NOTE: I realize this is incredibly long, but I posted it as one piece because I thought breaking it in two would ruin one of my better bits of writing. Also, because this IS so long, next week will likely see only one post. We’ll see.
As I mentioned on Tuesday, Mrs. Frankenfeld and I vacationed last week in the Appalachians. As we drove through ceaseless rain in Kentucky on our way down, we surfed the radio and discovered that although there were myriad stations, they all fell into just two categories: Christian and country. Since I object to country music in all forms that do not involve Connie Britton in at least a peripheral capacity, that left us to choose between maybe a dozen Christian stations, almost all broadcasting sermons from local churches on account of this being a Sunday. So, we listened to some preaching.
Of course, I should probably say preechin, because that’s what this was. Grammar bad enough to qualify as a foreign language, breathless ranting, and massive rural helpings of anti-government paranoia violated our ears on whichever station we chose, usually at a speed fast enough to impress Twista or Busta Rhymes. The gentlemen in the pulpits gasped audibly for breath at the end of each explosion of words, only to curtail the same gasp by launching into another voluble eruption of machine-gun paced hillbilly-twanged wisdom.
Not everything they said was wrong, by the way. But they spoke so quickly that it was impossible to sort the wrong from the right and also listen to what was new, and so the result was that we and our car flew through the rain, propelled by the force of their arguments, without time to process. And from the sounds of the congregations’ cries of affirmation audible on the broadcasts, we weren’t the only ones. The preechin had power. I cannot deny it.
The timetable for our sojourn placed us in Tennessee for breakfast on Monday, and we stopped at the town in which I experienced the most miserable year of my childhood. The details of my suffering from August 1, 1988 until August 1, 1989 are rich enough that I’ll save them for another time, but I’m serious when I say the town in which we lived actively persecuted me and my whole family as retribution for the Civil War. We were Northerners, we were the enemy, and my mother swears I cried myself to sleep every night for a 3 month stretch at one point. God’s children shouldn’t hold grudges, but I do. Believe me when I say that. I do.
At any rate, my wife is from Georgia. And her family cabin – the one to which we were meandering – is only a few hours from the site of my inner 8 year-old’s visceral hatred. So as we stopped for breakfast in the contemptible hamlet, an unspoken competition commenced between us. She felt that I had always been unfair to the town, that my family probably exacerbated our struggles by failing to adapt to a new culture, and that returning as an adult would show me the error of my ways. I, as you would expect, sought vindication. I didn’t want her to hate this unspecified town. I needed her to. And so we each sought to shape the other’s perceptions, without acknowledging the game it became.
To those of you familiar with my pathological competitiveness, it will not surprise you to know that I won the game. Not at first, admittedly. Our waitress was a delightful southern stereotype out of a Hallmark movie, so my prospects of maintaining my scorn looked correspondingly bleak, but I ate slowly enough for my wife to realize the dearth of culture, civility, and awareness of the last 30 years of progress amongst the other patrons and employees of the restaurant. She doesn’t hate the town or its people, necessarily. But she did acquire a deep dislike of the town, she accepts that I feel more strongly about it than her, and she accepts that I’m not exaggerating when I tell my Tennessee tales.
I don’t feel great about this, by the way. I helped my wife to dislike a few thousand strangers, and I did it because I wanted her to think as unhealthily as me. As I said, I probably even needed it. This victory doesn’t taste as sweet as most. It might even taste sour. But I did win.
My most relaxing vacations generally involve 19th Century literature. Simple but long novels, covering concerns from an era so long gone as to render them frivolous curiosities to me. For this trip, my choice was Mansfield Park. It proved exactly what I wanted in almost every way – the story carried my interest, but I didn’t exactly lose any sleep over what would become of Fanny. It lasted me the whole week, but took only one additional day to conclude and set aside. It was, basically, the perfect vacation read for my tastes.
Except for one thing.
My enjoyment of the novel (as will yours, if you have not read it) hinged upon my willingness not merely to accept, but to actively hope for a marriage between first cousins. Unaccustomed as I am to rooting for incest, this absolutely complicated my ability to enjoy the read. At times Jane Austen convinced me to want it, but in the end, I couldn’t. I get that this used to be common practice, that it still happens in many parts of the world, and that it even – dear golly why? – remains legal in some circumstances in the state in which I reside. Even so, I couldn’t go there. Not this reader.
What redeems the book from being a total failure, however, is what Austen did accomplish in my mind. If she couldn’t make me actively desire a marriage between first cousins, she could stop me from being opposed to it. In the end, I didn’t want it, but I didn’t hate it either. The book depended upon my signing off on incest, and that’s what I did. She needed to bend my mind to her view, and she found a way to bend it just far enough.
Which brings us back to Kentucky. And not, as I know you’re thinking, for wisecracks about marrying first cousins; that happens to be illegal in Kentucky. Back to the preechin, which is – as with preaching – the central moment of an evangelical worship service.
It is, right? I mean, we sing songs aplenty at evangelical services, but the role of each song in a service is frequently more like a small helping of an appetizer from one of those pick-3 or pick-5 platters you order during a night out with friends. You know, some of the repetitive choruses that divert your attention to your next blog post topic are rather like the always-promising-but-never-satisfying garlic bread, certain hymns are akin to reliably-filling-but-never-transcendent mozzarella sticks, and so on. At any rate, without the appetizer tray, your evening wouldn’t be nearly as full and enjoyable, but it’s not the filet mignon. It’s not the main attraction.
And never mind whether or not the role of music (or elements, like prayer, dramatizations or responsive readings, etc.) should be more important than this. In most evangelical churches, they are not. They’re part of a larger whole, but they aren’t the center. Preaching is.
And as we drove through Kentucky, propelled by the momentum of some truly ill-conceived sermons, that started to bother me even more than it usually does.
Essentially, all preaching breaks into two main categories: teaching, and persuading. I’ve never heard a sermon that wasn’t at least a little bit of both, but every sermon leans more to one side or the other of that continuum, and can be categorized thusly. But the sermons we heard going through Kentucky (Which, while we’re on the topic, should in no way be assumed to be representative of all Kentucky evangelicalism. They’re simply what we heard in one profoundly limited sample) were so heavy on persuasion and so light on teaching that they illustrate perfectly the danger of making preaching the absolute center of evangelical worship.
If there’s a lesson to be gained from my Tennessee breakfast, it’s that when we need someone else to think a certain way, we’ll find a way. Even though I now regret my quest to shape how my wife sees that town, I got so caught up in my efforts to persuade her that I found a way. In this case, I chewed my bacon slowly enough to give the town time to reveal its true colors, and don’t think for a second that it was an accident. My persuasion had taken on a life of its own, and the act of persuasion became more important than the topic it concerned.
That’s also true of Mansfield Park. If the act of persuading me to be ambivalent about the cousin marriage hadn’t had a life of its own, there would have been no story, and thus no book. It took every page of that huge book to soften my revulsion at the prospect, and that’s probably one reason why the lengthy act of persuasion that is Mansfield Park endures.
Not all of preaching should consist of teaching, and there’s no reason that sermons shouldn’t feature prominently in many (can we avoid saying all?) services. But if the sermon is the whole of every service and the sermon is entirely persuasive, what happens when that persuasion takes on a life of its own? When that happens – and I’m sure most of you have seen this in person yourselves – the sermon can acquire a momentum that seems inspired, even if it’s on hating Southerners or marrying cousins. Which means that an entire worship service gets redirected. We have a word for that: idolatry.
I realize that seems harsh, but what else can we call misdirected worship?
In four years of seminary classes, I never heard anyone suggest that the weakest link in worship is often the sermon. But it is, because it’s typically the only moment of a service that depends entirely upon one person to remain self-controlled and resist the urge to self-aggrandize and embellish his (or her) message. It’s the only moment of the service that hinges on whether or not one person can vanquish the temptation to allow persuasion to be an end rather than a means, and it’s usually the only moment of a service that can completely rewrite how everyone experiences and remembers the rest of the worship service. And while that’s not insurmountable, it is a pretty big ask, week in and week out. My vacation illustrated why: persuasion may not automatically lead to idolatry, but if it’s the center of a church’s worship, that church is playing with fire.
Which doesn’t mean that persuasion doesn’t belong in the pulpit; we just shouldn’t necessarily give it priority of place over teaching, celebrating, remembering, lamenting, or any other corporate action in worship. And maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on preaching in the first place. It might lower our collective risk of idolatry, not to mention the risk of being talked into marrying our cousins.