Mafia-Style Exegesis

Having now visited many churches, listened to thousands of sermons, and preached a few myself, I have noticed the wide variety of exegesis. I’ve complained elsewhere about paregesis (preaching alongside the text, but never actually preaching the text). Here, I want to complain, if you’ll so indulge me, about Mafia-Style exegesis.

This gangster way of approaching the text perhaps the most difficult to deal with. For you see, the motivation for this exegesis is power and pride. And it is usually wielded by preachers respected in the community.

Here is how it works in action. First, the preacher believes in a certain set of traditions. Second, when preaching a passage, the traditions are preached, and the intent of the passage is ignored. Third, (here is the Mafia stuff) the tradition is upheld at all cost. Therefore, support for them is squeezed out of verses that have no dealings with the traditions. Finally, passages which conflict with the interpretation are silenced and we are told it isn’t what it looks like.

From my own life, I can think of tons of examples. In undergrad, I sat through a lecture about worship in which the speaker cited a verse from Ecclesiastes (I wish I could remember which one). I looked at the verse and in context it had nothing to do with his argument. His reply? “God can put verses wherever he wants too.” This is true: God can do whatever he wants. But it ignores the fact that God did not choose to do it that way. Instead, this preacher merely wanted support for his idea. Thus, he found whatever verse seemed to say what he wanted. In the words of my agnostic boss: “you can make the Bible say whatever you want.” This was certainly true of this preacher.

The same exegete claimed that when David danced before the ark, he merely swung his arms (I mean, God forbid that there was rhythmic music and David was pulling out the moves). But this is simply thuggery. It’s hard to see how David was flashing women when he was simply swinging his arms. This was an example of him telling us “it ain’t what it obviously looks like.”

Then, there is the out-right silencing of those passages that contradict your traditions. This happens in sermons against alcohol a lot. I’ve sat in one sermon where the preacher preached Proverbs 31:1-5, 8-9. This selective preaching enabled the minister to preach strongly against alcohol. But those two nasty little verses, 6-7, undid his point. So he skipped them.

I could go on with examples, but these more than suffice.

Perhaps the biggest danger is that the preacher is often agreeable in some way. Like a Mob Boss, he actually has many likable, charismatic, and leaderly qualities. And he can preach his traditions to his people, all the while covering them with a beautiful, Scripture-like facade. He is often revered and held in high esteem. He maintains a regimented spiritual life, so that his performance is flawless. And his followers strive to be as holy as he is.

Yet, he ends up destroying life. I cannot tell you the number of people who have walked away from the faith because of this. The logical fallacies in the preachers arguments are so obvious, that it doesn’t take long before the smart ones leave. And often, they turn agnostic because they were so deeply disappointed by their leader.

I conclude with this thought: beware of the Mob. It’s easy to get sucked into believing it yourself. And when you do, it’s hard to loosen the grip they have on you.

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