Back in early January, I attempted a short series of reflections on the hot-button of the turn of the year: the Christian faith and a “therapeutic gospel.” This piece by Brad East of Abilene Christian University was going to be the through line, and it would have run for five or six posts. I got through two before promising an excursion into the thoughts of Charles Taylor. I actually wrote that post, but didn’t feel it was ready to post. And then the rest of January happened . . . and now most of February, too.
I like East’s post because it covers important ground about preaching in a way that sums things up quite nicely. He provides a framework for thinking about what preaching should be since it out not be therapeutic. The framework includes things that ought to go without saying as advice because they should always be said. But life on the ground, preaching or speaking on a regular basis, can lead you to lose sight of such things. That and a few of repetition or of preaching two sermons in one (one part exegetical, one part invitation that doesn’t really connect with the first sermon).
Perhaps the thing I like most about East’s post was the final point. After talking about God and salvation and sin and heaven, East asserts that “one test for preaching that seeks to avoid reducing the gospel to therapy is whether it mentions the Devil, demons, and evil spiritual forces.” Why? Well:
Show me a church that talks about Satan, and I’ll wager it also talks about sin, salvation, heaven, and God. Show me a church that never talks about Satan, and I’ll wager that next Sunday’s sermon won’t mention sin or heaven. Such a church is on its way to disenchantment, secularism, a therapeutic gospel, and functional atheism. The point isn’t that talk of devils is spooky, though it is. It’s that talk of devils presupposes and projects a universe with stakes.
Not much gets said about Satan, it seems. Perhaps when technical issues or health conditions are bad, but not as part-and-parcel of proclamation. But it makes sense to include it in the big picture, and as more than just a nod to Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. East writes:
For ordinary believers, this cashes out in how they understand their daily lives. Are they living in enemy territory? Are they constantly under assault by the Enemy? You don’t have to be charismatic to think or talk like this. But preaching makes evident whether this is the right way to experience the world.
Here’s the fundamental question: Is following Christ like living in wartime or in peacetime? The flavor of a sermon tells you all you need to know. And if, as I began this post, therapeutic preaching finally serves to reassure disenchanted professionals in the upper-middle-class that God affirms them as they are—that a well-adjusted life is attainable, though ennui on the path is to be expected—then we have our answer: there are no demons; there is no war on; we are living in peacetime.
Such a message may be the best possible way to lull believers to sleep. Not literal sleep (a TED Talk can be entertaining), but spiritual sleep. Jesus commands us to be alert, to be watchful, to stay awake as we eagerly await his coming. The command, in short, presumes a wartime mentality. Peacetime is thus a myth, a lie from the Enemy. Each of us forgets this at our own peril, but preachers most of all.
I included two quotes from East as titles for this post. “A Universe with Stakes” because it is a truth that is easy to forget. Or we forget that “stakes” in this case applies to a number of aspects of the life of faith. And then the second title, “The Right Way to Experience the World,” because it opens a door not just to the thoughts of Charles Taylor but also Hartmut Rosa and so many thinkers who write about how we actually interact with and move through the world. You could even, I suppose, make a link to Lewis’s “Learning in Wartime.”
+ + + + + + +
I’ve got a few different posts ready for the rest of the week. I really want to be regular here, but sometimes the best I can do is the Sunday post. I’ve got some comics and some music lined up. And hopefully I can get some more reflection and thinking down, too.