On Sermons

I was flitting around today trying to avoid doing work, and I stumbled onto this post by iMonk at BHT about preaching.

Believe it or not, this is not a fisking of iMonk. This is the perspective of a guy who used to be an English major on the art of speaking publicly about some piece of literature.

You know: the degree most reputable universities and colleges give out to English majors is "B.A. (or M.A.) for Literature in English" – because one doesn’t really study grammar or the alphabet for 4 or 6 years in college: one reads way too many books. One reads poems until one either "gets" it or throws up. One reads plays, which is its own special punishment for majoring in literature.

And there's something interesting that happens there which is applicable to the art of preaching: not once in 6 years of studying literature did we do a "word study" for an hour to plunge the depths of meaning in one word over the larger portrait of meaning the author was communicating in his book or play or poem or whatever.

Now, the disjunction between what one does in reading Literature in English and what one does when reading literature in translation (cf. the Bible) is that in the latter case, the reader has to grasp what the translator was doing while at the same time seek out what the original author was doing when the text in question was written. That is: was the translator seeking to be as transparent as possible, or was the translator seeking to do something independent of the original work as well as remain faithful to the work?

For those of you who are really into this geekish analysis, think about Samuel Butler's translation of Homer's Odyssey, which is a prose translation of a poem. Butler's intent was to translate the words as best he could, but in doing that he sacrificed the matters of diction, form, and genre – so we get the story from classical literature well enough, but it's not hardly poetry: it's prose; it lacks the magic of poetic form even if all the words of the original are in tact. On the other hand, about 50 years earlier, Chapman translated Homer as a poem, and as such he took liberty with the words of the original poem in order to convey, in one poetic form/style in order to convey the art and power of the original in a second language. No real story changes were made by Chapman, but you can't line up his poem to Homer's and go line by line and learn the Greek – it would be impossible.

The translator does something to the text when he brings it from the source language to the receiving language, and understanding what he did is important for those who are only reading the receiving language. In that, word studies have a place in preaching. But my contention is that it is a subordinate place to preaching, as they say, "the whole counsel of God".

John MacArthur's excellent book on Bible study, Unleashing God's Word in you Life, makes this point clearly, as does any really good book on Bible study: you have to get the big picture before you try to sort out the details. For example, the book of Jonah is not about a big fish. There is a big fish in Jonah (or, well, Jonah does wind up in a big fish, right?), but this book is about the hardness of Jonah vs. the love of God toward the unrighteous. And if we read Jonah to try to justify the presence of the big fish, or to make the big fish into an allegory of this or that, we miss the actual point that God is willing and able to do things even for the enemies of Israel which we, as men, are not.

You have to read Jonah the first time to see how it comes together; then, you have to read Jonah to see what the parts are in order to better understand how they come together. And it's the same for any book of the Bible.

Listen: preach the word, in season and out of season – but don’t just preach on one word from the word. Preach the Word: preach Christ. Get the whole thing out there. Don't get so engrossed in one word that you miss all the others: that's called missing the forest for the trees.

Now back to your day.