What Preachers Do Not Tell Us

November 20, 1994


What Preachers Do Not Tell Us

Fifty years ago, many preachers, especially in quite conservative churches, did not go to seminaries. Often a man — it was usually a man, though that has changed — would get what he considered a divine “call” and would stop being a grocer or a fire-man or a butcher, and begin to preach. He would usually be given some informal instruction by other preachers in his denomination about what to say, which meant essentially that they would make sure he knew the distinctive doctrines of that particular church. I know these things from experience, since I started to preach in village churches when I was only 16, and when the only real requirement was to memorize about 200 Biblical proof texts which upheld the tenets of my church, and to buy two or three sermon outline books which would help me string the verses to-gether into a sermon. I had a reasonably good memory, and when I stood up before audiences and quoted an entire chapter by memory I was given credit for being a very bright boy who knew all about the Bible.
The truth was that I knew almost nothing about the Bible. I had a small arsenal of selected verses, and I was familiar with the contents of certain books of the Bible, but I did not have the faintest notion of how the collection was composed, how it was edited, what its problems of translation were, what had been the long and complex history of its interpretation. I blithely said that it was inspired, skipped over most of it, and hammered away on the parts my people expected to hear. In theological terms, I had developed a “canon within the canon” — a rather small body of verses within the larger body of 66 books which the church in general has said makes up our Bible. Con-spicuously absent from my preaching were sermons on books like Joshua, with its violent massacres of innocent people at the command of the Hebrew god; of books like Judges, with its horrifying stories of brutality and sexual assault; of books steamy with eroticism, like the Song of Solomon; of books like Ecclesiastes or Job, with their radical challenges to the whole idea of a just and caring god.
What I was doing, without even knowing at the time what the word meant, was “bowdlerizing” the text. The word, you remember, comes from Thomas Bowdler, an early 19th century editor of Shakespeare’s plays, who published a censored version of them. For all practical purposes, I and those I heard preach as a boy, used expurgated texts of the Bible in their preaching. We simply did not deal with stuff which might upset our congregations….with the result that while they heard over and over the verses which supported their creed, they were woefully ignorant of a whole host of important things in the Bible, and about the Bible.
I am suggesting in this sermon that in thousands of local churches, things are not much changed. Can you imagine a sermon based on this Scripture reading from the pessimistic book of Ecclesiastes: “I am convinced that people should enjoy them-selves, because the only pleasure they have in this life is eating and drinking and en-joying themselves….Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to under-stand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. Wise men may claim to know, but they don’t….The same fate comes to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the bad, to those who are religious and those who are not….a good man is no better off than a sinner….One fate comes to all alike….Go ahead — eat your food and be happy; drink your wine and be cheerful…Enjoy life with the woman you love, as long as you live the useless life that God has given you in this world. En-joy every useless day of it, because that is all you will get for all your trouble. Work hard at whatever you do, because there will be no action, no thought, no knowledge, no wisdom in the world of the dead — and that is where you are going.”
This scepticism has been a scandal almost since this book was written, and if it had not been wrongly credited to Solomon, and if some scribe had not done a little orthodox “P.S.” at the end of it, it would never have been part of the Bible at all….not that this would have mattered much, given the way the pulpit ignores it. We do strange things with the Bible. We make it an icon, to be revered, and surveys show that more than 90% of all households in this country own a Bible, but all of us know that only a tiny handful of people in all those houses ever embark on serious and sustained study of the book they claim to cherish. There has never been, with any other book on earth, such a disparity between the number who praise it and the number who seriously read it.
There are several reasons for that, but one of the most important is that the church-going public is kept so much in the dark about things preachers learn in seminary but feel will be disturbing to people in the pews. It would have been rank heresy in most churches 50 years ago for a preacher to admit there are mistakes and contradictions in the Bible, so millions grew up thinking that “inspiration” meant there weren’t any. I cannot number the times students in university religion courses asked, “Why weren’t we ever told in church that these things are in the Bible?” They were startled to discover two creation stories in Genesis, not just one, and that they were quite different from each other; surprised to discover that different writers had conflicting views of the nature of God; amazed to find out how much of the Bible is made up of tedious lists of tribes and legal codes and detailed instructions on how to build a tabernacle or prepare a sacrifice, and totally useless for modern life. They realize that they have had a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Bible, and that therefore they do not truly know what that whole library of books is like and cannot have an informed opinion about it.
An article I read some months ago, in Bible Review. was entitled “The Great Gulf Between Scholars and the Pew,” and I gladly acknowledge my debt to it for prompting this sermon. It begins by mentioning three great intellectual revolutions which have changed the way we think about ourselves and the world we live in: the ideas of Karl Marx, the ideas of Charles Darwin, and the ideas of Sigmund Freud. And then it men-tions a fourth major revolution which has had very little impact on any sizeable num-ber of people….the revolution in Biblical studies, especially as it came together in 19th century German universities in the works of men like David Strauss and Julius Well-hausen and others whose names are more appropriate for the 50-minute classroom lecture than for the pulpit.
At the same time, and into the early 20th century, thousands of ancient texts in languages like Assyrian, Babylonian, Aramaic, and – later – Sumerian and Ugaritic, were excavated, deciphered, and translated with profound effects for biblical scholar-ship. Many of those texts had close, even verbatim, correspondences with biblical passages, so that the whole idea of the Bible as a unique document without sources or parallels in other cultures was challenged….but for the most part the pew never heard of such things. And this despite the fact that the scholars saying such things were often ordained ministers and Christian professors in the world’s great seminaries, from whom generations of pulpit ministers would come who had learned the Bible was not the simple book congregations had been told it was for centuries.
What scholarship knew, and what preachers in good seminaries learned whether they ever chose to share it or not, was that the Bible, made up of many books by many authors writing over the course of a thousand years, contained different points of view about God and our relationship with him and with other human beings….that it is not, in any simple sense, the “word of God,” but the words of Amos and Isaiah, of Luke and Paul. Scholars knew long ago that Moses did not write the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scripture; that David did not write most of the Psalms; that Solomon did not write the Song of Solomon or Ecclesiastes; that Isaiah did not write the entire book of prophecy attributed to him; that Paul did not write some of the letters that bear his name; and that it is highly unlikely that the apostles Matthew, Peter, James and John had anything to do with the books that bear their names.
There is the question of internal consistency. Was the conquest of the Holy Land by the Israelites a lightning fast series of military victories, or was it a slow 200-year process of assimilation? Joshua says one thing, Joshua says another. Was Jesus born in Bethlehem or in Nazareth? A careful study of Matthew and Luke will give two different views. Did the active career of Jesus last nearly three years, or only a few months? It depends on whether you read Matthew or John. Some verses claim an equality between Jesus and God; another verse has Jesus chiding an audience by say-iong, “Why do you call me good? One is good, and that is God.” What does it mean to call Jesus “the Son of God”? Why did he refer to himself so often as “the Son of Man?” This could go on for hours, but it would all add up to the same thing: that the under-standing of the Bible as a historically-conditioned document, reflecting the biases, backgrounds, and idiosyncrasies of its different authors, has never really filtered through preachers to the pew.
The process of translation has been part of the problem. For a single example out of hundreds, consider this for a moment: most of us grew up thinking the Bible reflected monotheism, the idea that in a world of polytheistic pagans the authors of Scripture all believed in a single god. Several verses in the Bible suggest otherwise. Job 1:6, in Hebrew, refers to a group of divinities called “the sons of God” who are associated with Yahweh, which is the personal name of the god of Istrael. Most trans-lators soften this by rendering it vaguely as “the heavenly beings” or “members of the court of heaven,” both of which obscure the idea of a high god presiding over an assembly of other gods, a concept the Israelites clearly shared at times with their neighbors. Did God’s “spirit” hover over the watery surface of the world at creation, or was it “a mighty wind”? It depends on which version you read, of the very best versions. In Matthew 12, which speaks of casting out demons by the Spirit of God, do we capitalize the word “Spirit” and make it sound as if he had the “Holy Spirit” in mind, or, since the Greek manuscripts have no capitals, shall we leave it small “s” spirit, in which case it could mean casting our demons by the attitude and power of God, with no reference to a third person in a Trinity.
Odd things happen in the Bible. For example, according to Greek text of Mat-thew 21:7, Jesus sat on two donkeys when he entered Jerusalem. Matthew wanted to show this as a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 which contains a prophecy that Matthew misread. Zechariah said a king will arise for Jerusalem “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This is the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, in which an idea is repeated in different words like the variations in a musical theme. Zechariah had only one donkey in mind, but Matthew didn’t get it, so he wrote that the disciples “brought the donkey and the colt….and he sat on them.” (Jer. Bible). Most translators, to keep the verse from sounding ridiculous, clean it up by translating, “and he sat thereon,” which has the virtue of hiding Matthew’s wooden literalism.
We continue in this clean-up process to this very day, rewriting the Bible now to get rid of the male chauvinism that runs through so much of it. Instead of translating, “Happy the man who delights in the law,” which is what the first Psalm says, we now read, “Happy are those who delight in the law,” so as to include both men and women, despite the fact that for the original writer women could not possibly study the law, and we have a translation which does not reflect what he said or what he meant. Paul in Rom. 1 and Gal.1 and 1 Cor. 1 is made to address his “brothers and sisters,” instead of just his “brothers,” which is an understandable attempt to get inclusive language into the Bible, but which disguises the truth about the Bible’s prevailing masculine bias. This kind of revisionism fosters the idea that the Bible came directly from the hand of God himself, and was perfectly fair and up-to-date in all of its utterances from the very beginning….an idea that creates bibliolators, people who worship the book instead of the God or the Son of God it tries to describe.
I blame biblical scholars for creating a lack of what the article in Bible Review calls “accessible scholarship.” They often feel that expressing the result of their work in non-technical language is beneath them, which means only specialists can read them, and the layperson is kept from learning what they have discovered. Academi¬cians who teach the Bible have to publish to get promotions and keep their jobs, and since there are fewer and fewer original things to say about the Bible they often move way out to the fringes, spending enormous amounts of time and energy on minute analyses of rather trivial texts and themes. In my other world as a Professor of English Literature, I did exactly the same thing….not by choice, but by compulsion. I can show you, for example, an article of mine published in a scholarly journal, entitled, “Was there a toad in the garden?” — in which I debate for several densely footnoted pages whether in Milton’s Paradise Lost there was a real toad in the Garden of Eden, or only Satan in the form of a toad….or something stupendously important, which I knew at the time only a crazy person would ever read but which would mark me as a genuine publishing scholar! So, you can blame scholars, too, for the gulf between scholarship and the pew in many churches.
So what do we do? You will mistake my whole message if you think I am saying it’s hopeless and that people in the pew can’t hope for sophisticated knowledge of how the Bible was written and how it should be used. They can know those things, if preachers will be honest with them, and help them know about the same tools the preachers themselves were using in seminary. Do I expect this to happen? Not in most churches, because people thrive on dogma and on certainty, and true biblical scholarship is destructive of both. The way to build a big church is to entertain, to preach comforting and inspirational sermons that do not disturb anyone, and to forget what one learned in seminary. It’s the high road to ministerial success, but it does keep the gulf wide between what well-taught preachers know about the Bible, and what they are willing to share with their listeners….and for lots and lots of reasons, we pay a high price for the bridge that doesn’t get built. I believe that so strongly that I hope in years to come you will encourage all who preach here to build it.

Over and over, Eternal God, truth has liberated us from superstition and error and dangerous ideas, and so we ask for the courage to seek it and to be glad when we find it, even when it means the loss of some long-held tradition, we ask in His name who promised that the truth will make us free. Amen .