Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pagan Christianity 5: The Sermon

This is the fifth installment of my review of Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity? I apologize for the earlier caustic language I used about Viola. I don't have hateful feelings toward him. I just think some of his argumentation is absurd. I've edited most of my caustic language out.

The previous reviews were:

1. Viola's Preface
2. Barna's Introduction
3. The Church Building
4. The Order of Worship

Today we look at chapter 5, "The Sermon: Protestantism's Sacred Cow." I'm so tired of this book. Can I rewrite it for him? It will be a lot shorter. Of course I will not be as rhetorically effective as Viola or as entertaining. He's obviously studied writing at some high school and college that no doubt taught composition following the techniques of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

And of course to stoop to using the book form would be to submit to pagan influence, since none of the Old or New Testament writers used the book form. They wrote on scrolls. The book form actually came into Christianity from pagan culture in the third century because Constantine wanted all the churches to have a standardized form of Scripture that could be mass produced and put into every basilica (that he ordered built to stamp out vibrant, open participatory meetings). He ordered 50 complete copies of the whole Bible made on book form, using the text he had chosen, and distributed throughout the empire.

Of course half of what I wrote above is a joke. And you should take half of what Viola writes about as seriously as what I just wrote too.

What's good in the chapter
Do church meetings have to have a sermon or homily given by an official minister in the same format to individuals who do not feel free to ask questions or interact with the speaker?

As far as I'm concerned, if Viola and others want to meet in a home, pray, search the Scriptures, study together, maybe occasionally have a visiting speaker who is obviously graced by God with particular wisdom, go for it. I affirm you.

How's that?

As for your critique of preaching? Barna's research suggesting that most sermons do not facilitate worship or draw people nearer to God, or convey life-changing information (104)? I suspect there is some substance to their claims about the effectiveness of most sermons.

Frankly, the same principles apply to college lectures. What is it, students will likely retain 5% of a lecture, making it the most ineffective form of teaching in itself?

Viola's five points on preaching are:

1. It makes a preacher a virtuoso performer with muted spectators who watch a performance (97).

2. It often stalemates spiritual growth by fostering passivity (97).

3. It preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality (98).

4. It doesn't equip the saints but de-skills them (98).

5. Today's sermon is often impractical (99).

Number 3 is the next chapter so I'll leave it alone for now. Yes, I would agree that in perhaps even the majority of churches the congregation mostly lets the pastor do the work of the ministry when they should be fully involved.

Yes, I would agree that a good many sermons do not have the congregation's "address" on them. People leave thinking, "What am I supposed to do with that?"

And yes, an aweful lot of preachers "get off" on their overestimated authority and wisdom (of course that can apply to professors, bloggers, book writers, and people invited to come speak at conferences). I have longed complained at the dynamic in America that can take a below average person who would have difficulty succeeding at any other job, gives him (less often her) a Bible, and suddenly this person can speak with the authority of God? Nah, most of the time they still don't have much to say.

I'm not, by the way, suggesting that all preachers are this way, not at all. I'm targeting a particular kind of pulpit "know it all" that is actually a "not know much at all." Only in democratic America, where there has often been a tinge of anti-intelletualism, is this phenomenon of the know-nothing pastor at all common.

On the other hand, some people are just wiser than others. Viola is surely one of them in many respects (despite what I say of him below). I fully agree with Augustine when he suggests that you cannot make a person into a great preacher. I believe you can improve a person's speaking ability. But generally, some people were born to have something to share and share it well and most weren't. And some people are gifted to be wise and most aren't.

Again, by "most" I don't mean most preachers, but most people.

I hope you'll forgive me for suggesting that good preaching is primarily about having wisdom to share. We tend to play games with the biblical text, as if any old person can preach if they preach the Bible. Viola likely thinks that any old person in his house church can share great wisdom from the Spirit. Sure. Anyone can have a moment of inspiration or insight.

But in my opinion, God has simply gifted some people in these areas and, most, He hasn't. Most of the time, the wise ones should be speaking, whether in a house church or from a pulpit. A person that God has anointed with wisdom will bring God's word to others around her or him (Viola seems to assume it will be a him). A person not anointed with wisdom will not bring much to those around him or her, even if they are speaking from the Bible.

And by the way, I would agree with Viola that the forty-fifty-ninety minute sermon is no sign of anything except probably a congregation bored out of their skull. These preachers do often leave me thinking they have an overblown sense of the importance of their own words. I bet the take away of the vast majority of congregations is less than five minutes of a sermon, no matter how long the preacher speaks. For me, anything over twenty minutes is usually a waste of time.

There are things lurking in Viola's chapter that should be heard.

Don't read further if you are a Viola groupee.
OK, there's the chapter. Or at least the chapter might have been more productive if it had developed the points above. Instead, like Fonzi in the waning seasons of Happy Days, Viola always jumps the shark. Five pages into the chapter I wrote, "Oh, Come on" in the margin.

So he's going to blame the Christian sermon on pagan Greco-Roman rhetoric snuck into the church by Chrystostom and Augustine, after the vibrant open-participatory meetings of the early church died out?

Same myopia again and again and again:

1. All human life and thinking is enculturated, all the time. It is the nature of incarnation. It is misguided to try (and impossible) to tease out the Christian or absolute from the particular cultural forms of the day. All truth is incarnated and inculturated truth.

2. This was no less true of the life and thinking of the New Testament church and the Old Testament. The New Testament is at the same time thoroughly inspired and thoroughly pagan, in Viola's sense. God sanctifies people and thoughts within culture. He has not set up the system to where you can remove people and thoughts from culture.

And here let me give some reasons why I think Viola is nuts when he tries to pin rhetoric on those pesky church fathers.

1:1-5 Prescript (letter opening used in "pagan" letters)
1:11-2:14 Narratio
2:15-21 Propositio
3:1-5:1 Argumentatio
5:2-10 Peroratio
5:11-18 Postscript

Looks a little to me like someone might have studied a little Greco-Roman rhetoric on the side. In other letters Paul has a thanksgiving section (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:2-10), which he borrowed from pagan letters that thanked the gods at this same point in their letters! Paul's omission of this section in Galatians is usually considered rhetorically significant!

Whether you agree with this outline or not, there is an entire branch of New Testament studies called "rhetorical criticism," which brings knowledge of the rhetorical conventions of the day to bear on the interpretation of the New Testament.

The majority of scholars currently would consider Hebrews a sermon (13:22). Viola might try to argue that a "word of exhortation" was spontaneous in the early church from Acts 13:15. But Hebrews looks like it might have involved quite a bit of sermon preparation!

It opens in "periodic" style, a high style of Greek oratory. For example, the first verse has a string of p words: "polymeros kai polytropos palai ho theos tois patrasin en tois prophetais."

Filthy pagan! I'm appauled to find that Old Testament writers wrote pagan acrostic psalms, copied pagan Egyptian wisdom sayings, drew on pagan mythical imagery. I'm disgusted that New Testament authors use chiasms, inclusios, allegories, similes, synecdoches, metonymy, asyndeton... They draw on Jewish wisdom and apocalyptic traditions. John even draws on the logos of Middle Platonism found in the writings of Philo. Throw out the New Testament because it has been influenced by paganism!

Not really. I guess God doesn't operate the way Viola thinks He does. Oops. Kind of embarrassing, if you ask me.

P.S. Isn't Hebrews 5:11-6:12 an interesting example of captatio benevolentiae? And certainly we can all agree that Hebrews 11:32 a lovely example of praeteritio?


John Mark said...

You're sure to make a lot of friends with this post.

As for me, I just hope my sermons are more than just a lot of hot air---I can't resist...Did you hear about the church that installed hot air hand dryers in their restrooms? The pastor had them taken out, after seeing a handwritten sign on one that said, "For a sample of today's message, press this button."
My people send me this kind of stuff all the time, I try not to take it seriously. After all, I am just one pagan-influenced-person speaking to a whole group of them.......
Anyway, thanks for the review.

james petticrew said...

I think you are right in affirming that preaching has always been incarnational. The one thing that struck me reading Edwards massive HISTORY OF PREACHING was the way that preaching had constantly adapted to contemporary communication methods.
Which also means that Viola is partly right in complaining that contemporary preaching may not be connecting with contemporary culture.
I certainly believe there is more room for dialogue and discussion but we shouldn't think that will have some magic affect on Christian maturity. Some group discussions I have been involved in have been a collective pooling of ignorance which at times stepped over the line into heresy!
I think there will always be a place for proclamation because inherent in the Gospel is a call to decision and that call is not heard with sufficient clarity through dialogue and discussion.

Ken Schenck said...

My apologies to Viola for the harsh language the first version of this post had. I really am dialoging with ideas and don't bear the man any ill will. It is some of his ideas that I find idiotic, not him.

Bill said...

I've edited most of my caustic language out.

We're all most grateful. ;)

David Anderson said...

I like the idea of a Q and A session after any address or presentation.

I am also totally in favor of mutual ministry - everyone finding an outlet to exercise their gifts for the edification of the church (whether at the meetings or not). Truth is, most pastors would encourage that very same ideal. They, no doubt, would point to their small groups and sunday school meetings and other events where they personally did not lead, participate, or attend.

Now, can someone demonstrate how I am more of a "functioning priest" when assembled with Christians than with my family on vacation or with my co-workers on the job site? Or even alone on my back porch in prayer for another person, perhaps? Or just doing nothing.

In other words, where in scripture is the "priesthood of all believers" limited to or even associated with meetings and where is it suggested that such priesthood is violated by the lack of one's verbal participation in those meetings?