It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that sometimes when we preachers begin to write a sermon, we do so having no idea just where that particular sermon will wind up. Lest you think this explains why some sermons seem to wind up precisely nowhere, let me say quickly that like most pastors, I know that some of the best sermons I’ve ever written were the ones that did not have a clear roadmap when I began to write even as some of the, shall we say, less-than-best sermons were the ones that were outlined and mapped out thoroughly in advance. Sermon-writing can be a mysterious process!
Recently I began work on a sermon about the ninth commandment as part of a series on the Ten Commandments as taught in the Heidelberg Catechism. This was the first sermon I had to write immediately following the always-busy Lenten/Easter season and so sheer homiletical weariness led me to simply start writing the sermon as soon as I had done my research and hit upon a decent opening illustration. It was initially by no means clear which direction the application section of this sermon would go, but as I pondered the words of the Catechism and then brought those ideas into conversation with the Scripture passage from 1 Peter 3, some thoughts gelled in my mind that I had not anticipated.
In Question and Answer 112 of the Catechism, the ninth commandment’s law on not bearing false witness is incisively expanded. In addition to the injunction against giving false testimony, the Catechism further claims that we must “twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or a just cause.” Meanwhile, in his well-known third chapter, the Apostle Peter tells his first-century readers that they must not “repay insult with insult” but instead respond to even the harshest of abuse “with blessing.” The word translated in the NIV as “blessing” is the Greek eulogia, which literally means a “well word” and is the Greek term from which we derive our English “eulogy.” In a funeral eulogy, we “speak well” of the dead. In 1 Peter 3, the apostle tells us that Christians must speak well of even the very people who most certainly are not speaking well of us. A little later in that same chapter Peter says that even when we articulate the gospel hope we have within us, we need to distinguish ourselves from the brusqueness of the wider society by conveying our gospel witness “with gentleness and respect.”
Peter clearly knew that the first-century environment for his readers made the following of such advice a challenging enterprise. Few things are more difficult than speaking well of those who vilify us. But as I kept on writing this sermon and tossing around in my mind the Catechism’s warning about twisting people’s words and Peter’s plea for gentleness and respect, suddenly I knew exactly where my sermon on truth-telling would wind up: by pondering the influence of the cable news networks.
Since the November 2004 election, the role of religion in American society has received a huge amount of scrutiny. Some of this stemmed from that 21% of people who in exit polls last fall claimed that “moral values” influenced their vote more than even the economy or the war in Iraq. Since that time, however, various flaps over public displays of the Ten Commandments have kept religion in the news even as the tragedy of the Terri Schiavo case in Florida provided still more grist for the religious mills of the cable news pundits. The result is that pastors, theologians, and wellknown national religious leaders have been regular guests on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. Not too long before I worked on my sermon about the ninth commandment, I saw no less than four pastors on one particular show one evening. Probably it was the recent memory of that spectacle that brought cable news to mind as I wondered what the ninth commandment has to say to us today.
Last year comedian Jon Stewart made headlines when he appeared on CNN’s Crossfire only to tell that show’s hosts that they should pull the plug on their own program. “Stop it,” Stewart said, “You’re hurting our country.” Now I would like to become a blatant echo of Mr. Stewart in saying to the religious leaders and pastors who have been accepting invitations from the cable networks: Stop it. You’re hurting the church and the cause of the gospel.
Of course, it’s easy for me to talk: I’ve not received any alluring offers to appear on national television with Larry King or Sean Hannity or Chris Matthews. True enough. But those who do receive such offers need to start saying no. Why? Because the format of most of these news shows makes it at best difficult, and at worst downright impossible, to tell the truth in ways that will, to again quote the Catechism, “guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.” What is fast becoming the most common format for cable news shows is also the most egregious in this regard: the multisplitscreen in which two, three, or four people can all be seen at once. Usually these people are in four different places, seeing one another only via satellite hookups. Although not transporting people to the actual studio is both practical and costeffective for the networks, keeping guests physically separate from one another has the primary advantage of increasing the likelihood that people will all talk over one another, snipe at one another, and cut each other off in mid-comment in ways they might be more hesitant to do were they actually sitting next to each other around the same table.
The recent broadcast featuring four pastors was a classic instance of this cable news form of theater. The host repeatedly threw out just enough scandalous half-truths, caricatures, and cynical commentary as to at once excite the interests of the pastors while also pitting them against one another as each came from a slightly different corner of the socio-political arena. The result was just what you would guess: by the end of the show, with the host beaming in satisfaction over what he doubtless deemed to be a “great” show, the pastors were arguing, raising their voices, talking overtop of one another, shaking their heads incredulously at one another, and just generally not accomplishing a blessed thing.
This is a scenario repeated dozens of times every day now. Mostly it does not involve pastors or other religious figures, but the dynamics of these exchanges are not significantly different no matter who the specific guests happen to be. This is an arena where the twisting of people’s words is the stock-in-trade of the shows’ hosts. It is a forum where not giving anyone a hearing is necessary as part of the show’s entertainment value. These programs are less interested in conveying truth or giving anyone a chance to articulate the truth and more interested in fomenting conflict, plain and simple. It is exactly the prevalence of such shows that partially accounts for the results of a recent study of the American media. Despite having had a number of 24/7 cable news outlets for many years now, it turns out that the American public is not receiving more news. Most Canadians, Europeans, and Asians are far better informed about the wider world despite their having fewer television news sources. The reason is that in America the cable news outlets do not probe the world for stories that come from far-flung places but instead re-hash the same half-dozen stories from this nation, a few of which on any given day warrant scarecely even five minutes’ worth of coverage, much less the several hours’ worth of airtime some such stories receive day after day.
Of course, there are television shows whose formats are more conducive to thoughtful discussion and the uninterrupted presentation of ideas. By far, however, such programs are outnumbered now by shows calculated to make people “repay insult with insult” in tones that are both ungentle and disrespectful. Those of us who follow Christ Jesus as Lord may well see ourselves as engaged in a kind of struggle with the world–the so-called “culture war” about which so many evangelicals speak. But we cannot be Christlike in such discussions or struggles when, from the very outset, we adopt the rhetorical devices of the very culture that we oppose.
Hence my call for our religious leaders to stop it. You’re hurting the church and the cause of the gospel. And let me be clear that I say this equally to those whose viewpoints I share as well as to those whose ideas I reject. This is not some stealth attempt to squelch conservative voices on Fox News any more than it is a sneaky way to let more liberal voices have free rein. I have lately been just as upset with a leader whom I respect and who speaks for me as I have in the past been irked by fundamentalist preachers whose views on some subjects are vastly different from my own. That doesn’t matter, though. As Christians, as followers of Christ, we’re all in this together. We all serve the same Lord. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult for insult but with blessing, for to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” In our contemporary setting, surely those words are Peter’s attempt to tell some of us, “Stop it.”