This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2009, addressing the problem of preaching. Since I grew up in a pastor’s home, I got to hear a lot of good preaching. Unfortunately, I heard an awful lot of terrible preaching as well. My dad and I would often analyze a preacher’s approach to the text and to his listeners, and I learned a lot about engaging listeners. Out of that and my experience as a preacher myself, I started to rethink preaching and came up with the idea of “irreverent homily.” Here is the article, which originally appeared on April 20, 2009.
The Return of the Homily
The sermon is a method of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe. It was a classic form of rhetoric which Jesus was apparently unfamiliar with and used only sparingly by his more Hellenic followers.
The homily was a much more common type of teaching. It was highly relational, with the teacher [didaskalos] presenting his listeners with a passage of the Writings, a series of brain-bending thoughts, a parable or even just a question. Then the community, teacher included, would sort through this together.
Whereas sermon is primarily focused on the rhetorical skill of the presenter, the homily is much more complex and free form. It is also much more difficult to do right. What is modernly called a homily is really just a sermon with no point. The ancient homily requires extensive study and preparation, a thorough knowledge of human nature and a desire to see one’s followers truly engaged.
Where Does Irreverence Come In?
By irreverence, I do not mean blasphemy or disrespect to the Writings or to the Lord. Instead, I mean irreverence to so much of what is considered “necessary” to understand the Writings.
Most preachers – no matter what tradition they come from – learn to understand the Writings from a handful of sources. What they consider new and fresh insight is really just OLD insight wrapped up in new words. How often have Baptist preachers quoted Charles Spurgeon, Reformed preachers Calvin or the Puritans, Methodist preachers Wesley or one of the great revivalists, Catholics quote Aquinas or Augustine or the Church Fathers?
In many ways, we have perpetuated the medieval Jewish pursuit of commentary, seeking some new Halakha or Aggadah to add to the secondary canon. The old commentary is reinterpreted, the original often lost in the muddle of secondaries and tertiaries.
An irreverent homily ignores all of these traditions, or perhaps places them beside the simple reading of the Writings. The teacher learns the language and culture of the original writer and audience. He places himself in that context and knows the core of what he is reading, then sifts through all the commentators. The commentators become other teachers making comments in their own context, speaking to the world they lived.
The Example of Strong’s Numbers
In 1890, Dr. James Strong (1822-1894) published his life’s work, his magnum opus. He and a group of nearly one hundred collaborators compiled an index of every major word in the Old and New Testament. Each word was assigned a number. Along with the index, the collaborators included a lexicon of the words, allowing the reader to see how words were generally translated in English.
A lexicon however is not a dictionary. Many unlearned teachers view Strong’s lexicon as defining Hebrew and Greek words. They have built entire doctrines on perceived definitions.
Then secondary authors have read the work of these unlearned men and treated these definitions and doctrines as authoritative. (Another case like this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses use of Vine’s definition for the word cross as definitive.)
Although Strong’s is only 100 years old, it is treated by some as an absolute, unchangeable tool. In reality, it is simply a magnificent work of scholarship, with all the weaknesses and problems of any modern human work.
I know one preacher who will define words only with Daniel Webster’s 1828 dictionary because it is the only way to truly understand what the Bible writers meant. This position has so many problems I can’t even begin to list them.
This is what we need to treat irreverently. Although I’ve used extreme examples mostly from a small niche of the Christian world that I grew up in, the problem exists across traditions. There are many of the “emerging” preachers who repackage the same old commentaries with powerpoint and flashy graphics and people eat it up as if it is authoritative.
Where is the passion for the Apostles’ Writings and the Tanach? Every time I open my Greek New Testament, I am astounded by how much I miss in English, how much of my thinking is tainted by these secondary sources.