A New Evaluative Question: "Would Jesus Have to Be Crucified to Make This Sermon Work?": An interview with William Willimon

William H. Willimon
Friday, June 22nd 2007
Nov/Dec 2000

One of MR’s aims is to insist that “conservative/liberal” (or “fundamentalist/modernist”) is not the only important distinction to be drawn in the American Protestant landscape. For one thing, not all conservatives are as serious about Scripture as they claim to be. Nor are all so-called liberals actually as compromised as they might at first appear when evaluated through fundamentalist rather than confessional lenses. Moreover, only seeing conservatives and liberals (even when this division is important) has led many evangelicals to neglect the richness of their particular traditions (Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, etc.) for the sake of a minimalistic parachurch coalition.

In light of this intention to problematize simple conservative/liberal categories a bit, we sat down to talk about preaching with one of the theologians who doesn’t fit well in the standard typology. Duke University’s Will Willimon may not be easy to label (we’ll call him a postliberal for now), but he is always sure to both enlighten and amuse. -EDS.

MR: First of all, could you give us a brief sketch of your own background and where you place yourself on a theological map?
WW: I grew up in a big, downtown United Methodist Church, so I’m of a mainline, liberal Protestant background. Then I went to Yale Divinity School, so I’m also a mainline, liberal Protestant in education. Beginning in seminary, though, I began to realize that there were certain problems inherent in mainline theological liberalism. So as I became a parish pastor, I was continuing to develop my critique-spurred on, I think, by people like Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Campbell, and Walt Bruggeman.

MR: You have warned in some of your writings that evangelicals now sound more like liberals than liberals do. What do you mean by that?
WW: That’s about the worst thing I can say about evangelicals. But perhaps one way I can explain this statement is by recounting an experience I had right after coming to Duke. I was told that a lot of students went to a kind of conservative, evangelical, Presbyterian church. So, one Sunday I had free, I made my way over to that church to see this “conservative, evangelical, biblical theology” they were getting. I remember the pastor was preaching on depression. He said, “I’m going to preach a sermon on depression. I know a lot of you are suffering from it.”

I thought this was curious because I couldn’t think of anywhere Jesus got into depression. A lot of times Jesus caused depression! So the pastor took as his text something from one of the Psalms, “Why are you cast down, O, my soul?” or something. From there he launched into this kind of thing about how we should try to think positively. We should try to have a vision of higher things. And I sat there, really disillusioned, because I thought, “Gee, I thought they took the Bible. They took the stuff whole. But hey, he sounds like a Methodist.”

It was just kind of a Norman Vincent Peale with a little Christian tinting. So that stands out in my mind as just one example, but [there are] other ones. I think those of us in the mainline sort of think that, well, we may be soft on Scripture-but somewhere there are evangelicals who are taking this stuff straight and following it whole. And then when you find out that evangelicals also are capable of buying into the kind of American consumerist mentality where the Gospel becomes another form of therapy, it’s downright disillusioning.

MR: Professor Lindbeck at Yale says that it used to take a liberal audience to swallow Norman Vincent Peale. But as the case of Robert Schuller indicates, conservatives now eat it up.
WW: Wow! That’s great; that is a great quote. Professor Lindbeck has certainly been helpful for me. On this point of the therapeutic, it’s curious. I preached out in southern California in a large church. (I won’t mention the name of the church, but it’s mostly glass.) On the way to the airport after the service, my wife said to me, “Do you know, if you hadn’t read Scripture this morning and preached, I don’t think Jesus would have ever been mentioned.”

I said: “Look, I know Jesus. He’s uncomfortable in these circumstances. He doesn’t like this. We do well just to avoid him.”

But it is interesting that the culture in which we preach is just the air we breathe, the water we drink. It has its way with all of us, and so the Gospel becomes just another lifestyle choice or another commodity that will make you feel a little less miserable about living in California. And that gets sort of corrupted. There are times when I want to say to some evangelicals: “Hey, people, we got here before you did.” We used to run the culture. We used to say, “Gee, if we can just get a few more forward-thinking, concerned people elected to Congress, we can run it.” Well, I think the Gospel is more abrasive and contentious with the world in which we live than we preachers usually appreciate.

MR: You have often said that trying to “translate” the Bible into the acceptable idiom of the culture is frequently just accommodating to the culture. For the narrative of God’s action in Christ throughout redemptive history trumps all the best the world can offer.
WW: Indeed. Our story is about a cross; it can’t easily be put in the world’s terms.

This past Easter, I told the people: “There was a day when I thought my problem was how to get critical, modern, twentieth century people to believe that a Jew who was dead three days then returned and came back. I just thought that was hard for you all to swallow. But then I realized that last year, by my count, there were seven movies where people came back from the dead-Meet Joe Black, The Titanic, something about a snowman. Then I realized that it isn’t that you people are skeptical and critical. It’s that all of you easily believe in immortality. I mean, you all believe you’re just so wonderful that you’re going to just go on forever, that there will always be some spark of you.”

“Well, no, we’re Christians, and that means we believe you’ll die. And you really will die. You won’t appear to die. You won’t live on in our memories. There’s nothing related to you like a butterfly or anything. I mean you’re dead. And the only thing that can be done about that will have to be done by God. It’ll have to be some stunning act of God, or really there is no hope.”

It just struck me as interesting to realize: “Gee, my problem is not that people don’t believe in the afterlife. It is that they just believe ridiculous things about it. They all believe in the afterlife. They just believe in a pagan afterlife.”

And so Christians need to get together on Easter and say, “Hey, the ending of the movie X, Y, orTitanic-it’s stupid, okay?” (And I don’t just mean the bad acting.) It is that death is really horrible. And if Jesus Christ is not raised from the dead, then there’s no happy ending. I mean, there’s no way to redeem any of that. I think we preachers have our hands full. We have all of these moments where we just have to keep telling people, “Well, I’m sorry, this sermon isn’t about this or that. It is about death; this is about the Gospel.”

MR: Think of C. S. Lewis’ line that we’re like children making mud pies in the slums because we don’t know what it would be like to have a holiday at the sea. Do we give them enough of a vision of what God has in store for us because of the work of Jesus Christ? Do we give them enough of that to really sink their teeth into? Part of the boredom some of us had growing up in evangelical churches was that we really didn’t have Christ placarded before us. The drama of redemption was reduced to timeless principles.
WW: Wow! That’s a great way of putting it. Judaism and Christianity are just opposed to timeless principles. We’re more into drama. That’s why early Christians weren’t allowed to go to the play. The church had the sense to know that that was our competition out there.

And that’s also why we, on Good Friday, in our chapel, we get in there in the dark and we extinguish the candles one by one. We tell the story of Jesus’ death, and we turn out all the lights. And we toll the bell. The musicians and I call it the “scare-the-hell-out-of-the-pagans-service.”

MR: Do you put that on the top of the liturgy?
WW: Sort of. I preach the sermon. I stand up and say: “You’re all going to die. I don’t care if you’ve got gold, or transplanted organs, or whatever. You’re all dead.” But to understand some of the drama and to realize this thing is big.

MR: Do you think that we have more clamoring for drama in the service because there’s not enough drama in the preaching?
WW: That’s an interesting thought. Yeah, but I also think that in Protestantism we try to make the sermon bear the weight of the service.

MR: We neglect the rest of the liturgy?
WW: The liturgy, the building, lots of it. I mean, when I first came to Duke Chapel, I had this huge neo-Gothic building. And I was thinking, “Oh, man, this thing looks out of date. It’s just so archaic, and, oh, it just confirms students’ thoughts that Christianity is something out of the past.” But I grew to love the building because of one great thing about it: it really steps on you. It’s bigger than you are, and so when some smart kid walks in there and says he scored 1350 on the SAT, the building kind of says: “Well, you don’t know anything, okay? You can’t think this thing through. It’s large.”

But our problem isn’t just the flattening of buildings, but also the service. The sermon, important though it is, is symbiotic on a lot of other stuff happening. I often think that some of my toughest, most prophetic, judgmental sermons are preached in the context of communion, of the Eucharist, where the purpose of the sermon is to make people really, really hungry and empty. They begin to realize that they have nothing but empty hands. Then you say, “Oh, good, you’ve come to the right place. Have some bread, have some wine.”

MR: Are you sure you’re a Methodist? (You don’t have to answer that.) When preachers adopt the world’s terms and categories, they usually claim that they are just trying to make Christianity understandable to those hearing them. But you have suggested in various contexts that this “translation” is actually about keeping as far away as possible from calling our people to repentance and to renew their baptism.
WW: That’s a great way of putting it. “Translations” are different than what we might call “redescriptions.” The latter are honorable attempts to redescribe what it means to be a Christian, and to do that in a way that is faithful to this peculiarity of the Gospel. But “translations” are the attempt to communicate one belief system or theology in the terms of another-as if that could really be done. It can’t; things are lost in translation. Translators try to make things seem “normal” to someone from the other system. Well, Christianity is not normal to the world; it is peculiar.

People kid me about the word “peculiar” coming up frequently in my speech, but preaching the Gospel in the middle of a big university, I’m surprised-almost on a weekly basis-by how the Gospel just doesn’t make sense in the conventional, culturally approved, officially sanctioned modes of making sense in our world. The Gospel is not easily translatable, transferable, etc. Another thing that George Lindbeck has helped me to see is that the Gospel is about the creation of a culture-a counter-culture. And how are cultures created? They’re created through words. It’s just not that easy to take, say, process theology or process philosophy and then claim, “Oh, well, the Christian faith is sort of doing that.”

The problem with these transpositions is Jesus. Jesus is so delightful. He just keeps evading the grasp of contemporary attempts to confine him within something we can handle.

MR: We think of consumerism, for instance. Is it possible to “translate” Jesus to people who really view themselves, more than anything else, as consumers?
WW: No, I think it’s really, really hard.

As a related example, when I think about the church debates about homosexuality (my church is in the throes of that debate right now), it is increasingly clear that sexuality just isn’t a big enough category for Christianity. I mean, even more than Christians believe in being straight, we just don’t believe that much in sex at all. Jesus never got into the subject. It just seemed to bore him. It just seemed to be fairly irrelevant. Why didn’t he get into it more? Well, the standard kind of liberal answer is, “He was an uneducated first century Jew and didn’t know that the purpose of human life is orgasm.” Well, that’s not a good answer.

I think a better answer is that he had a very different view of a human being than we do. I mean, there’s a reason that Calvin Klein does kiddie porn in his ads, and that is that he’s working out of a framework which says there is no higher purpose of the human being than consumption. If we can teach you to consume blue jeans, we can get you to consume people. And there’s a great fit between sex and that.

MR: And so eventually you can consume God, too?
WW: Oh, sure, and so God becomes another commodity that’s here to make me feel better and take away briefly some of the pain of having to live in Pittsburgh. But, in reality, the Gospel can make life more painful.

You put your finger on something really important in consumerism. During my seminary days, I remember [Yale University Minister] William Sloan Coffin complaining, “I don’t understand how you lure people to the Gospel by appealing to their selfishness and then end up with Jesus.” We are supposed to ask, “Are you depressed? Well, come to Jesus, and you’ll feel better.” “Do you drink too much? Well, give your life to Jesus. We’ll work on that.” How do you get from there to: “You want to live? Die. Take up your cross. Follow.”

So, again, I’m just continually impressed by how odd Jesus is and by what a very different way his way is. I kind of give the students credit because when you preach on the university campus, you have so many opportunities for people to interrupt with “What? What in the world are you talking about? You cannot be serious.”

MR: Do you find in working with these students that you actually have more “success”-or, phrased differently, that you can provoke more real conversations-by not tiptoeing around the scandal, but by actually bringing the scandal out in the open?
WW: Yes, I do. You might expect me to say this, but this stuff is generational to a degree. There’s some kind of generational thing going on here right now. I think particularly of two things about many in this generation of young adults. One, a lot of them are displeased. C. S. Lewis once said, “One of our problems is people are just far too easily pleased with present arrangements,” while the Gospel tends to do real well among people who say, “Gee, is there more to life than this? Can we do any better?”

Well, we don’t get too much of that. I mean, we get a number who are mad at their parents. And we can work with that. That’s good. Let us help you have a more interesting life than your mother had. You can follow Jesus. So there is a dissonance.

I notice that the churches that highlight the cultural disgust seem to “do well” among the young. While the churches that are still in the mode of, “Let us help you adapt and adjust to present arrangements,” find the kids responding: “Well, we know alcohol is better and quicker. And if I want to adjust to present arrangements, I’ve got other ways of doing it than you.” I think one reason why my church is doing so poorly with the under-thirty crowd is that we don’t have any cultural disgust.

The other thing-of my two points above-that I like about this crowd (and maybe this is merely a byproduct of their cultural disgust) is that they’re really reaching and yearning for a richer, thicker description of the world than has been presently available to them.

When I was thinking about my baccalaureate sermon this year, I try to keep ever before me that they’re the ones that produced the Blair Witch Project movie. I find that curious because we’ve been telling young people for decades: “Boys and girls, there is nothing to be afraid of in the woods. We can explain everything. Anything we find that we can’t explain, we can get a government grant and do research on it and explain that. And yet you people come along and say, ‘I’m sorry, when the lights go out, there’s something out there trying to eat me.'”

I’m just thinking we’ve got a generation that is bored with our conventional modes of explaining ourselves-psychology, sociology, economics, politics. I want Christianity to ride in on that and to say, “Oh, well, we’ve got a much more intellectually interesting way of talking about the world than, say, psychology.”

MR: A young woman named Sarah Hinlicky wrote an interesting editorial for First Things last year called “Talking to Generation X.” (1) Her argument to the church growth movement was basically: “We know you’ve tried very hard to get us to church. That’s part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success, and that turns our collective stomach.”
WW: Oh, it does. I got an e-mail from this guy. He’s out in San Francisco. He, at my urging, got established out there and went to church. He said that a minister stood up and read this really ridiculous story about something Jesus had done. And so the guy thought, “Hey, this is going to be good.”

But then the minister said, “I’ve got problems with this story.” My acquaintance said, “What crap! I mean, why would you give your life to something that you’ve got problems with? Stand up and argue that this story is true. That would be interesting. It is not interesting to hear that you think you are so smart, you know more than the Bible. And so I said to the minister: ‘Hey, you don’t even believe in the Bible. Why would you worry if you didn’t believe?'”

This guy told me that his generation is “yearning for some kind of weird, different account of what’s going on because we’re feeling that something must be weird to make things like this.”

MR: In many evangelical congregations, one can often tell immediately what literature the pastor has been reading, what his views are on the latest book, what he’s just been influenced by, etc. So many of them seem to be just sort of shooting from the hip. The guy usually claims a high view of Scripture on paper, but it seems that in actual practice, when he mounts the pulpit, he thinks his authority comes from somewhere else-from his ability to read sociological trends or something. As you address potential preachers, how do you prepare them to be faithful to biblical preaching?
WW: Where do confidence and conviction come from? I don’t mean to sound corny, but it kind of arises out of love. I mean, you end up loving the Bible. For me, it was very important to really work at becoming more respectful of Scripture and less respectful of myself. Walter Bruggeman said we need to take Scripture with a kind of obedient playfulness, and I like that image. For me the hardest thing was submitting and saying: “OK, I’m going to make-believe that this ancient book knows more than I do. And let’s see where we go with that. Let’s just see how far that will play.”

So I would say to pastors: We work with such great material. It would be hard to find a stranger, more abrasive document than the Bible in so many ways. (And I mean strange and abrasive as compliments.) Again, working with kids, I think where my generation said, “That’s weird; let’s explain it”; they say, “Gosh, that’s weird; let’s enjoy it.”

The Bible is just full of weird stuff. So for me, in my own development, it meant just constantly telling myself the Bible has the ability to command, and I don’t need to make excuses for it. I don’t need to say: “This was Jesus on a bad day. I’m sorry he meant this. I don’t know why he hated rich people. I don’t know what he had against mothers and mothers-in-laws. I don’t know why he would make a comment like that.”

The church hasn’t taken discipleship very seriously. I mean, I can’t think of where Jesus ever said: “Do you agree with this? Does this make sense to you?” He just said, “Follow me, and take up your cross.” We’ve got to do business with that. You have a feeling sometimes when a minister says, “Now I’m going to be very biblical,” that you are then going to get a lot of his concerns, rather than the Bible’s concerns.

MR: Do you tell seminarians that it’s okay for them not to be able to answer every question-how you are supposed to file your taxes, or what color car to buy, and stuff like that?
WW: That is fine. I remember in seminary, they said, “Now every sermon ought to answer a question, and every sermon ought not just to set up a problem, but to move toward a solution.” Well, there’s a lot of stuff in the Bible that doesn’t seem to move toward a solution. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m deeply concerned about the Bible doesn’t seem to care about at all. And I think one thing Scripture does is that it creates a world. It’s a different world. As John Calvin said: “It’s like putting on a pair of glasses.” And when you put on a new set of bifocals, stuff gets out of focus. And other stuff gets in focus that you hadn’t seen before. Sermons that are biblical keep doing that to the congregation. They say, “Hey, try these on. Look at your life again.”

Earlier, I was criticizing a preacher preaching on depression. So this minister, like the world, is telling us that we shouldn’t be depressed. I don’t know; Jesus was rejected. And, perhaps, it takes a lot of guts to be depressed when there is a flush economy. I mean, Bill says that we have the best of all possible worlds. We’ve got a good economy. What else could we ask for?

Well, I think depression can be a sign of intelligence-that you know that God may have created us for more than tech stocks. After a sermon where I said something like that, this woman came up to me and said, “I’ve been under treatment for depression for twenty years.” Immediately I thought she was going to light into me with, “What do you know about depression and all?” But she said, “I’ve never thought of it like that. I was taught to think of this as an ailment. It may just be that I’m very perceptive.” At our best, I think preachers help people see their lives in light of eternity, as God looks at our lives.

MR: What do you find characterizes the men and women who are showing up at your seminary today-especially out of this young generation we’ve been talking about? What is it that’s drawn them there? What sorts of things are occupying space in their brain or heart that put them there, and what do they want to do when they’re showing up at a seminary?
WW: Well, for the best of them, it’s Jesus. I teach this course called “The Theology and Practice of Ordained Leadership.” The first thing I have them do is write an account of their vocation. I love reading those papers because I come back into class next time and say: “I read your papers. Let me just say, ‘Jesus is amazing. I wouldn’t have called a lot of you in here, but he has.’ This year he seems to be working on patios for some reason because a lot of you got called on a patio. I don’t know what this means. I’m just reminded that the church is of God and that we’ve only got a church because God wills to work in the world this way.”

This is the folks at their best. I do worry, though, that the churches they are called into aren’t half as interesting as their vocation. I worry about them in the dullness of many churches. But, nevertheless, I just keep seeing God saying: “Hey, I’m sending you some really good people. Now don’t screw it up. You people, honor their vocation. Give them something interesting to die for.”

Now others of them come to seminary for kind of nontheological reasons, of course. This is the person who says, “Well, after my second divorce, I thought maybe I should try seminary.” And those are the people who think that ministry is some kind of profession. I don’t think it’s a profession; it’s a vocation.

MR: I can’t remember whether it was the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches whose motto was, “The church follows the world’s agenda.”
WW: Oh, yeah, it sounds like either one of those organizations.

MR: Did you ever think, though, that you would see the day when evangelicals would adopt that type of liberal mission statement? As some evangelical, church-marketing gurus put it: “Now remember the first principle of Christian communication is the audience, not the message, as sovereign.”
WW: That is just amazing-and, again, it is particularly disillusioning for a compromised, liberal, mainliner like me. One time Jerry Falwell told me, “You may not approve of our ministry.” And I said: “Mr. Falwell, the only thing I’ve got against you is that you sound a lot like a Methodist at times. I mean, we were the ones that clearly wanted to be called significant. We were the biggest denomination in the country, and we thought we had an obligation to make America work. Now you’ve tried that, and let me tell you that you won’t believe what you’ve got to pay theologically to get invited to the White House.”

I think of all the “outreach”-that silliness. I used to have a preaching professor who, periodically, when students would preach in class, would ask as soon as the student would finish the sermon, “Can anybody tell me why Jesus Christ would need to be crucified to make this sermon work?”

It was a harsh judgment. But when I drive past one of the burgeoning, so-called “evangelical” churches in our town, I wonder. I noticed that they had a big ad in the paper for Easter: “Come to our Easter service, where the pastor will be preaching on ‘Better Family Life Today.'”

MR: A perfect day to do that on.
WW: I’m thinking, well, where in the heck does he get that out of the Bible? I mean, remember, Jesus breaks up families. He’s against all that. He tries to rescue people from their parents-walking around with these twelve unattached men. We’re not that into the family. That’s called “the death rows of the late capitalist culture” or something, but I just thought, “Amazing-when we’re supposed to be talking about a dead body.”

We were talking about Matthew 28 earlier. Well, I was at a Bible study with some students and I said, “It ends, and Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world, baptizing, teaching, and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Then, as I was launching out into my instruction, this student raised his hand. He said: “Let me ask you this. Did he mean that as a promise or a threat that he would be with us to the end of the age?”

I said, “I gather you’ve met Jesus before.” When Jesus said, “You know, fellows, I’ve only had about three years to harass you and to relentlessly work on you, but now I’m with you always, and even …”

MR: It’s like having your mother-in-law live with you for the rest of your life.
WW: With a vengeance. Again, the marvelous thing about being a Christian is that Jesus keeps breaking free of our boundaries, and he’ll break free of the church growth movement or the user-friendly churches. And he keeps judging us. His own witness comes up against us.

I had one of my classes read a thing on the Jesus seminar. The next week the students said: “Now, let me get this straight. A group of professors got together in California and voted on Jesus, and decided the most interesting thing about him was that he walked around and said a lot of interesting things. Why am I not surprised by this?” We are infinitely resourceful in trying to tame Jesus.

MR: We talk a lot in MR about the contrast between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. Do you see a parallel here? We’ve lost confidence in the Word of the cross because, well, it’s the Word of the cross. Think especially of Mark’s Gospel, where the disciples keep looking for glory all the way down to, “Hey, can my two boys sit one on your right and on your left?” Or even at the ascension: “Now are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Evangelicals, like the great Protestant establishment at the turn of the twentieth century, seem to be so triumphalistic about it all.
WW: Yeah, where are Lutherans when you need them?

MR: Probably at the bar.
WW: I’ve recently been reading on Luther’s “Heidelberg Disputation,” where he just slashes and burns this theology of glory. Luther is attacking the “ladder theology” where you take this step on the ladder, and then the next, and up and up. And eventually you can just rise higher than Jesus.

But Jesus was lifted up on a cross. As one theologian commenting on the Heidelberg Disputation put it, “When you people get organized and really [start] marching off to noble ideals, this is where it ends. You put God on a cross.”

We need to be continually reminded of the blood and gore of it all, and the devastation. On Palm Sunday, passion Sunday, it’s kind of our custom to have a student memorize the two chapters of Mark or the two chapters of Matthew-the story of the passion. Just stand up and say; just recite it. It always has this powerful effect, using some nice, attractive student to tell this devastating story, and the story is so good. But it is so judgmental also and where all of our aspirations for glory lead. The best thing we can hope for is just: “Father, forgive them. They still don’t know what they’re doing.”

Read part II of this interview, “Working on Our Grammar,” in Modern Reformation vol. 10, Iss. 1 (2001).

1 [ Back ] February 1999, pp. 10-11.
Friday, June 22nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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