While Tuesday's experience at Austin's Transforming Culture Symposium was exciting, Wednesday's had a major letdown. More like a let-my-blood-pressure-go-up downer. I went to a break-out session on Preaching and besides it being not all it's cracked up to be (all conferences have so-so sessions - it's inevitable), the man who spoke, Reg Grant, was terribly offensive and for lack of a better word, conservative. I will try and find a better word as I go along so as not to make a blanket statement such as he made throughout the presentation. I will also comment on two areas: one, his content and two, his beliefs about preaching and theology.
Let me preface by stating some of the things I liked...
"If you want to read a good book on preaching, you should just read good literature. It will help you be a better preacher." Agreed!
"Our liberal friends..." Although I do not consider myself liberal (liberal in my opinion is denying the divinity of Christ), I appreciated that he didn't just say, "the liberals" or insert any negative word before liberal but instead called "us" (I'm assuming he would label me as such) friends. That was a nice touch. Although I probably would have just said, "other scholars..."
Now onto content.
He spoke on archetypes in narrative stories, especially movies. Great stuff. If you've ever taken a literature class, you've probably studied some form of what he spoke of. It reminded me of my seventh grade Odyssey class (think talented and gifted program) when we were preparing to read Beowulf. He worked from the ideas set forth by Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey who relies heavily on Joseph Campbell. Reg walked us through several movie examples of this model, then took a couple Biblical narratives and applied it. This exercise proved interesting and insightful though I didn't agree with Reg entirely on who he made the allies and enemies in Ruth, but whatever. People have different interpretations. That's the joy of scripture. He was obviously well versed and had done a lot of research on narrative. He's from DTS (did I mention that? - and no! - I did not know that going into the break-out), so I figured I wouldn't agree with him on everything, but I did figure I could still learn a lot and hopefully be able to dialogue, if not with him or the class, within myself over ideas.
However, his thesis was something along the lines of "all stories follow this basic archetypal outline in some form or another and God is the ultimate Author of this narrative structure and works His [sic] will in dominantly the same way." Okay... a bit heavy on the God stuff about how God works in the world (evidenced by his reference to dispensationalism which he assumed we all agreed with - ugh!) He also asserted that any movies that haven't followed this structure have been blockbuster busts. While this is a good start to evaluating movies and books, at some point Reg's argument breaks down. And some of us in the class pointed this out: our Academy Award winners and nominees this year There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men are perfect examples of this. There is no Resurrection. There is no return with the Elixir. There is no return to Ideal Place or Ordinary Time such as he presented it. So while this is a good, elementary model for understanding narrative, it is, as most models are, not all-encompassing. And certainly not all good movies follow this model. (Side note: an interesting discussion would be, what model do non-traditional movies tend to follow if not the typical archetypal model?)
Now, his ideas on preaching. And this is where I moved from quietly-disagreeing-at-times-but-still-interested into outright embarrassment, shame, anger, and a host of other feelings from being stuck in that room.
The question was asked, "What's an appropriate way to use a movie in a sermon illustration?" Oh I try not to use movie clips in sermons because they upstage you. Movies use excellent writers and famous actors and brilliant cinematography. You as the preacher need to be the best one speaking to the people so they hear your important message and that's hard if you're showing a movie clip. Plus, I never want to be caught endorsing a movie from the pulpit. Even if you say "I don't agree with this movie, but there's a good scene that shows..." you're endorsing the movie.
To which I would respond, "We're at a symposium on art right?" I mean, why spend an hour talking about archetypes and brilliant movies and be asked to teach on "PREACHING - Perspective on Preaching Narratively and Artistically" and veto the idea of using movie clips? Films are art! Art is good! Even if it's produced by people "in the world" (insert ominous voice). Even if it's art created by people who "need our prayers" (when introducing one author, Reg noted that although his book was good, he wasn't sure if he was a Christian and we should pray for him). It's good! Art inspires thought and beauty and is important in a worship setting! You don't have to show a movie clip every week, but you sure as heck shouldn't feel discouraged from using them at all!
Question two: "Who are some examples of good narrative preachers?" Excellent, I thought and began forming my own list. Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock... Baylor had a study several years ago naming the Top Twelve Most Effective Preachers in the world. Reg didn't mention one of them. He did say this though... Emergent people like Brian McLaren are narrative preachers but their theology is so bad it's difficult to listen to them. I have heard one good sermon by Rob Bell though. (Long pause). It's just hard. Sometimes there is a nugget of good in what they say. And they do reach out to culture and say some good things, but it's layered in bad theology. So... (shoulder shrug). The problem with these narrative preachers is that they tell a really great story and then tack a bible story on the end and expect it to relate. They expect that to make what they just said a sermon. And that's an unbiblical, unsound sermon. (Um... aren't you supposed to be speaking on Narrative Sermon? Why are you saying this? Are you still just reaming on the Emergent peeps?)
Then, in a response to another question about truth-telling he said, You have to give your congregation one thing and repeat it over and over so that they are sure to get it. Make sure they hear and walk away with it. At this point I raised my shaking hand and praying my neck wasn't too red from embarrassment and anger I said, "I heard Barbara Brown Taylor speak last year and she actually said that as preachers we should feed our congregation good food, but not chew it up for them. In other words, present them with thoughts, but let them process. Is that in direct contrast to what you're saying?" No, Reg responded. And then he gave an illustration about his three year old daughter and Easter. She couldn't see the eggs hidden in the grass because she was so small and didn't have the perspective her father did. So he'd lead her to an area, pull back the grass and lo! she'd "found" the egg. She's pick it up and marvel at her discovery. If he had picked it up, they would have had to go find another egg, but because his daughter had picked up the egg where her father had led her and pulled back the grass for her to see, she was excited and proud about her discovery. So too, when he preaches can he lead the congregation to the point where they can elbow their neighbor and say, "I know where he's going with this!" and feel like they figured it out. But the preacher had to take them there, the preacher had to pull back the grass, but he lets the people pick up the egg.
Well, no. Actually, I think those are two different ways to describe preaching entirely. Your congregation is comprised of adults, not children. And they have brains and perspective and don't need to be spoon-fed and get excited about figuring out you've fed them cheerios and not spinich. They can pull back their own grass! Or heck, they can explore the field! They're Baptists! They're encouraged to think on their own and come to their own conclusions, meditate on the scripture, weigh in their experience and reason within themselves about their faith. We may bring a message, but we're not mama birds that we have to chew it up and spit it into their mouths. They can survey the feast of faith and devour it too!
Ugh. I'm tired of writing about this. I shouldn't have perhaps, but lest someone buy the CD's or attend the next Symposium and feel slighted because I gave a booming report the first day - I'm now on record as saying there were some questionable moments, it is true. The choice to bring in this speaker was one of them.