“cutting edge” interview highlight #2: will willimon

My next interview highlight from Cutting Edge’s 10th anniversary issue is a bishop in my own United Methodist Church, Dr. Will Willimon. Always provocative, Willimon delivers once again in this issue’s excerpt of his earlier interview in the Winter 2000 issue on preaching. 

On translating the Christian faith in our preaching:

“We just need to be mindful that, while translation is necessary, it’s also very dangerous–because in leaning over to speak to the modern world, a lot of times we fall face-down into it. We end up not saying anything the world couldn’t hear by reading Dear Abby.”

While making the Word of God understandable and comforting to folks seems like what we should be about as preachers, I wonder more and more if making the Word of God heard–in all of its bizarre, difficult, demanding glory–is more important. Translation (providing familiar words/concepts in the place of unfamiliar ones) can fall into syncretism (giving those unfamiliar words/concepts foreign meanings by failing to differentiate them adequately from that part of the familiar words/concepts that do not square with the meaning of the original) without much care and attention. Syncretism amounts to a neutering of the Gospel and is a danger in any culture. Our North American culture is no exception. The challenging thing for us preachers these days–it seems to me–is to deal with the fact that most churched folks in America would agree with the preceding two sentences and that their first thought of an example would be those who differ with their political beliefs.

On preaching in our therapeutic culture:

“It’s tough preaching in a consumeristic, capitalist culture. Our therapeutic inclinations are just an outgrowth of Gap and Buick commercials: ‘It’s all for me.’ We preachers have got to recognize that.”

This is one of the challenges in terms of preparation and delivery. In our media-saturated culture people can find preaching that they can consume according to their tastes on TV, radio, internet, and for sale through the church website online. But does this not diminish the context for heaing the Word of God? That context is as the people of God–a local community in relationship with one another. Media distributes content to us but does not connect us to a context. Media almost assumes consumption. Again, this is a tool that must be diligently put into context and used thoughtfully, even if–perhaps especially when–used liberally.

But even more to the point, there is some pressure that a preacher feels in terms of how flashy or authentic feeling s/he must be in order to speak to a certain group of folks in order to have them receive you into the group and keep listening to you. So, how does one preach prophetically in such a locale?

On not smoothing out Jesus’ demands:

“Being a Christian means loving Jesus for leaving things a little tense, leaving things open and making us argue over it… I don’t want to make following Jesus more ‘reasonable’ than it really is, or make it sound easier than it really is. Jesus will say something perfectly absurd and outrageous… But then the preacher will stand up and say, ‘Wait, wait, give me 20 minutes and I’ll explain this to you, and you’ll feel better and we can go home and have lunch!’ Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with letting things remain unresolved.”

This simply follows with the other reflections I’ve been sharing. In fact, you can see now that I’ve had each of these quotes in mind the whole time. As a preacher, I am to be a part of having the people hear the Word of God. This is no easy task, especially in light of this line of thought–which I’m rather attracted to. We can be so interested in serving the Prince of Peace, that we fail to see how frequently in the Gospels Jesus wasn’t peaceful at all. Instead he was downright provocative and an instigator of conflict…but with the wisdom to perceive the right timing to poke on people.

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