I have sat in many-a-pew down through the years listening to an untold number of preachers, and on more than one occasion I have heard bold declarations that made me wonder what possible value they had for my Christian life, not to mention what possible connection they had to the rest of the message. Sometimes these homiletical gaffes can be chalked up to inexperience; other times…well, not so much.
I came across an example of this some time ago in a book that I was trying to decide whether or not to keep in my library:
The Bible contains 3,566,480 letters, 810,697 words, 31,175 verses, 1,189 chapters, and 66 books. It is, therefore, a “divine library,” and demands not only spiritual illumination but also the practical application of reverent and diligent study methods to master its diversified subjects, as well as its unified message.
[Stephen F. Olford, “Foreward,” in John Phillips, Exploring the Scriptures, (Chicago, IL, USA: Moody Monthly, 1965), 7.]
I am tempted to say, “Let’s think about what the author says here,” but I find that difficult to do with a straight face. In fact, I find it difficult to even read this brief paragraph without feeling the need for either a comfy chair and blanket to doze off under or a half a pot of coffee to prevent that inevitability.
Of what possible use is the information in the first sentence to people who seek a better understanding of the Bible (which is the actual goal of the book)? And yet I find myself perversely wondering: “Are those letters and words English, or Hebrew and Greek? … And if they’re English, are they from the King James Version or some other translation? (Not that there were as many to choose from in 1965 as there are now.) .. And is this simply another verse from the swan song of the modernistic notion that only by piling up as many facts as possible about something—preferably with numbers attached—we can ‘know’ and ‘undersand’ it?”
Then follows the inevitable heaviness of eyelids that precedes a midday nap…
Out of curiosity I copied the first sentence and pasted it into Google. I came up with 77 hits, the first two or three pages of which (I didn’t look any further) were verbatim quotes. Amazing!
One of those hits was from page 8 of the December 15, 1910 edition (Volume 19, Number 12, to be exact) of The Mixer and Server (“the Official Journal of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ International Alliance and Bartenders’ International League of America,” a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor), which, it occurred to me, could have been the source for the information. I thought, “What was Stephen Olford doing reading that?” (Preachers reading a bartenders’ journal would have been frowned upon in his generation.)
It turns out that The Mixer and Server had borrowed this line along with the whole poem with which it was originally composed from The Houston Labor Journal (I assume with permission). At least they credited their source.
And about the word “therefore” in Stephen Olford’s second sentence: what is it there for? Is there some kind of logical connection between the number of vowels and consonants in the Bible and the fact that it is a “divine library,” or that we need to study it in dependence upon the Holy Spirit for illumination? I was tempted to think that maybe Olford wrote this paragraph assuming that nobody really reads the forewards of books, but then it occurred to me that it seems to have been written primarily to impress readers with seemingly profound but ultimately pedantic information, so it’s more likely that he was actually counting on people reading it. (Of course, nowadays the word pedantic itself sounds pedantic.)
Olford, who died in 2004, was primarily a preacher, and one who was in very high demand at the peak of his career. It seems to me, at least, that he was preaching even when he was writing. But while I have heard several of his sermons over the years, I can’t say to what extent he was guilty of homiletical faux pas similar to the literary one he committed here. I can, on the other hand, say that in my experience preachers in general are guilty of using irrelevant information as sermon filler all the time. They would do well to obtain a copy of one of the best books on homiletics ever written and to read it thoroughly. Among other gems they will find the following:
Preach to express, not to impress. Preach to be understood. It has well been said that the man who shoots above his target does not prove that he has better ammunition, but only that he cannot shoot. …
Avoid the temptation to show off your learning. …
[Warren Wiersbe and David Wiersbe, The Elements of Preaching, (Wheaton, IL, USA: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 88.]