Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Willimon on Preaching and Culture

In a new post to his (to me newly discovered) blog, Bp. William Willimon speaks to the task of preaching – the issue of addressing culture, of adapting to the needs and wishes of the wide world in crafting the interpretation of scripture. And he draws a critical distinction between “speaking to culture” and “converting it.” Speaking to culture allows the spheres outside the world of the Bible to determine the relevance and meaning of any text; it does ultimate disservice to both the Bible and to culture by losing the saving word (perhaps “repent!”?) that scripture carries and that culture needs.

Willimon also picks up on one of the sore points in Church life for me: the lack of nurture and maturation afforded by the Church. Oh, if I have a bad marriage or a drinking problem or in hospital, I’ll get attention and counsel and all the other things that people – and pastors! – seem to think are “pastoral care.” But if I’m a big time executive exploiting my workers or I’m happily committing adultery or I write regularly to my congressman (mine is a man) to vote to bomb the hell out of Iran, I’m left to my merry just desserts. I know that in my congregation, there is little to deepen my knowledge and experience of the Church’s history, her traditions (let alone the Great Tradition), her Lord’s Torah. I am not taught to live as though God were real and active and honest and true. We need preaching that is a little less aware of the strangers in our midst and speak to people as though maturity in the faith – i.e., in terms of knowledge, lifestyle, aesthetic, and commitment – is not fully formed by the age of 8.

On the other hand, I remember Robert Jenson criticizing the apparently otherwise eloquent preaching of Rudolph Bultmann this way: You cannot tell by reading his sermons that bombs were falling right outside the stained glass windows of the Church. Preaching is most assuredly bringing the saving word of God into the present time. It must reflect the world within which it is proclaimed.

But the hearers of that proclamation are people who should be struggling to grow in the faith – not just find some happy thought to carry them through the week in the daily affairs that are otherwise untouched by the reality of God. As my study of Matthew is making clear to me, preaching is more than saying “Jesus loves me, you, us” over and over again. That claim needs content. And the content is determined by the Word-made-flesh, not by the latest newspaper headline (which in Minneapolis is usually about some totally irrelevant “human-interest” pablum), not by the latest pop-psychology book that Oprah is promoting, not by the pastors latest personal crisis.

Preaching the word of God as it is presented (in many traditions, anyway) week-by-week in the lectionary, with a little less worry for how it might square with the questions of the world and a little more attention to what it means in its own context and in the history of its interpretation throughout the history of the Church just might be what the world really needs to hear. And if it doesn’t want to hear what God has to say, well, the Bible has some things to say about that, too.

We could use Bp. William’s ministry in more judicatories of the catholic Church!

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