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I told you in this space last time that I grew up in Flint, Michigan. What I didn’t tell you is that I often reflect on the mediocre education I received in the public schools there. I was in high school in the 1970s, a time when the curriculum was a mushy overreaction to the excesses of the 1960s. It was all about being free to be yourself, with a positive self image and positive mental attitude, even though you were a dolt. What we weren’t taught, or at least what I successfully managed to avoid, was the amazing insight into life one might get from reading Shakespeare or Twain or Emily Dickinson, or the disciplined thinking one would attain from calculus or physics. I don’t remember exactly what I took my senior year of high school, but I do recall three of my five classes were Yearbook, Choir and Newspaper. I don’t recall having homework the entire year.
In middle age, I have decided to try and at least correct some of my literary shortcomings. (I have given up on calculus and physics.) For the last several years, I’ve made a point of reading something I really out to have read in my formative years. For example, in the past few years I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Middlemarch. I just completed Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, this summer’s reading project. What a rollicking good time that book is. I cannot recommend it enough. Trollope’s command of English is stunning, his insight into human foibles acute and his good humor through it all remarkable.
Amid all the laughs, I found the most devastating critique of preaching tucked away in its pages. I’d like to reproduce some of it for you, along with the reminder that this was published in 1857! Would that the generations of preachers between then and now have taken Trollope to heart. And I must admit these words made my knees wobble a bit yesterday, when I had the audacity to climb into a pulpit. So, enjoy Trollope, and please don’t skim because his words are so carefully chosen. After a section of this I’m going to come back and ask a few questions.
“There is, perhaps no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanor as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips . . . no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sinbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away . . . .”
This rant goes on for several long paragraphs, but you get the idea. Trollope wasn’t listened to, of course, and my estimate is that it took the general public of the Western world about 100 years to realize they agreed with him and they decided, across Western Europe and Great Britain first and now increasingly in the United States and Canada, that they were indeed forced to stay away.
All of this leaves me with a raft of questions:
What do make of Trollope’s critique?
What could preachers do to raise the level of preaching? Is there more to raising the level of preaching than being less boring? What’s the balance of depth and delivery needed?
Or have we reached a post-preaching age? Does preaching even matter anymore? Do the Roman Catholics have it more right, with their sacramental emphasis and de-emphasis of the word?
Beyond that, what are you reading this summer and what questions are you thinking about?
Those are powerful words "we desire not to be forced to stay away"! We now find ourselves living in Western Europe and my first taste of immigrant English speaking church here has me fleeing in spirit! What was preached was very dynamic but was so bent on condemnation and fear I never want to go back again! But it brought me back to my roots even in the span of 24 hours – "I thirst for God, for the living God, when can I come and appear before God?" Ps 42 My desire for preachers is to thirst for and provide a glimpse of the Living God.