Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Preaching with Scripture in a Post-Modern World 

The following is an article I wrote partly in response to the material provided in the Elder's Temple School course packet, and partly to articulate to others what I have found helpful in writing and presenting my sermons over the past couple of years. It is presently slated to be printed in the March issue of the Herald.

Revolutions of the Word
Preaching with Scripture in a Post-modern World
By [Flannel Christian]

Somebody, somewhere must have been the first one to come up with the “Golden Rule”: treat others the way you want to be treated. Passé now, hearing it for the very first time it must’ve been shocking. To hear something so unexpected, and at the same time so inspiringly common-sensical, must’ve been a tremendous paradigm-shift, one of those memorable moments when one can actually feel their whole world-view change. Today, we call those “aha moments” or “mountaintop experiences,” but we hardly ever feel them in relationship to our scripture stories anymore.

One thing I think we forget about scripture is that when these now-immortal stories and statements were first made they were fresh, surprising and new, and yet held a common-sense quality that transformed and reoriented their listeners. Over the centuries of re-telling, our scripture stories have too often become old, tired and flat—we all know the lessons we’re supposed to get from a given passage; we know the characters and what they represent; we know practically everything there is to know about the story-line. There’s only so many ways to tell the story of Abraham and Isaac or Lot’s Wife or the Sermon on the Mount; only so many times you can hear it before you stop listening.

The richness and texture of those words and ideas have through the years been flattened out to cliché, shallow Sunday-school morals. This doesn’t make the prophets’ or Jesus’ message any less compelling or difficult to emulate—but it does make it less interesting to listen to, and for a speaker in the 21st century there are few curses worse than inattention.

We live, work, play and preach in a post-modern world, so it might seem natural to garner some lessons from our world and time in order to more dynamically engage it, to speak to it more creatively, to be listened to and have our words bear meaning in the minds, hearts and lives of our congregants. I find a lot to be gained by a closer examination of post-modern philosophy and literary analysis—people who are actively employed in developing new, fruitful and fascinating ways of looking at our history, traditions, politics, sexuality, science and scripture.

Jacques Derrida, a contemporary French thinker, coined the word “deconstruction” to describe his method of literary exegesis. Deconstruction examines a text by first considering the motives underlying the telling of the story, by asking questions such as who stands to gain from the telling of the story this way and are there other ways this story might be told. Then deconstructionists look for evidence of these other perspectives within the text, stories within the story, perspectives and ideas hinted at but never fully revealed, elements that become emphasized by their very lack of emphasis.

We see this sort of sophisticated, nuanced look at things even in the recent political climate—when candidates, journalists and ordinary citizens start considering not just what is said but what isn’t said, what is left out or smoothed over, and asking why that is the case; looking at who stands to gain from a lack of emphasis or from our forgetfulness. What facts or whose stories aren’t being told? Our people understand that what is being said tells us a great deal, but what isn’t explicitly expressed may tell us crucially more. Our world is a post-modern world, we’re getting better at reading “between the lines” (and above and below them) and we can use these tools to turn toward our own traditions and texts as well.

Deconstruction is a process of seeking out these stray threads, untold stories, unconsidered perspectives, implications and underlying assumptions, and teasing them out of the text. Through this we find a multitude of unforeseen elements—entire lives and hopes and dreams that were lost in the traditional reading. And although Derrida certainly believes story-telling is always story-creating, I’d argue that part of deconstruction is the ability to see the lie.

Of course, every story is a lie—it selects and omits, emphasizes certain elements and neglects others, chooses a perspective and assumes to some degree that that single perspective is objective. One distinguishing characteristic of post-modern writing—and we see it in contemporary novels all the time—is the narrator’s knowledge of her own perspective as peculiar, particular. We’re turned off by figures that speak as if their understanding is the truth, and admire the humility of someone willing to admit and even explore the limitations of their own experience and reflection. This is even more the case in devotional settings like worship and intimate conversation.

And, of course, saying that stories are lies is itself a lie, too. Stories and statements often express something very true, which is why we listen to them and how we judge them. What powers are served by believing that any story is a lie? What are the underlying assumptions of such a claim? Post-modernism habitually turns its own lens back on itself and finds the answers no less interesting.

Recognizing scripture as lies about some things in order to express truths about others opens up virtually infinite possibilities for what we can find—and challenges us to retell the story from another perspective, search for another meaning to tease, always aware that the final test is one of truth.

A deconstruction of Biblical stories turns them on their heads, shakes them up, mixes them around, and sees what comes up—waits to see if some new, unexpected and fruitful meaning arises from the ashes.

Abraham and Isaac: An Example

An easy way to start this is to take a Bible passage or story that has seemingly absolutely nothing to do with the topic of a sermon and eliminate the traditional conclusion from consideration. Let’s take the story of Abraham and Isaac: traditionally it’s about faith and obedience, particularly Abraham’s faith in God and willingness to do whatever God wanted him to do despite whatever personal or moral reservations he had. So, if we say the story cannot be anything about how good faith and obedience to God are, what is left? What other feelings or emotions or thoughts rise up out of the story?

If nothing comes to mind, another tack is to—just for fun—take the complete opposite position and see if there isn’t anything in the story that would support it. For example, let’s say that the story of Abraham and Isaac is really about how bad faith and obedience to God are. Abraham very nearly kills his son, after all, and if we believe our God is a loving God, that’s not a very good thing to do. We wouldn’t want any of our parents thinking they had to obey some voice in their head that was telling them to kill us—or you parents among us, if you felt God calling you to “sacrifice” your child, would you? Certainly not! There must be something else going on in the story.

Abraham must have misunderstood, but what? God says “I want you to sacrifice your son to me”—seems pretty clear. All of a sudden we start to feel what Abraham felt—confusion, doubt, searching for meaning. Did he misunderstand? What else could that mean? At the same time, there’s this big need to just obey. When we’re told by powerful figures to do something, even if we doubt that it’s the best thing to do, we’re more apt to do it—we believe with power comes knowledge, with information comes wisdom. So despite all our doubts and misgivings we, too, march Isaac into the desert. We tie him up and raise the blade and then…. Flash to God’s perspective now.

Does God want this to happen? Is God seeing this? What is God thinking?

We know God doesn’t want this to happen—we can feel that. And God obviously shows up at the last minute, so we know God is there at least by then. What is God thinking, though? What are we feeling, in God’s shoes? We’re horrified at what we’re seeing! We don’t understand Abraham—he’s going to kill his son! Is he crazy? So we run into the scene and with God’s hand stay Abraham’s arm—what do we say? “You misunderstood.” We can hardly believe it ourselves.

“But you told me to make Isaac’s life a sacrifice,” pleads Abraham, crying.

God says, “I told you to make his life a sacrifice, not to sacrifice his life!” *click!* God continues: “I wanted you and your son to dedicate your lives to me, do my work, love my people, care for my earth—make your living a sacrifice to me. I never wanted you to sacrifice your son’s life! That’s crazy!”

All of a sudden the traditional reading of Abraham is tossed upside-down. What was valuable in the old story is scorned in the new. The old story lifted up obedience; the new lifts up love as the highest value. Instead of a fickle, violent God, we are offered a loving God whose message was misinterpreted as a call to arms. In the instant that it takes to discover a new meaning for an old story, an entire worldview has changed. What’s more, you have a clincher for that sermon. This time people are going to listen.

When Bible stories were first told, they were this engaging, this frightening, this surprising, this transformative. They weren’t meant just to guide people, but to change them, to keep them thinking for days afterward about the story and their own journey through it.

For all the criticism that our contemporary culture receives (much of it deserved) with attention spans shortening and critical thought only palatable when packaged as entertainment, I think these qualities of life in the post-modern world can prove to be our allies, instead of our enemies, in scriptural preaching. We need to be woken up, have our cages rattled, have our hearts and minds opened to new meanings, our eyes opened to new places where the Holy resides.

If we can breathe new life into our tired old stories, we may do more than capture the attention of our congregants. We may discover a new world.

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