We spent a week in Istanbul last fall with a small Rick Steves tour. We had started off on a weekend of a major Muslim holiday celebrating the saving of Ishmael from being sacrificed by his father Abraham through the miracle of God providing a ram instead. If it sounds like a familiar story, it should. Just not the right name for Abraham’s son. It was Isaac, wasn’t it? Not if you’re Muslim. Muslims from throughout the Middle East were in town by the tens of thousands, many of them from nations at war with one another, and we were in the middle of them. A good time was had by all. It can happen.
Sitting around in the evening talking over the events of the day, the group quizzed our Muslim guide about Islam: what it believes, what it rejects, how it relates to Judaism and Christianity, etc. All but two or three of our group of twenty were Christians, some quite active in their churches. It was fairly obvious that we knew little about Islam. But I was surprised that the way questions were framed revealed that most of us didn’t know much about Christianity either. They didn’t know the story of how the church came to be, the story of how the East and West went in different directions, the story of the Crusades, the story of the Reformation, or even the story what makes each denomination unique yet as solidly Christian as any other. For that matter, they didn’t know much about the bible either.
The next day our guide and I were walking together, and I said that one of the problems we Western Christians have in understanding Islam is that we don’t know very much about Christianity either. It’s not a solid foundation for learning about others if you don’t know much about yourself. Yes, he said, and the same is true with Muslims. They are Muslim because they are Muslim, born into it , brought up in it, and only vaguely familiar with its sacred texts or history. What they heard preached to them in their formative years is what they believe, and the demands of daily life are too much to go any further than that. And so it goes.
I may have written about this episode before, but the general subject came up again with the death of Fred Craddock, the great preacher and teacher of homiletics, who was the master of narrative preaching. Almost every seminary educated preacher I know under the age of seventy was trained to be a narrative preacher with Craddock as their model, and some are very good at it. The problem is that too many narrative sermons are little more than entertaining story telling with a little gospel thrown in as needed to make it churchy. My approach to preaching is different. I’m a teacher at heart, and teaching sermons are what I have to offer. Maybe I’m just jealous because I’m not very good at narrative type story telling.
The story I want to tell is the story of who we are and what we believe, and I can’t do that if my sermons don’t dive into scripture, history, and culture in an expository way. In my pre-retirement days, Adult Christian Education was my passion. What is in this book we say is God’s holy Word? When was it written? What was the context? How has it been understood over the years? What made our understanding change? What was going on in the world when it was written? What has been going on in the world that has affected the story of the Church? What prejudices and preconceptions have each of us brought to our own understanding? Can we dare to question and doubt? Can we dare to hold an unshakable belief, and on what do we base it? Can we know the story well enough to tell it to someone else?
Sermons, it seems to me, must, if nothing else, whet the appetite for questions such as these, and so many more. And sermons can’t do that if they are no more than entertaining narratives of marginal instructive value. I never heard Dr. Craddock preach, but I imagine he was quite instructive in his use of narrative. I have heard an abundance of narratively driven preachers at work, and most of it is religiously tainted pablum.
And that’s what I know about Istanbul. See! I told you I’m not a very good story teller.