Reformer John Calvin, so I'm told, claimed that stupidity is a sin. By this I assume he meant something like willful ignorance or mental sloth rather than limited native intelligence. Having witnessed for 20 years the squandering of intellectual resources in the dumbing down of school curricula and news media, I am now distressed to see the same trend at work in the church. When I retreat from the educational trenches to the sanctuary on Sunday, I too often find the meat of the Gospels boiled down to mush. Preachers I know to be intelligent human beings who love God and are called to proclaim the Word succumb to the downward pull of media culture by seeking to entertain rather than to challenge or to "re-mind"—to make us mindful. Homely references to daily life certainly have their place in sermons, but the temptation to compete with standup comedians or to indulge in mediaspeak for the sake of a spurious relevancy seems to be almost irresistible to clergy who think their flock comes only for the fun parts.
Amusing anecdotes don't necessarily function as parables. References to New Yorker cartoons, Dilbert, Seinfeld, or Star Wars might serve to illustrate a point, but too often digress rather than direct our attention to the Word that hangs like a plumb line in a crooked world. Moreover, invoking popular culture can have the dubious effect of endorsing it. A reference to Seinfeld suggests that we all watch it and chuckle together over its variable repertoire of narcissistic preoccupations and flip one-liners. And Seinfeld, from what I can tell by a limited sampling, offers marginally more than most sitcoms, on which typical conversations endure no more than 45 seconds, most transactions are exercises in one-upmanship, and few people are old, poor, sick, or wrestling with the complexities of real moral dilemmas.
Dipping into the familiar fare of film, television, or the Internet is only one form of dumbing down. Others may be worse. Certain ways of sentimentalizing, oversimplifying, or sweetening Jesus amount to blasphemy. In one of her many moments of shocking lucidity, Flannery O'Connor claimed that sentimentality is to Christianity what pornography is to love. There's not much room for healthy fear of the Lord in a theology that makes Jesus everyone's best pal.
The outright bafflement of the disciples must itself seem baffling to those who rest comfortable in the belief that they "know" the Lord on such intimate terms that they need only ask themselves "What would Jesus do?" to arrive at an immediate solution to any moral dilemma. How is it, I wonder, that they're so sure they know what Jesus would do? The very disciples who followed him around appear to have been regularly taken by surprise.
What Jesus did do was most often characterized by counterintuitive, jolting, baffling, puzzling, or unconventional moves that even his closest followers seemed unable to predict or interpret. His parables were riddles. His teaching was always loving, sometimes comforting, often disturbing, and full of paradox. People met him and changed their lives, went home rejoicing or sorrowing, plunged into self-examination or action of kinds they never would have thought to take on.
Sermons (not to mention praise songs and Sunday-school fare) betray their cause when they don't challenge us to think and act counterculturally; to review and rethink the norms that numb; to look squarely at poverty, injustice, and irresponsible policymaking and recognize our own participatory responsibility; or to work for the Kingdom rather than serving corporate interests. Reinhold Niebuhr's provocative maxim about the function of sermons—"to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"—sets a usable standard. Most of us, as Americans, are by definition in the latter group, though we all also live with the various ills that flesh is heir to.
The Walt Disney Company isn't going to provide the salutary affliction we need. The screens and billboards we look at offer narcotics to conscience. The church has the only antidote that will work against materialism and media addiction. And, like most antidotes, it may have to hurt to heal.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's sister publication Leadership has more discussion on preaching and communicating Christian truth in a relevant way. One such article discusses lessons from a stand-up comedy course.
Previous McEntyre columns for Christianity Today include:
My House, God's House | Hospitality is not merely good manners but a ministry of healing. (May 9, 2001)
Rx for Moral Fussbudgets | Good guilt entails more than repentance for merely personal sins. (Mar. 19, 2001)
Community, Not Commodity | Let us acknowledge, and even mourn, what we lose when worship meets media. (Jan. 16, 2001)
Nice Is Not the Point | Sometimes love is sharp, hard-edged, confusing, and seemingly unfair. (Nov. 29, 2000)
The Fullness of Time | I'd like life to be a series of pauses like a poem, rather than a fast-paced, page-turner airport novel. (Oct. 12, 2000)
'I've Been Through Things' | Meditating on "Honor your father and your mother." (Sept. 6, 2000)
Silence Is to Dwell In | An hour of quiet is a rare gift, hard to come by in an ordinary week, even for those who seek it. (Aug. 10, 2000)
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