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The Irrelevance of Relevant Preaching
by David Mills
As a writer, I do not believe in relevance. I especially do not believe in relevance as a criterion for preaching, when that means the attempt to translate the biblical and theological language into words the average man already uses, from fear that he will not listen if the inherited language is used instead. Few preachers are good enough with words to do this without losing truths they should not be losing.
Let me give one example. A friend once praised a sermon warning against both legalism and licentiousness, vices he thought too little rebuked from the pulpit, but worried that such words would not “communicate to the person in the pew.” He urged preachers to use “relevant, contemporary language” because “finding the right word for the right point is crucial.”
Well, I thought, what word is the right and relevant word depends on what you think relevant. We have no reason to think that what feels relevant to the worldling is actually relevant to his life. We do have reason to believe that what he feels relevant will be that which diverts him from the painful contemplation of his own sins and helps him move along the trajectory he has plotted for himself—to improve, as he understands it, but not to change.
If the Christian revelation is both true and a truth to which fallen men are partly blinded, and a truth of great complexity and sophistication, a preacher may be most relevant when his language is least contemporary, and may be irrelevant to the point of fatuousness when it is most contemporary. (This is also true, I think, for liturgical texts, but for slightly different reasons.)
A Practical Question
What is effectively and accurately relevant is a practical question, and what bothers me in these discussions is how simple a view of relevance apostles of relevance like my friend take. They do not seem to have thought enough about what words can do and what people can understand, nor about the practical challenges of having to use words that people do not easily understand and therefore sometimes ignore or resent, nor about the ways this challenge can be met.
The apostles assume without much argument that we must translate biblical and theological terms into words the average man uses every day, and that anything at all unfamiliar is to be avoided. They dislike words like “atonement” and “incarnation” and “eschatological” in preaching almost as much as they dislike “thee” and “thou” or “Dominus vobiscum” and “et cum spiritu tuo” in the liturgy.
I have spent most of my writing life translating difficult subjects (government regulations, systematic theologies) into English accessible to average people (social workers, seminary students). I would not argue for the biblical language only because it is authoritative and established—though the writer does think about the advantages and disadvantages of using an authorized language—but mainly because it is the only language that says what the preacher must say.
Reading the apostles of relevance I often wonder if they are good enough with words, and whether they have enough experience in seeing how their words are understood, to know what works and what doesn’t. The ecclesiastics all preach, of course, which should provide such experience, but speaking at least for Catholics, a man’s ecclesiastical career has never depended upon his ability as a preacher. In those bodies in which it does, success does not always depend upon his ability as a preacher of the gospel (see Joel Osteen).
In my experience, the world understands quite well what you can and can’t do with words. I once wrote the manual for the software of a very high-end analytical device intended to be operated by high-school and college students during their summer vacations. Part of the inventor’s sales pitch was that it would do very useful analysis without the cost of hiring the expensive engineer other devices required.
The company had hired me to make the instructions simple, but they could be made only so simple, and the physicists and engineers for whom I was working never thought to oversimplify the instructions to make them easier for the high-school student to learn. The work could only be done in a certain way, by someone who understood certain complex concepts, which were conveyed only with a set of technical terms, and the student who wanted the job would have to master them.
The world knows this, but many Christians do not. The working of divine revelation—the Christian’s intellectual instrument, in a way—is at least as complicated as the device whose manual I wrote. In it are depths, subtleties, complex arguments, fine distinctions, unexpected qualifications, unanswered questions, new applications, all working for human happiness, all worth the effort to know—and all most clearly stated and most accurately conveyed in the inherited language.
Bending the Language
The preacher’s problem is that relevance is decided not only by what the hearer can and will hear, but what he needs to hear whether or not he wants to, and the latter may not be communicable in language he will naturally understand. The language can be bent only so far, till it is bent out of shape. The apostles of relevance do not see this problem, and hence toss away the truths they genuinely want to convey.
Because the right word is often the unusual or technical or “outdated” word, the preacher should not abandon a specifically Christian vocabulary even though the man in the pew may not understand it right away, and even though he may find it off-putting or even offensive. These words will be the language of the insider, and therefore almost by definition irrelevant to the outsider the preacher wishes to bring inside and many of those who are already inside but lack the conscious and energetic commitment of the real insider.
I think, from many years of listening to preachers good and bad (and the friend I began with was a good preacher), that the preacher almost inevitably loses the Christian meanings when he replaces the biblical and traditional language. Some may be able to translate without great loss, but this requires not only considerable verbal gifts but also synoptic knowledge and sufficient holiness to see the reality to which the words point.
There are many men in our pulpits who are holy and knowledgeable but not verbally gifted. The few who are have a gift so personal that the rest of us would be wise not to imitate them, partly because, language being what it is, we are not good enough to see our failure to do what they can do.
This was true of my friend, who had a creative but not a verbally precise mind. He was worried that the technical terms—the insider language—would drive people away. He told the preacher whose sermon he praised to replace “legalism” with “perfectionism,” and “licentiousness” with “permissiveness,” because most people would much more easily understand the new words.
My friend did not see the problem with this, and most of the preachers on the e-mail list to which my friend posted his comments did not, and several academics with whom I discussed it did not. The preachers and the academics, whose vocations depend upon knowing what words mean, did not see any difference between the old words and the new, and indeed approved my friend’s attempt at translation.
I am sure the man in the pew would understand the new words more easily. Of course. But he would not understand nearly so clearly the truths the preacher was trying to convey to him—the biblical truths the preacher is by his commission as a minister required to convey to him—because the new words do not mean the religious problems the original words define.
A preacher might want to preach on perfectionism and permissiveness, but those were not, given the passage of the day, the problems on which the preacher was trying that day to preach. He had been given God’s needed word to say about legalism and licentiousness.
Very Different Things
“Perfectionism” is a very different thing from “legalism.” One is a psychological problem, the other a spiritual choice and theological error. The perfectionist will expect too much of himself and of others; the legalist will act as if God were not a gracious God but one whose favor could be won by obeying all the rules.
These are both problems, but they are not the same problem, though a man may be both a perfectionist and a legalist. The perfectionist should talk to a pastor or a therapist to learn to distinguish the pious pursuit of the good from the neurotic; the legalist should learn, or relearn, the doctrine and reality of grace.
In the same way, “permissiveness” is a very different thing from “licentiousness.” The first means relaxing the rules too much, the other means actions characterized by license and lawlessness, and usually in a lewd, lustful, and dissolute way. They are not even close to the same thing.
The depravity of the licentious is not at all expressed by calling them permissive. The licentious leer at young women in short skirts (or long skirts, for that matter); the permissive only permit people to do what they want, when they know they shouldn’t, with a genial smile and a forgiving wave of the hand.
Again, these are both problems, but they are not the same problem. The permissive man should enforce the rules he is given to enforce. The licentious man should repent of his sins and adopt such disciplines as will help him bring his appetites under control.
My friend’s substitutes are not synonyms. “Perfectionism” does not accurately translate “legalism” into the language of the day, nor does “permissiveness” translate “licentiousness.” The substitutes are not nearly close enough in meaning to replace the biblical and traditional terms.
The ideas are related but they are not the same. One cannot do the work of the other. You might as well, in a professional baseball game, send in Barry Manilow to replace Barry Bonds, because they are both rich, famous, talented men named Barry.
This all seems to me obvious, but it is not obvious to a startling number of preachers. The nature and complexity of the truths to be conveyed decides what language we can use to convey them. The traditional language has survived for a reason, the same reason that computer jargon and medical terms have survived, because they say as exactly as possible something that must be said as exactly as possible.
The attempt to replace the biblical language almost inevitably results in the loss of some and perhaps much of the biblical meaning. Not always, but very often. By using words the world commonly uses, a preacher conveys only ideas the world understands already, without his help. Or, worse but likely, he unconsciously promotes its errors.
The world understands the problem of perfectionism and wants to be delivered from it as a neurosis; it does not understand legalism nor see why it is such a problem. Legalism may even attract us, as most of us would rather earn heaven, and make others do so, than submit ourselves to God’s grace with the subordinate status that must follow.
The world is happy to be warned of the dangers of permissiveness (even then-President Clinton spoke against it); it does not want to be called to repent of licentiousness, especially as it believes it has a right and in fact a need to do such things as the Christian would call licentious.
The sort of preaching that speaks against “perfectionism” and “permissiveness” will work, in the sense that people will respond. I can say, from long and depressing experience, that many people in the pews will feel that such preaching is powerfully relevant. They will feel it as liberating, enabling, empowering, affirming, that they have found a preacher who speaks to them where they are.
Some will make a commitment to Christianity because they will now believe that Christianity “works,” that “it meets my needs,” that “it speaks to me.” Some will make that commitment because in the gospel preached in relevant terms they recognize, if unconsciously, a tamed and denatured Christianity, in which they can get the benefits of religion without most of the costs.
“Relevant, contemporary” preaching will have proved that the Church is contemporary and relevant. I do not doubt that it will do some good: A man in church on Sunday morning is a man not brooding on his boss’s bad habits or passively letting into his mind whatever the television offers him or lusting after the nearly naked girls in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
What it probably has not done is prove to him that Christianity is true, and changed his heart and expanded his understanding. It has probably not brought him to the paradigm-shifting encounter with the reality of God. One prays that the hearers of such sermons have discerned the gospel despite the misleading language, but our Lord himself noted that many would think themselves friends of his who were not.
The preacher may sometimes be able to translate the Christian language without losing or distorting its meaning (though I am, to be honest, not at all sure about this), but I think my friend’s examples typical of the attempt. They are better than many I have heard. No matter how serious and well-meaning he is, the translator will almost always be a traitor.
The preacher must use the biblical language, unusual and off-putting as it may be, if he wants to share the biblical truths. Yet the language is alien and difficult and therefore to the average American an argument against Christianity.
The first answer to this problem is the renewal of exegetical and even didactic preaching, coupled with a higher view of the responsibility of the laity to listen and learn: the renewal of preaching that says “You must know this, and you must work to know this, and on the last day you will not be able to excuse your refusal to work by saying that it was too hard or that it was put in words you didn’t know.”
By saying the translator is almost always a traitor, I did not mean that the expositor is always a traitor. The translator I am thinking of is the sort of preacher who tries to translate Scripture into more popular terms and—in my experience—almost always makes a hash of it.
The good expositor, on the other hand, faces the difficulty and works his way through it, which is why so many great preachers spend twenty or thirty minutes on one or two or three words, because it takes that long to show people what they mean.
A preacher might help some of them live more satisfying lives by simplifying the message, but people must work hard for maturity. The laity need to know the Bible and the Christian tradition. They need to be made rich with their riches, which can only be mined with time and effort and by learning how to use new tools, including a new vocabulary.
And indeed, as is obvious from church history, such preaching will move hearts and minds. The difficult truth, presented carefully and unashamedly and urgently, proves itself simple, contemporary, relevant, and (to those who have ears to hear) compelling. Remember St. Peter at Pentecost and St. Paul on Mars Hill, remember St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, remember Lancelot Andrewes and John Henry Newman, remember John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Here Christians ought to learn something from the world, for in this matter the world shows great common sense. The world itself does not define “relevance” as the highest level of discourse the marginally interested will tolerate, at least in the matters it really cares about.
Every field, from thoracic surgery to architecture to real estate law to stamp collecting, has its own specialized vocabulary. Every field demands that new members learn the language if they are to work inside it. Their willingness to learn it is a test of their desire to belong. The man unwilling to learn what an architrave and a pediment are is a man who does not really want to be an architect—and those who need an architect (as the world needs Christians) will not want him to design their house.
And the world is right about this. Christian preachers cannot afford, in the hope of speaking in a way more likely to get and to keep laymen who are (supposedly) intimidated when they speak the Faith’s given and natural language, to act as if its necessary language can be translated very far, lest the laity continue to be ignorant of the truth, and many members remain unconverted or only partly converted. For one thing, ignorant people can’t answer the questions some of their curious neighbors will ask them.
This leaves unsolved the problem of the “irrelevance” of the necessary Christian language. There is much more to be said about this, both about the ways in which the insider language can be conveyed and about the fact that we have a compelling story to tell, so that much preaching will need only to declare the facts.
But I think the first answer to the problem is not to simplify and replace the language and therefore distort the message, but inside the Church to explain, and outside the Church to live, so that those who think Christianity irrelevant will so desperately want to be part of our community that they will happily learn to speak in a new tongue.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.