Monday, September 5, 2022

The Preacher as Gadfly

Here in New Hampshire we have a healthy population of biting flies. In fact we have a season named after one variety: black fly season. It comes after mud season and before tourist season. In May and June one cannot walk down the street of our village without being swarmed.

But black flies are nothing compared to deer flies and horseflies, which can really take a chunk out of you all summer long. Biting flies hurt! They are a nuisance. For that reason I think they are a good metaphor for a preacher. Good preaching should have a bite! Preachers should function like horseflies in a congregation and community.

There is a well-known adage that the pastor’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I agree, but there is a lot of comforting going on in churches these days and very little afflicting. In this time of declining church attendance, pastors are afraid that if they engaged in prophetic preaching, pew warmers might take their checkbooks and leave. So pastors pamper the remaining church members instead of challenging them.  That is why so many adult church members have not advanced beyond Sunday School faith.

It is time for some prophetic preaching from Christian pulpits. Better yet, some Socratic preaching. Socrates famously said that his role as a philosopher was to be a gadfly, which is a generic term for all varieties of biting flies. He saw his mission as causing discomfort to his fellow Athenians. He was so successful that he was put on trial for “impiety.” He "failed to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges." The Greek word for impiety is asebeia, defined as "desecration and mockery of divine objects" and "irreverence towards the state gods." 

He was also charged with “corruption of the youth of the city-state.” The Greek word is polis, from which we get the word political. It does not take much thinking to see current applications. This reminds me of the charges brought against Jesus by Jerusalem’s religious and political leaders. Both Socrates and Jesus were found guilty of blasphemy and treason and were executed. Both could have escaped execution but chose not to.

Socrates carried out his teaching mission by the now-famous “Socratic Method.” Socrates did not provide answers. He asked questions. Lots of questions. No statement went unchallenged. He questioned every belief of his students and insisted that every assertion be backed up with evidence. This technique exposed a person’s unexamined presuppositions and assumptions. It revealed that most people live by borrowed ideas.  

Practicing this discipline of critical thinking makes us very aware of how many of our cherished beliefs have been unconsciously adopted from our families and communities, rather than tested and proven by reason.  The process of Socratic thinking is much needed in our time when conspiracy theories are rampant in America, especially in Christian churches. 

I find myself using the Socratic Method more and more in my preaching and teaching. By posing rhetorical questions while preaching and asking pointed questions when conversing, I encourage people to question everything in their spiritual and political worldview. In other words, I commit asebeia (impiety) and “corrupt the youth [and elderly] of the state” and church. I "fail to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges."

I question the false gods of all religions, especially my own Christian religion. As I said in a recent podcast episode entitled “Smashing idols,” I demolish false gods, of which there are many in American Christianity. To use the apostle Paul’s term, I “demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God….”

Not the least of Christian idolatries is bibliolatry, which is the deification of Scripture. There is also the divinization of doctrine and church tradition. Finally there is the idolizing of Jesus himself. The God worshipped in many churches is a false god fashioned in our cultural image and likeness. As the gadfly Voltaire famously said, “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”

The Socratic Method goes against the current trend of American culture. We live in a post-modern and post-truth society. There is no search for truth, just opposing self-interests. There is little self-reflection or self-examination these days. Every discussion degenerates into a debate, rather than being a shared search for deeper truth. Preaching has become polemic, and dialogue is replaced with diatribe.

Amid this decaying American culture I seek to play the role of the gadfly. Be careful! I bite! I preached a sermon recently in our community church entitled “Hiding from God,” showing how churches develop elaborate systems for hiding from Divine Truth. It is the preacher’s task to expose such self-deceptions. 

It is gadfly season in the church. It is time for some preaching with a bite. We preachers are to afflict people so they have nowhere to turn but to the Balm of Gilead, the Living God. 

1 comment:

Deb Hoffman said...

I can only pray and aspire to be a gadfly :-)
Thank you for sharing your gift of putting insights into words. Blessings, Deb