We’re on a road trip, which means that within the Merritt truckster, we have thoroughly discussed everything from the virgin birth, to the definition of progressive Christianity, to the problem of modern hermeneutics. And I’ve got one thing to say about all of this: our poor daughter.
Thank God she’s patient. And before you think that we’re terrible parents, in our defense, I’d like to report that we also listened to They Might Be Giants’ “Here Come the ABCs” album all the way through. All 25 tracks….
So, here’s a question that we talked about. I often hear that our seminaries aren’t training good preachers. And I wonder, what is wrong with the way we learned to preach? Is there a better way?
In Presbyterian seminaries, we learn to preach with the Historical Critical method. It is a six-step process in which we take the text, translate it into the original Greek or Hebrew, look at the grammar, look at the historical context in which the text was written. We read what great theologians and scholars have said over the ages. We ask questions of the text, and then we think about the “hermeneutical bridge,” what links our time to the biblical time. The goal is to get to the original intention of the author.
It was an important process, because it made us interpret the Scriptures with a realistic lens. We began to see passages on slavery, ethnicity, birth control, women, and homosexuality within a culture, and we began to understand what would translate into our own. We became more honest about our tendency to be anti-Semitic. We began to understand the intricate layers of the text, the possible ways in which the words could be understood, and we realized the great number of leaps that translators make from the ancient language to our own.
But there are problems with this method as well. The biggest is that we think have the sense that we can know what the author intended. I have difficulty understanding what my husband intends on a grocery shopping list, and we’ve lived with each other for fifteen years, how can I know what John, the beloved, intended when he wrote in an ancient language two thousand years ago? There is no way to get to the author’s original intent. Instead it’s usually what we intend the author to intend.
The second is that it takes an enormous amount of time. It makes me wonder, did pastors have less other work to do back in the day? Or did pastors always lie about doing all of this study on the text? Of course, now that I’ve worked through with the lectionary the third time in my ministry, it’s a lot less difficult, but still, I don’t do every step either. If I did it by the book, I’d be swamped. And I have virtual libraries at my fingertips.
Third…well this is debatable. I’m wondering if the method just creates really bad preaching. I mean after a pastor works through all the steps, then s/he doesn’t want to disregard all of it as mere prep work. And so we hear sermons about the historical context, the original Greek, all the other theologians. But we rarely get to the point–how these great words of wisdom instruct our lives.
I’m wondering if the nature of interpretation is evolving. The historical-critical method was an important step, in order to unbind the text from some of Christianity’s most deplorable thought. But is it time to move on? What do you think? Does this method of preparation make us poor preachers? What do you do to prepare? Do you ever do all of those steps? What about in other denominations? Do you have similar methods? Would it be better to go to a liberationist model? What did you learn about preaching after you got out of seminary?
photo’s by _xtian