Shakespeare and Preaching

She was probably in her mid-thirties when I met her.  Professional and articulate would be very good descriptive terms for her.  She had come to the Radiology Department for a CT scan for some diagnostic test that has long since escaped my memory.  Prior to these kinds of tests, I would take a brief medical history and then start an IV for the contrast to be injected during the scan.  Throughout that timeframe, I would be with a patient for about 10-15 minutes or so which gave me an occasion to get to know about their background as well as their medical situation.  When I asked her about her occupation, she told me that she was an English Literature professor who taught all of the Shakespeare classes at one of our local colleges.  Although I greatly enjoy books and have for most of my lifetime, I confessed that I would have some difficulty spending so much time with Shakespeare and all of his works. 

It just so happened that she had attended Auburn University and during her sophomore year had to take a standard literature class.  At that time the only thing that was open was a British Literature class and so without much thought, she signed up for it.  She walked into her classroom on that fateful day that she told me changed her life.  Internally, I am a little skeptical as to how a British Lit class could change her whole life but it’s her story to tell and so I listen to what she has to say.  She described walking down the steps to one of the mid-row seats in the amphitheater that held close to three-hundred students.  As the hustle and bustle of students moving into their seats and the graduate teaching assistants begin to hand out the syllabus for the class, a diminutive woman steps up to the podium and turns on the microphone and starts speaking.  This woman is literally going to change my patient’s life forever.  I am still listening to her but again having to stifle some of my skepticism.  The professor on that day immediately launches into a lecture on the life of William Shakespeare, his plays, the people around him, and his impact on the English-speaking people of the world.  My association with Shakespeare had been in high school and later in college when I had to endure the customary Macbeth and Othello wanderings.  Perhaps it was my young immature 18-year-old mind, but I cannot say that I was in great appreciation for slogging through the plays and having to write the required essays. 

This young woman was almost breathless when she was talking about Shakespeare and this professor who had taught her.  She ended up pursuing not just a degree in English but degrees in English as in a bachelors, masters, and finally a PhD with the graduate courses focusing in on Shakespeare and his life and work.  She took every single class this professor taught for the rest of her time at Auburn because the woman was such an authority on Shakespeare.  The professor soon started taking time with her after class and they developed a strong friendship that went beyond her graduation.  This expert on Shakespeare created such excitement in the classroom that this young woman became a formidable scholar on Shakespeare as well. 

I recently thought about this conversation that occurred sometime around 1998-99 when I was working on a sermon about “The Unashamed Workman” from 2 Timothy 2:15. I ran across some material that referenced Shakespeare using more than 1300 quotes from the King James Bible in his plays.  One writer said that Shakespeare worked with a quill in his right hand and an open Bible with his left hand.  But while I was thinking about this young woman who had allowed this English Lit professor to “change her life,” which were literally her words, I turned a troubled eye toward my preaching.  Does my preaching have the same impact on those who hear me that this professor had on this young woman?  I looked at Pentecostal preaching at large and became troubled as well.  Then I branched out to some preaching beyond my own denomination and found myself just as troubled.  I listened to and watched some sermons from the host of preachers that are available on the internet and noticed some disquieting things.

More than a few preachers read a text and then almost immediately went off into some fantastical story about their personal lives.  Personal struggles, challenges with church growth, and a host of other episodes that had nothing to do with the text that had been read.  I listened and listened and listened and here is what I determined; there must be something wrong with me!  Any angels that I have run across have been those I entertained unawares.  Relatively few miracles have taken place in a what is now becoming a long and faithful ministry.  I listened to preachers that were hatching miracles like they were pulling rabbits out of hats.  Very little Scripture, very little content about the Saviour, but a whole lot about themselves.  I cannot get this Scripture out of my mind. . . If I must glory it is going to be in the infirmities so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor. 12:9).  Paul said that.  The more I read of Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts, the less I see of him and the more I see of the Lord.  That is the way that preaching needs to be in our day.  My authority in preaching does not come from my personality, innate talents, or biblical and secular education, it comes solely from the Lord and His Word.    

I found another troubling trend where that preaching events were turned into pep rallies.  A teaspoon of Word and gallons and gallons of self-help and personal motivation.  Pep rally preaching depends on the turn of a phrase that gets people up out of their seats instead of moving them to their knees.  Pep rally preaching is more concerned with a material world than an eternal one.  Pep rally preaching badgers a response by using phrases, “Ya’ll didn’t hear me,” “Touch your neighbor and say, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” or “Slap your neighbor and give them a high five!”  Hey preacher, I heard you the first time and I don’t want to touch my neighbor and say something, and I certainly am not interested in cheapening a worship with high fiving.  I am dumbfounded that we are taking the King of Glory into what should be a holy, reverent, awe-filled sanctuary and making it a pep rally.  It is irreverent and demeaning to God when we become guilty of doing this.        

I have been an ardent supporter of sermon illustrations over the years but when it overrides the whole sermon, that is a problem.  Introductory sermon illustrations that took eight, ten, to twelve minutes ate the clock and moved the “sermon” away from true biblical content.  The dark world and our enemies love for this kind of thing to take place.  The enemy of the soul loves for preachers to burn the clock with empty illustrations about tadpoles, athletes and mountain climbers.  He does not want you to ever spend time preaching about a dying bloody Saviour who came out of the grave and is the only way for a sinner to be saved.  When a sermon has to solely rest on an illustration to make sense, can it really be called a sermon? 

Perhaps in my judgmental spirit although I don’t think I am being too judgmental as much as I am being observant.  But maybe I am making an error with this, but it appears to me that preachers are not studying too much anymore.  Lack of context and content seem to reign supreme these days.  Although I have read books that are 200 years old on preaching and the preachers of that time lamented the same thing.  Go deep, preacher!  Dig into the Word like never before.  We have more resources available to us that any previous generation and there is no excusable reason for us to go into a pulpit unprepared.  It takes time on your knees and in your seat at your workman’s bench to prepare solid-biblical messages.  Some say it is a time factor but when we look at the apps that monitor our phones, I think it is pretty clear that we don’t have a time problem as much as we have a discipline problem.  Our pulpits must be filled with men who have spent time in spiritual and mental preparation to preach the Word (2 Tim. 2:1-4; Acts 6:4). 

Back to my opening story about the Shakespeare scholar that I met.  What if her professor would have started telling anecdotal stories about her life instead of Shakespeare?  What if she would have tried to turn the classroom into a superficial loud raucous pep rally?  What if some cool illustrations would have been scattered all through Macbeth, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, or Julius Caesar?  What if there had been zero content about the plays and the character development?  What if the professor would have spent all of her time telling everyone that they were going to make it through the course?  It is highly unlikely that it would have changed the direction of the young student’s life.  We as preachers do that kind of thing every time that we let things get in the way of preaching a clear authoritative gospel that the Word has already determined.

Sir, what about your preaching?                


Timothy Hadden said…
Tremendous article. I have come to recognize, the longer that I minister and the longer I pastor, that I am expository and definitely am most comfortable when teaching in such a way where "scripture reveals scripture." As one that evangelized for almost 7 years, I remember thinking about how there was such an expectation of "hype" and how we have moved into the realm where preachers are trying to direct the "wind" and doing very little preaching of the "Word." Great article. Thank you sir for your thoughts, talents, and time engaging such subject-matter.

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