True Story: On Fact and Fiction at the Pulpit

Curtis:

When I was in college I spent a significant amount of time trying to find a new church to attend. After a lengthy search I settled on a small community of believers centrally located between campus, Chipotle and Taco Bell. I would attend Sunday mornings and return to the dorms, which were always empty, to eat my lunch and play NCAA Football on Xbox until the Simpsons came on at eight. The majority of that information is irrelevant to this story. I enjoyed my newfound church home, both before and after the events explained below. I met the pastor, knew a few people who attended there and found the service generally contemporary/modern/insightful. Which is to say the worship leader wore black rimmed glasses and a plaid shirt and the preacher had a goatee and an earring. One Sunday morning I found the sermon particularly interesting. By interesting I mean that the preacher recited, almost to the letter, a sermon that I knew was not his originally and was in fact a sermon written by a particular TTAF writer’s father. The pastor used illustrations as if he was the one there, told stories of friends that were not his and all under false originality, never crediting the sermon to said TTAF writer’s father.

Let me unpack this idea further. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard a pastor tell a joke or illustration as if it were something original to themselves or something that had in fact happened in their own life, only to read the same story or joke in another book or hear it in another sermon. Another example, and equally egregious, is when a preacher uses a quote from someone else and tweaks it ever so slightly to make it fit into the topic of the week’s exposition. It blows my mind every time someone does this, and for multiple reasons:

#1 Is there anything lost by saying “I heard a story once…” as opposed to “Yesterday while at the store I…”?

#2 It is extremely arrogant  for a pastor to assume that the audience relies solely upon himself/herself for every bit of religious information and teaching and therefore would never be in a situation in which they would read or hear the original anecdote from another teacher.

#3 It assumes that the audience is stupid, that there is no way we will be able to piece together that the pastor was actually not in the story that he just told from the pulpit, or that the idea he just posited as his own is, in fact, not his own. Similarly, that there is no way the audience may have actually read the book that was just misquoted or could simply google the quotation in question.

Now, we should allow room for the possibility that a pastor and his or her research team actually made a mistake when it comes to quotes and or fact checking. This doesn’t remedy any problems with a pastor claiming a fictitious story, but it may alleviate the seriousness of accusations brought against pastors misquoting or inaccurately telling a story. In other words, it is possible that someone may relay a story or quote incorrectly, not knowing that it is in fact incorrect. While an instance of this would be slightly less serious, it still raises questions of the vigor of which the truth must be sought in speech in general and sermons in particular. Simply claiming that “my research was bad” may be an acceptable excuse once, but eventually it becomes an issue. In this case there is still a serious lack of attention to truth in a setting in which truth must be paramount.

If there is one place where we must demand honesty it is in the pulpit/lectern/rostrum/music stand/cafe table with an iPad on it.

Josh:

A. I’m glad that I’m not the only person who has noticed and been annoyed by this phenomenon.

B. To your question: no. Of course there isn’t anything lost except maybe how uncool or unimportant the pastor thinks he/she looks by not actually have experienced this presumably interesting/funny/cool anecdote first hand. At a really basic level, this is an appeal to the audience’s presumed ethos, grounded in the idea that audiences are more likely to respect and trust someone who appears to be particularly studied or have relevant experience to the subject about which they’re speaking. Hence the “logic” behind pretending like the anecdote is theirs rather than giving credit to somebody else. What’s funny is that this is the exact same construction that stand-up comedians use when they start sets with, “So I was in New York recently…” when in reality they’re simply creating a probably imagined backdrop for a probably imagined humorous scenario. I’ll grant that license to comedians, but I’m not so eager to grant it to pastors.

C. Your third point is probably the one that bothers me the most. Recently I heard a pastor change the language of a David Foster Wallace (it had been a while since I mentioned him; I was starting to worry about it) speech to, as you mention, fit that week’s sermon. The problem is that it altered one of the essential messages of Wallace’s speech and portrayed him as having beliefs he didn’t actually believe. The same pastor claimed that Leo Tolstoy was an atheist, which would be fine if Tolstoy hadn’t lived out the end of his days as a poor pacifist in a hut because of the Sermon on the Mount and a really literal interpretation of Matthew 19:24 (the “rich man/eye of the needle” passage). This first is flatly dishonest and manipulative, the second simply lazy, and both represent a kind of “no harm, no foul” attitude that, as you point out, stems seemingly from an insulting view of the congregation.

Making changes to quotes to fit your message also seems to imply that God and his word need your help to be as convincing as possible. If you’re a non-believer who notices something like this from the pews, what’s your reaction? Especially if you already see Christians as a group who are comfortable bending the facts the fit the Christian narrative?

Obviously, neither of us are advocating for ministerial perfection from any pastor. Mistakes will be made, yada, yada, yada. Intentionally misleading people, however, is a different story.

Curtis:

I think the case of the unbeliever is the most compelling. The person that walks into church for the first time and hears a pastor butcher a quote from a well known author and then quote a story from a famous entertainer as if it were his/her own. How does this person react? Maybe it doesn’t bother him. Maybe it does and he decides that he does not want to be a part of a group that disregards truth with such ease. Maybe the person overlooks the disregard for truth and continues to be a part of the body with the understanding that truth is not held in high regard within that specific community, an assumption that I hope would be rejected by most Christian bodies.

Like Josh said, we understand that nobody is perfect, and many pastors will be quick to point that out. I know quite a few pastors, many of my friends are in some sort of ministry, and I know that every one of them is a great man of God with exceptional intentions. But sometimes good intentions are not enough. I am not asking for perfection, only a diligence which guards truth with the utmost scrutiny and respect.

So what do you think? Are we making a big deal out of nothing? Are we right on the money? Have you had experiences that are relevant to the topic at hand? If you are a pastor, how do you view the issue? What can we do to fix it? We would love for you to share your comments on this topic and have a lively and edifying discussion below.

Josh:

For a long time, nonfiction writers have argued about verisimilitude and the value of straying from it in the interest of getting at a greater underlying truth that the “real” story might not have delivered as powerfully. The audiences of these writers tend to get really upset if they feel the facts have been tweaked because the whole thing feels like little more than emotional manipulation. Remember how Oprah went ballistic when James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces was revealed to be more fiction than not? It’s funny that we would be so demanding of complete honesty in one setting but in the other (especially when this “other” setting is the stage of a church). But here’s the thing: people have to come to be cautious towards supposedly true stories if they read them in a book, but they don’t exercise the same critical engagement with sermons because of course they assume what a pastor says from stage will be true in the literal and figurative sense. Why would they assume otherwise?

Preachers take the stage with the weight of a tremendous amount of trust and authority granted them by their position. Any deceptions, even small ones, can damage not just the reputation of the man or woman at the pulpit, but could warp perceptions of Christ and the Church.

I’ll add one question to Curtis’ list from above: Does the capital-T Truth (the deeper understanding or insight that might be gained) outweigh the need for literal representation of the facts in a sermon?

 

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Categories: A First Faint Gleam

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