Magic, Ministry, Mathematics

Are you watching closely?

A crisp suit paces the stage, conjuring images that strain imaginations, weaving successive tricks into a tapestry of wonder. Nimble fingers fetch mysteries from within an ancient vessel. Meanwhile, fists grip the edge of cushioned seats as bated breath anticipates the great reveal.

“How does he do it?”

“Right!? Best sermon I’ve heard on that topic!”

Far too often, Christian audiences content themselves with the prooftexting of preachers who prioritize a conclusion about Scripture over the path they took to get there. There’s nothing particularly flattering about the fascination faith communities have with flowery presentations of scripture by men who fail to follow up their stated meaning with a transparent demonstration of their method. Preaching ministers are messengers, not magicians.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt the need to defend the systematic explication of biblical texts. Visiting more places in Scripture doesn’t automatically equal better use of the Bible. In fact, often the opposite is true. The more places I occupy as I teach, the less time I have to spend in each place. In the time I do spend, however, I have three tasks: read, explain, exhort. Sadly, I’ve seen the first two tasks sacrificed for the sake of time, while unsupported exhortation reigns supreme. Evidently, context should be excluded for the sake of time, and a preacher’s points are to be favored over a robust explanation of the text that makes the method of interpretation clear. I have a hard time seeing this approach to preaching as little more than biblical prestidigitation.

In case all of this seems to be mere alarmism, consider the dangers. Consider the danger of embracing the conclusion of a preacher without knowing whether his reasoning was sound before he arrived at it. Consider the danger of training a congregation, Sunday after Sunday, to handle Scripture as a string of scattered passages to support a presupposition disguised as a strong argument. Consider the danger of enabling a community of Christians to discuss only their conclusions about the Bible but never their concrete methods of reading and interpreting it.

Maybe this is where we need to learn from mathematicians. Many of us aren’t mathematicians, but we benefit from their work when math teachers teach us the operations, equations, and theorems upon which math is built. Here’s the thing: we benefit from their work because they show their work. And so must we. Just like it isn’t acceptable in math to present the right answer without a detailed explanation of how we arrived at the answer, it shouldn’t be acceptable to preach conclusions about biblical texts without clarifying the path we took to reach them.

It’s a shame that so many ministers are seen more like magicians than mathematicians. It’s almost as if we want our preaching ministers to keep their secrets, as if we’d rather be entertained than equipped.