Word pictures often provide a speaker with the tools to embed an image in the mind of a hearer. We often use this tool of communication to help the hearer understand a point we believe may well be missed. We may augment these pictures with common phrases intended to connect with populist caricatures to move our hearers to a desired action. Preachers who become adept at this practice easily influence the crowd. Sometimes too easily.
Denominational Commentary is a tag I hate to attach to any post. There are many reasons. One of my primary reasons – these kinds of posts are easily misunderstood and then misrepresented. The events of the past couple of days at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in San Antonio certainly provided occasions for commentary. I may offer a couple of other “minor” asides along the way, but it has been much more fun to “Stetzerize” my blog than spend time and mental energy attempting to give my thoughts on recent developments. Be that as it may I hope to comment not on personalities but on implications; not on motives but rather something of a “hearer response.”
Populist preaching tends to whip the hearer into action by using well worn idioms. During the convention one of our seminary presidents set out to give a report by suggesting a story would help. It seems we may liken the direction of the convention to a boat used by Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Certain the speaker did not intend us to investigate every nuance of the “story” we will leave the implications of Huck and Tom leaving their boat for lunch since the Resolutions Committee did not think it necessary to bring the resolution on gluttony to the floor.
Instead we would do well to think an institution to be like a boat left to drift without a motor – something to power it upstream. The imagery of the river in the story proved to be key. Floating downstream, an obvious allusion to being carried away from the truth, sets the stage to whip the crowd into a frenzy when the speaker notes the boat is untethered. The boat may float to the left into liberalism, to the center into neo-orthodoxy, or the right into confessional conservatism/ecumenism. The warning – stay connected to truth; tie a better knot when mooring at the dock. Nothing was noted about which dock we should tie up to. Baptists’ only creed is the bible so are we to tie up to the Scriptures? Is it one of our confessions we should tie our boat to so as to express our confessional understanding of the Scriptures for a given time and place; a given cultural context?
Evidently the river is only bothersome if you drift downstream. But, riding upstream seems to change the context of the river. It is as if riding upstream, going against the flow, is not fraught with peril of its own. We could conclude the truth is found upstream. Sailing upstream would never lead to legalism, moralism or sectarianism.
The problem with this imagery is that the speaker chooses when to sail with or without the image so as to connect with the audience his desire to move them to a specific conclusion and action. Since 1979 warring is the chief image employed by the leaders of the takeover/resurgence, it is odd to use a boat and river. It seems moving from the Gospel of the Kingdom is really where the peril lies. Moving upstream or downstream holds unseen rock formations that may well send the boat in an unwanted direction, capsize the boat or dash it into larger rock formations.
What if the word picture was indeed a good word picture if thought of differently and we looked to our seminaries to help in a different way. Could it be the river portray the journey of life for those giving themselves to vocational service? It is merely a part of the larger story of God – not “the” story of God. That is, how could we help a young woman or man learn to live into the story of God as it is being lived with its winding, sometimes treacherous features. Might it be better to suggest the seminary gives the “sailor” an understanding of the boundaries – the banks within which the Spirit of God appears to be operative?
Our living out the Gospel of the Kingdom will require some leftward movement as we stand for justice and engage our cultural. We will on occasion move right as we emphasize what it means to live by the ethic of Jesus in all human relationships. Other times we will float the center where the two meet on most occasions. The flow of the river is always “toward” the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. So we teach to participate in the Kingdom. This means we must move beyond the Kingdom as a “future only” reality. Instead we take the words of Jesus, the red-letters as some suggest, and see them as a proper way to order one’s life. This ordering is not a moralizing our way to God but rather an indication we trust not just these words, but “the” Word of Life. Repenting, changing our minds, to live in the flow of the Kingdom of God because it is there we find life and share it with others.
Words mean something. Illustrations and images hold a great deal of power. I like the image one of our seminary presidents used. I simply believe we would be better served by infusing the image with different meaning.