Mark Labberton on Preaching that Changes the State of Knowledge

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You met Mark Labberton in last week’s newsletter. Besides his recent retirement as President of Fuller Seminary, Mark is also engaged in a multi-national initiative, Rethinking Church, that seeks to discern what church should look like today.

This is the second part of my interview with Mark.

Can You Teach Preaching?

Before becoming President, you were Lloyd Ogilvie Chair of Preaching at Fuller. What did you learn about preaching?

Preaching was something I had not studied. So, when I was first contacted by Fuller about that position, I said, “It’s very nice that you would contact me, but I’m quite sure that I’m not the right person for this job, because I didn’t do my Ph. D. in homiletics.” Instead of studying preaching, I did it in a closely connected field, hermeneutics, which is the study of how to interpret the Bible.

“Furthermore, I’m not really sure you can teach anyone to preach. Do you really want to call somebody who isn’t convinced you can teach people to preach?” They replied, “Actually, that’s part of the reason why we’re interested in you—because you will bring a different approach.”

That surprised me. It led me to spend the first year trying to understand how preaching was being taught, and how it was being understood, what it was—not just the task of preaching, or maybe the art of preaching—but really, what is preaching and who is the preacher in the midst of all that? Teaching homiletics gave me an understanding and exposure to so many different kinds of preaching and preachers that I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to otherwise.

Words of Wisdom for SftC

For the Science for the Church types—you know, for the people who want to bring science into their ministry, particularly into their preaching—part of what I hear you saying is to fearlessly engage with the insights of human knowledge, like science and technology, because of the greatness of the God that we know in Jesus Christ.

Right. And I would distinguish what you just said from scientism, which is actually making science God, or the supreme and only final authority. From a Christian point of view, science should not be held in that context. But it should be held as a vigorous, demanding, important, urgent, valuable, complex incidence of human finitude being lived out in a context where we don’t have all the answers.

Going back to the quasar, the brightest object in the universe that I mentioned (in the newsletter last week)— astronomers were clearly embarrassed. They had looked at this thing for all these years and thought was just a bright object. New science surprised them that it is, in fact, a quasar that was 500 trillion times brighter than our sun.

What is that story? That’s the story of scientists themselves living out the scientific journey, which means being proven that they’re wrong as well as that they’re right. That to me is the whole story of science. This means that scientism—making science absolute and eternal—is far too overreaching a definition of science. Instead, it’s a human, fallible exercise, filled with meaning as it pursues genuine knowledge.

  • Here is the full interview with Mark (by audio and by video).
  • Fuller Studio has these videos on “Rethinking Church.”
  • On other fronts, Mark has a fascinating podcast, Conversing, in which he interviews Christian thought leaders, including scientists.
  • Mark has discussed his insights into the future of the church here.
  • This sermon (on Apple Podcasts) engages the science of service and happiness, and this one, the neuroscience of hope.
  • The Faraday Institute has a concise article, “How Can Science be Used in Preaching and Teaching?”

The Boldness of our Task

So, this also makes the preacher’s task look rather bold.

I remember having lunch once with the president of Caltech, and I asked, “How would you in shorthand, describe the mission of Caltech?” He said, “To permanently change knowledge.” After I nearly fell out of my chair, I realized that he was right. It was audacious but it is what they actually are doing. They’re permanently changing our understanding of what is true.

What is the Church’s mission? Well, one of the ways you could describe the Church’s mission is with the same aphorism to permanently change knowledge—of God, of our human existence, of the universe, of all things. The mission of God is to bring up all reality into a knowing of those things of God, of his Son Jesus Christ, which has implications that far outstrip any small creedal expression that only in the most finite way gives language to the total reality of God’s existence in life.

So, yes, I do think it is about a journey of courage. But it’s a journey that requires partners. What I’ve always admired about your work, and the work of people who labor in the field of faith and science, is they are giving us ways to bring together what is already together. In reality, faith and science are already together, but your work helps us comprehend it and formulate language and structures to communicate it.

The argument must be made for how these things really are held together. The Christian faith will only be relevant if it is grounded in the real world—that is, the material physical world and the spiritual world.

If you have a theology that believes that God’s creation will be recreated and renewed—not expunged, extinguished, evaporated—then the devotion to science and the long-term stewardship of the earth come front and center.

I’ll simply mention another line of study, which is genetics. These streams of science are so important to our actual existence. They are also vital to the authentication of a faith that can vigorously and courageously move toward those discoveries rather than lurking in the shadows or casting stones, as though a spiritual reality and affirmation is the only thing that God is interested in. It seems to me the God of the Bible has shown himself to be a God who is interested in the whole shooting match, and not just in things that we would partition off as spiritual.

There’s much more in the full interview (by audio and video)—and I included with some bonus material below. Still, I’ll sign out here. Thank you, Mark!

Bonus Material: Fearless Faith

In the titles of two books you address what’s “dangerous.” Or to put it in the language of C.S. Lewis, Christ (or Aslan) is not safe, but he’s good. You’re also currently working on a book about fear. I’d love to hear how these projects connect with each other.

It is interesting even to me that I have written two books that have “dangerous” in the title and thought, “I’m now writing a book on fear.” Those two—The Dangerous Act of Worship and The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor—in certain ways are books on the First Commandment and the Second Commandment. The danger is that something is actually at risk. What’s at risk in the dangerous act of worship is that it changes our understanding of all power and orders us into a universal life, a reality in which God’s power is the power that is meant to clarify, define, liberate, set free, reorient, redefine, recreate, right?

But that does mean that I’m not God. This is why at First Pres in Berkeley, we had a litany that we had written and used occasionally in worship. It began with me, saying, “I’m not God.” And the congregation saying back to me, “You’re not God.” And I would say to them, “You’re not God,” and they would say, “We’re not God.” Then we would go on and name other things that could be gods in our life, and name them as not gods. Why would we do that? Partly because we carry around a lot of fears based on an assumption of power rightly and wrongly assessed, about powers and influences in the world to which we feel oppressed or obligated, or subjected, or whatever we might say. And in that array: how do we calibrate our fear?

How are we willing to pay the price of the dangerous act of worship? How are we giving up the role that I, as a human being, want to claim that the world is about me now? That’s a peculiarly Western way of putting it.

But it could be instead, “Who are we?” That is, my tribal group, or my community, or my subculture, or my ethnicity, whatever it might be. So, I do think that there is a danger of loving your neighbor.

It is the dangerous act of surrendering still further that it’s only my needs, my priorities, my vision, my understanding of reality which is real. In fact, if I understand the nature of my neighbor and dare to listen and even dare to love them—especially if I, by God’s grace, love an unlikeable person or my enemy—then that’s a revolution of personality and of a reality, which gives me freedom to actually see the world.

Not because there aren’t enemies—there are enemies; there are dangers. But how do we calibrate the dangers? This comes into play because we live in a world of fear, and it’s at least arguable that we’re living in an era of fear, certainly, in the United States, but in many, many places around the world.

Fear is driven by all kinds of sources: material, scientific, political, social, economic, racial, gender. The questions, from a Christian point of view, and then from a preaching point of view, are: how do I understand the nature of fear? How do I calibrate it in a way that is tempered by reality? Reality starts and ends ultimately with the God who is Alpha and Omega—not distantly staying in some abstract eternity but in a very immediate sense in the world that I live in. This is the mystery of the Incarnation that God presents in finite terms in Jesus Christ and the scandal of the cross. God fully enters into and identifies with a world of fears, not least in Jesus’s own time—the fear of Roman authority, or power, or oppression, or the fear of disease, or the fear of fire—but the fear of so many different things.

How do we understand our fears? The book I’m working on is an attempt to name the biology of fears. There’s a fair amount about the science of fear. What is the biochemistry of fear in our bodies but also the science of sociology around social fear, economic fears, collective fears, not just individual existential fears, but collective fears? How do we understand and live in a way in which we find freedom, which does not mean no fear but means faithful, wise calibration of fear? That way, fear, in some ways, could be partly defined as a crisis of knowledge.

What do I know about the thing that I think is a danger? When suddenly we’re gripped by fear because of a sound or a shadow, or a sudden movement, we’re gripped by the biochemistry now underway. The immediate task, then, is that we were given the gift of fear to fight or to flee, but I do think the other part of it is also to know.

As we’re either fleeing or fighting, we’re trying to understand: what is this danger? Then, when it suddenly turns out it was just our cat walking in a funny way that caused us to see a shadow that we hadn’t expected, then suddenly we laugh at our fear. It turned out to be nothing. But sometimes, of course, greater knowledge brings us to still greater fear, because we might realize it is a danger—life-threatening or not.

How do I come to know my fear? I have to actually look at my fear. This is the scariest part of fear, right? If we’re panicked in fear, to actually look at the source of the fear is as much the danger as is the thing itself. On what grounds will we do that? This is where to me a life of faith is a life that gives us a contextual understanding of our existence in such a way that I am not ever alone in my fear. I have an advocate. I have a friend. I have a Redeemer. I have a God, who holds all time, life and death, and life to come.

If the table of my life is rigorously set daily in that way, the Christian assurance is that whatever dangerous circumstances come, there is a deeper reality. It may not be present, mindful, or tangible to us, but that reality actually holds the danger that we might be experiencing and gives us resources in community, in knowledge, and in a fearlessness to dare to look into the source of our anxiety in ways that little else could possibly do.

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