why we believe that reliability and faithfulness taken together are the right measures of theological pulpit practice. But let's begin by identifying what's not at stake in their use.
Excerpted from The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching by Robert Stephen Reid, Lucy Lind Hogan. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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