Preaching Truth, Justice and the American Way
Cultural assumptions affect what listeners sit for and what preachers must stand for.
October 1, 1986
I had acted innocently enough. Summer was approaching, and I was in need of fresh sermon ideas. So I prepared a bulletin insert asking for suggested texts or topics.
The first one in sizzled like a fuse on a Fourth of July firecracker: "Why don't you ever preach on patriotism? You need to preach on what our flag stands for!"
I felt torn: I didn't want to reject Fred's request out of hand or offend his national pride (he had served his country honorably in World War II), but I do not believe that truth, justice, and "the American way" are triune. I've always considered myself a loyal citizen, and I'm grateful for the liberties I enjoy, yet for me, national loyalties must bow before the Lordship of Christ. How could I possibly preach a biblical message on the American flag-especially the kind of message Fred would expect?
The next time I visited Fred, I said I would be on vacation the weekend of July 4 (true enough, but also a cop-out). I also explained I would be more comfortable preaching what the New Testament teaches concerning the duties of believers toward their nation, and I promised Fred I would do just that. He understood my position even though his expectation for a patriotic celebration was not met.
The encounter with Fred ended happily enough, with both our relationship and my sense of integrity intact. But his request got me thinking about the larger question of the influence of cultural values upon the Christian pulpit. I began to wonder about more subtle and often undetected influences of "the American way" on those of us who are called to preach The Way.
Reading Charles Larson's book, Persuasion: Reflection and Responsibility, I realized I wrestle with some cultural myths that are as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. By calling them myths I do not mean they are necessarily false-or true. Rather I mean they are so much a part of the way our culture interprets reality that we often fail to recognize them as anything but axiomatic. We grow up hearing them, breathing them, and thinking them. Though they have scant basis in biblical chapter and verse, I find they often creep unawares into my preaching.
Myth 1: The Possibility of Success
This is perhaps the most easily recognized American myth. It has fueled our country's ambition from the age of the earliest settlers to the recent "era of the entrepreneur."
This myth was popularized in the nineteenth century by Horatio Alger, who used this story line as the basis for several novels that told of a young man who through hard work, sincerity, honesty, and faith in the future was able to make good. Sometimes he would make it big and own his own company, gain a beautiful wife, enjoy a good life, and even do good for others. This bootstrap mythology is embodied today in "the American dream."
Positive thinking and possibility thinking thrive as richly in our American soil as corn does in Iowa. And to a certain degree, the appeal of the positive preachers (in churches both large and small) is due to the fact that we are uniquely prepared by our culture to receive these messages. This is not to suggest there is no biblical basis for preaching a positive message-countless verses speak hope, possibility, newness, and encouragement.
The dangers of canonizing Horatio Alger, however, are also apparent. Often "success" means only one thing to many people-health and wealth. Listeners hear that gospel of material success even when the preacher is encouraging them to new possibilities in the spiritual dimension.
Yet there is, I believe, an even subtler danger in employing this motif. I recall one sermon our pastor preached when I was a teenager. After dinner that Sunday I overheard my mother muttering as she washed the dishes.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I don't think the Lord is calling me to leave my family to be a missionary hero in Africa," she said, venting frustration. "I'm not likely to make a fortune in the near or distant future. But when I hear a sermon that describes all those heroic and successful people, I feel like a total failure. In what possible way can I do anything of consequence for God?"
The possibility of success had become for my mother the impossibility of significance. The heroes were too distant, the goals too high. She needed images of mothers and homemakers who gained ground for the kingdom in the kitchens where they lived.
The lesson of that episode with my mother has stayed with me, and every time I recruit Horatio Alger for the service of the gospel (which I do as often as any other red-blooded preacher), I try to picture my mother in my congregation. She and the rest of the congregation need to be encouraged to new possibilities but not driven to discouragement with impossibilities.
Myth 2: The Virtue of Challenge
A second myth, a cousin to the first, is quite simple: There is wisdom and strength that come only through great challenge and testing. These trials give access to special power, character, and knowledge.
This perspective lurks behind the conventional wisdom that suffering makes you a better person. Or we hear, "Going into the army will be the best thing for him." This story line is also evident in the way we narrate the lives of many great American heroes. Franklin Roosevelt's struggle with polio not only did not prevent him from becoming president, it uniquely equipped him (so goes the tale) to guide our nation through a crippling depression.
It is helpful to examine the component values in this belief. First, it suggests there is something good about suffering. Suffering promotes learning and maturity and emotional growth. Also, the value of challenge suggests that greatness needs to be tempered under fire. Both great accomplishment and great personal character result from successfully enduring the testing.
Yes, the worlds of politics, athletics, the arts, and business overflow with challenges and tests to overcome. So too, tests and trials mark the Christian journey. We read in James 1 that "the testing of our faith develops perseverance." And perseverance must "finish its work so that [we] may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Romans 5 states the same thing even more boldly, "We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope."
But when our culture misapplies this truth, it can have damaging effects. I have become aware of this by walking with several church families through life-threatening, faith-threatening trials. Some trials squeeze the faith clean out of folks rather than mold them into more mature and purified believers. I'm not sure how to square this with James 1 and Romans 5. Nor am I fully equipped to answer the whys that fill my parishioners' eyes when they watch a child suffer, or see a cherished mate die prematurely, or listen to an Ethiopian student tearfully tell of the devastation of his homeland. I have seen doubt and bitterness fill the places of the heart where faith once dwelt secure.
Now I am better able to understand the elderly woman who confronted me years ago when, as a student intern, I preached my first sermon from James 1. I had blithely suggested that trials could be greeted as special delivery packages from God. These gifts could be unwrapped so we might discover new resources of perseverance and maturity.
She locked me in her gaze and spoke through tightly drawn lips. "Young man," she said, "I hope and pray you live a few more years and experience some of the things you talk about before you preach that sermon again."
She was right, of course. Not that there is no value in challenge-there is-but it is not always a blessing. Some challenges can be overwhelming, some trials overpowering. All tests are not endured victoriously. Folks in those situations need to hear another word of gospel. In addition to preaching the value of challenge, I have learned to preach:
- the need to live with mystery and unanswered questions
- the as-yet-unfinished struggle between God's kingdom and the forces of evil
- the need for genuine community and real caring for those who are walking in the valley of deep shadows
- and (frequently) the goodness of God, even though at times we can apprehend that goodness only by faith.
When folks are being sorely tested, I have learned they find more value in those sermons than in ones filled with the virtue of challenge.
Myth 3: The Wisdom of the Rustic
One of the enduring legends of our culture is the clever rustic. No matter how sophisticated or devious the opposition, the simple wisdom of the common man or woman wins out. Backwoods figures like Daniel Boone and Paul Bunyan, who outwit their adversaries and overcome great obstacles with clever but simple common sense, fill our folklore. Abraham Lincoln rode this image from the county courthouses of Illinois to the White House in Washington, D.C. The power of this image continues even today. Ronald Reagan developed his reputation as "the Great Communicator" not only because of his acting experience but because of his uncanny ability to speak the language of the common people.
The flip side of this faith in folk wisdom and reliance on initial instincts is a tendency to distrust the educated or intellectual. The disciplines of scholarship are often seen merely as tools of obfuscation (translation: too much book-larnin' gits in the way of clear-headed thinkin').
Those of us who believe in the simple gospel often find within us an accompanying desire to make simplistic the Bible's subtleties and to codify all the complexities of modern existence. In the small-town church in southern Ohio where I was raised, this was regular Sunday fare. We heard the ABCs of the gospel. We heard the four principles for successful marriage. We mapped the approaching finale of world history with a chart. We were taught to be suspicious of psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and any other "ists" we might encounter.
Several crises of confidence later, I have learned that not all of life is simple, easy, or clear. And when the clear-cut answers I was given did not match the complexities of my own life and the lives of those I was called to serve, I felt a bit betrayed. I began to understand why so many have thrown over the faith when life gets rocky.
Fortunately, I have not done so. Nor have I lost my appreciation for the rustic wisdom with which I was raised. Common sense and intuition often serve quite well. But I have found that God also uses diligent study, solid research, and educated reasoning.
Just as it is our task to explain the difficult, at times our task is also to portray life as complex. Not all wisdom arises from the rustic's simplicity. When the congregation is led to seek wisdom from the learned as well as from the common, when the biblical message is proclaimed in all its mysterious fullness, our people are better equipped to face the world as it really is.
Myth 4: The Presence of Conspiracy
Another widespread cultural premise is the presence of conspiracy: a belief that behind most major political, economic, or social problems is a powerful group that has conspired to create them. American history is filled with suspicions of Masonic conspiracies, Populist conspiracies, and international banking conspiracies. In my own lifetime I have heard conspiracy theories connecting John F. Kennedy and the Vatican. I've heard of Cuban and KGB involvement in JFK's assassination and a conspiracy of American blacks to burn down and take control of all major U.S. cities. I've been warned of a conspiracy of right-wing religious groups to undermine democracy. The list could go on and on.
The validity of any of these theories is not my point here. I'm only illustrating our tendency to spread such explanations for certain trends and events.
Usually such explanations attract persons or groups who feel threatened. Conspiracy theories inevitably involve the infamous "they." Usually "they" have labels-right-wingers or left-wingers or humanists or media-types. Labels tend to confirm sinister suspicions and motivate us by our fears. "They" often find their way into our sermons.
Shortly before the last presidential election, I stopped by a number of churches on ministerial errands. Several of the churches had copies of the previous Sunday's sermons available. Wanting to see what these colleagues were preaching, I took copies and read them. I learned of three separate conspiracies responsible for our nation's downfall-all of them centered within a few square miles of us! The three "theys" were extremely disparate groups. But the respective preachers were confident the respective "theys" were behind our country's ills, and their congregations were duly urged to become involved in the campaign to turn "them" out.
Only once have I even met one of "them." He is a member of my congregation, a health teacher at the local middle school. Before I came to the church, Mike was attacked from various local pulpits as one of "those" who taught "values-less" sex education. I discovered that Mike, a committed and sensitive Christian, was trying to walk the tightrope between his Christian values and the realities of public education. In working with those eighth-graders, he was careful to emphasize the church and home as key influences in decision making. But because he was "one of them," more than one local pastor excoriated him from the pulpit, and Mike was besieged with phone calls, letters, and visits from irate parents.
Now, whenever I hear conspiracies preached, I cannot help but think of a disillusioned Mike, harassed and harangued by professing brothers and sisters who were more willing to believe in a conspiracy than in a brother's good intentions for their children.
Myth 5: The Desire for a Messiah
The fifth cultural orientation leads us, when in the midst of difficulty or disaster, to look for deliverance through strong leaders.
During the unemployment and resultant despair of the 1930s, Americans looked to Franklin Roosevelt to lead them once again to the promised land of happy days. In the 1950s, the threat was the worldwide advance of communism, and many fearful Americans rallied around Senator Joseph McCarthy as the guardian of the free world. The sixties and early seventies saw a decline in the power of this cultural myth. But in the eighties, names like Reagan and Iacocca stand for strong leadership, which many people again find attractive.
Obviously, this is a sensitive myth to discuss in terms of Christian preaching. Even to call it a myth raises our apprehensions, for we preach the true Messiah, who is able to save to the uttermost those who place their trust in him. It is certainly a positive thing that our culture prepares the people to whom we preach to expect to find help and salvation in a person of great power and wisdom. This intense optimism is noticeably lacking in many other cultures, making belief more difficult.
Yet, like the other cultural premises, this one is not without difficulties. They appear when we seek to persuade others to follow Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is seen as just one of many saviors. His message of salvation sits on the shelf alongside a host of other great hopes, which range from the latest technologies to the newest cult leader.
While for the most part the church has been quite effective in pointing out false messiahs, a more subtle danger is the temptation to falsely present the true Messiah-to distort the deliverance he offers.
During my college days, a friend involved in our campus parachurch organization told me about Bill, a recent convert.
Bill was slated to share his testimony at a meeting held at a fraternity house on a nearby campus. Following Bill's testimony, a brief presentation of the gospel would be given by one of the staffers. Normally, the staff member would check out testimonies in advance to insure they would be clear, concise, and Christ centered. But in the rush of a busy week, that precaution had been overlooked.
Bill's story soon had the attention of everyone in the room, especially the staff worker. Bill told of a difficult home life, of an even tougher existence in the inner city, of gang wars and drugs and robberies. He went on to tell of barely squeaking into college and then of his glorious conversion to Christ, which had completely transformed his life. He had been miraculously delivered from drug addiction, and his new life was one of peace, meaning, and happiness.
The staff member stared in utter amazement, especially since he knew 95 percent of the story was not within ninety-five miles of the truth! He cut short the meeting and hustled Bill out of the frat house.
"What were you doing in there?" he demanded. "You know none of that stuff is true!"
"I know," replied Bill. "But I thought that's what a testimony was-a wild story about how terrible your life was before you became a Christian and then about how great it is after you are saved."
It was a sad example of the overuse of the coming-of-Savior story line in an attempt to persuade others in the name of the Messiah. Few of us would be tempted to go to such extremes, yet we all know how easy it is to build up the claims of emotional peace and the solving of problems accompanying conversion.
I have discovered in more than one counseling session that when these overstated claims knock heads with reality, all too often faith gets bruised. The genuine glory of our Savior is tarnished whenever we don't preach the true Messiah and his salvation as carefully and truthfully as we can.
We do not face a clear-cut choice between preaching Christ or preaching cultural myths. We are called to proclaim Christ-and by necessity we do so in the context of our cultural assumptions.
Cultural premises are part of the way we think, and therefore part of the way in which we seek to persuade. Likewise, the predispositions are part of the way our congregations listen and make choices. These cultural premises can be powerful persuasive tools. Our job is to employ them with an eye toward discernment and fairness-without compromise.
It is not simply a matter of preaching truth, justice or the American way. Nor of preaching truth, justice, and the American way. But rather it is a matter of preaching in an American way without doing injustice to The Way of truth.
Rick McKinniss is pastor of Emmaus Baptist Church in Northfield, Minnesota
Leadership 86Â Fall 58
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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