The simple answer to my opening question: you can’t effectively, honestly, read and preach the culture in the way you could before.
Let me back up, when I write a sermon, I often keep in mind that quote attributed to theologian Karl Barth: “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
Seminarians everywhere learn this idea as a shorthand for needing to keep the text of the culture in mind when considering the text of the Bible. There are few worse things than sitting through a sermon and realizing that the message seems to be speaking to a very different world than you understand.
(Ok, maybe there are worse things, but that’s certainly one that I find personally and professionally annoying.)
“For the human heart and mind are deep,” Psalm 64.
The issue I’m interested in considering today is how can a pastor/leader/Christian come to best understand the world of today?The world makes a lot of noise: 24/7 news, ever-present social media, books, various streams, and all the various apps your friends use.
The quote about the newspaper and Bible seems to give a certain air of goodness, or even of virtue, of being an informed citizen of the world. It speaks against taking a head-in-the-sand approach to life, with an extra gold star given for being the most current.
Insert: fake news.
By this I mean, not news you don’t agree with, but news that is created and manufactured simply to deceive. Things like state-sponsored propaganda. Bot generated trend stories. And, even more, insidious things, like “deep fakes” that use sophisticated computer software to make very real looking but fake video images of people. And, add in the various profit and political motives for wanting you to believe one way or another and you’ve got a disaster ready made.
My fear here is that we have come to a time in our society were our filter to understanding the world can not be trusted. Paul reminds us of the dim glass through which we see God, but I think now we must accept that dim glass also falls between us and the world.
What I’m saying is: we’ve reached a point where people, you and I, can’t tell the difference.
(Let’s leave aside the issue of truth. Truth is real. Things happen. Or they don’t. The world is a shared real honest-to-goodness world. Facts cannot be made alternative and still remain facts.)
The truth remains, but it becomes an exercise in ego to hold that claim too tightly.
Said another way, we all might be wrong more often than we expect. And, today, calls for us as Christians to embrace more fully being wrong. Or, unsure. Or, humble. Or, very much in need of redemption.
What to do
What are we to do about this? How can a preacher really read the world enough today to try and speak some Good News into that space?
Two approaches come to mind.
The first: we fight back with our own army of bots, clever viral stories, and images, and begin to really generate enough good content to overthrow the bad. I like this idea, but I don’t think it’s what Christ would have us do.
The second: we use some of the tools our faith has to offer.
It being Lent, I’m inclined to suggest you go with repentance and denial. Neither of which seems particularly useful, but I would urge you to consider them again.
The best tool I personally have found to use when considering the problems of today is to consider them through the lens of history.
(Not that history is easy to understand. Look at this great article in the New Yorker about how one writer tried to tackle the legacy of LBJ. And, I think you’ll have an idea of the kind of work I’m suggesting you do.)
Here’s your list.
- Read history. It gives you context. It gives meaning. I would suggest you read deeply the local history of the community in which you serve. Not surprising, but it can give you great ammunition for waging war on the status quo, which always has a deceptively short memory.
- Take a break. Today’s headlines are unrelenting. The best antidote is to turn off and unplug with a degree of regularity. Take a media Sabbath every Friday this Lent.
- Remain hopeful. Advent with its joy and hope seems distant in this season, but those tools of hope and peace and love and joy remain with us to face the dark and the pain.
- Skip the righteous rage. Don’t like, share, or subscribe. Feel the freedom that comes from moving past emotion and letting your rational side win.
- Opt for books. Or, at least, choose printed materials to make your decisions with. Go old school and old fashioned. I read an encyclopedia entry on the Bill of Rights recently. Amazing.
My point: the church of today needs prophets that urge their people to cling less tightly to their own certainty. Certainty leads to the divisions and silos that fill and increasingly define our society. So, read the culture, if you will, but do so knowing that you may very well be wrong.
So, how do you speak to the present moment in your preaching or teaching? Any good ideas to pass along to your fellow readers?
Rev. Jeremiah Rood lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Amanda, and two small black cats. Find out more about him at www.revjeremiahrood.com. Rev. Jeremiah’s ministry also includes spending a year in a detox working with struggling addicts and alcoholics. His time is now split between writing a book exploring these issues and working in a local public library.