Sunday, January 22, 2012

a few thoughts about Tim Keller's eulogy for John Stott: HT Phoenix Preacher!

I could write any number of thoughts about this eulogy Keller gave for Stott but I will try to keep this fairly short.

Keller remarked that we should be cautioned by Stott's cultural learning curve.  Stott spent years (and probably decades) coming to a fuller understanding of Christianity not merely as a Western but a global fellowship. Keller warns that if even a man like Stott took years to become fully aware of cultural blinders how much more cautious should Americans be?

Keller went on to remark that although Stott was not what we'd call a brawler he did not avoid having that famous falling outwith Lloyd-Jones.  He did not end up avoiding controversies, controversies younger evangelicals have, as a rule, not even been aware of. Keller made it clear that he was not convinced that in every controversy Stott was involved in he did not believe Stott always landed on the right side of a given issue.  Of course, at a eulogy we're not in a position to discuss such disagreements at length; it's no surprise Keller did not linger on the issues on which he believes Stott got things wrong. The caution is that if even Stott could not avoid serious controversy we must remember that we may be embroiled in controversy ourselves.

I never heard Stott preach myself and have only read some of his work but a remark by Keller about Stott's approach to expository preaching sticks with me.  About the Scriptures Keller remarks:
"You don't NEED to make it relevant, as people have said for years, it's alive and active and a two-edged sword."

I have blogged in the past about a danger we can face as any sort of Christian but particular in settings where we may be teaching.  We must remember that there is a difference between explaining what a biblical text says (aka "contextualization") and what is ultimately the contextualization of ourselves with a biblical text as a pretext for an agenda that is finally our own.  Having spent time reading sermons by not only Lloyd-Jones but also John Donne in the last four or five years I have begun to appreciate Keller's observation about expository preaching here. There is a lot that passes for expository preaching that is not strictly proclaiming what the biblical text says but includes a parade of funny or sad or touching stories about the pastor's life or wife or children or this or that observation about some social or cultural artifact that will often be meaningless even within a few short years.

If I am presented with an opportunity to learn why a festival mentioned in the Gospel of John takes on significance for rituals of water or rituals of lights on the one hand or an opportunity to hear an anecdote about some kids which do you think I am more interested in?  If you guessed the facts about ancient Israelite customs and feast days and how they inform the context in which Jesus is shown speaking in the Gospel of John you would be right.  No offense but I don't know your kids or your brother-in-law and though meeting them may truly be a pleasure should it happen if you stick with what's n the biblical text and don't try too hard to bring in your personal life to illustrate the point I'll get it. 

In fact if anything less you and more Bible means I've got more of a shot at understanding the gist of the text because your life is only an open book to you, God, and the people in your closest social circle.  And that's fine, by the way, but I realize having heard Keller's remark on Stott's expository preaching that a lot of supposedly expository preaching evangelical pastors are far more busy preaching themselves than they are preaching the biblical text!  I don't care about you, buddy, I care about the Father, Son and Spirit.  I mean, sure, I probably will really care how you're doing and people who have met me and interacted with me have been surprised how long I can remember a seemingly small or off-handed comment about a family or professioanl situation.  I'm just saying that the opportunities for this are best saved for some place other than a sermon.

Personalizing anecdotes in ostensibly expository sermons can actually be a kind of deception.  Let me explain how and why.  They create the illusion that social space has collapsed when it really hasn't.  In media theory (dreaded media theory) there's something called a constructed mediated reality. In other words it's not real but if it has been well-made it will look, feel, sound, and seem real.  It will convey an intimacy that does not exist.  This can inspire people to remember things from the sermons that involve more stories about the pastors wife or kids or the pastor's opinion about a movie or a book than about the core of the text the pastor was preaching from.  You are tempted to believe that you actually know something about the pastor as a person.

Yet the whole point of the personal anecdote or interlude is not, let me repeat that, is not to invite you into the private or social life of the pastor. The whole point of the personal anecdote is to illulstrate the point about the text the pastor is making. If it happens he or she has shared an anecdote which also gives you an insight into his or her life and character then, okay, that happened, but the real point was to hook you into an understanding and application of the text.  I'm not saying this is necessarily bad in itself.

Yet from the Lloyd-Jones and Donne sermons I read I came to realize that it is perfectly acceptable to not have any personal anecdotes through the vast majority of expository preaching.  Donne can even follow a formula such as discussing the literal reading of the text, the application of the doctrinal point of the text, and then close with a spiritual or typological aspect of the text when applicable.  And along the way do we learn stories about Anne?  Do we hear about kids?  Do we get references to contemporary literature?  Well, sometimes, but Donne was casual in throwing out Hebrew and Latin terms and then immediately translating them for the layman. 

An advantage of Donne's preaching in his day that may seem like a disincentive to read him now was his willingness and his eagerness to preach a single sermon at multiple levels of complexity.  He would preach for the highest academic level and preach to the lowest practical concern in any given sermon.  And somehow he managed to do this without having to make a habit of talking about pets or sharing anecdotes about pop culture from his own time in a quarter of any given sermon. Now, centuries later, people still have an incentive to read Donne's sermons as they do with Lloyd-Jones.
 By not seeking the kind of cultural engagement and relevance evangelicals now prize these old school Protestants obtained something better, having said and written things significant enough to merit attention forty and four hundred years later.

There are many sorts of preachers who would claim to be expository preachers who are more apt to give running commentaries about a text or even use the text as a pretext to make a running commentary about issues and concerns that have little to do with the text. Is it bad to have pop culture or other references in a sermon?  Well, no, even Keller uses a variety of literary or artistic references in sermons.  But I've appreciated that these digressions only serve the point to reinforce the actual point of the sermon, which is expounding on the text. Certain other preachers who have shared anecdotes or cultural references have not always done that so much as share stories and digressions that move away from the text and toward some topic that is at best tangentially connected to what a real expository sermon would do.

Well, that's my not-quite-planned ruminations on Keller's eulogy for John Stott. HT to Phoenix Preacher for linking.

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