When Christian Preaching Is Bad News
By Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.
Christian preaching is supposed to proclaim good news. The Sunday sermon gives the preacher the opportunity to speak to the gathered congregation on some topic. Most sermons are monologues rather than conversations. This means that the preacher speaks to a captive audience. A good news preacher can fill a congregation with hope. A bad news preacher can plunge the congregation into fear.
The sermons of Bad Bible Bullies are prime examples of Christian preaching as “bad news.”
A Bad News Sermon About Jonah And The Whale
Here is an example of bad news preaching by a Bad Bible Bully in a large San Francisco church. The church is an impressive red brick structure, with a massive organ, elaborate stained glass windows, high ceilings, a balcony, and large chandeliers. Even though unreinforced red brick is considered the most dangerous type of building in a city prone to earthquakes, the venerable church building withstood both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.
The preacher that Sunday morning was a retired Lutheran bishop. He had the shape of a fire hydrant and the voice of a basso profundo. He had no need of a microphone.
Although the church followed a list of readings—a lectionary—the preacher chose to ignore the three readings for that particular Sunday. Instead, he told the well-known story of Jonah. At least he told his version of the story of Jonah. It was obvious that he had told this story many times before.
The famous story—and it really is a story—is about “Jonah who was swallowed by a whale.”
I will restrain my biblical scholar tendencies to challenge the preacher’s Bible interpretation and do my best to report the essence of what the preacher said about the story. You will notice that the fundamental theme of the sermon is obedience to authority.
A Bad Bible Bully Preaches
The preacher began by this way. “God ordered Jonah to go to Nineveh to tell the people to repent. But Jonah disobeyed God and went in the opposite direction and got on a ship. So God had to teach him a lesson.”
Then the preacher talked about how Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale.
The preacher continued. “But Jonah stubbornly refused to do what God told him to do. It took Jonah three whole days in the belly of the whale to finally repent of his disobedience to the command of God. Finally Jonah repented. Then God made the whale spit Jonah out onto the land. At last, Jonah obeyed God and went to Nineveh and told the Ninevites to repent.”
By this point in the story, the preacher was bellowing with his basso profundo voice at a volume that was so loud that the chandeliers overhead actually started to shake.
And then the preacher made his point, with the subtlety of an armored tank knocking down a building. “It doesn’t matter what you want to do. If God wants you to do it, he will make you do it.”
Turning A Bible Story Into Bad News
What turns any part of the Bible into “Bad Bible?” It’s not just the words themselves but the impact of those words on those who hear them.
What was the impact of this preacher’s telling of the story of Jonah on the people who heard his sermon?
Although I have often wished I were not so sensitive, I could feel people shrinking all around me. The longer the Bad Bible Bully preacher ranted, the more the people shrank. They shrank from the voice that kept getting louder and louder. And they shrank from the message itself.
Surely, you know what it is to shrink from fear. Your muscles tighten. You hold your breath. You slump down to make yourself smaller. Your first goal when you are under attack is to protect yourself.
Shrinking in fear is a universal instinct of living things. If they cannot run away, they shrink where they are. Fear makes turtles pull their heads inside their shells. Fear causes armadillos to roll up into tight balls. Fear causes clams to snap their shells shut.
The message was a stern warning delivered in a booming male voice of authority from the pulpit on a Sunday morning worship service, a warning delivered on behalf of an overpowering God.
The Stark Contrast Between Freedom and Obedience To Authority
It doesn’t matter what you want. If God wants you to do it, God will make you do it.
Bad Bible Bully Preacher
This statement is as clear as any I have ever heard of the conflict between personal freedom (the power to determine action without restraint) and authority (the power or right to control, judge, or prohibit the actions of others), which is the core issue of this blog.
In the preacher’s telling of the story, Jonah has no personal freedom to decide whether or not to go to Nineveh. His only choice is to submit to God’s authority.
And then the preacher turned the story of Jonah into a stern warning to the hapless people shrinking in front of him.
His theology has no room for personal choice. His message about personal freedom can be summarized this way.
You have no freedom to choose because you have no choice. What you want makes no difference. The only choice that matters belongs to God. If you do not do what God demands that you do, God will chase you down and make you do it.
Bad Bible Bully Preacher
This the opinion of a bullying preacher about a bullying God.
Whatever Happened To The Good News?
The fundamental claim of the Christian church is that it has “good news” for people. This is what the word “gospel” means.
The greatest injury of all on that Sunday morning in San Francisco was that the preacher didn’t convey what most human beings would consider good news. Instead, he used his opportunity to preach good news as an opportunity to harangue a captive audience of people who are supposed to sit still, keep quiet, and listen.
People who sat in the pews on that Sunday morning with some hope of hearing good news got blasted and lambasted and told that they had no choice. God—the greatest bully of all—would make them do what God ordered them to do.
This “sermon” is the essence of how Bad Bible Bullies turn the Bible into “Bad Bible.” It is also a prime example of how Bad Bible Bullies distort the hope of good news into the reality of abused trust.
And even more importantly, this sermon demolishes any conflict between personal freedom and Bible authority. He told the people sitting in front of them that their only choice was to obey authority.
In other words, he declared:
You have no personal freedom. You must submit to God’s authority because the Bible says so.
Bad Bible Bully Preacher
How Bible Scholarship Gives Freedom From Bad Bible Bullies
Was the preacher right about this story? Is this kind of Bible interpretation valid? Is it truly biblical? How can you know? Is it just a matter of opinion?
My goal is to offer a liberating perspective to others who are seeking freedom from Bad Bible Bullies by looking at something like the book of Jonah from the perspective of a biblical scholar.
What I have experienced in my own life is that Bible scholarship set me free from the fear-inducing tactics of Bad Bible Bullies.
“Exegesis” is the primary method of Bible scholarship. Exegesis attempts to understand something like the book of Jonah on its own terms. Exegesis asks what are its historical, social, political, and theological contexts? What about the translation from Hebrew into English? How do you read a story? How does Jonah fit into the context of the whole Bible? These are just a few of the questions that biblical scholars would ask about the book of Jonah.
As far as I could tell, this bullying preacher made no effort at all to do the most basic biblical exegesis of the book of Jonah. He simply scared people with a preposterous story told as historical fact.
After asking exegetical questions, the next important question is this: What do you do with such a story? This question comes under the category of “hermeneutics,” which deals with what the story means right now. How do you interpret this story in the contemporary world?
For the preacher, the hermeneutical meaning of the story was perfectly clear. The story of Jonah is a stern warning. Do what God tells you to do or else.
Although I will not begin the process of exegesis and hermeneutics of the strange story of Jonah here, the real point in all of this is that the best remedy for bad news Christian preaching begins with disciplined Bible exegesis, followed by disciplined Bible hermeneutics.
You don’t have to know very much about exegesis to realize that Bad Bible Bullies are notorious for preaching bad news without bothering to ask a few basic exegetical questions.
You can quickly learn how to recognize the difference between good news preaching that can set you free and bad news preaching that robs you of your freedom by demanding that you obey bullies.
For Your Freedom,
Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.