More from Jack Good's book


In The Dishonest Church, Jack Good mentions his experiences at a church-sponsored college, where he learned a great deal about the Bible from an Old Testament professor named Dr. Loren Dow. He learned the sorts of things that scholars know, but which don't necessarily conform to the party line of the orthodoxy. He then describes the reaction to all of this from his classmates. Some of them, disillusioned by what they learned, went on to have professions far removed from any religious calling. But others did go on to become church pastors. He describes what happened to these pastors:

They are well trained and well informed. They, too, shared in Dr. Dow's classrooms. They know that the Bible is a collection of writings composed by more than seventy very human writers. They know that the question of which writings to include in the Bible has been, and continues to be, a matter of controversy. They know that some of the material in the Bible attributed to Moses includes a description of Moses' death, and therefore could not have been written by him. They know that Paul wrote his letters before the Gospels were composed, and that the Gospels were written, in part at least, to argue with some of Paul's ideas. Yet reports I continue to receive inform me that most of these professionals keep all such matters well hidden from their congregations. With a few important exceptions, they continue to finesse all comments on any subject they consider delicate. Somewhat as a politician might, they tread carefully along the edge of truth and falsehood, using words with which they can live in good conscience but which fail to challenge or engage their listeners. They, along with the vast majority of local pastors, have chosen to reject the role of bridge between styles of faith; they selected, instead, the role of sentinel, guarding the laity from any contamination from the truths they themselves carry.
Food for thought.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I don't know, I think that is overly pessimistic. The example given about Paul and the gospels, in my mind, is simply silly. I went to an evangelical seminary and of course we knew that Paul wrote before the gospels were written and that there were issues between Paul and some of the Gospel writers. We also learned that Luther called James an epistle of straw. None of that is all that controversial or is hidden from congregants.

Now, the question remains -- where best to share historical-critical information. As a preacher, I don't have time to explore all the h-c nuances in a sermon. I mention some, not all.

For instance, if I'm preaching, as I did on Sunday, from John, a sermon probably isn't the time to go into the issue of the differences between John and the synoptics. In fact, with 20 minutes to preach, my focus is on the meaning not the historical critical issues. But in a study, where there is room for a two way conversation, then sure, we talk about those issues.

This idea that clergy hide what they know is I think overblown. Thanks for letting me vent!

Mystical Seeker said...

Perhaps the examples that he gave in that quote aren't the best. But I think the more general point is simply that the understanding of the Bible that he was referring doesn't match the one accepted by fundamentalists.

I don't want to be seen as criticizing your own style of preaching. All I can do say what works for me personally and what doesn't, as one who sits in the pews.

My concern is that when a pastor preaches from a certain text that describes a miraculous event involving angels or whatnot, I want to know if the person doing the preaching actually believes that it took place or not. To me it makes a huge difference in how to interpret the text, on whether you believe it is literally true or not. If you take it literally, your interpretation is going to inevitably differ from how you will interpret it metaphorically. And I am getting no clue from most of those who preach that they consider some of these texts to be metaphorical.

And if this same thing happens, week after week, with the pastor pretending that stories are true when he or she knows that they aren't, as the months stretch on, what kind of impression does this give to someone like me who craves more than just retelling myths without any intellectually viable analysis? I spent my childhood in a church that did take these stories literally. I don't need to go back to that as an adult. I realize that I can't speak for everyone. It's just me. If there is no difference between the preaching from a literalist and the preaching from one who in their heart doesn't take it literally--then what am I doing sitting in a progressive church at all? I'd rather just stay home.

For example, last Sunday, I attended a service in which the New Testament reading was the Annunciation reading from Luke. I think that the story is interesting, it has a point to tell--and in no way do I think that it actually happened as Luke depicted it. If you take a story like this as literally true, and never even mention the idea that it didn't take place, then I just don't know what to make of what the preacher is thinking. Yet the woman who delivered the sermon precisely did that--she discussed the story in Luke without every saying for a minute that she didn't think it was literally true. Does she really think that the Annunication happened as Luke said it did? Hell if I know. The preacher certainly acts as if she does. But that's the point that Jack Good is making here--apparently we don't always really know what the preacher really thinks.

Is church supposed to be a game of "let's pretend"?

I am not saying that the approach that you take is wrong for everyone. But I am saying that this is not something that I find very satisfactory about most mainline churches, even those that are ostensibly progressive. Again, I can only speak for myself here.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Since I put my sermons on line -- I'd be curious as to your thoughts on them. I don't make a big deal about literal and metaphor. I think at times too much a difference is made.

But, you're right if no clue is given as to whether something is metaphor or not can be unnerving. Last Sunday I preached on John 12:1-8 -- Mary's anointing of Jesus' feet. Now, whether Mary did this or not, I have no historical evidence. But of course, it follows after the raising of Lazarus. Now, the question is, did Jesus raise Lazarus? Was he sleeping or not? But then, my point in the sermon wasn't Lazarus, but on how to die well. To focus on Lazarus would in my mind detract from the point, which was how we die (and I'll admit, I do believe that there is something of an afterlife -- but that's not just a fundamentalist view. Process Theologians, for example, affirm some continuation). I hope this helps the discussion.

I've been in the pew much of my life and have preached regularly the past 10 years. Finding balance is difficult. My sense is that your preacher this past Sunday didn't see the usefulness in discussing the fact or fiction of the annunciation -- which is an interesting text to use the last Sunday of Lent!

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks for the link, and thanks for your comments. I'll check out your sermons.

John Shuck said...


Thanks for posting about this book and for writing about what you wish clergy would do. I don't know if seminary has changed much, but when I graduated in 1992, we got the message that this information was not good for congregations.

To each his own, I prefer to be honest as I can with what I have learned and to let the chips fall.

It is good for clergy get support and encouragement from people who listen to sermons that they don't want the same old tired message, but do want to know what scholarship uncovering.