Monday, June 6, 2011

Thoughts on Fundamentalist Bible Preaching

Interesting and disturbing. That is what I would say about the preaching I watched on television yesterday. Interesting because catching the dynamic of a man shouting at his congregation and assaulting them with shame makes me wonder what exactly is in this man's message that keeps people coming back? Disturbing because of the content of his message--more so than the way he communicated it.

As a caveat, the term "fundamentalist" is a happy moniker to some who embrace the label, while others eschew it with disdain. To wit, some might call me a fundamentalist because of my beliefs regarding the historical reliability of the Old and New testament texts. But fundamentalism wears many hats, so what do I mean here? Well, with this man's particular preaching, he shouted. He shouted the whole time. Now, I preach from time to time, and some times, as a preacher you "bring it." That is, the voice begins to rise and a cadence takes over, and next thing you know, you are "bringing it" i.e. you have a raised voice. But this man was "bringing it" the whole time. He shouted the whole time. Of course, the early African American preachers were known for their great preaching ability, due to their cultural training from tribal leaders and chieftains who made a practice of loud, boisterous preaching (including great oration techniques like anaphora, alliteration, and so forth) in order to appeal to the listening masses. This tradition carries on today. It's why black preachers tend to be great orators. So, there's a place for "loud preaching." Further, the great preacher George Whitefield is said to have had such a great, booming voice, that people could hear it a mile away. So, at this point, the hand is raised in a stayed position. No cry of "foul" here for shouting. It must be the content, then. And the tone. First the tone.

The tone carried with it a sense of "holier than thou." This means there is arrogance in the preaching. I think you all know the difference between being yelled at and being appealed to in a loud voice. I believe this to be true because of the next point: his content. His content was strange. The title of his sermon was "dead flies," taken from a text in Ecclesiastes 10. The context of Ecclesiastes 10 was not explained. Rather, "dead flies" (from the first verse in the chapter) was used as a springboard to discuss the absence of spiritual discipline. But Ecclesiastes 10 is not about that. The opening verses are about wisdom and folly. Spiritual discipline falls under the guise of wisdom, but the introduction to Ecclesiastes 10 is not about what this man was talking about. In fact, he spoke a whole lot about nothing really. "Now I wanna tell you about flies." And chewing tobacco. Cuz they're related, you see.

So far, no explanation of the text....

His springboard discussion revolved around how people who don't 1) read their Bible 2) go to church twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays 3) pray 4) and evangelize, are like "dead flies." Next he said that people who chew tobacco are like dead flies. This is because no fly would ever touch chewing tobacco. But a fly will land on manure, both human and animal, the preacher said. Conclusion: don't use chewing tobacco, because it's worse than putting feces in your mouth. The lesson is learned from nature, I guess. Finally, he laid into the young men because they are lazy. Finishing off his point, he said that all people who fall into numbers 1-4 are "spiritually lazy." So far, the Christian life is boiled down to works of 1-4. Are ya workin'?

Well, Christians certainly should read their Bibles, pray, go to church, and share their faith. And Christians shouldn't be lazy. I agree. And the preacher was sure to remind the congregation that Christians are saved by grace, and that these things are the proper response of coming into loving relationship with God (he didn't talk about the love of God-those are my words). So, what's my problem then? The problem is, this man ignored the context of the passage. Further, his attitude was one of arrogance, anger, and his message had oddly-placed personal humor in between about how awful flies and other insects are. The humor really wasn't that good.

So far, no explanation of the text...

His comments about flies were the strangest. The preacher said that flies were "evil." He kept asking the congregation "Amen?" He went to the account of the plagues in Egypt to support his view that flies were evil. The reasoning goes like this: The Lord sent flies to punish the Egyptians; the flies were undesirable (for numerous reasons to be sure); therefore, flies are evil.

Just as I suspected.

Fundamentalist preaching often involves an appeal to Gnosticism. Gnosticism teaches that the things of the world--the material things--are evil, and that only spiritual things are good. This man's quip about flies being "evil" found support in that horror movies often involve flies when something evil is afoot. Now, I agree that flies are undesirable. They are pesky pests, dirty, and carry diseases. They are ugly, too. But does that mean they are evil? Does the fact that the Lord sent them upon Egypt mean they are evil, as well? Didn't the Lord create flies? Now, here is the $64,000 question: if what makes the flies evil is the fact that the Lord sent them to Egypt, does not that also make frogs evil? Does that not also make darkness evil? Does that not also make blood evil? Does that not make whatever the Lord sent to Egypt evil? Did not the Lord himself destroy the firstborn in all of Egypt (Ex. 12:12)? Did not the Lord create all things? And he said they were "good" from the beginning. And who is to say that some things the Lord made are "evil" because of the Fall, and others are "good" even though we live in a post-Fall world?

So far, no explanation of the text....or the gospel.

More shouting, more accusations against "those people" and "some of you." There wasn't anything about the grace of God through Jesus Christ, or the cross, or living a life of thankfulness.

"You gettin' convicted of your see-uhn?" my wife asks.

"Not really. Well kindof. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't measure up to this man's standards."

At this point, I turned off the tv. 20 minutes was all I could bear.


Tad said...

So, let me get this right. You forced a judgement on this man's sermon before listening to ALL the content. I hope you suffer through the end on the next one.

I am merely guessing that you are on point with this preacher. It does appear he didn't understand the content of the scripture. You, however, are doing a discourtesy to yourself and your reader by not hearing the preacher out until the end of the sermon. Sometimes, mercy will rain when you least expect it. You won't know for sure though until you hear the last of the amens.

chris van allsburg said...

thanks for the thoughts. But 20 minutes of shouting a bunch of nonsense is really all I need to know what the rest will entail.

Anonymous said...


I've heard a definition of fundamentalism that is simple but very telling: Fundamentalism is putting ideology before people or relationships. If that definition does not exhaust "fundamentalism" it is a good start, at least, to understanding what is so disturbing (to most of us) about fundamentalism. Personally, I do not think fundamentalism has anything to do with one's beliefs, the nature of the belief or even the exclusivity of the belief. So, even if you believe, ideologically, that "my way is the right way" or "my way is the only way" or "my belief is the best belief," this does not mean that you are a fundamentalist, in my view. Most of us who are deeply engaged in thinking through our ideas, deeply engaged in just living life, most of us have some sense of feeling as though there are some beliefs, some paths, that are better than others.

To me, the fundamentalist, however, seems to have left compassion behind. Hence, "if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging symbol." (From that perspective, though, to have a truly non-fundamentalist critique of fundamentalism, one must have deep compassion for the person who is a fundamentalist, right?!?)

Also....I think you made a good distinction in this post between good oration that is loud and commanding versus oration that is just loud disrespectful. The former tone seems to compliment and enrich the message, the latter seems to me to often be based on anger. There are certain persons (and personalities) who express their anger via their moral beliefs and ideology. It's like they are trying to force everyone who hears them into believing what they are saying.

Good post, Chris. Thanks.