Preachers are not starving artists, but we often act like them

A rabbi friend of mine once told me, “You know the problem with you Christian preachers?”

Oh, do tell, I thought.

He continued, “You have no imagination with the text. You think it can only say what it says and nothing more. If that’s the case, people can just read it for themselves. What do they need you for?”


That one made me think.

Preaching is an art. I’m not saying that preaching should be artistic, but that the act of preaching is itself an exercise in making art. It is akin to painting and composing music and photography. Preaching is art that finds an audience once a week, and, in that moment, the preacher has a chance to open horizons.

Just like in other forms of art, preaching has its share of hacks (and we all started as one). Similar to the “Starving Artist” sales that permeate hotel ballrooms and exhibit halls, we find artists in pulpits all across the Church who’s work is boring and tired. It is overly pedantic and dry. It relies on what others say, and not on the inner discovery of the one saying the words.

We don’t buy starving artist paintings because they are paintings that we’ve seen before. We’ve seen them in hotels and restaurant chains and postcards. They do nothing new for us. They do not reveal the truth of the world to us. They don’t even inspire us.

These are pieces that have been done before – we’ve seen hundreds just like them. If we do buy a piece, it is on the cheap and for the purpose of decoration only (most likely in the second guest bathroom that no one ever uses).

Because Preaching is Art, it should do (at the least) four things:

It should find it’s vocabulary in an encounter with God, and nothing else. Scripture, friends. Scripture. (NOTE: The Gospel According to Marcus Mumford is non-canonical.)

It should take that private encounter and make it public. As Anna Carter Florence says, we must get into that text, look around until we are amazed, and then come out and testify to what we have seen and heard.

It should reveal something new, even if only a little. We can’t spend a lot of time telling folks what Barth or Luther saw. This isn’t a trial. We’re not being graded. Congregations want to know what we saw in there. This is our art.

It should be reflective of the common experience of us all. You and I are not so different. Start with the particular, but as Rob Bell says (curses be upon him), always go to the “thing behind the thing.”

If we don’t do those things, at a minimum, we’re giving speeches, and most likely policy speeches. Folks don’t need to come to worship for that.

I am insanely jealous of Rob Bell

Last week, I started reading the new pseudo-biography of Rob Bell, Rob Bell and the New American Christianity. Also, there is a multi-page profile on Rob in the New Yorker. Even almost a year after he left Mars Hill and published Love Wins, he’s still getting press just for being him.

I have long been an admirer and fan of Rob, and a student of his work. I have listened to countless sermons, digested every Nooma film and longer tour films, and have been to see him live. I borrowed the videos from his preaching conference, and have read his books. I have worked his exegetical insights into my own sermons and have led classes on his teachings.

And now, lo, these many years later, I feel comfortable admitting that I am insanely jealous of Rob Bell.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: When I read or hear anything that Rob has to say, my first reactions are always “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “I’ve been saying that for years!” According to whatever personality profile you choose, I’m the kind of person who fears being “normal” (insert jokes here) and unoriginal. I want to offer the world a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking, which will result in new ways of being.

This jealousy has troubled me recently, so I’ve decided to employ Calvin’s “Three Uses of the Law” to see if I can get a handle on it.

The First Use of the Law is that the Law teaches us. My jealousy is tantamount to (if not outright) the Tenth commandment regarding coveting. So the First Use actually teaches me about coveting. If this Commandment was not in place, I would not know anything about it.

So, I get a little education about jealousy and coveting, and what it means, and how and why it is different than other strong emotions I have. This is different than a healthy competition. This is beyond debate. This borders on anger that someone else is having success in life. Simple enough.

The Second Use is the one we normally think of: Don’t do it.

The Commandment is pretty clear that this is not behavior to be encouraged. All sorts of extrapolations can be teased out as to why: It’s bad for my health, my self-image, the resultant way that I will treat others, etc.

Regardless of the way I feel, this Use is about behavioral modification. Essentially, Divine Approved program to “Fake it until you make it.”

The Third Use is where the real genius lies in Calvin’s scheme. The Third Use is designed not to teach us the parameters and require adherence to the parameters, but to point us in the direction of the Christ-like response; the way in which we can allow ourselves to be more and more conformed to the image of Christ.

I’ve known what coveting and jealousy are for a long time. I get the psychology and emotional content surrounding them. I know not to do it and why. But when I get to the Third Use, I am always amazed at what it teaches me.

And what my insane jealousy of Rob Bell has taught me is that I admire the work he has done and want to do similar work, because I find that kind of creativity to be life giving for myself and others.

I know that I have had a good deal of success in my life. I know that I have no reason to complain or be petty in my jealousy. And so I am thankful for the Third Use because it has, once again, reminded me of the kind of work that I believe God is calling me to be a part of. My soul resonates with the work of Rob Bell because it is work that I see as valuable. I see my jealousy, interestingly, as a confirmation that seeking the answers to big, life giving questions is where I need to focus my time and energy. That’s a relief to me because I have been blessed to be in situations where I get to do that on a regular basis.

And this, friends, is the beauty of our God. We are not left to wallow, but (as the Psalmist says) to be lifted up out of the muck and mire to a better place to stand.