Monday, January 13, 2014

Questions or Answers?

As they try to teach us something, some people give us answers, and other people ask us questions. Both are good ways of getting an audience to think about something. Either can be effective. Sometimes we need to come right out and say it, and other times we can afford the luxury of dancing around a truth until everyone apprehends it at his or her own pace. When it’s a complicated fact that comes with a lot of necessary background explanation, it might be best for the teacher to lay out a series of propositions for the learner to grasp. When it’s a nuanced belief that requires assent not only of mind but also of heart and soul, perhaps the teacher would be better to invite the inquirer to navigate his or her own way toward understanding.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 1:29-42), I feel a stark contrast between the teaching styles of John the Baptist and Jesus. In my mind, John is standing by the side of the road, yelling at everyone around him: “This is the one of whom I spoke!” He’s overcome with excitement and can’t keep it to himself. Bouncing around like an electrically charged pinball, he zings from person to person, exclaiming one Christological truth after another: “Behold the Lamb of God!” and “This man ranks ahead of me because he was before me!” Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t say much of anything. When Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptist come up to him, he asks, “What are you looking for?” They respond with a question: “Where are you staying?” And Jesus replies, “Come and see.” And that’s it.

Jesus invites them in but doesn’t give them much to go on. It’s up to them to do the following on their own. The invitation is offered, but the truth must be grasped by the one seeking it. Given that John the gospel-writer (and, along with him, the early Christian movement) seek to distinguish between Jesus the Messiah and John the Preparer of the Way, the pedagogical difference seems intentional to me. John is the one who shouts out the answers, and Jesus is the one who asks the probing questions.

Preachers like me could learn something from this passage. When I’m teaching a class, I often ask more questions than I answer. The classroom (even the Sunday school classroom) is a “safe place” for me to question the inherited doctrines of the faith: “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” and “Does it matter whether Mary was a virgin?” But, from the pulpit, those questions don’t seem right. Maybe it’s because there is an implied (if not enforced) univocal engagement. No one else gets to speak but me! Or maybe it’s because speaking from the pulpit seems to carry with it the authority of the Church rather than just the authority of the preacher. Whatever the reason, without meaning to, I’ve made the classroom podium a place for dialectical engagement and the pulpit and place for people to just sit and listen. As someone whose job it is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, that doesn’t seem like a very good pedagogical approach.

How can I bring more questions into the pulpit? Perhaps it’s by letting Jesus ask the questions himself. He doesn’t pull punches. In the accounts given to us, Jesus never seems to avoid confrontation. Maybe he’s the one who should engage the congregation. What would Jesus ask? How might his words stand for themselves? How might the preacher bring Jesus’ pedagogical technique into the pulpit? It’s not up to me to interpret what Jesus says as a mother robin might pre-digest a worm before regurgitating it for her young. Let the full-on power of Jesus’ words hit all of us. Let us engage them together. Let us hear what Jesus says and then digest it together. We are in the preaching process as colleagues—not as expert and students.

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