Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Sermons Need More Bible

I just finished a six-month promotional tour (sounds trendy, doesn't it?) of my book on Paul's Spirituality (IVP).  I spoke in churches, during conferences, at retreats--and I'm so grateful to God for the warm reception I received.  I continue to get affirming comments, emails, and letters about the book.  But one off-handed comment nearly floored me.  Even after hundreds of conversations, this single remark continues to rumble around in my head.

A few months ago after speaking at a church, a very well-dressed, middle-aged man asked me if the sessions had been recorded.  He explained how he had missed the event due to other obligations--half apologizing, half justifying--but wanted to know what I had said because he was intrigued by the subject. 

"I don't know if they recorded the talks.  I guess you'll have to check with the pastor."  He replied, "Well, if they didn't that's too bad.  I really want to know what you said."  (Of course, at this point, you know what I'm thinking.  I'm expecting him to ask if they still have copies of the book available at their bookstore.)  So, after an awkward bit of silence, I sheepishly held up the book and said, "you could get a copy.  I think they still have a few for sale."  To which he dismissively replied (without an ounce of shame), "Oh, I don't read."

Now, you might think the man was illiterate or had poor vision.  Neither was the case.  He explained that he read sports magazines every now and then.  But, he never could get into reading a book.  I'm a little ashamed of what I did next, but I couldn't help it.  I said, "Oh.  You don't read?" then motioned to the Bible he held in his hand, with a quizzical look on my face.  He replied by offering a nervous giggle and said something like, "Yeah.  For a group of people who rely upon a book, it sure makes being a Christian hard."

It's an amazing irony.  We live during an age when written information is more accessible than any other period of human history.  Same is true for the Bible.  It's everywhere.  More people have more access to multiple copies/versions of the Bible than ever before--not to mention all of the books/literature written to help readers make sense of Scripture.  And yet, despite the literary flood, our world is becoming more biblically illiterate every day.  The reason?  "I don't read."

Two observations:  for a writer, this is depressing--especially for a guy like me.  My target readership--evangelical Christians--don't read.  The guy said so without any embarassment at all.  Said it to the author, straight faced.  I really can't get over that.  But, then again, my heart is strangely warmed when I remember Christianity got its start during a time when nearly 80% of the population was illiterate.  The first Christ followers depended upon the public reading of the Scriptures in order to hear God's Word.  Then the light came on inside my head.

If there were ever a time when preachers need to spend more time (say, 10 minutes of their sermon?) reading the Scriptures to their listeners, it is now.  Rather than focus on the memorable illustration or the clever, real-life anecdote, perhaps it's time to read the Bible to Christians.  Why?  Not only because reading Scripture should be an important part of our worship, but for the more obvious reason.  Like the man said, "I don't read."

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dress Code for Pharisees

It's happening more everyday.  I walk into class and at least one male student makes a comment--usually positive--about what I'm wearing.  They don't believe me when I say, "Thanks."  It seems a simple response isn't enough.  They want some commentary about my clothes.  So, this is what they get . . .

"In my day, a guy would never make a comment about what another guy was wearing.  Girls, however, commented on girls fashion often.  Is this another bit of evidence of the feminization of our culture?"  [Read the article that came out last year, "The End of Men," in the Atlantic Monthly.]

"I don't care what you think--whether you like what I'm wearing or not" (usually said with a smiling smirk--but they still don't believe me).

"I've been wearing stuff like this for a long time" (in this case, a student thought I was being fashionable because I was wearing a v-neck t-shirt).

"I'm sorry.  I don't understand."

I say that a lot.  I really don't understand the interest--does it border on obsession?--with fashion.

I told my son about the time I was in San Francisco last year for the SBL conference.  Twenty-somethings were lined up outside, on the sidewalk, with their tents and sleeping bags.  I thought that, perhaps, I happened to walk by the Occupy Movement in San Fran.  But, the crowd seemed too dressed up for such an anti-establishment cause.  The next morning, they were still there, but the line was much longer.  "I guess some concert is about to start soon???"  After attending several sessions that morning, I walked by the crowd again.  By this point, the line was two-blocks long.  Curiosity got the best of me.

"Why are you all here?"  A young lady dressed very fashionably said, "Versace is opening their new line today!"  "You mean all these people have been waiting all night and day for that?"  She, looking very quisically at me, said, "Of course."

My son wasn't surprised at all by the episode.  I was incredulous.

I showed up recently in church wearing a suit and a tie.  A friend asked, "What's the occasion?" I said, "Nothing."  "Are you preaching somewhere?"  I said, "No.  Just wanted to wear this today."  He quipped, "So, are you playing the role of the 'rich man' expecting to get the best seat in the house?"

All of this got me to thinking, "What would it take to dress like a Pharisee today?"  Fine clothes?  Rags?  Suit and tie?  Hoodies and torn jeans?

I don't know because I don't understand.