We’ve been studying C.S. Lewis’ volume The Screwtape Letters during the Bible study hour this summer. The most recent letter, number 16, raised an interesting point regarding preaching.
At one point along the way, the demon, Screwtape, encourages his nephew, Wormwood, to steer the Christian in his care toward attending a church where the pastor is more interested in generating emotional responses from the people than the faithful presentation of the Gospel. Through Screwtape’s fictional hand, Lewis describes Father Spike as someone who “cannot bring himself to preach anything which is not calculated” in this way. He describes the simple preaching of God’s Word as insipid, depicting a “sermon people could accept” as far less attractive than the moving words of a French philosopher like Maritain.
Having written this volume in 1942, Lewis proves himself prophetic, especially when considering American Christianity. But before I get into that, let me share something else.
I just returned from a visit to Vermont. Well, let me rephrase that. I almost visited Vermont. It would’ve been my second time traveling to and speaking with the Grassroots GOP this year. Unfortunately, I only made it as far as Chicago. The flight to Burlington was canceled. The first reason given by the woman at the kiosk was mechanical. An hour later, it was announced over the loudspeaker that they needed a pilot. An hour later, it was the weather, which I’m not sure I believe. Flights were backing up, leaving lots of stranded passengers. The airline isn’t required to reimburse or provide hotel accommodations to anyone for weather cancellations. As a result, my only options were to rebook on a flight to Burlington that left two days later or to fly back to Michigan the following afternoon. The first option would’ve put me well past my obligations in Vermont, not to mention requiring that I spend two nights sleeping at the airport. The second only offered one miserable evening. I cut my losses and chose the second.
I slept in the corner of gate E7 in Terminal 2. I’d say I got a solid 30 minutes or so of sleep until I noticed the ants. Then I moved to a different corner.
Anyway, as I said, the point of the trip was to speak to the grassroots GOP in anticipation of their primary elections. My goal in such things, as always, is to communicate the importance of Christian engagement in the public square. To accomplish this, I do what I can to unpack the biblical doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (or what so many today grossly misinterpret as the separation of Church and State), explaining its cruciality. From there, I explore where these two Kingdoms overlap, showing the importance of Christian engagement for the preservation of Religious Liberty, which, believe it or not, God intends by the doctrine.
In other words, the Church and the State can only be divided from one another absolutely when the Scripture’s teachings on the doctrine are abused. But when the doctrine is handled rightly, points of overlap emerge, and we discover that the Church and the State meet in more ways than one.
Thankfully, the trip wasn’t a complete bust. I did manage to visit the conference by Zoom, giving an hour-long presentation followed by questions. I couldn’t see the crowd, but they could see me, and I could hear them. I’m pretty sure I ruffled the theological feathers of another speaker, Dr. Carol Swain. I made an observational point during my speech, offering that, in my experience, most historically orthodox clergy are put off by politicians and public figures who, attempting to connect with American Christians, claim to receive direct communications from God. They make emotional statements like, “God told me I should run for office,” and other such things. I didn’t say it to be critical of Christians who believe Enthusiast theology (which I don’t) but rather to show a genuine divide in the Christian community. And how might a politician who’s genuinely worthy of the Christian vote bridge that divide and attract these voters? By digging deeper into what is objectively true for all biblically conservative Christians rather than what is subjectively true for some, which is that God most certainly speaks to His people through His Word—the Bible—God’s revealed will for all things. Dr. Swain was bothered by that, so she stepped to the microphone to insist that God couldn’t be kept in such a box. Well, whatever. I didn’t dig too deeply into the comment. Had it been a theological conference, I would’ve shown from God’s Word how He actually does put Himself into such boxes, not for His sake but ours. He wants us to be sure that it’s Him who’s speaking. The Scriptures do deal with this concern.
By way of example, after the 2020 election, I read countless posts from people online who repeatedly said how God had told them Trump would be rightly inaugurated as president in this term. And yet, here we are two years later, and no Trump. My guess is that whatever voice those people heard wasn’t God’s voice but someone else’s, most likely the voice of their emotions. If it’s something more, they might consider making an appointment for a CT scan—or an exorcism. My point: you don’t have to wonder about the Bible. It’s God at work communicating. Christians can be certain of this.
Again, I didn’t get into this with Dr. Swain. Maybe one day, we’ll discover an opportunity to discuss the point over coffee. In the meantime, it wasn’t my job to debate anyone’s theological traditions but rather to speak to ways Christians can unite for successful engagement in the public square. I think I did that.
After my presentation, I had a brief online conversation with one of the attendees I knew personally. During our conversation, he encouraged me to consider partnering with a local pastor he believed was “gaining popularity” in Vermont. I took his advice and looked him up. I just finished watching two of his sermons this morning.
I should interrupt whatever I’m about to type by saying the following: anyone who knows me will affirm that when it comes to engagement in the public square, I’m thoroughly exhausted by the “us against them” mentality among many Christians. A Lutheran won’t work alongside a Roman Catholic. A Baptist won’t partner with a Methodist. I think I’ve already made it clear, even this morning, that we need unity in the public square, not division. We’re not seeking altar fellowship. We’re trying to preserve some crucial civic fundamentals that maintain religious liberty, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing what’s called “cooperating in the externals” to accomplish this. Any Christian can unite with anyone else to accomplish something fully aligned with God’s will. There’s absolutely nothing theologically perverse in partnering with a Buddhist to fight abortion. Anyone who wants to stop the murder of infants in the womb is a Christian’s friend. As individuals, we may approach the goal differently and for different reasons, but we’re still aimed at the same target.
Having said all of this, of the two sermons I watched this morning (which, if I’m being honest, were really more like TED talks), the pastor mentioned Jesus five times. Not one of them was concerning the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection for the world’s redemption, but instead served more as supplemental to a song, movie, or hobby he enjoyed. He examined the spiritual “closeness of God” found in those favorite things. He referenced the Word of God a whole bunch of times while doing this. In the end, however, while he proof-texted his favorite things, he never preached the forgiveness of sins through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He didn’t preach the Gospel.
Yes, he was engaging. Indeed, he was dynamic. Absolutely, his brimming theater-style church was proof of his ever-growing popularity. All these things were true. And why? Because these were the emotional goals he was trying to achieve.
I’m sharing this as it carries me back around to where I started—which is, my mentioning of C.S. Lewis’ critique of pastors who calculate sermons, gearing them toward specific emotions. I’m willing to admit there’s a place for emotion in relation to theological things. I get choked up often enough while singing certain hymns or studying particular passages in Scripture. I think this is true regarding a pastor’s preaching, too. During last Sunday’s study discussion, I mentioned that a pastor needs to consider the listeners’ emotions when crafting his sermon. Hopefully, I explained that this is true, not because he’s calculating according to his personal preferences (as Lewis described Father Spike), but because he actually cares about the objective truth being revealed by God’s Word. When you care about something, it shows. People know if you genuinely believe what you’re saying. People can tell if it means the world to you, enough so that you’d rather die than see it snatched away from yourself or your listeners. In this vein, the preacher can’t help but do all he can to present the texts of Scripture clearly, having crafted the sermon’s language in ways that help bring the listener into what the texts are communicating. This can happen in lots of ways. Often, these ways will result in emotional exchanges between the preacher and the listeners.
I suppose I’ve gone on long enough this morning. In short, the pastor has to consider emotions while handling the Word of God. It’s not a process completely disassociated from human listeners. The preacher’s genuine love for God’s Word will resonate naturally, evoking particular sentiments in his writing as those same passions are inherent to the texts, and it will play out accordingly in the pews. I guess I’m suggesting that I believe as Robert Frost believed: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
On the other hand, if, instead, the chief goal of the preacher is to wow his listeners—to give them a top-dollar emotion-filled worship experience assuring his own popularity and tenure—then he’s already going in the wrong direction. He should know that what he’s doing never lasts, and he may even be setting himself up for failure. Statistics prove that pew-sitters who are accustomed to getting an emotional fix in worship, when they find a different pastor or congregation with a better product, like addicts, leave for the superior pusher. C.S. Lewis explained in letter 16 how such scenarios waft sweetly for the circling demons.
As a pastor, I don’t want to make our time together in worship into a shallow exchange of subjective emotion, doing what I can to entertain you. I want to deal in objective things. I want to preach God’s Law and Gospel—the fullness of His Word—giving you what you need for eternity’s sake. You should want me to do that, too, because anything else would be shaky.