Sunday, November 30, 2008

How to Give a Bad Homily

It helps to laugh at your problems sometimes. I don't know who wrote this hilarious satire or when it first appeared, but it hits the mark pretty well as to the poor level of preaching from our Catholic pulpits. Enjoy:

How to Give a Bad Homily

I'm not sure when Catholics became such terrible preachers.

You may object that this is a mere stereotype, but like many stereotypes about Catholics - we worship statues, we don't read the Bible, we run the world - this one is true. Yesterday, all over America, there were millions of Catholics who, if they were lucky, were merely bored by their priest's homily: there were many others who were alternately scandalized, horrified, grievously misinformed, or simply insulted.

It wasn't always this way. St. Francis of Assisi might have preached to the birds, but when he preached to people he helped establish himself as one of the pre-eminent Europeans of the Middle Ages. St. Bernard basically spent his life traveling around France, using his eloquent oratory to peacefully win back straying Christians who would occasionally convince themselves that Hey, maybe smelly Pierre from the hut next door is actually God. St. John Chrysostom was so good at preaching that we collectively decided his surname should be "Goldenmouth."

The days of John Goldenmouth are long behind us, though. Currently, Catholic preaching in general is about as robust as the St. John's University basketball program, although we don't have the luxury of blaming Mike Jarvis for the bad homilies.

Many Catholics have lamented this state of affairs, but I adopt a wait-and-see approach. As Karl Rahner wrote in Foundations of Christian Faith, the relationship of ordinary believers to the clergy is like that of the rest of the A-Team to Hannibal: we trust the plan will come together, even when that crazy fool Murdock does something that lands us in hot water.

In other words, there must be a method to the madness. Perhaps it's some kind of church-wide rope-a-dope strategy in which - just like Muhammad Ali - we'll lull our opponent into a false sense of security and then explode from the ropes in the 10th round with a flurry of devastating rhetorical right hands*.

With that hope fondly lodged in my heart, I therefore present this helpful guide for priests, deacons, and assorted talkers who are hoping to make their homilies just a little bit more awful.

Be Nervous and Easily Distracted
In any kind of public speaking, bearing is important, and to give a truly bad homily, your posture, mannerisms, and countenance should reflect this. Ideally, you should adopt the bearing of a nervous homeschooler sweating beneath the lights of a major spelling bee after getting stuck on the word "cthonic." Fidget. Hide behind the lectern. Speak directly into the Bible. Never, under any circumstances, look at the congregation.

A major boon to any bad homilist is distractions from the pews. Remember: a crying baby is a key ally in your effort to seem hopelessly outside your depth. At the first sound of a wailing youngster, you should freeze in place, as if the bishop has just entered the sanctuary tailed by the police, pointing at you and shouting, "Fraud!" Once this is done, it's important to lose your train of thought and mumble disconsolately for several moments, as if you have never seen an infant before, and the sight has left you terribly unsettled.

I was actually once at a Mass where the priest - who was nearing retirement, in fairness - responded to a crying baby by snarling, "Shut that kid up!" I doubt Chrysostom would have handled it that way, but in delivering a bad homily, that's kind of the point.

Inflection is a Tool of the Devil
When delivering a bad homily you will, like Phil Spector, want to go "back to mono" - monotone, that is. Your voice should be as calm and affectless as the Sargasso Sea; if at all possible, you should read the words of your homily the way 3rd graders read book reports when standing in front of the class. Never give any indication that one word or other should be emphasized in the endless gray slurry of diction you pour forth. Raymond Chandler once wrote that the American accent is "flat, toneless, and tiresome," and you should do your part to prove him right.

From God's Lips to Your Parish Bulletin
A homily is technically supposed to relate the message of Christ's salvation to a particular community, so why not spend the first 10 minutes announcing minutiae from that week's parish newsletter? Hey, salvation is important and all, but so is the fact that the Tuesday Teen Coffee Hour has been moved to 7:30 p.m. This approach has the double effect of making the homily unutterably dull and rendering the bulletin redundant, and is thus highly commended to bad homilists.

I once attended Mass at a parish in which the priest delivered a five-minute homily, four minutes of which were devoted to gripes about the difficulties of getting a zoning permit to install a new elevator. Then he ended with a variation of "God is good." Well said, Father!

Reach The Young People
Do popular songs on the radio remind you of Biblical passages? Is there some way a blockbuster summer movie can be said to show God's forgiveness? Is Jesus maybe a little bit like Spider-Man?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you're well on your way to developing one of the most popular techniques for delivering a bad homily: tailoring it to young worshipers by dumbing it down with a plethora of poorly thought out pop culture references.

When doing so, though, you'll want to remember to keep those references vaguely out of date, so that anyone in the pews who might possibly be reached by such a tactic will instead focus on their mirth at your use of "X-Files" terminology.

You'll also want to keep the metaphors as tortured as possible. Popular culture, like all Western culture, is indeed filled with allusions and references - sometimes self-aware, sometimes not - to Christianity. Instead of going for the obvious ones, though, you'll want to instead explain how Jesus is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the vampires are sins and they're not really being slain so much as forgiven, and of course Jesus is not a woman.

It's All About You
Many people think that worshipers come to church on Sunday to receive the sacraments, to be in the presence of God, or to learn about how Christ's salvific death changes their lives utterly. You, as the bad homilist, know the truth: People come to church to hear your funny anecdotes about bad drivers.

Ham it up! Play to the crowd. Test the material at the 7:00 a.m. Mass so you'll have a dynamite routine for the bigger 11:00 a.m. crowd. Why not? All the world's a stage, and everyone's paying attention to you. It must be because of your funny stories about waiting in line at the supermarket. Hey, that teaches us a Biblical lesson - wasn't Job supposed to be patient or something?

Don't Get Bogged Down in Scripture
Sure, the Church describes the homily as "an explanation either of some aspect of the readings from scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or Proper of the Mass of the day," but have they ever tried to read some of that stuff? I mean, all the talk about vineyards and mustard seeds and fruit - you'd think this was 4-H Club, not the Catholic Church!

To give a bad homily, you'll want to seize on a single phrase in the Gospel reading to justify whatever subject on which you most feel like holding forth. For example: If Jesus warns against building a house on a foundation of sand, you can say, "And a foundation of sand is exactly what the makers of 'The Da Vinci Code' have erected," before launching into a tangent that quickly loses sight of any scripture, whether today's or otherwise.

But to give a genuinely awful homily, you'll want to ignore the Bible altogether, and just "shoot from the hip." Hey, maybe you'll want to quote from some other text: a half-remembered poem, perhaps, or a book by a conservative newspaper columnist. If you're really trying hard, you'll find a way to work in something from a Beatles song.

The goal is to make your homily "relevant." If you occasionally get worried about what may or may not be "relevant," try using this helpful rule of thumb: "Relevant" is just another way of saying "unrelated to the contents of the Bible."

It's Casual Sunday Around Here
Any homily that has a tone of solemnity is all wrong for what you want. You don't want people to see you as a priest ordained through God's grace to perform the Eucharistic miracle in which the faithful partake of the body and blood of Christ, you want them to see you as an easygoing dude around the office water cooler. Hey, just because none of St. Augustine's extant sermons include the phrase, "Boy, it's a real scorcher today, ain't it, folks?," doesn't mean you can't blaze new trails.

Dazzle Them With Jargon
Casual Sundays are great and all, but sometimes you have to remind the laity that you didn't go to priest school for eight years just to be called "Father Bob." In these instances, it's a good idea to reach for the theologian's favorite device: jargon. If you're feeling a little anxious about your role in the lives of the faithful, why not remind them why they need you by speaking Latin? A bad homily that relies on jargon will have all the qualities of a peer-reviewed article in an electrical engineering journal, and is designed to sail over the heads of anyone who thought the church might have something to tell them about bereavement, loneliness, anxiety, joy, or everyday life. But don't worry: somebody will appreciate your jargon, most likely the two or three intense young men scattered around the back occasionally wincing from the cilices around their thighs.

"WWJD" Means "What Would Jesus Disapprove Of?"
There's a popular impression that the Catholic Church's theology consists of little more than an endless series of arbitrary rules invented and enforced by isolated old men with precious little experience of everyday life. As a bad homilist, it's your job to confirm that suspicion.

One way you might go about this is by presenting every aspect of Catholic teaching as self-evidently revealed fact. Sure, the Church might have produced some of the finest thinkers in history, people who went to great lengths to demonstrate the truths of revelation using science, logic, and philosophy, but those methods have no place in a bad homily. Your answer to the question "Why?" should always be, "Because God - and, by extension, I - said so."

It also helps if, when presenting conclusions without explaining the reasoning behind them, you just focus on the things people aren't supposed to do. Premarital sex, abortion, contraception, women's ordination, voting for bishops, eating meat on Fridays in Lent - sure, there might be reasons behind the Church's stances on all these things. But why should your congregants know that? Let them go to seminary if they're so curious! Remember: If people come away from your homily with a picture of God as a distant, disapproving, headmaster-like figure always saying "No," you're doing your job.

Here You Stand, You Can Do No Other
Have you ever read the Catechism? It's so full of stuff: do this, don't do that, believe this, salvation that. There's way too much there for anyone to fully digest, so you can be excused for not knowing or not believing everything the church teaches. After all, you're just one person, right?

So when composing your homilies, don't worry if something you're going to say is "unclear" or "inaccurate" or "openly heretical." Who's keeping track, anyway? If you feel like maybe people who commit suicide are beyond God's ability to forgive, go ahead and say so. Alternately, if you think it's silly that Catholics can't receive Communion at Protestant churches, don't be shy about letting the congregation know. The catechism may disagree with you on both points, but this is a democracy, right?

As a follow-up, be wary of "dogma nuts" who will approach you after Mass with minor, nitpicking complaints like "I thought we offered veneration rather than worship to the saints" or "There aren't four Persons in the Trinity." These "laity lawyers" may, technically, be correct, but stick to your guns: remind them you're the one infused with ordination, that your fingers were anointed, and maybe say something about papal infallibility. That applies to priests, too, right? If you're a deacon, you'll have to take a different approach: quickly change the subject by reminding these complainers they haven't yet volunteered for a shift at the Interfaith Cot Shelter.

Always End With a Flourish
A lot of priests end their homilies with a simple, "May God bless you." The bad homilist has a word for these priests: "Boring." Here are a few sample lines you'll want to end with if you're interested in truly nailing the bad homily:

"Don't forget to pick up your raffle tickets after Mass."

"Okay, now let's do that Creed thing."

"Remember, as Jesus said: Keep on keepin' on."

"See you next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel."

"The person who owns a green Buick LeSabre, license plate 489-HFC: your lights are on."

"Let's go Jesus, let's go! (clap)"

"And may God forgive the local zoning board for their obstructionist ways."

"Shut that kid up!"

*Admittedly, this metaphor is not perfect. For example, who are we supposed to be boxing? One possibility: Satan.

Also: a tip of the cap to Kurt Tucholsky, author of the fine, sadly out of print essay, "How to Give a Bad Speech."


Can I Change A Life? said...

Ok, I actually laughed at the four persons in the Trinity comment.

But mostly this made me sad, knowing there is some truth in it, and a lot of truth for some parishes or dioceses.

All I can say is I wish you had what we have. Our priest gives homilies that have literallly changed people (including me.) But it's not just the homily, it's the reverence he has throughout the Mass that moves people.

I wish everyone had what we have.

Anonymous said...

How does someone else's reverence change people?

Staten Pilgrim said...

Reverence is extremely important, I think. A dearth of reverence in either priest or congregation distracts and annoys me, and acts to neutralize the spirit of transcendance one is attempting to cultivate during worship of the eternal Lord of the Universe.

When the priest jokes around on the altar, fumbles about sloppily through the ritual of the Mass, preaches foolishness and generally doesn't treat what he is doing with the seriousness and reverence it deserves, he spreads that attitude to the congregation. I think to myself, "Boy, this guy sure doesn't look like he believes that he is performing the highest act of divine worship and personally serving as a conduit for the miracle of the Eucharist. He looks like he's puttering around his living room up there. Why should_I_take any of it seriously?"

Similarly, when people in the congregation dress like pigs, chat with each other during Mass, act bored, show their disrespect towards God with every defiantly lackadaisical gesture they make, do not participate in_worship_at all, and generally look like all they're thinking about is the Giants game, then I can't help but have it influence my attitude. I think to myself, "Wow. No one here takes this whole God thing very seriously. Am I weird or something?" It is rather common that people actually turn around and look at me when I start to sing a hymn. No, it's not because of my bad voice, but because Catholic laity just don't sing. At best they open the hymnal and lip sync, but usually just sit there comatose and let the choir bang it out. I realize that the reason may be because of horrible modern hymns, but they could at least try. Instead, they glare at me like I'm some sort of crazy holy roller. That's not exactly conducive to creating a spiritual atmosphere appropriate to the occasion.

I think you understand this. I don't think it's an especially controversial assertion. If you've ever been in the military, or have even seen a movie about boot camp, you know that specific standards of outer appearance, posture, bearing, movement and attitude are extremely important there as well, and are drilled into the soldier until he performs everything flawlessly. Why? Because a soldier's outer appearance and physical movements not only influence his own attitude but the attitude of everyone around. He might be a super patriot on the inside, but if he walks around slouching, with untucked shirt and dirty pants, with a dopey grin and a 3 day growth on his face, and greets the commanding general with a flacid, limp wristed salute, then he brings the thing he represents into disrepute for all who see him. With enough soldiers acting like that, morale suffers and al-Quaida's running up the crescent flag over the White House.

Conversely, the soldier who moves crisply and looks sharp conveys an attitude of efficiency and strength among all who see him, thereby increasing the morale and reputation of his group. Just like the reverent priest and congregation does with the church. Reverence isn't just what God deserves, but the heart is often changed when the attitude is affected. And the attitude in church has a lot to do with the atmosphere of reverence one is surrounded by.

Anonymous said...

homilies and reverence dont change people, God changes people by transforming them from the inside out by the power of his spirit. The blind and deaf cannot be moved by art and music that cannot penetrate thir disability. The sinner, by nature a god hater, cannot be moved to worship or reverence because they are disabled by their sin nature from having a relationship with od. But when the spirit comes, he makes a new creation and that is when the repentant sinner recieves the power to know god an d worship him. If you are in a church with unregenerated sinners, their behavior will conform to the state of their hearts,as enemies of god. That is why jesus said to nichodemus YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN.

Staten Pilgrim said...

You're splitting hairs, Anonymous. Obviously it's God who ultimately "changes hearts". But human actions are obviously a factor as well. Otherwise, why else are we humans commanded to preach the Word to the ends of the earth and win souls? Why do we study and work hard so as to make the best case for the Gospel to the non-Christian? Why not just pray that God miraculously "change the hearts" of the Amazonian indians or the Saudi Arabians or Hinuds? No, He works_through_humans, through the physical. And the way we present ourselves is obviously a very importantant determinant as to whether our efforts succeed or fail. Some pastors are successful and some are not. I see storefront churches open and close all the time in my neighborhod. Why is that? Perhaps it has something to do with the person delivering the message? After all, how many successful evangelists do you know have a speech impediment or otherwise speak poorly, are unpersuasive, effeminate, unintelligent, ugly, bad dressers, etc.? Why are the most successful evangelists pleasant-looking, excellent speakers with great leadership skills and magnetic personalities? Just a coincidence?

Anonymous said...

Hence the divide: the Bible teaches that God and God alone transforms human hearts by raising the spirtually dead to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, though grace, by faith, in Christ. Period. He can speak to people through an ass (Balaam), a dream, and yes through other humans, but the actual divine transaction is not dependant on man's efforts. If it were, then he could share in the glory. God is made great in our weakness and that is true of many who preach the gospel, worldwide. Paull said he did not come with cleverness, but to preach christ crucified. When people hear that their sins have been paid for in full by the one time sacrifice of Jesus, they recognize that this is not the message of any catholic, orthodox, muslim, hindu or any other faith. You speak much of your dissappointment with the church, but dont you see that what defiles proceds from inside, not outside the theology that establishes its boundaries?

Staten Pilgrim said...

I think you're ignoring what I'm saying. But if you want to prove your point, then get rid of your super-duper choir, stop offering free food to attendees, cancel the social activities and all the entertainment, and tell Pastor Eddie not to worry about working on next Sunday's sermon. Just let a 6 year old child get up and preach- since the conversion experience is totally up to God, I'm sure your church will get the same results, right? Better yet, why preach or have church at all? Just hand out Bibles and let God do the rest. Gee, I didn't think I was making such a controversial observation. I'm not denying that God deserves the glory, but it seems pretty self evident that human actions and motivations have something to do with a man's acceptance or rejection of the Gospel as well.

Anonymous said...

Your facetious tone betrays the alleged earnestness of your efforts to bring "life" to church life.
Real churches dont sell the Gospel; they preach it.
Its so odd you chose the example of a six year old preaching since this sunday I was in the church of an old pastor/friend in PA and the entire service consisted of a childrens production about the birth of the savior followed by a prayer that anyone who wanted to know the Lord should pray and believe and be saved!!!!
But again, if you think that offering people a cup of coffee and a hot chocolate after they watch a live nativity is "entertainment", so be it. I disagree. There is a church on SI that has long used entertainment to draw people through its doors; most do not, but they are not ashamed of the Gospel and the efforts they make to expose people to it, again, based on reformation theology: salvation is assured and eternal for those who believe..and we are commanded to preach the good news to all we can..even if that means giving out food, clothing, and other practical helps to reach them....something the RC church has done for why are you so bitter?

Staten Pilgrim said...

It's not facetiousness- it's called reductio ad absurdum. You believe that the Spirit guides every Christian to proper interpretation of Scripture. You believe that our actions have utterly zero role in the conversion of other men. You believe that all the material and social benefits the evangelical church offers have nothing to do with why people join. You flayed me for not swallowing that, so I was just taking your arguments to their logical conclusion. If you really believe in those things, just hand out Bibles to every man, woman and child and let God do the rest. I'm not bitter- just confused over the seeming contradictions. Why use material things and entertainment to "reach" people if our actions are of no consequence and God is the one who does all the work? I agree- a real church doesn't need to bribe people to join.

I don't begrudge you having entertainment, and I don't know whether your particular church elevates entertainment to an improper place. But from everything I've seen in the American evangelical/Pentecostal scene, entertainment is a major tool in the arsenal. Because a person, or millions of people, sit in evangelical pews does not mean that their hearts have changed, they've been born-again, are true Christians, etc. And I am just trying to get you to acknowledge that fact and recognize the human factors involved in church adherence.

And now you question my sincerity and motivations. Gee. Nice.

Anonymous said...

I could care less about church adherence. It is about Christ following and that is impossible to do without the Spirit of God empowering you to do so. The bible says we are DEAD in our sins and tresspasses, enemies of God, without the Spirit indwelling us ever since the Fall. But NOW, there is, because of Christ, new life that comes through him, with him and in him...through no merit of our own. If we could merit God by church adherence WHY do we need Christ?? We cannot reach God from where we are, even by following all the rules of any church perfectly because...WE CANNOT do anything we need the perfect Christ to be our substitute and by His righteousness are we able to stand before God. Its sounds so simple, beople refuse to believe it. But it was not simple for God. It is his crowing glory and sacrifice.I have been in Fatima and seen people crawling on their knees on concrete...get up, I wanted to shout, Christ has come, it is finished, he has paid your debt, believe..recieve..and be transformed by faith, through grace!! You can debate this until the second coming, but understanding is not the prequalifier. It is faith...evidence of things not seen that commends the saving grace of Christ to a man's heart. Believe, believe, believe and to God be the glory.

Anonymous said...

Dear brother, I was reading this today and wanted to share it with you: in Paul's first letter to the corinthian church he says: " no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not recieved the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God that we may understand what God has freely given us....the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot undertand them because they are spiritually discerned...for who has the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him..But we have the mind of Christ."
This is what I am trying to say about how the Spirit works in individual hearts to allow them to understand the word of God. Paul does not say to the corinthian church, "I" have the mind of Christ, he says "we" have the mind of Christ, because all spirit-filled believers are given this capacity. It is not a privilege of the ordained or the apostolic, it is the birth right of those who are born of Spirit, in Christ, by faith, through grace, so that we are united to Him forever. Hope you have had a blessed Lord's day, and I am praying that as you celebrate Christ's birth He will indwell you with the fullness of the power of his Spirit and give you great joy in believing.

Staten Pilgrim said...

"Dear brother", I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your prayer that I receive the Holy Spirit and receive the gift of belief wasn't meant to be as unbelievably condescending and insulting as it sounds.

As for your quotation of Paul in 1 Corinthians (2:11-16 actually), let us reason together. I re-read the passage you reference. In the first place, it is very vague and opaque, like much of Paul's writings, and can easily be twisted to mean anything to anybody. Peter himself makes reference to the difficulty of understanding Paul, when he writes that in his letters "...are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures." (2 Pet 3:15-16) Now, if I had to interpret that verse on my own, (which I thank God I do not have to do, since I have the teaching authority of His Church to guide me), I would say that it's pretty obvious that Paul is saying that the person who has received the Spirit receives spiritual wisdom that the natural person does not have. However, the problem is what that really_means_. I don't see how anyone can claim that this verse is saying that the Holy Spirit gives the Christian the power to properly interpret Scripture. After all, the contrary evidence is undeniable.

Yet again, I will point to exhibit A in the form of Protestantism's spiritual anarchy. We now have somewhere around 30,000 different Protestant denominations and counting, all basing their beliefs on the Bible. And the divisions do not center on merely minor points (although even minor disagreements would disprove your assertion). The Protestant world is divided on even major issues like: the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the authenticity and necessity for salvation of the charismatic gifts (e.g. glossolalia), cessationism, predestination, what exactly is required from us for salvation, whether a believer can lose his salvation, the existence of Hell, continuing revelation, demonology, whether all churches are now controlled by Satan (Camping), the correct method of interpreting the Bible, whether certain things are sins or not (abortion, contraception, divorce, blood transfusion, war, Sunday Sabbath, etc.), the efficacy of baptism, how one is "born-again", Restorationism, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, the Atonement, End Times etc., et al. Unless you're going to tell me that everyone who disagrees with your particular interpretation of the Bible is not filled with the Spirit, it is simply not possible to claim that the Holy Spirit leads each Christian to proper interpretation of the Bible. Please don't insult our intelligence.

Rather, I would say that the understanding that Paul speaks about in that 1 Corinthians passage is of a different kind. The Holy Spirit does convict us of sin, and comforts us, and gives us strength that the natural man does not have. And when we have the Spirit, we do have a wisdom that gives us understanding about the spiritual forces at work in our lives, the ultimate meaning of existence, etc. A lot more can be said about it, but whatever it means, it certainly does not mean that each Christian is guided to proper interpretation of the Bible by the Holy Spirit. That much is plainly obvious from the myriad interpretations Protestants have on pretty much every verse in the Bible.

As an aside, one section you left out for some reason was verse 15 which says, "The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgement by anyone." Now, does that mean what is sounds like on the surface? Since you obviously consider yourself spiritual, do you also assert that you are above judgment and criticism? This is a fairly obscure verse. It might be an interesting experiment to have 10 evangelicals interpret it separately and see all the different ways in which the "Holy Spirit" guides them.