The guy handed me this book and asked my opinion of it. The first thing I always do is look at the author and the publisher. That could be prejudicial for some people, but my first impression is never stuck in concrete. It does, however, give me some structure to hang the details on. The name sounded familiar. Yes, this is the son of the Jerry Falwell. He is now pastor of the church his father made famous. That's a tough act to follow. The son is not stupid. You don't get to take over your famous father's church by being an idiot. I'm sure the son grew up hearing "good preaching" (whatever that is) and internalized those sonorous tones, perhaps even before he admitted to being a Christian. That's just a guess, but it explains how the book came across to me as I read it. It seems to be a collection of sermons on the ministry of Christ. Nothing particularly bad here, but it doesn't sparkle like C.S.Lewis books do. When you have a famous father, publishers will publish your work even if it doesn't sparkle. If you don't have a famous name, then they look for somebody who does to write the preface, and nobody is going to lend their good name to a book that doesn't stand out. This book has no preface.
There's no introduction, either. He just dives into Chapter 1, which serves as kind of an introduction, sort of the way the first sermon in a series explains the series. Each of 15 chapters could be preached in 20 minutes. There are some additional study notes he probably added later. Or maybe they were in the service folder each week, when he preached the series. If you like reading sermons, you might like this book.
The book is not intended for people like me. I've had this reaction to books before, most memorably Gene Getz' The Measure of a Man. That book and this one describe attitudes and feelings in their intended audience that I don't experience. That's often the case with books written by preachers. Preachers are naturally (or maybe they learned it) MBTI Feelers, because that's what the American churches want to hear. So they preach to that kind of audience, as if no other personality type can exist. I exist, and I'm not a Feeler. Most of the computer professionals and scientists I have known all my life are Thinkers, not Feelers. They don't go to church because they don't feel welcome there, so the preachers never get to know them and never learn how to preach to them.
Each chapter begins, like most sermons, with a story about some real or fictional person(s) in a modern real-life situation. The first chapter began with a couple of mountain climbers who expressed dissatisfaction with climbing mountains. I don't climb mountains. The second chapter begins by inviting you to imagine being on a long, hot hike in the wilderness. I don't do that either. Sometimes I walk to the grocery store or the post office, but not when it's hot out. Another chapter began by describing "ordinary people" who became long-term Bible translators. Falwell's interpretation:
We see clearly that Jesus chose common people. That is so encouraging, that He chose people like you and me to follow after Him and to serve Him. [p.29]Why should I be encouraged by that? I'm not "ordinary." For that matter, neither is any son of Jerry Falwell. I have a PhD in rocket science (actually, computer science, which is the same thing). That's not ordinary. My parents were missionaries, so I got to learn a foreign language from native speakers while I was still young enough to learn it without an accent. Not many Americans can boast that advantage. This book is not written to the likes of me. Falwell may be more ordinary than I am, but he still had a lot of advantages and differences growing up that most people don't. Who does he think he's fooling?
I think his premise is wrong, too. Jesus picked a variety of disciples, but a disproportionate number of them were middle-class business owners (or their immediate family). We don't know much about many of his disciples; we certainly don't know if Jesus picked any day-laborers. We can be sure he didn't get any slaves (corresponding to modern unionized workers, who have just about as much freedom as first-century slaves did). He didn't pick any women as disciples, but one of his self-selected women followers was wife of a high government official. No, I don't think he chose only "common" people. He chose whoever he chose, for his reasons, not ours.
Two pages later Falwell tells us some things about these disciples that seemed to me unfounded:
Philip was a guy who lived by the book. Bartholomew was a brilliant man, an intellectual, a theological thinker... Today we would probably see Peter in a blue-collar job, ... Today [Matthew] would probably be a left-wing radical who wants to take every dollar you have.Excuse me, all we know about Philip we have from four incidents in John's gospel. Philip found Nathanael and told him that Jesus was the Messiah which Moses had prophesied. Every good Jew knew about the Promise; Philip connected that to Jesus, as did many others without saying so in the Bible. Later Jesus invited Philip to find a place to buy bread to feed the 5000, and Philip replied that it would cost too much to buy that much bread (he could do simple math). He had a Greek name ("Horse-Lover", same as Alexander the Great's father), so some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus reasonably came to him first. And finally, Philip speaks for the Twelve in asking to see God directly, which Jesus rebukes. Nothing here about "by the book." If anything, Philip should have known -- from the Book -- that you can't see God directly.
The Bible tells us nothing at all about Bartholomew, only that he was one of the Twelve. Certainly nothing about his intellect. Peter owned his own fishing business with his brother Andrew (and probably also with other brothers, who kept the business going while Peter was away following Jesus). There's nothing blue-collar about being a business owner. Their friends and fellow fishermen, James and John hired (blue-collar) laborers to help out in their business; Peter might have hired employees too, but we are not told.
Matthew was another business owner. As a deep-south pastor in a "red state" (and the political heir of his father), Falwell could be expected to paint the "left-wing radicals" as villains, but it is not a good analogy. Modern left-wing radicals don't want to take your money directly, they want the government to take it, and only from the rich and the business owners (like Matthew, who was both). Matthew was more like the "confounded revenuers" which the Kentucky moonshiners feared, or maybe the Mafia in 1930's Chicago. There was a "left-wing radical" among the disciples, but his name was Simon (the Zealot, which is Greek for "left-wing radical"), not Matthew.
But facts don't really matter when you are preaching, do they? What's important is the sermon application. Falwell makes a good altar call:
Maybe you are just brokenhearted, shattered by what life has handed you, starved in your spirit, addicted to unhealthy things, blind to Jesus' love. Just like these people, you are invited to hear Jesus' call to follow Him.Hmm, I don't recall seeing anything about "brokenhearted" or "shattered" or "starved" in any of the (few) descriptions we are given of the disciples Jesus picked, and certainly nobody was "blind" or "addicted" to anything the way somebody who hears Falwell's sermon would understand addiction. The Twelve Disciples were a select group, hand-picked for a particular purpose; they do not represent the rest of us Christians. But it's a great altar call. It just doesn't apply to me.
The next chapter opens with a heart-warming story of some guy who hiked 400 miles across frozen Arctic wasteland, and Falwell imagines the guy's joy at reaching the halfway point. Like I said, I'm not a hiker. I tend to be more joyful when I arrive at my destination. The rest of the chapter is a preacher's interpretation of the Beatitudes, which he understands to be about achieving "heightened happiness." I guess you can see the Greek word 'makarios' that way -- certainly many translators do -- but it comes off a little strange in context. It's a sermon about a Sermon, what can I say? He's not preaching to me.
I had my attention called in particular to his remarks concerning the "peacemakers" stanza. Falwell understands this word to be about evangelism. I guess if you are preaching this well-known text, and you need to come out and say something that has not already been said by somebody else in the last 2000 years, this is as good a push as any, but it is definitely a push. I enjoy seeing and hearing original insights that capture the true meaning of the Biblical text in some new way, but this isn't one of them. I'm now a third of the way through the book, and I have not seen any insights like that yet.
Maybe I won't get around to reading the rest of the book. Some books are like that.
2012 March 12