On Sermon Evaluations (Or, It’s a Tough Job, But Somebody’s Got To Do It)

My friend and former coworker Charles Wiese, who blogs over at The Lamb On the Altar, has lately been occupied with a most interesting exercise in sermon evaluation. After tracking down and listening to several sermons on St Mark 9:30-37, he grades each on the basis of the following criteria:

1. Does the pastor explain the text correctly? (+1 for explaining the text correctly, 0 for not explaining the text at all, -1 for explaining the text incorrectly)

2. Is the law preached lawfully? (+1 for preaching the law in all its sternness, 0 for not preaching the law at all, -1 for preaching the law as if it is doable)

3. Does the sermon mention Jesus? (+1 for saying true things about Jesus, 0 for not mentioning Jesus, -1 for saying false things about Jesus)

4. Is the sermon about what Jesus has done for us? (+1 if the primary focus of the sermon is about what Jesus has done for us, 0 if the sermon does not mention Jesus, -1 if the sermon is all about what we do for Jesus)

5. Does the creation of a wordle show a Christian focus in the sermon? (+1 for yes, 0 for sort of, -1 for no)

Thus far the series has proved to be rather enlightening, and not a little entertaining: quite frankly, I was thoroughly amused that a sermon by John Piper earned a measly 35% F by such Christocentric standards! I look forward to  many more sermon evaluations from Charles in the future.

The above criteria got me thinking, though. Charles is a confessional Lutheran, and it shows. So, what if we tried to apply some of these same criteria to an ancient Christian sermon that has historically made confessional Lutherans uncomfortable? Yes, you guessed it. Let’s look briefly at the Epistle of St James.

Needless to say, we are beset with difficulties from the beginning. To ask whether St James expounds his text correctly is to raise the bugaboo of his use of the Old Testament, which at least in one notable instance seems to be at odds with the use of the same passage by St Paul (cf. St James 2:14-24; Romans 4). The rest of his examples and allusions (some quite unclear) are likewise riddled with exegetical problems, and as often is the case, the modern reader can’t help but wonder how could the Apostles use the Old Testament in such a way. I suppose, then, that this earns St James a -1 in this department.

What about the lawful preaching of the law? Even a casual reader of the Epistle can’t help but notice St James’ insistent call  for his audience to be not only hearers but doers of the word. Indeed, he explicitly exhorts his audience to fulfill the royal law (another questionable application of the Old Testament; cf. St James 2:8; Leviticus 19:18), and goes on at length what manner of behavior constitutes this fulfillment. I’m afraid that here, too, St James earns a -1.

At long last, and with much difficulty, we reach a criterion which St James passes with flying colors, for he indeed mentions “our glorious Lord Jesus,” and says nothing false about him. Here, then, we may finally award him a +1.

Regrettably, however, the fourth criterion takes us back to where we started. Allusions to the saving work of Christ are notable for their absence, and there is a rather heavy emphasis on behavior throughout the Epistle. Again, here we must ruefully give St James a -1.

The final criterion calls for a wordle of the sermon, which I created on the basis of the RSV text of the Epistle:

Wordle: The Epistle of James (RSV)

Here we see that the chief words used in the Epistle are “God” and “Lord”; the latter is on the main a Christological term for St James (but see 3:9), and so we may safely conclude that, all appearances aside, the main focus of this ancient sermon is indeed Christian. This clearly merits a +1.

The grand total for St James, the Brother of God, is -1 or 40% F. He did slightly better than John Piper, who may find consolation in the thought that St James was an Apostle, and was therefore bound to do better!

Of course, there is a gulf between the way we should read a New Testament writing and the way we should evaluate a contemporary sermon, and the above is nothing but an affectionate jab at my good friend Charles. But I do commend to all his ongoing series of sermon evaluations for an insightful (and sometimes alarming) look at contemporary Christian preaching.

On Broken Clocks that Are Right Two Times a Day

In recent days, and as a result of a recent comment thread in Aaron Taylor’s blog, I have spent some time revisiting Thomas Aquinas’ treatise Contra errores græcorum. Thomas composed this treatise in 1263/4 at the request of Roman Pope Urban IV, and it he engages the Orthodox Faith on the Most Holy Trinity on the basis of treatise compiled by one Nicholas, the unionist Bishop of Cotrone in Sicily. In spite of the revisionist readings of such modern ecumenically-minded writers as the late Dominican scholar Yves Congar, it is clear that, while not entirely unsympathetic to the concerns of the Orthodox, Thomas clearly and unambiguously regards the Orthodox confession of Faith in the Holy Trinity (particularly on the matter of the procession of the Holy Spirit) as, at best, imperfectly expressed and conducive to greater errors. In this post, however, I do not wish to discuss Thomas’ arguments, but rather taking my cue from the well-known saying referenced in the title, I will present two quotes from this treatise in which Thomas is, amazingly, right!

I. On Translation

“It is, therefore, the task of the good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning, but to adapt the mode of expression so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating. For obviously, when anything spoken in a literary fashion in Latin is explained in common parlance, the explanation will be inept if it is simply word for word. All the more so, when anything expressed in one language is translated merely word for word into another, it will be no surprise if perplexity concerning the meaning of the original sometimes occurs” (Contra err. græc., Prologue).

Yes, Thomas, obviously indeed! And this is not only true when it comes to translating “materials dealing with the Catholic faith” (Thomas has in mind here the well-known difference between the Greek hypostasis and the Latin persona, which he has discussed immediately prior to this), but also when translating the Holy Scriptures themselves. As Thomas aptly recognizes, the Holy Grail of Accuracy is no more tied to literal translation (“essentially” so or otherwise) than it is to the aberration commonly known as concordant translation: both can be, and often are, the source of considerable (and oft times unnecessary) “perplexity regarding the meaning of the original.” A good translator, then, will strive “to adapt the mode of expression so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating.” A shocking concept for some, I’m sure! See, even Thomas understands this; why can’t you?

II. On the Filioque and Papal Supremacy

“The error of those who say that the Vicar of Christ, the Pontiff of the Roman Church, does not have a primacy over the universal Church is similar to the error of those who say that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son.” (Contra err. græc. II, 32).

Now, this is a very interesting snippet, because in it and in the extended discussion that follows, Thomas seems to suggest that there is indeed a connection between Trinitarian theology and ecclesiology, and specifically, between the Latin dogma of the double procession of the Holy Spirit and Papal supremacy. Of course, he states the point negatively, suggesting that there is a connection between the Orthodox confession of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone and the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Churches, which categorically rejects Papal supremacy.

What is so interesting about this is that, in militant Americanist Orthodox circles, it is the received wisdom that emphasizing what is thought to be the connection between the Filioque and Papal supremacy is a 20th-century development. This notion is most clearly articulated by His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, in the 3rd edition of his book The Orthodox Church:

“[Stricter] Orthodox writers also argue that these two consequences of the Filioque — subordination of the Holy Spirit, over-emphasis on the unity of God — have helped to bring about a distortion in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Church. Because the role of the Spirit has been neglected in the west, the Church has come to be regarded too much as an institution of this world, governed in terms of earthly power and jurisdiction. And just as in the western doctrine of God unity was stressed at the expense of diversity, so in the western conception of the Church unity has triumphed over diversity, and the result has been too great a centralization and too great an emphasis on Papal authority.

Such in outline is the view of the Orthodox ‘hawks’. But there are Orthodox ‘doves’ who have significant reservations about several points in this critique of the Filioque. First, it is only in the present century that Orthodox writers have seen such a close link between the doctrine of the Double Procession and the doctrine of the Church. Anti-Latin writers of the Byzantine period do not affirm any such connection between the two. If the Filioque and the Papal claims are in fact so obviously and integrally connected, why have not the Orthodox been quicker to recognize this?” (page 216).

But it turns out that no less a Latin authority than Thomas agrees with the so-called Orthodox “hawks” on this point! And of course, it can be easily argued that so does St Mark of Ephesus, though unfortunately English-speakers without Greek or Russian have very little (if any!) access to his writings, which by-and-large have not been translated into English (but see here and here). And so we come once again to this: even Thomas understands this; why can’t you?

The Colbertian Contribution to Conservapedia

Surely most of my readers are aware already of Conservapedia‘s recently announced “Conservative Bible Project,” which aims to remove what they regard as “liberal bias” from existing Bible translations in English. They intend to do this by “retranslating” (or, better, rewriting) the King James Version to clearly reflect, among other things, a free market understanding of the parables and a consistent use of words current in American conservative discourseall of this, of course, carried out without regard to the original languages of Scripture or sound exegesis, but purely on the basis of ideological concerns.

Since this project is hosted in a wiki site, anyone and everyone is able to contribute to it who is willing to do so. Needless to say, no one is more conservative or loves the Bible more than the great Stephen Colbert, which is why he encouraged his minions just a few moments ago to turn to the “Conservative Bible Project” en masse and make him a biblical character. (I will add the video just as soon as it becomes available.) Of course, The Voice of Stefan does not encourage wiki vandalism, but I am intrigued to see what the results will be. But if Colbert’s proposal has also piqued your interest, you’ll have to wait to see the results: the response has been so enormous that Conservapedia has temporarily crashed.

UPDATE: Conservapedia appears to be back up and running again. And as promised earlier, here’s the video:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

On Bibliobloggers, Review Books, and the FTC

As others have already noted, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced yesterday that it has adopted a series of revisions to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising which seek to apply existing laws on the subject to, among others, bloggers who receive cash or “in-kind” compensation for publishing a product review. Broadly according to the revised Guides (which are, however, to be applied case-by-case), these are now formally considered to be “endorsements” by the FTC. Given this, such bloggers are expected to fully and unambiguously disclose any compensation they receive from an advertiser in order to feature their product, and failure to do so may result in a fine of up to $11,000 per violation, as well as mandated reimbursements to consumers who may have been misled by deceitful and irresponsible endorsements from those who failed to disclose their material connection to the advertiser. This seems entirely fair to me.

The obvious concern here for bloggers on the Bible and Theology is the matter of the review books that many of us have received from academic publishers. Since these are sent at no charge, they may be construed under certain circumstances as “in-kind” compensation for an endorsement. Fortunately, I am unaware of any biblio- or theobloggers who fail to disclose the source of the books they review when these have been sent directly by publishers at no charge. Here at The Voice of Stefan, a complete listing of such may be found in the Books Received page, a practice also adopted by our good friend and reviewer extraordinaire Nick Norelli. Others, while lacking a full listing like those just linked, invariably acknowledge whether the book they are reviewing was received from a publisher, and this usually in the very first line of their review.

Of course, there is a long history of academic publishers sending review books to peer-reviewed journals at no charge. These titles are usually listed in a “books received” section in the journal in question (whence the name of my above linked page), and then are distributed to scholars and graduate students for review. In the end, reviewers usually either keep these books or else dispose of them according to their better judgement (and indeed, during my days at Baker Book House, I came across several books marked “For Review” by a number of journals, some of which now grace my bookshelves). Needless to say, these reviews can be alike positive, negative, or somewhere in between, and the fact that the book was received for free plays no part in the reviewer’s assessment.

It stands to reason that the practice of sending books to bloggers for review is an extension of this long-standing practice: as a matter of fact, review books sent by publishers started to appear in the biblioblogosphere among established scholars. Later the practice spread to graduate students, and later still to non-specialists, whether trained to a certain degree or with no formal training at all, but all interested (and often widely read) in the subject matters these books address.

Somewhere along the way (rather early on, if my cynicism may be trusted), some publishers realized that, since many of us turn to the internet to search for reviews of books we do not know, this was a very effective marketing strategyparticularly in view of the fact that many bloggers, unaware of the long history of journal reviews described above, feel that it is their bounden duty to speak of the books they have received only in glowing terms. Some have gone so far as to hastily review books they have not read (!), while others have resorted to writing two-paragraph “reviews” that amount to little more than a glorified blurb. In these cases, the haste is usually related to a misplaced desire to comply with the time limits of a marketing campaign, while the invariably positive review is tied to misguided gratitude for the free book received. In these cases, one might indeed say that an advertiser has effectively bought a glowing endorsement for the measly price of book production and shipping.

Of course, many publishers send bloggers their books in good faith, and many of us receive them on the same terms. But I encourage those who have fallen into the trap described above to realize that when a publisher sends you a book, they are taking a risk. While it is often true that many of us request books that we assume to be excellent treatments of their subject, it no less true that in more than one occasion these same books are a disappointment. Do not hide that fact out of a false sense of duty. A negative or mixed review is the risk that publishers take when they send along a book for critical examination. What you truly owe to them, to yourself, and to your readers is to produce a review that evinces critical engagement and that does not shrink from making criticisms, even pointed ones. Haste is not a help in this endeavor, but rather a pernicious foe. In all these respects, the example of our friend Nick Norelli is a fine standard against which other reviewers in biblioblogdom would do well to measure ourselves: note, for example, his recent two-part review of John J. and Adela Yarbro Collins’ King and Messiah as Son of God.

Returning to the revised FTC Guides, another concern for biblio- and theobloggers relates to the rather widespread use of link-based rewards programs such as Amazon Associates and the WTS Bookstore Blog Partners. This is more clearly an instance of a “cash” compensation for advertisement, and again, I believe that the FTC does well to expect from bloggers full disclosure of their participation in these programs. I myself decided to sign up for both of these programs earlier this summer. I do not, of course, place gratuitous links on this blog to earn rewards of any sort, but given that I often mention books here for which I invariably provide links, I decided to give these programs a try. In the meantime, be at peace: I have earned exactly nothing thus far towards a purchase at either retailer!