Occasionally, something as simple as an Amazon review can point out broad and deep issues in the church. Usually, though, it is not the reviews which “cleverly” aim to uncover issues that are actually successful. Instead, candid comments often provide a more realistic thermometer (or perhaps a barometer? My expertise in meteorological hardware is somewhat limited) of current trends and views.
For example, I read a review last night for a commentary which has sparked a mild rant in need of online venting.
Background: I was invited to preach at a Junior High Youth Camp this summer (check it out! Suncrest Camp). After careful consideration, I feel compelled to preach through the book of Esther. Ten messages. Ten chapters. It’s almost too easy. Of course, it is also the book about which Martin Luther said, “I am so hostile to this book that I wish it did not exist.” Fun. Indeed, there are challenges in the book, but there are challenges in any book.
Like most pastors, my preparation involves an inordinate amount of time in the biblical text itself, in prayer, and also in commentaries – books written to share the opinions of men about the Truth of God. Good commentaries (translate: commentaries with which the pastor is inclined to agree) are not always easy to find. I rely on Amazon descriptions and reviews to discern a taste of what I might purchase.
I unearthed a review last night, given for a commentary on Esther, that hurt my heart. Here is the text of the review:
Full disclosure: I have not read the entire book. So this may be a little off base. But from what I have read, this is a great academic commentary if you are concerned with different textual opinions on the passages being discussed. If yo [sic] are looking for something to preach from, personal edification, or bible study material this may not be for you.
And so my rant begins with a question:
When did academic commentary cease to be useful for preaching, personal edification, and bible study?
The Bible was not written in English. I know, it’s shocking. I’ll give you a moment to catch up with that statement.
If this is true (and it is), then it stands to reason that something is lost in translation. And while I fully and whole-heartedly believe that God has preserved his word through faithful translators, I also hold that believers of every background can profit from knowing more than the most watered-down contemporary translation is able to share. This means that, at times, I believe it is useful – if not absolutely necessary – to engage the text of Scripture from a more challenging point of view. Most of the time, for English-speakers, English is the way to go. It is the easiest, it is the language we understand and remember.
The presence of a Hebrew word or a Greek word on the page is intimidating. It’s like my last name. There’s a z in there. People see nine letters and the z and they panic. The struggle is real. So I know what foreign languages do to me. But I’ve found, over the years, that if I press into the foreign, I learn something. I still remember the first time I tried. The text was “academic” in nature, but I was determined to grow. I kept a Greek alphabet in the volume and I took a moment to try to pronounce the foreign words. I took notes in the margins. By the end of the 700pg(!!) book, I was recognizing biblical words! Real, original, biblical words! My knowledge was shallow, but I found blessing in overcoming the fear.
Called to Preach?
To say that “academic” materials are not useful to preachers is insulting to the pastoral calling. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor didn’t feel it was useful to even attempt to grasp biblical texts from an academic perspective? I do NOT condone pastors sharing everything they’ve learned. Sermons are not supposed to be just a formal reading of the Greek lexicon. But if there is no study behind the sermon, what is there instead? Pastors approach the pulpit to expound the word, to point to Christ, to equip and encourage. Maybe I’m naive, but I think there’s at least a little bit of thinking involved.
In the midst of preparation, I have a couple “academic” commentaries in hand. I also have a number of “smooth like butter” commentaries, which are usually compilations of sermons the author has already preached. To simply grab the butter and regurgitate… well… there’s a word for that. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor is only paraphrasing the fruit of another servant’s labors? It happens. I believe there is much to be gained from the butter. But I also believe the butter is one resource among many. Maybe there’s something newly churned waiting to emerge.
I want to be challenged by a text before I preach. As I am faithful to dig and explore, to pray and to apply, the challenge will come. Sometimes the full gravity of what I am saying doesn’t hit me UNTIL I’m preaching, but I rejoice even when this is the case. If the Holy Spirit has not poured the text over my weak and weary soul, my message loses a measure of authenticity.
The regurgitated sermon is not the fruit of the pastor’s time spent with God in the Scripture and prayer. It is the fruit of someone else’s time spent with God. Maybe I’m wrong, but apart from the extremely rare and fully disclosed case, I believe in sermons crafted from a word wrought on the heart of the Lord’s servant for that hour.
The Church, She Ain’t Dumb
I believe this Amazon review speaks a harsh word over the church as well. If the “academic” commentaries have no value in preaching, and no value in personal edification, and (most absurdly) no value in bible study, why do they exist? If pastors and Christians can’t profit, who can? I would like to offer a word to the church. You are NOT dumb. You do NOT need the Word of God watered down to some paltry level of intelligence. You do NOT need to be entertained more than you need to be fed. I believe in you. I’m one of you.
You CAN read the “academic” materials. You CAN grow by stretching your intellectual efforts. You CAN find transformation in the renewing of your mind. It’s true. The Bible says so.
When I preach, I push myself so that I can push the congregation – no matter the age or background of the group. I challenge the church because I believe in her. More importantly, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict and convince as the full counsel of the Word is proclaimed. I believe our greatest growth is found in struggle. Consider the exercise of any muscle in your body. If you grab the bar but never lift, will you ever get stronger?
There is only blessing, never a curse, in striving to understand today what you did not understand yesterday. Chase it.
The Bible and Beyond
We enjoyed dinner last night with a group of friends from church. Some of us have been reading a book together over the summer. One friend’s comment spoke well into this situation. She shared that she was worried at the outset that she would struggle to grasp the book. But as she read, she found it quite manageable. I would gladly have offered encouragement and assurance from the outset that she, and everyone else, would be fine.
I firmly believe our feeble brains will elevate to the challenge if we are persistent to engage. In other words, keep trying. Keep reading. There is no shame in reading slowly. There is no shame in reading with a dictionary on the table. In fact, the best books are likely to force you into the dictionary. Sometimes a single “dictionary word” can speak a thought unspeakable by a dozen emoticons. We never graduate from learning, so let’s go ahead and agree that needing to look up a word is a blessing and an opportunity. This is true of every book, including the Bible. Especially the Bible.
I plead with you today: Pastors, Church, readers. Believe in yourself enough to challenge and be challenged.