Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Six More Thoughts on Preaching to Today's (less than deeply literate) Audiences

           Someone recently reminded me that I had once given a talk on preaching for secondary-oral audiences. What is a secondary-oral audience? Well, these are people who are merely literate rather than deeply literate. They read well-enough to manage the Toronto Sun sports pages or a Fifty Shades novel, but they don’t read literature, or deeply, or much at all.

            A great deal of communication scholarship, from pioneers like Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, to modern brain-science scholars such as Stanislas Dehaene or Maryanne Wolf has argued, in fact, that the very act of watching television—and perhaps other modern forms of electronic media—even in small amounts, makes it much more difficult for people to read with understanding, read for multiple levels of meaning, and read for interiority—the emotions, thinking, feeling, and psche of characters. Instead, people need simplified vocabulary, lots of action, agons (near-supernatural heroes like vampires or wizards or Supermen) to move them along through a novel. The days of the unabridged Les Misreables are long gone; the musical version is in. And so on.

            The bottom line, with respect to preaching, is that preaching that mimics the linear, printed word and theology's abstract categories doesn’t connect with many in our audiences  nearly so well as it used to. People have no practice with such reading—and so hearing sermons written on the pattern of dense writing about abstract principles is doubly difficult to understand.

            Anyway, along the way, in that manuscript, I suggested ten strategies for reaching secondary oral. What follows here are six of those strategies beyond the ones that I suggested in my last blogpost, or that expand on them a little bit.

1. In the modernist, highly literate culture, we tended to understand good preaching as rational, ordered, three or four points, doctrinal or moral, with good illustrations. People listening to such sermons listen as readers, using their reading skills to decode the sermon as a written document. But since people no longer read as well, they are much less adept at doing so. So we must entice audiences to listen for stories.

In oral cultures, where no one read, preaching was designed not so much to engage the audience's critical faculties as it was to engage them in the story. Oral era preachers did so through wordplay and fun. Taking a cue from orality, sermons made use of complex rhetorical devices (mnemonic devices, commonplaces, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, repetition, and type scenes—which might be drawn from modern media) to ensure that they can be simply heard. We can learn much about the storyteller’s art from the Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Atrahasis Epic, to name just a few ancient stories. In the premodern era, Augustine put it most simply by saying preachers must leave difficult ideas to books. I would add, "stick to one idea per sermon, and infuse it in the story.”

2. Use multiple channels to teach and preach the gospel. Oral cultures even employed a rich array of literary genres to teach the truth: morality plays, parables and proverbs for wisdom; story and statuary for telling the old, old story of scripture. All this color and variety was largely replaced, in print culture, by written doctrines & confessions explained in print and spoken discourse that imitated complex print. Churches threw out drama, statues, images, and organs. Sermon forms are linear, expository, narrative, doctrinal, and often very abstract.

Today our preaching audiences are full of people used to seeing icons and trademarks, who love watching visual images on television, and listen endlessly to music. We need to support our preaching by using other avenues than just the spoken word to get across key messages. We need to turn back to oral preaching for hints about how to reach today's post-literate audiences.

Consider bringing people and arts into the sermon. I'm thinking of film clips, staged settings for sermons that make use of cultural artifacts, banners, liturgical elements that use candles, visuals, and processions. The possibilities are nearly endless. I've preached sermons on how hard it is to get close to God from the top of a ladder, and sermons on forgiveness where I unpacked my baggage from a real suitcase. I used to regularly do part of the sermon as a five minute drama that was written by lay people in consultation with me. They had to understand what I was getting at to write the drama, and I had to work with them to make sure the quality was high and it fit seamlessly with the rest of the spoken message.

3. One problem that we have in today's church going audiences is that we have multiple kinds of audiences in the same sanctuary. I'm generalizing, but younger people who read less, with less pleasure, and who have not internalized the linear, rational model of literate Christianity inside are sitting next to people who love nothing more that that a sermon should--as it has for the past 400 years--mimic written documents. In order to address this reality, one possible approach is to offer multiple choices in their worship services to reach multiple kinds of oral/literate people, as well as blends. Truth is, we are a niched society not only in terms of marketing niches, but modernist/postmodernist, literate/oral audiences. So, think of offering two services, or three. One a Taize or jazz service, another a modernist rational presentation, and the third a sermon based on oral-era strategies

4. Exegete popular culture without ceasing, for yourself, and share what you learn with your audience. Your twenty-minute sermon is up against twenty or more hours of popular culture. People choose to spend their precious life on these entertainments, and they imbibe deeply in the values and hopes and dreams of such entertainments. You won’t win a battle for the hearts and souls by ignoring it or condemning it wholesale. Bring the TV shows, the stars, the bumper stickers, the toys, the games, the clothing, the games and the finances of popular culture into the pulpit. There is a rich, rich vein of critical literature about television, major league sports, the fashion industry and on and on. Find out where God is in it and celebrate that. Identify the potholes and put up warning signs. Make media literacy a high priority of your adult and teen education programs. Read John Van Sloten’s book, The Day Metallica Came to Church.

5. Churches must consider time constraints of members when it comes to Sunday morning liturgy and sermons. You need to come to grips with the short attention span that is an inevitable corollary of secondary orality. If you don’t, you may be right, but you’ll also be a bore. In our context, Jesus' parables and beatitudes are a better fit than Paul's letters.

6. Music. People learn their theology through music. I know this is tough for us pastors to accept. But if this was true even in a literate society, it is doubly and triply true in a post-literate society. We need musical words of our own to go along with the deadly misinformation conveyed by a steady diet of nothing but praise. We need room for lament too, and complaint—as in the Psalms. We need room for music that teaches morality. We must make peace with music that is a pale imitation of secular rock and roll because many relate to that genre; but we need lots of other genres too, songwriters who will mine the depths of the gospel instead of the shallows of human fashion.

Monday, May 27, 2013

What Does It Take to Write a Sermon?

     What does it take to write a sermon? Well, many books have been written on that topic, and all I have to offer here are a few suggestions. They’re borne in experience, have been tested by my homiletics students—and sometimes rejected. I admit that they’re a bit crotchety at points—I’ve been a preacher who has spent years sitting in the pew, and have heard far too many sermons that were clunkers not to be a bit crotchety, I guess. But take these suggestions for what they’re worth to you.

·       Preach good news. So much preaching is so full of the law, of the “do’s and don’ts” of the Pauline Epistles, of warnings against sin, of doctrines that confuse (“leave difficult things for books,” said Augustine), of platitudes, of distinctives that pit us against other Christians, and so on. The gospel is good news. It is joy. It is what parched lips long for. Offer living water, not dishwater; offer a light that shows the way to safe harbor; not a spotlight for keeping the crime rate low.

·       No recipe turns out great sermons unless one of the ingredients is a mysterious, creative, imaginative moment that contains the sermon’s nugget. Such moments are half gift from God, half talent, and half stubborn persistence. I had an old teacher (Marrion Snapper) who told me “the imagination is the door by which the Spirit enters our hearts.” If you read the Psalms or Jesus’ parables or the Song of Songs, you will understand.

·       Beauty is redemptive. The universe has an aesthetic dimension. It strikes me that one of the divine uses of beauty is its ability to turn us from the things that weigh us down to the heavens—or the poetry or temples—that declare the glory of God. Whether it is a song sung with holy passion, or a painting that sheds new light on something we would otherwise not have seen, or a sermon that seizes the heart as well as the brain—beauty has the power to turn us towards the divine. Cultivate beauty, especially in sermons.

·       Don’t mistake the sermon for advice (such as you’re reading here!). This is the pragmatic turn in preaching, absolutely at home with this age’s concern for self-help, easy maps to success, and ten bulleted points but no narrative. Preaching is about the story mostly, and only rarely, advice. The theological synonym for advice is “repent,” and its genre is prophecy. Real prophets are extremely reluctant.

·       On a more mundane level, write a manuscript. If you don’t, you’ll soon be preaching the same three sermons (or paragraphs or themes within a sermon), over and over. Manuscripts also force you to plainly state the tough issues (or beautiful truths) in a text that you might otherwise gloss over by speaking of them off the top of your head.

·       Writing a manuscript in not nearly enough. Editing is indispensable. Editing is the work of getting sloppy sermons into shape: making sure you’ve made your points to your satisfaction, finding the right turn of phrase, building fences between you and needless repetition or poorly thought out tangents, and giving yourself a script for practicing delivery or memorizing. I spend as much time editing as writing. It is also the only way I can build literary repetition, assonance, rhyme, and most especially, greater simplicity and economy into my sermon text. If you think you can do without a manuscript, listen to some politician or public official speak unscripted on the radio. It is usually very painful and not something I would volunteer to do from the pulpit.

·       What you do with the manuscript on Sunday is up to you. You can memorize your sermon. You can put it on note cards. You can take the manuscript in some form or other to the pulpit with you. On the pulpit, you can add or subtract—so long as you are aware of the temptation to add and subtract for lesser reasons. Beware, however—no pulpit strategy is so prone to failure as improvisation.

·       Don’t be too earnest. Yes, what you say seems important. But no one likes a nag. So relax. Spend more time on illustration, on humor, on retelling the story, and on reprising the good news. Spend less time trying to get it all in, or speaking as if this is their last, best chance to get it right. This is just one of up to 2500 or more times your parishioners might be in church to hear a sermon.

·       Be brief. Some people may be used to long sermons, but so what? A few stellar preachers may even have built a career out of hour-long sermons. And a few self-selected all-pro pew sitters may love long sermons. But are these the people you really need to reach? No. The youth, those who have not made up their minds, those who are visiting a church for the one time in their life and have learned to listen in front of a TV . . . I’m telling you, this country is ripe for preachers who can do good news in 20 minutes (1600 words) or less. Of course, that also means more editing.

·       Find ways to cultivate your imagination. Take a few small risks. Try an object lesson for a sermon. Write it as a children’s story. Copy the style/rhyme/brevity of a children’s story. Do it as a one-woman play. Poke fun at yourself. Project some art on the overhead and make it the outline for your sermon. Use a text other than scripture. The possibilities are endless even if the good news is one key thing.

·       Use self-disclosure. Build a relationship with your congregation that is rooted in the real you. Be honest and direct. I’m not talking about being a tattler or being self-absorbed or going on and on about the minutiae of your life or family. But strategic use of self-disclosure makes you, and therefore what you say, more real and believable.

·       Don’t spend too much time trying to say too much that’s too hard to understand. Simplicity isn’t just a lifestyle choice. It works with sermons too. But simplicity is very hard to achieve. Jesus did it well, Paul not nearly as well. However, in our media-saturated, non-linear, secondary-oral culture, people can’t follow complex or dense arguments nearly as well as they used to. They also don’t have the mental theological infrastructure to help them file what they hear. So simplicity is the tried and true way forward.

·       By all means, when some time has passed, pick up an old sermon and redo it for the second time the way it should have been done the first time.

·       Find a friend, usually a fellow pastor, who will ruthlessly dissect your sermons (with a little love left over). And then do the same for him or her. If you really do this, you will learn a lot. I met my first sermon critic each month over lunch. He taught me, for example, that preaching isn't nagging--much to the relief of my first congregation.

·       Accept failure with a smile. Learn from it. But don’t get too upset about it. No runner wins every race, though a real runner will enjoy every one.

     So what do you think? What would you add to this list? Or subtract? Or, if you listen to sermons, which piece of advice would you underline or add? Click the "comments" link below and add your two cents' worth.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Lots of Thoughts and Ten Pastoral Suggestions on Postmodern Interpretation of Scripture

            Once upon a time—long before modernism or postmodernism, long before even the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, the world was a very different place than it is now. People – including theologians and preachers—just didn’t think the way they do now.

            So, for example, when they had to write a creed that all of them could agree on, the underlying philosophy of the creed was based on a long Greek tradition of substance theology—on the theory that all that is divine, and all that is material, has to be made out of something. It was this substance, according to the creeds, that can’t be confounded or confused. Today you will be hard pressed to find any scholar, Christian or not, who has any use for such “pagan” philosophical presuppositions (with apologies, of course, to the Thomists among us). And yet, for most Christians today, these documents still define how the three persons of the Trinity can be one God, and how the one person of Jesus can have two natures.

            Or again, there was Saint Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, and a great hero to both Martin Luther and John Calvin. He was a scholar in the old mold, too—a thorough-going Platonist with Manichean prejudices. Augustine was a dualist who believed in the Platonic myth of the superiority of soul to body. And Augustine was sure that Plato learned much of what he later wrote after visiting with Jeremiah, in Egypt.

            In his magisterial but idiosyncratic book on Biblical interpretation and preaching, On Christian Doctrine, Saint Augustine commends to us the seven laws for interpretation as handed down by Tychonius the Donatist. For example, Augustine explains a rule described as “Of the Lord and His Body.” According to this interpretive rule, people in the Bible sometimes should be understood to symbolize both Christ and his church. So when scripture speaks of a bride adorned with jewels, even though only a single person is mentioned, the bride must refer to the church, and the jewels that adorn the head, to Jesus. If you are not sure that this interpretive rule is really helpful, and if you therefore have some issues with Augustine’s hermeneutic, you are in good company.

            I raise these three cases: the creedal dependence on Greek notions of substance, Augustine’s Platonism, and Augustine’s affirmation of Tychonius’s allegorical hermeneutic to make a point before I wade in with some criticism of both modernist and postmodernist approaches to scriptural interpretation. The Christian church has a long history of orthodoxy that predates today’s modernist notions of what orthodoxy must be. The point to keep in mind, then, is that no human intellectual movement—premodern, modern, or postmodern—likely has a corner on the truth.

            During the premodern era, before Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotle delivered us of Augustine’s Plato, Christian life was very different. However, that first thousand years of the church’s history was also incredibly successful. The church spread from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome, and even as far as India, China, and Siberia.

            At the same time, the vast majority of Christians could not read or write. So, even as priests and academicians and politicians wrestled with what scripture taught about a host of difficult matters, most Christians had an extremely simple faith. It had to be, because Christians only knew of Jesus what they could remember. Most made do without the doctrines of atonement, sanctification, inspiration, or election. People only knew the best of the stories their priests told them, or the moral lessons traveling bands of actors taught them, or the passion plays acted out before Stations of the Cross. Ancient Christians depended on paintings, music, relics, sculptures and windows to remember the old, old story.

            Before modernism, most Christians believed because the church told them to. Doubt is an intellectual project few could imagine. One didn’t discuss doctrine, but merely gave assent to the few one learned about from the pulpit. It was the rare Christian who had ever heard of Armageddon, or a personal relationship with Jesus, or predestination.

            But again—this church—one we now have a hard time valuing, because it was so alien to our modern ways—this ancient, odd church thrived before modernity. Oh, sure, there were excesses and weaknesses. Clergy sometimes preyed on the vulnerable, church leaders often became rich, and the church and secular politicians were often in bed together (or maybe, some things never change).

            When modernism took hold of the European mind, modernism forever changed that ancient form of Christianity—sometimes for the worse, but not always. Still, before I get to modernism, I want to reiterate that the premodern church of these “ignorant” peasants, of these bumbling church leaders, this premodern church was historical proof against any claim that orthodoxy needs modernism.

            In any case, scholars offer many, sometimes conflicting, accounts for the triumph of modernism. I’ve already mentioned one, the effect of Europe’s rediscovery, largely on account of the work of Saint Aquinas, of Aristotelian rationality. On a popular level, the rise of modernism was, at the very least, bolstered and encouraged by another development—a key development for us Christians, who are people of the Word. I’m speaking of the invention of the printing press. Over the space of one or two hundred years, most Europeans became literate as books and pamphlets proliferated. They fell in love with the current ideas—Aristotelian—ideas about rhetoric, about persuasion, about power, about rationality, and about what humans are all about. Science, in particular, flourished—and human ability to do good, and evil, with technological flourish, multiplied.

            Over time, this modernistic seed inspired most of the great philosophies and movements of the past several hundred years: from Scottish Common Sense Realism to Communism and from Reformation to the “God is Dead” meme. Modernism is so big that it is difficult to define, so confident that its one word slogan might be “progress,” so triumphant that it is difficult to see any competition, and so pervasive that, like fish in water, we hardly realize anymore that it surrounds us all the time.

            Still, a hundred word summary is called for. Modernism insists that the right combination of reason, objectivity and Western colonial or military intervention will inevitably lead to human progress on all fronts. Modernist Biblical hermeneutics presumes that as long as you apply the right grammatical and historical—that is, “scientific” or “rational” instruments, ancient texts will reveal authorial intention. Modernists suppose that most scholars can be objective, and that people have always been pretty much the same. That means that even if the horizon between the ancient text and the modern interpreter is huge—say 2,500 years—human nature being constant, we can make the jump.

            Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton, writing in Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be (IVP) suggest that a nice symbol for modernity might be the Tower of Babel. The builders said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise we shall be scattered over the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). According to Walsh and Middleton, modernity believes that there is only one way—the scientific method—to guarantee progress and joy and peace for one world and one humanity recreated in the image of North America and Europe. This culture of progress is built on the foundation of rationality, rises from the earth on walls of technology, and is crowned with the jewels of a one-world market economy. Modernity is an exercise in humanist pride.

            Ironically, biblical scholars—whether of the most liberal or the most conservative type it matters not—have generally adopted these sorts of modernistic presuppositions to scriptural studies. Among liberal Christians, this has led to the treatment of scripture as a history source book rather than the revelation of God, who cannot be known by science, in any case—a problem with theology that the likes of Kant and Schleiermacher struggled whole life times to figure out. Liberal theologians focus on ethics, on the psychology of religion, and on the history of scripture and the veracity of its stories—the search for the historical Jesus, for example.

            But, according to the evangelical scholar Hendrik Hart, “To counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, [conservative] Christians responded with the (equally rational) infallibility of revealed propositions. But a focus on [rationalistic] propositions was common to both sides” (Setting Our Sights By the Morning Star, 95). Thus Haddon Robinson, for example, argues that “expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers” (Biblical Preaching, 21). The same emphasis on truth, the same emphasis on method, on rational propositions, and interestingly enough, on experience, or psychology that characterizes modernity characterizes most of contemporary, Western Christianity. Where this is a conflict between the two, conservative Christians, using modernist-looking methods, create their own private parallel worlds—everything from Creation Science instead of evolution, Theophostic Therapy instead of EMDR, Premillenial Prophecy instead of Futurists, and Christian Contemporary music instead of just plain good music. 

            But more should be said of modernity. Modernity has given us freedom of movement compliments of Honda and Boeing, but also so much pollution that our oceans are dying, people in cities like Manila are choking, and skyrocketing skin cancer. Modernity has given us modern medicine, but also WWI’s mustard gas and WWII’s first use of atomic weapons by the United States, and now military drones unleashed not against mere military targets, as Augustine’s premodern just war theory would require, but mostly civilian targets as the exigencies of pragmatism ruled. Modernism has given us great cities but also British concentration camps in the Boer War, as well as even more terrible Japanese and German concentration camps in WWII. Modernism has given us the bureaucratic efficiency that has allowed me to put together a family history based on Dutch records conveniently put on line; but also efficient holocausts of Jews, Serbs, Croats, and Cambodians. Modernity, to put it bluntly, has failed.
            Many years ago, I visited Rwanda. I saw bodies left to rot in a church, only hair and rags clinging to their skeletons. Their pastor betrayed these people when they sought refuge in the church, as one tribe of Rwandans mercilessly tried to kill all members of another. In Bissaro, Rwanda, I saw a mountain made up of the bones of 50,000 murdered Rwandans. The genocide was encouraged via speeches broadcast on the radio, it was carried out with the help of guns and knives forged in modern factories. Rwanda’s conservative Christians—more than 90% of the population—gleefully participated in the carnage, often with the encouragement of conservative, Western educated pastors who knew all about hermeneutics and objectivity and atonement theory. What is more, the tribal animosity that sparked the genocide was largely the result of Belgian racism and exploitation. 150 years ago, the Belgian colonial conquerors set one Rwandan tribe against the other by favoring the Tutsi tribe over the Hutu tribe. You see, the Belgians thought the Tutsis looked more European, and so they thought the Tutsis could more easily learn new European methods of colonial management and oversight. Another gift of modernity. Those same pastors are now, in countries like Uganda, encouraging their parishioners to believe that gay people should be imprisoned, or killed.

            After Rwanda, I will never be the same again. I agree with Hendrik Hart, who says that, “The overriding concern of our times is not so much to understand right doctrine as it is to find our way. Our concerns are more pastoral than theological” (Hart, p. 13).

            Enter the postmoderns. They are united by a deep and abiding suspicion of the secular humanist premises of modernity. How they deal with that suspicion differs, from one postmodernist to another—just as moderns differ in their affiliations to Marxist or Freudian or Democratic or Republican visions of how rationality can deliver on progress. Still, there are some presuppositional themes common to postmodernity.

            First, rather than faith in reason, postmoderns are suspicion of the ways reason and its stepchildren—science and technology—has been used to oppress, to trick, and to rationalize on behalf of the powerful. I’m reminded, once more, of Plato and Aristotle. Both recognized the power of words to persuade people. But where Aristotle the modernist hero worried little about how rhetoric might be used for good or ill, and merely explored its power, Plato—premodern Augustine’s hero—constantly fretted about how rhetoric could be used for bad ends. Postmoderns recommend intuition, faith, passion, experience, and love as better guides to action than reason.

            Note that postmoderns do not deny reason’s power to create new things, discover new cures, or for that matter, develop new weapons. It is just that Postmoderns suspect that reason is mostly used by governments and corporations and texts to enslave rather than liberate, to deceive rather than illuminate, and to invite surrender rather than empower—as Aristotle’s rhetoric would be.
            Second, rather than faith in human progress, postmoderns mourn human loss, suffering, and inequity. They are concerned for the weak, the minorities, the hurting; they groan, with all creation, over what progress has meant for the environment, for ocean life, for city life, and for warfare. They resonate with Christians and Marxists and environmentalists—just about anyone who is willing to put principal ahead of profit when it comes to social justice, people, and the earth.

            Third, rather than trust in methodologically secured objectivity, postmoderns believe that all data, all texts, and all of creation is value laden. We usually see what we want to see, what our prejudices have taught us to notice, what our pocket books think will be profitable—we see whatever will keep the status quo on our side of the table. Postmoderns deny that there are scientific methods of exegesis that can guarantee a true reading of scripture. They point to the Christian failure to agree on matters such as the role of women, baptism, the relative importance of charismatic gifts as evidence that not even the a rationalistic, rule-bound hermeneutic can guarantee people will agree on key doctrines. So postmodern Christians want a new hermeneutic, one that focuses on the poor, the widow and the least of these; one that challenges the status quo, the rich, and the powerful that the old hermeneutic usually figured out how to excuse.

            Rather than submit to the powers, to the rational bureaucracies, to parties or corporations or denominations—all rationally and scientifically conceived to keep people in line, postmoderns tend to be very suspicious of human institutions and the power the wield. They think of Vietnam War and Fundamentalist Islam and Communist China and of cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic and other churches when people try to defend institutions. Instead, postmoderns are preoccupied with self—self-discovery, self-empowerment, self-fulfillment.

            But finally—why does this all matter? How, in view of the face-off between modernism and postmodernism—against the backdrop of premodern Christianity, might this matter for preachers? I have ten pastoral suggestions.

·      First, something about the interpreter. Postmodernity has made a forceful case for pointing out that every interpretation, every observation, every reading of the text is inseparable from the interpreter’s personal prejudices, priorities, and philosophical presuppositions. Ultimately, you can’t hide behind the grammatical-historical method, or the best commentaries, or how you were raised, or what you think must be the plain sense of the text. If you try to do so, you’ll just be kidding yourself. And there is nothing so dangerous on the pulpit as a pastor just kidding himself. Postmodernity is a movement that takes seriously something that we Protestants have confessed for a long time—that as much as the image of God and his grace resides in great measure in many of us, we all struggle with sin and prejudice and stupidity too. What we need is a lot more humility about our interpretative skills.

·      Second, something about the author. According to the most postmoderns, people like Roland Barthes and Paul de Man, the author is always dead to the interpreter. Little to nothing can be known of the intentions of writers because words are slippery when it comes to passing along meaning, motives, and are always prone to misunderstanding. I think we need to be humble about what we can know of authorial intention in light of these assertions

·      Third, something about the audience. Never forget that sermons are for audiences often reeling under the blows of modernity—people who have been downsized out of work, people who have asthma or bronchitis on account of the pollution, and people who have experienced—or engage in—violence of every kind, people who feel like a number, or a bar code, or dehumanized by the system. Remember that for modern audiences, the message of gospel is basically simple. Jesus loves them, embraces them, and wants to use them in his world to make it a better, more loving, more heavenly place.

·      Fourth, modernist science insists that the data can mean only one thing. The church doesn’t insist, however, that a text can mean only one thing. Long ago Augustine pointed out that any interpretation of scripture that accords with scripture’s central message is appropriate. “Whoever finds a lesson [in scripture] useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way” (I:36). Postmodernity never totally rejects traditional hermeneutics. It does, however, insist that restricting ourselves to a single, literal interpretation based on what the author meant limits our understanding of the endless depth of scripture. Of such literalism, Saint Augustine wrote, “There is a miserable servitude of the spirit in [the] habit of taking signs for things, so that one is not able to raise the eye of the mind above things that are corporal and created to drink in eternal light” (III:9). Let’s not get hung up with finding the one true interpretation for any one text; let’s enjoy the multiplicity of meanings in scripture that are consistent with the heart of God revealed throughout scripture—lets learn from the premodern saints in our tradition and let’s use some postmodern interpretive techniques like intertextuality and strong readings as heuristic means for multiplying interpretations, and thus our depth of understanding, into scripture.

·      Fifth. Let’s learn from postmodern advocacy for God’s favorites, the poor. I suspect that pastors who work in inner cities or with marginalized communities will resonate more with postmodern concern for the poor than with the modernist concern for maintaining the prerogatives of our great institutions and programs—like free trade and free markets—that most obviously benefit the middle class and rich in the most powerful nations on earth.

·      Sixth. Let’s focus on orthopraxis—especially when it comes to love—rather than orthodoxy. The orthodoxy I've been talking about to this point is a mirage, homage paid to a "true," meaning that always recedes the sharper we hone our rationalistic, interpretive tools. Church institutions, in particular, need to engage in social justice, in advocacy, and in love of neighbour - orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy. My favorite book on this topic is actually a study of Christian orthopraxis in the premodern era—Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus and Community.

·      Seventh. The best way to preserve the gifts of modernity is to make sure that literacy belongs not only to those with power but to the people. Beware of how television and the Internet and poverty and poor schools rob people of the analytical tools then need to take on the principalities and powers. Remember that ultimately, in both literate and in illiterate societies, it is the highly literate who are inordinately represented among the rulers and among the prophetic fringe. As people of the Word, having once received the gift of literacy, we should not turn our back on it now, like most are in the habit of doing.

·      Eighth. Postmodern readings of scripture will always need to consider the church’s traditional interpretations and exhibit a deep respect for authorial intention. But postmodern readings are also a way of looking at texts in new ways, revealing new things, encouraging new prophecies, dreams, and visions. Scripture is full of play, reversal, laughter, irony, as well as darkness, fear, oppression and reversal. From Abraham and Sarah—two old crones who should have been looking for grave plots to buy but had to settle on a baby crib instead; to Moses who was chosen to speak a liberating word on behalf of the Israelites to Pharaoh—even though he had a speech impediment; to the righteousness of Tamar, who played the harlot . . . scripture should not be boxed in by our insistence that it play by our rationalist rules.

·      Ninth. So try on some postmodern readings and question modernism’s notion that it is the only kid on the block.

·      Tenth. And play. The right attitude to interpretation is that interpretation is a playground, not an exam. Have fun, and if you trip and fall, count on someone bigger and wiser to pick you up, dust you off, give you a hug, and send you back for more fun.