This blog is meant to be an encouragement to you as you journey through your day. If you have a question about the life of faith, please feel free to email me. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Different Perspective on "Plagiarism" in Preaching

I've been reading several books on the history of preaching, most recently Richard Lischner's excellent The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr and the Word That Moved America.

I am about to make some sweeping generalizations, in order to encourage discussion.

I think the concern some have expressed over plagiarism in preaching is misplaced. It seems that our concerns in this area come from a desire to make a connection between preaching and academic research - that the work of constructing a sermon is comparable to writing a term paper or essay. And this is not surprising. After all, most of us learned the means of constructing a sermon from our professors - academics at home in the world of research and necessarily obsessive about documentation.

However, preaching is not really like writing a research paper. It is the telling of a story. Really, it is the retelling of a story. And we pull as much from the "oral tradition," the years of hearing the same story told multiple times, as we do from any commentary or other secondary source.

An illustration: I suggest that it would be pedantic if we were to hold FDR accountable for failing to attribute his famous quote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," because he neglected to document the quote as a paraphrase from Seneca the Younger. Of course, you would lose points on your high school paper if you did not do so - if your high school teacher knew enough to accurately translate Seneca, or even knew enough to look it up. However, we recognize that FDR had more important things to do in his first inaugural address than cite proper sources. Nor do we criticize MLKJr for misquoting FDR as "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." My point is - we don't care whether or not the statement is original to FDR. We only care that it was exactly the right thing to say to move a nation to action in the middle of the Great Depression.

The problem comes, it seems to me, when we are forced to suggest that anything we are saying is an original idea. Not only is what we are preaching not original, but we should not strive for it to be. If I am telling the story that has been told for thousands of years, if I have an original thought or perspective, that should serve as a red flag that I am not correctly telling the story. After all, my task as preacher is, in the words of C.S. Lewis (note the attribution) not so much to offer something new, as to remind the congregation of that which they have heard many times but seem to have forgotten. Possibly more accurately, we are called to be like the grandparent who, sitting on the front porch or around the campfire, is asked to "tell us the story again," the story that was told to me by my grandparents.

When I was a college chaplain, I had the opportunity to bring to our campus a gifted preacher and storyteller. Now I knew that some of the stories he told were not original to him, even though he presented them that way. (Truthfully, he did receive some flack for this from other well-known preachers, but he really didn't care.) All I know is that the students who heard him, some 20 years later, still speak of these moments in chapel as seminal to their walk with the Lord.

Now, this is not offered as an excuse for preachers not to do their homework, to reference the scholarly research in order to rightly divide the word. Nor am I suggesting it is appropriate for preachers to pull entire sermons off their shelves or off the internet and present them as their own. What I am suggesting is that we do a disservice to the preaching enterprise when we tie it to the rules and rigors of academic research, an activity that is meant to enlighten, but not meant to move people to passionate action, as preaching is called to do.

Do we really think anyone in our congregation wants to hear multiple citations?  Are we expecting every preacher should have the burden of writing "original" material every Sunday? I don't think so.

What do you think?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hard and Holy Conversations

Over the last few weeks I have participated in some interesting conversations.
Should national flags be in the church sanctuary – and who gets to decide?
Is marriage a civil relationship the church blesses, or a sacred covenant of the church that the state chooses to recognize?
Is it possible for the church to have a reasonable conversation with and about believers who are homosexual and choosing abstinence, when we really don’t have a fully developed theology of human sexuality?
What is the role of the church in addressing unjust societal conditions, when the congregation disagrees on what would constitute justice?
Is it a legitimate kingdom response for the church to provide food and clothing assistance to those who are in the US illegally? What about for those who are citizens, but who have developed a generational lifestyle of reliance on handouts?
Is it appropriate for a Christian to share his opinion concerning what he considers to be the inappropriate actions of the government, knowing there are those in the congregation who have participated in similar activities, and will be highly offended by his words?
How can the church respond to those whose presentation of the gospel is diametrically opposed to what we believe to be Christian?
How should the church respond to someone who has violated the congregation’s trust?
Is the drinking or not drinking of alcohol a matter of personal preference, or evidence of Christian holiness, or an issue of creating a loving environment for those who struggle? How much should the church speak to such questions of personal behavior?

And the list just keeps going.

I have been involved in these conversations with members of my own congregation, with other pastors in our community, and with friends and colleagues from around the world. Spurred on by Dan Boone’s excellent book A Charitable Discourse, I have invited folks to "gather around the table” and discuss topics that the church tends to avoid. Some of them are essential for the Christian life, some not so much. But all of them produce strong opinions. As we have had these conversations, here is what I have found.

1.    A lot of folks assume that everyone else agrees with them. In fact, as you read the list, you might have thought, “Well, that’s obvious. Of course the answer is _____.” What do you say to those who don’t think in the same “obvious” way you do?
2.      Quite a few people consider conversation about these and other uncomfortable and potentially divisive issues as to not be worth the trouble. And I certainly understand. After all, we value relationships, and we don’t want to hurt feelings.  Except these conversations are important. You see, many of our young people are having these and even harder conversations outside the church. Shouldn’t we be able to talk about such things together.
3.      Pastors are no better at talking about these issues than anyone else. We might even be worse. We tend to be conflict-averse. We often feel like we are supposed to be the expert. We know that when we share our opinion, even when we try to clearly differentiate between our personal perspective and our pastoral conviction, it isn’t often heard that way.

After reading Dr. Boone’s book, and after participating in numerous hard and holy conversations, I am convinced of their importance for the health of the local church and for our denomination. Gathering around the table to have honest conversations about potentially divisive issues, we are able to live out the essential tension of our Wesleyan theological perspective – the via media  – the middle road. By this we do not mean muddled, sloppy thinking that refuses to define parameters of right belief in the name of pleasant relationships. Rather, we seek doctrinal clarity in an environment that demonstrates holy love and grace. Believing correctly should not be the adversary of loving one another. How we finish conversations – whether we still love one another and value one another’s perspective – is as important as the points argued.

The ability to have hard and holy conversations begins with a skill that seems to be lacking in our cultural discourse – the ability to listen. It is absolutely essential that we take time to hear one another’s story in order to frame each other’s opinion within the larger picture of their lives. For example, to use the illustrations stated above, children of alcoholics may have a very different perspective than those who were raised in an environment where alcohol was used but not abused. Those who have several gay friends or family members may have life experiences that dramatically color their picture of those issues. Can I sit with you, listen to your story, and take the time to hear?  Can I refuse to place you into the political, religious, and social categories we often use as a shorthand to define, minimize and even demonize one another?

It is important that we not gloss over how difficult some of these conversations can be. For some, they are the front line of reaching their generation with the gospel; for others they are the issues which indicate a loss of the faith of previous generations.

Last week, in the middle of one such conversation, I read the opinion of an articulate friend whose perspective differed from my own. She didn’t change my mind, but she helped me to see the value of the conversation. And in that moment, I realized that this was exactly the kind of issue that would have led some people to leave the church just a few years prior. And I thought – “Is this difference worth breaking fellowship?” “How can I, as a pastor, create an environment where we can talk of such things?”