Sunday, 31 May 2009

Quote for Pentecost

“It is the Spirit’s work to draw what might otherwise be a cacophonic disunity into symphony. The Spirit worked to transcribe God’s music for playing on the human instrument of Jesus of Nazareth; the Spirit now works to orchestrate that theme for an ensemble of billions.”

—Mike Higton, Christian Doctrine, (SCM 2008), 161.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Writing in order to change

At the recent Barth conference, there was a lot of talk about the way Barth changed as he was writing his dogmatics. Some scholars feel uneasy about this – they’d prefer to think of Barth’s dogmatics as the smooth unfolding of a single coherent vision. I was chatting to someone at the conference about this, and I referred to Foucault’s famous remarks in the introduction to his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969):

“What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again? I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The preface makes a comeback...

After our recent discussion of Barth’s missing prefaces, the good folks at T&T Clark have come up with a remedy: anyone who buys the set will also get access to a digitised version of all the prefaces. (Eventually you’ll also get a digitisation of all the individual indexes.) Nice work, T&T!

Monday, 25 May 2009

The great theologian: a parable (based on a true story)

(I was surprised when some readers took exception to my recent post about Sunday school teachers. So I thought I’d try to illustrate the same point in a different way: and so this little parable.)

Beneath the blue skies of Switzerland, in the cheerful bustling town of Basel, there once lived a great theologian. Each week he taught a seminar at the university, ruminating and chewing his pipe happily, while students crowded the floor, pressed hard against those ancient walls, laughing at his jokes and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity. He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places who asked him questions shyly in halting German. On weekends he tossed bread to the ducks at the river or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo. On Sunday mornings he went to prison and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel; he spoke like a young man (though he was old, with a heart full of old men’s stories) and after the service he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates, assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God.

But more than anything, the theologian loved to return each day to his study and to sit writing at his desk, a dark little question-mark hunched in his crumpled suit amidst curling pipe smoke and walls of books that peered down at his labours with all the curious attentiveness of indulgent friends or obstinate relatives. In this manner, day in day out, he filled reams of paper with that cramped inky hand. Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes as big and hard and sturdy as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat thus writing and smoking, the fame of those books spread far and wide. Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places—South Africa, Scotland, America—people mentioned his books at dinner parties, taught them in seminaries, wrote books and then entire libraries about them. The Holy Father sought an audience with him. Martin Luther King asked him questions and leaned close to listen. The Japanese formed a school around his name. The Catholics held a council and invited him. The Americans splashed his frowning face across the cover of Time magazine. His birthdays were greeted with a clamour of praise and jubilation, while printing presses in many languages ground out books and journals and essays to honour or refute him. His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes to be the dawning of a new era, while some antagonists and former students devoted every waking hour to trying to prove him wrong on even a single point. Entire scholarly careers were thus busily occupied in this fashion.

The theologian was bemused by these attentions, but he enjoyed all this in his own self-deprecating way. And though he travelled and shook hands and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees, always he returned before long to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—empty slates shimmering with promise, like that formless materia prima in the beginning beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night, while the snow slept on the ground and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas, the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke and found himself standing at the gates of heaven. An angel took him by the elbow and led him in, explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting. Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime. The theologian looked around. He tried to take it all in. Then somewhere in the crowd a voice announced his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer. Women and men pressed in close, clasping his hands and shoulders and pounding his back warmly. Children laughed and clapped their hands. Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes, the beaming faces. He tried to smile and nod politely, as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary or an honorary doctorate. He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd, out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way, and the theologian, still trying to regain his composure, confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised, and assured him that indeed everyone in the city knew his name. They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed with a theatrical flourish. “Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!” The theologian nodded modestly, and the angel continued: “Aren’t you the one who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings? Didn’t you eat and drink with them? Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad? Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths, and strike a match for them? Didn’t you go to see them when even their own families had forgotten them? Why my dear fellow, there is not a person in this city who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street. He looked at the angel. “The prison? Well yes, I suppose... But I thought perhaps… my theology. My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said, and touched his arm reassuringly. “There’s no need to worry about all that! That’s all forgiven now.”

“F—forgiven?”

“But of course! All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!” The angel took his hand fondly. “No need to dwell on all that now—everything is forgiven here. Come now, my dear, there are still so many people waiting to meet you. And the prisoners you visited—they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you. Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky, the angel and the theologian made their way together down the city street.

The hopeless hungry side of town

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Yes or no?

One of the best things about young kids is their amazing ability to ask unanswerable questions. For example, here’s a question my daughter asked me yesterday – should I have answered Yes, or No?

“So dad, is the Bible the most important book in the world, even though it’s not very interesting?”

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The best bits of Barth's dogmatics: or, how to read the CD on your holiday

A friend recently asked if I could suggest the best bits of Barth’s Church Dogmatics – the sections you could read on your summer holiday, if you can’t quite muster the energy to attempt an assault on the whole 31 volumes.

So I suggested the following five sections – for me, these are the great peaks of the CD, the sections where you meet Barth at his very best. And these are the bits that I tend to revisit most often myself:

  • from II/2: §33 (on election)
  • from III/2: §47 (on time)
  • from III/3: §50 (on the nothingness)
  • from IV/1: §59.1 (on the Son in a far country)
  • the IV/4 fragment (on baptism)
So, what have I forgotten? Any other sections that stand out for you? Anything else that can be mentioned in the same breath as these great meditations?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Comparing the new Barth edition: print or digital?

Now that the new edition of Church Dogmatics is out, some folks have asked me to compare the print edition with the Logos digital edition (I’ve posted on both the print edition and the Logos edition – if you’re interested in the Logos edition, for a limited time you can also get a 25% discount via the F&T discount page).

Although I’m not normally a technophobe, I must admit I have generally resisted the use of digitised books (except in the case of journals, which I only ever read online). I suppose I’m too addicted to the sheer exquisite materiality of books –

a coil of slyly shifting scents,
a finger’s papery caress,
the rasping breathless flutter of the page,
sinking down deep in that delicious inkiness,
all smooth and slow and seeping.
Now spent and finished, but still there,
(this is no one night stand,
no quick embrace erased before the dawn,
no scribbled thank you on a pillow note)
occupying space, etched indelibly on your beechwood world,
a solid smiling thing, waiting dustily to outlive you,
to be at last discarded, lost, forgotten,
found again.

Sorry, I’m getting quite carried away... In any case, the new print edition of the CD is lovely. So it has come as a surprise to me to discover that I’ve actually started to prefer the Logos edition – at least for research and writing. It all started when they kindly sent me their new Mac engine: now, you can use Logos with a nice Mac aesthetic and functionality. So I’ve been using Barth’s CD in Logos for all my recent writing, and it has already started to feel indispensable.

Here are some of the reasons why it’s so good for research: unlike the new print edition, the Logos edition also displays the German pagination; when I hover over one of Barth’s many biblical references, there’s a pop-up of the relevant passage; when Barth cites a text like Calvin’s Institutes, his reference links directly to the passage in Calvin; when I double click on any word, Logos brings up a relevant text on that word (e.g. if I double-click the word “nominalism” in Barth’s text, it immediately brings up the extended Encyclopedia of Christianity entry on nominalism; or if I double-click a Greek word, it brings up the relevant TDNT entry); and when I cut and paste a passage into a Word doc, it automatically generates a footnote with the reference. These features are so nice, so intuitive, so useful that I already wonder how I ever managed without it. (The search capacity in the Logos edition is also very good, although it can’t really compete with the monumental search capacities of the big online Barth database: if your library can afford a subscription, this database is the Barth research tool par excellence.)

I love books. I’m still addicted to the physicality of the book, and committed to its ontological status as a non-virtual object. When I’m simply reading Barth for pleasure, I would always prefer to sit in a chair with a text that occupies physical space, an object that I can bend and smell and handle and scribble in; a vulnerable object, so easily damaged by rain or wine or coffee, yet strangely resilient nonetheless. But for research, I’ve really grown to love – and to depend on – the Logos edition.

And since I’ve been waxing eloquent about books, I’ll leave you with my favourite bibliophile photograph: a photo taken in 1940 of the bombed library at Holland House in Kensington, London. This is what libraries are all about (click the image to enlarge).

Monday, 18 May 2009

Johnny Cash on scripture and commentaries

Did you know that Johnny Cash wrote a novel about the conversion of the apostle Paul? I hadn’t even heard of it until I was given a copy last week: the title is (of course) Man in White.

I haven’t read the novel yet – but there’s some great stuff in Cash’s introduction. He talks about the excitement of research (when June’s father died, he left his religious-historical library to Johnny); the impossibly difficult process of writing; the long years in which he lugged the manuscript around with him on tour; the way his writing ability was stifled during periods of drug dependence (“time after time I wrote dozens of pages while under the influence, but when I read them afterward with a clear mind, I burned them”); the way Billy Graham gently prodded him to keep writing; and finally, the way a vision of his deceased father (a vision of brilliant light streaming across an unbreachable gulf between them) inspired his description of Paul’s conversion experience.

Anyways, my favourite part of this introduction is Cash’s remark about commentaries on Paul (p. xvi): “I started reading books about Paul…. Then I got into the commentaries on Paul by Lange, Farrar, Barnes, Fleetwood, and others. I started making notes and writing my own thoughts on Paul when I saw so many different opinions in so many areas. Tons of material has been written …, but I discovered that the Bible can shed a lot of light on commentaries.”

This is a humorous observation, but I think it would actually be excellent advice for all those of us who study theology and the Bible: scripture can shed a lot of light on commentaries!

Saturday, 16 May 2009

A boating accident

Here’s a humorous anecdote from the Auckland Barth conference.

Earlier in the day, I’d been chatting with Paul Molnar about various things: fishing, photography, Maine, New York, pizza, The Godfather. Later I presented my paper, which was full of criticisms of Molnar’s book on the immanent Trinity. There is such an incongruity between my personal affection for Molnar and my feelings about his theology, that at one point I paused mid-sentence and said: “I’m sorry about all this, Paul. I hope you’ll still take me fishing in Maine one day.”

His reply: “Oh, I’ll still take you fishing. You just better hope it’s not like Fredo’s fishing trip!”

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Reading Barth with Rowan Williams (in Auckland)

I’ll be away for the next few days (blogging will continue if I have internet access) at a New Zealand conference on “Barth and Trinitarian Theology” – it looks set to be a great event, with about 60 people attending, and with papers by Bruce McCormack, Paul Molnar, Murray Rae, Ivor Davidson and many others.

My own paper is entitled “On Barth’s Second Doctrine of the Trinity: Reading Barth with Rowan Williams.” The paper discusses Rowan Williams’ essay on “Barth on the Triune God” (published here) in connection with Barth’s section in CD IV/1 on “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country”. Here’s an excerpt:

Taking Rowan Williams’ reading as a point of departure, I now want to focus more directly on the theological implications of Barth’s “second” doctrine of the Trinity, as it is articulated in IV/1. Whereas Barth’s “first” doctrine of the Trinity, in I/1, gives an account of the dynamics of divine revelation, the trinitarian theology in IV/1 functions as a critique of the very notion of God.

This critical dimension had already emerged sharply in the doctrine of election, where Barth had protested that “there is no deity as such”, but only “the deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (II/2, 115). Similarly, here in IV/1 Barth insists that “no general idea of ‘deity’,” nor any general divine attribute such as freedom or lordship, can be applied to Jesus Christ: “he defines those concepts: they do not define him” (IV/1, 129). The lowliness and humility of Christ show us that such humility belongs to the very definition of God; God’s deity “is not the deity of a divine being furnished with all kinds of supreme attributes” (IV/1, 177). God’s way of being God, “his ‘divine nature’,” comes to light only in the human history of Jesus; in his humble obedience, Jesus discloses “the mystery of the inner being of God as the being of the Son in relation to the Father” (IV/1, 177).

Jesus thus belongs to the very identity of God; as the prologue to the Fourth Gospel puts it, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is in the beginning with God. God’s “godness” is an event that takes place in the relation between this man and the one whom he calls Father; there is no general “divine nature” lurking behind the particularities of this history. The “essence of the divine”, Barth writes, is something that takes place in Jesus’ history (IV/1, 186). We can think of a “divine nature” only as our thinking is oriented around the history of this man, the one who is obedient unto death: “It is from this point, and this point alone, that the concept [of the ‘divine nature’] is legitimately possible” (IV/1, 199). Barth thus insists that such a thinking of the death of Jesus eliminates the false and idolatrous concept of any “neutral deity,” the “pure and empty deity … of an abstract ‘monotheism’” (IV/1, 203). As Williams rightly observes, Barth’s argument here is driven not by formal categories of revelation or divine lordship (as in I/1), but by the highly specific texture, the historically determinate shape of Jesus’ life. God’s identity is bound up with the way of this man, Jesus of Nazareth; God is thinkable only in the thinking of this man’s history.

I should hasten to add that Barth is not merely advancing an epistemological claim about Jesus. He is not merely suggesting that God would remain remote and unknowable if God had not accommodated himself to us in Christ; at this point, Barth is worlds away from Calvin’s notion of divine accommodation. Instead, Barth’s point is precisely an ontological one: God has no being apart from what happens in the man Jesus. The merest idea of a “divine being” existing outside relation to Jesus is, Barth thinks, the very essence of idolatry. God’s being as God is constituted by God’s self-determined relation to the man Jesus. Simply put, this means that what happens in Jesus really matters for God.

Williams underscores this point by speaking of God’s risk in Jesus: “God, for our sakes, ‘risks’ his very identity” in the act of reconciliation”. Although this has a not-very-Barthian ring to it, I think it captures well the direction of Barth’s thought at this point. God’s being itself is at stake in what happens to Jesus. God has so chosen to identify with Jesus that there is no longer any divine being apart from relation to this man. Jesus is not merely epistemologically significant, as the one who makes God known; he is ontologically significant, as the one who (so to speak) makes God God.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Four walls and adobe slabs for my girls

Sunday, 10 May 2009

International Karl Barth wiki day

Today is the 123rd anniversary of Karl Barth’s birth. To mark the occasion, I’m naming this the International Barth Wikipedia Day. Unfortunately Barth’s wiki entry is very sketchy, piecemeal and mediocre. Since so many of us here are interested in Barth, why don’t we head over today en masse and try to improve this entry? You could add some biographical info, or some details about Barth’s theology, or a summary of contemporary debates in the field. Or you could find something useful in the (much more substantial) German wiki entry, and translate it into English.

Wikipedia has increasingly become the first source of information for all sorts of inquisitive people – so let’s try to make this a worthwhile and informative entry.

Thanks to Dave Bruner for emailing me with this suggestion.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

On children's ministry: or, where to find the most impressive person in Princeton

A place like Princeton is full of impressive people. While I was there last year, you could meet local scholars of tremendous intelligence – people like Peter Brown, Jeffrey Stout, Robert Jenson, Bruce McCormack; or you could go and hear visiting speakers like Talal Asad and Jacques Berlinerblau.

But I must admit, the most impressive person I met in Princeton was a kindly old chap named Tom. He was a volunteer teacher each week at the church Sunday school. I must confess I was surprised when a friend told me that this man was none other than Thomas Gillespie, the former president of Princeton Seminary.

When I heard this, I replied: “He used to be president of the world’s greatest seminary. But now God has finally entrusted him with a real ministry!”


I like to think that all his decades as a pastor, scholar and seminary president – all those years of speaking and writing and teaching and managing a billion-dollar endowment fund – all this was simply God’s way of preparing him for something truly important: to tell the children stories and sing with them and help them with their colouring pencils and glue.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics: the new 31-volume edition

I was delighted to find that the new edition of Barth’s Church Dogmatics arrived at our college library today. T&T Clark have done a splendid job on this new edition – the production quality really exceeded my expectations. The 31 volumes come in two handsome burgundy slipcases; the covers are bright and eye-catching but still sober and tasteful; the typeset is crisp and attractive; the original pagination is included in the margins; and I was especially pleased to see that the printers (at a time when the use of cheap paper is becoming all but ubiquitous) have used a very nice high-grade paper.

Kudos to T&T Clark for this very fine new edition! If you missed my review of the digitised Logos edition, you can also read it here. The print edition is available from Amazon, or (massively discounted) from Christianbook.com. So don’t just sit there: go and ask your librarian (or your spouse) to order a set! 


Monday, 4 May 2009

Bultmann and Heidegger: new books

At the moment I’m reading the newly published correspondence between Bultmann and Heidegger: Rudolf Bultmann/Martin Heidegger: Briefwechsel 1925-1975, edited by A. Grossmann and C. Landmesser (Mohr Siebeck 2009). This is an extremely fascinating series of letters in a handsomely produced volume, complete with several photos and facsimile images, together with a foreword by Eberhard Jüngel. As Jüngel notes, the half-century friendship between Heidegger and Bultmann is all the more remarkable for the fact that each of them remains solely committed to his own intellectual domain (Heidegger spoke of the “deadly animosity” between faith and philosophy), rejecting any notion of a “Mixophilosophicotheologia”. (I’m not entirely sure you needed to learn that word – but there it is.)

It was the large-hearted Michael Lattke who gave me a copy of this book, so I’m very grateful to him – and be sure to keep an eye out for Michael’s massive Hermeneia commentary on The Odes of Solomon, which will be released next month. (Some decades ago, Lattke also compiled the index-volume to Bultmann’s great essay collection, Glauben und Verstehen: a true labour of love! And thanks to him, I also have in my own library the meticulously annotated volumes of Glauben und Verstehen which he used to produce the index: a beautiful and invaluable resource.)

If you’re interested in Bultmann, you’ll also certainly want to get your hands on the definitive new biography by Konrad Hammann (Mohr Siebeck 2009), as well as William Dennison’s English-language study, The Young Bultmann: Context for His Understanding of God, 1884-1925 (Peter Lang 2008). I haven’t yet read Dennison’s book – anyone familiar with it? And for a close analysis of the relation between Bultmann and Heidegger, you can also check out Otto Pöggeler’s new book, which sounds very interesting: Philosophie und hermeneutische Theologie: Heidegger, Bultmann und die Folgen (Fink 2009).

Finally, I leave you with a charming photo of Heidegger and Bultmann: two friends burdened together by the immense lonely labours of thought. (The photo is taken from the correspondence volume.)



Update: Kim’s right, we need a caption contest here. A prize for the best caption!

Sunday, 3 May 2009

On being a minister

Some words of wisdom from The Simpsons episode “In Marge We Trust” (1997):

Flanders: You saved me, Reverend. You really went above and beyond. Thank you.

Reverend Lovejoy: Oh, don’t thank me, thank Marge Simpson. She taught me that there’s more to being a minister than not caring about people.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Karl Barth on preaching

Following Aaron’s post yesterday, I noticed this post by Dustin, quoting Karl Barth on both the weakness and the obligation of preaching. Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics offers probably the best theology of preaching I’ve ever read – here’s an excerpt from the passage quoted in Dustin’s post:

“But, some might say, how can we theologians come to speak God’s Word in our words? Or, some congregation might say, how can we come to hear God’s Word in the words of this or that pastor who has nothing to offer us, or in the words of all pastors, none of whom we trust? … If we expected to hear God's Word more, we would hear it more even in the weak and perverted sermons. The statement that there was nothing in it for me should often read that I was not ready to let anything be said to me. What is needed here is repentance by both pastors and congregations…. This does not mean that congregations must say Yea and Amen to all the words of their reverend pastors. Pastors are sinners. They are unprofitable servants with all their words even though they do all that they are under obligation to do (cf. Luke 17:10). Nevertheless, they are servants of the Most High (cf. Dan. 3:26). They speak in his name. They carry out his commission, which is a reality even today. No matter how well or how badly they do it, this in the presupposition of listening to them…. They know fear and trembling whenever they mount the pulpit. They are crushed by the feeling of being poor human beings who are probably more unworthy than all those who sit before them. Nevertheless, precisely then it is still a matter of God’s Word. The Word of God that they have to proclaim is what judges them, but this does not alter the fact – indeed, it means – that they have to proclaim it. This is the presupposition of their proclaiming it.”

—Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1, 33-35.

Friday, 1 May 2009

On sermons: a rant


A guest-post by Aaron Ghiloni

I know preaching. For four long years in Bible college I heard 14 sermons each week. Count ’em:

  • 1 at Sunday morning church
  • 1at Sunday night church
  • 1 at Monday morning chapel
  • 1 at Wednesday morning chapel
  • 3 at Wednesday night church (the pastor’s son tended to fit at least this many sermons into one go)
  • 1 at Friday morning chapel
  • 6 in Homiletics courses throughout the week (where the homiletical advice was – and honest to Jehovah, I’m quoting verbatim – “If you’re not sweating you’re not preaching!”)
  • I’m not even counting listening to Jack Hayford and Chuck Swindoll on the radio each night.
Since then, as I’ve wandered through sundry denominations, I’ve heard the sermon in nearly all its forms: a 15 minute homily is far too long, while a 45 minute “message” is plainly unanointed. A lifetime pulpit pounding and sanctified lecturing has led me to one obvious conclusion: 

There should be a moratorium on the sermon. Let’s go straight from the Gospel to the Creed and cut the drivel in between. I may have heard fourteen sermons a week in Bible college, but I don’t remember the one I heard last week.

Preaching puts me to sleep which, by my definition, is the last thing preaching should do. The sermon should be revelatory – generating ambiguity, disrupting expectation. (Okay, so I stole this from Rowan “Ray-of-Darkness” Williams, but since this rant is about sermons, stealing someone else’s ideas is acceptable.) But, in fact, we already know exactly what to expect – fifteen minutes of nothing. Edward Schillebeeckx says the service of the word should be like the “roaring of the lion” – it is more like the yawning of a sloth.

Amen!

Ironically, most preachers genuinely believe they are above-average public speakers. (They can’t all be right, can they?) And as Gabriel Moran notes, most preachers also believe that all theology is homiletically-centered. Demurring, he says: “Probably only a clergyman could believe that preaching is a good model, let alone the best model, for understanding the religious life of mankind. It would be a near impossibility to find any non-clergymen who think of preaching and sermonizing as significant at all. Most people who give a thought to it conclude that preaching is an anachronism which is allowed existence because it bothers no one. However, if one’s professional life is centered on any activity, it is possible to view the whole world in light of that endeavor.”

Preach it, Brother!

Each brand of Christianity has its own formulas, but here is the structure of a typical, Anglo-mainline sermon:

First, a joke. (Most likely the joke is taken from internet or, if the preacher is retired, from Reader’s Digest. Most likely the main character in the joke is a religious person, and in all likelihood a member of the clergy.)

Second, a repetition of what has already been testified to the Scripture readings. (At this point the congregation is silently wondering how a sermon that started off so witty got so boring so quickly.)

Third, an unacknowledged regurgitation of the latest book the preacher feels proud of having read (connection to Scripture texts will be vague; connection to joke will be nonexistent).

Fourth, clichés. That’s how it always ends.

Amen!

Clichés, truisms, platitudes – no sermon is complete without them. If the structure of a sermon is clichéd, than the content and delivery of the sermon are all the more clichéd. There are many sorts of clichés packed into one sermon.

First, there are the pious clichés. They’re credal: God is love; God loves you; Jesus loves you; this church (no, this “community”) loves you; change is coming; everything is holy; be astonished at small graces; be ready for change which, after all, is coming because God loves you. We have a passé theology.

Next, there are the anecdotal clichés. These are easy to spot: they inevitably put the preacher into a tight situation in which he, after a protracted struggle, is proved a hero. A story about one’s kids is common too, but never as homiletically reliable as the first-person tall tale. We have a religion of anecdotes.

Finally, there are the rhetorical clichés. You know them: the feigned eye contact; the “practical turn” where we find out what it all means in “real life”; the open-ended question; three points and a poem; alliteration; the comfy conviction (being somber helps church people relax). We have an unimaginative art.

Oh, now I remember: the last sermon I heard was the one I gave. (I had to end with an anecdote about me.)

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