/ Puritanism, preaching, postmodernism, KJV, post-Christian / Rut Etheridge III

(Re)Incarnational Ministry?

I’m not sure we’ve sufficiently reckoned with just how post-Christian our post-Christian culture is.  Autonomous ideologies comprise the philosophical air we breathe; they soak into our bones and our souls give them warm welcome because we’ve had autonomy inscribed upon our spiritual DNA since the Garden.  We’ve now got the tech and the politics to self-define nearly to our heart’s content, the desire for which is fueled by the deeper conviction that we are not merely the curators of truth and reality; we are their creators.  We say about ourselves what Jesus says about himself, “I am the truth…” and “I AM that I AM.”  We've transitioned from the effort to resist Jesus to the effort to replace him.  We are profoundly post-Christian.  

So what happens when (if) precious souls steeped in pop culture dogma step into our churches and hear a message steeped in a book claiming to be absolute truth composed by God who claims all rights to all of life’s designs and definitions?  What happens then?  If we don't redress certain preaching tendencies stereotypically common in Reformed circles, the answer will continue to be: nothing.

In times of cultural upheaval, it’s common and to pine for the past.  Our anachronistic instincts tell us that “those were the days,” the days of gospel purity, simplicity and sincerity.  Church historians chuckle at this naive nostalgia.  A close read of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians and Galatians especially, should cure us of the delusion that the early New Testament church was a time of moral clarity and selfless, unbridled gospel zeal.  Indeed, some of the community peace we do see reflected in Paul's epistles might have been the calm before the storm that would hit when Paul’s commands came home to roost in local families and economies.  Imagine the look on husbands’ and fathers’ faces when Paul told them how to behave toward their wives and children (Ephesians 5 and 6.)  I wonder if the women and children were more happy, or more panicked, by what they heard when Ephesians was read aloud.  This is going to get awkward at home! Same goes with slaveholders.  Paul put them in their place, and scandalously, it was right beside slaves in ontological worth and the honor they deserved as image-bearers and new creations in Christ (Ephesians 2 and 6 as they connect with Galatians 3:28 and Philemon).

Neither was the Patristic era golden.  The Medieval era doesn’t deserve the title “Dark Ages” but nor was it radiant through and through.  There were glories in the Reformation era, but also preventable tragedies.  It seems there are not too many Christians who try to glorify the Modern era, though some card-carrying rationalists still exist in high places of Christian academia.  Far more prevalent are those basking in the delights of postmodernism, and there really are some, but the baskers tend to be too quickly dismissive of its dangers.  Contemporary ministers are not being faithful to the faith entrusted once and for all to the saints when they baptize agnosticism and proclaim doubt as faith’s saving grace.  

Down through the ages, through all the cultural ups and downs in every place God's word has gone or means to go, comes Paul’s clarion call to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4).  Yet it’s precisely that blessed, timeless task which some in reformed circles want to walk back into the past, led by idealized if not idolatrous notions of beloved history and theological heritage.

One of the best ways to preach ineffectively is to practice what we could call a reincarnational model.  The phrase “incarnational ministry” is popular; it refers to the attempt to really “flesh out” and put feet to our faith, ala James’s New Testament letter, and to embody the truth we claim to believe.  Reincarnational ministry is looking to the past, not only to learn from it, but to recreate it.

To recreate our idealized past, we try to resurrect the language, social culture and ministerial mannerisms of that era.  But however beneficial these cultural accoutrements were back then, when we try to vivify them for our day, we can’t escape the inherently ghastly nature of our effort.  What we try to raise has rotted.  Among the examples that could be cited, I’m specifically thinking of the attempts some reformed ministers make, particularly young ministers, to embody the social culture and to imitate the preaching of the Puritans.

A fellow minister from another reformed denomination once told me about his concern that a pastoral candidate coming his way was kind of a “neo-puritan.”  With no malice for those who bore the name historically, my friend was concerned about the imitation game I’m critiquing in this blog and the deleterious effect it could have upon the congregation the candidate was visiting.

Some of us (myself very much included) deeply admire and have benefited tremendously from the work of the Puritans.  I also respect and am deeply grateful for efforts over the past couple of decades to republish their works and to call those who share their theological commitments to the same “experiential” (or “experimental”) understanding the original Puritans had of their faith’s content. Here’s my argument against the slanderous stereotype by which they’re often known (elitist, legalistic killjoys spiritually drunk on “head knowledge”), as well as a call to adopt their posture of heart toward biblical doctrine – their posture of heart, not their manner of speech, or even their style of preaching.  It’s good to republish these brethren of a bygone era.  Let the republishing continue; let the attempted reincarnations cease!

We’re not from that era so we don’t fully, instinctively and intuitively understand their ministerial context nor therefore can we truly replicate the style and content of the Puritan's ministry within and to their culture.  The best we can do ends up looking like a zombie version of the past, a half-life that retains some of the form, but too little of the mind, and that will seem strange if not downright scary to those who cross its path.  

Using terminology such as “treat of” instead of “deal with,” or “grave” instead of “serious” (real excerpts from real, preached sermons) are small examples of a big linguistic barrier we build between our hearers and God’s preached word.  Such terminology is so utterly removed from common language today that its use almost inevitably guarantees poor preaching, and might invite suspicion of plagiarism! How ironic that we Protestants who’ve historically championed the translation of Scripture into the common tongue would by refusal to update our vocabulary create a new (and arguably inferior) “high” language, inaccessible to the vast majority of contemporary Western churchgoers!  (Yes, this critique touches on the insistence of KJV use in some churches, and by extension the “KJV only” position, but that’s not the focus here.  For anyone for whom these are significant issues, please see Authorized:  The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward, and you can listen to a great podcast with the author, conducted by the team at “The Mortification of Spin.”)  Why should contemporary congregants have to be well-versed in centuries’ old linguistic custom in order to understand the eternal word of God?

Preaching to the spiritually dead (Ezekiel 37, Ephesians 2) does not mean preaching to the ghosts of the past.  Sometimes I fear that reformed educational institutions are graduating pastoral candidates who are thoroughly prepared to minister to the 18th century and prior.  We need to know the present condition, and the cultural conditioning, of the people present in our congregations, and to preach accordingly.  (I plan to address in the next blog just how pervasively post-Christian pop-culture ideology has influenced our churches, even those we'd naively consider largely detached from or immune to it).  Besides, how many of us ministers would truly be prepared for ministry in the Puritan era anyway, given the wide chasm between the breadth and depth of Scriptural acumen back then and what’s typical today?  We need to face the blunt fact that we’re just not as good as the Puritans were at doing their thing.  When we try to mimic them, the result can ironically look like a mockery.  

Instead of trying to imitate the homiletical style and habits of our favorite preachers of the past (or the present), shouldn't we instead learn from and seek to emulate the profound simplicity and simple profundity of our Lord himself, the greatest preacher of God's written word?  It's ironic and instructive that striving for Christ-likeness in preaching is in a very real sense less complicated, and certainly less convoluted, than our attempts to ape our favorite preachers past and present. Jesus's preaching habits included the use of story; his proclamations of propositional truth were deeply conversant with the common life of his hearers; he spoke directly to their hearts and challenged their wills; and instead of rehashing the exegetical exploits of the previous week’s sermon prep as we might tend to do in our sermons, the Good Shepherd gave his sheep the results, not the process, of his deep, prior meditations on Scripture.  In his days of ministry among us, Jesus simply proclaimed in a profoundly accessible way, sometimes unnervingly accessible, the eternal truth of God's holy word.  

Professor Ed Clowney famously said, “Every preacher has a hobby horse.  Might as well make yours preaching Christ.”  Similarly, every preacher has one or more homiletical heroes.  Why not bypass them and make ours the Savior whom they preached?

May the preparation, propositional content and the actual preaching of our sermons never put barriers between the words of our Savior and those gathered in our congregations to hear them. May we love well the living Christ and those to whom we preach, such that our preaching is deeply conversant not only with Scripture, but with the condition and cultural conditioning of those gathered to hear God's word; may we preach across ideological chasms to speak straight to their hearts.  May all who hear our preaching be able to say that despite the flawed undershepherd who was its messenger, what they heard was truly the timeless word of the Good Shepherd.

Rut Etheridge III

Rut Etheridge III

Husband to Evelyn; father to Isaiah, Callie, Calvin, Josiah, Sylvia. Pastor and Bible Prof. Loves the risen Christ, family, writing, the ocean, martial arts, Boston sports, coffee, and more coffee.

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