A few posts ago, in the pre-plagiarism era of celebrity pastors, I was working through a series on the implications of NewSpring’s use of former Congressman Gresham Barrett’s testimony to his conversion and baptism. The third and final part of that is still coming, but I need to set it up by paying a bit of attention to the rhetorical sleight of hand that Noble used to insinuate the testimony into his sermon that Sunday.
I love Jesus because Jesus was an unbelievable storyteller. He hardly ever answered a question when someone asked him, “Hey, man, what do you think about this?” or “What do you think about this?” He’d be like, “Hey, man, that reminds me of a story.” Jesus is a phenomenal storyteller, and he always told stories — we call them parables — that had a point. And one of the things I just love about the Bible is that it’s full of stories. It is like every kind of story that you can imagine
in the Scripturesin our society takes place in the Scriptures. [Lined-out dialog was a quickly corrected slip of the tongue.] And one of the fascinating things for me as your pastor of NewSpring church over the past 11 years is to see the stories in the Bible, like the stories that we read in the Scriptures come to life right here among us on every one of our campuses two thousand years later. What Jesus was doing two thousand years ago, he’s still doing it today. The stories we see in the Scriptures, we still see those same stories happening today.
From here, Noble summarizes the story of Nicodemus and compares it to Gresham Barrett’s testimony (a series I’ll conclude in the next post). The sermon that day consisted of three video stories interspersed with Noble’s introductions.
This is subtle and crafty, but Noble is arguing that because contemporary stories are similar to Biblical stories, we can replace the Biblical story for the modern one. That Sunday morning, NewSpring’s congregation heard a sermon from the Bible of Contemporary Events, not the Bible of the Holy Spirit. No matter how compelling and wholesome the stories, this is unwise and dangerous preaching.
It’s not preaching
Contra Noble, the Bible is not full of stories. Though it does have many stories, it also consists of prophecy, poetry, wisdom, law, non-narrative history (genealogies), sermons and dense didactic doctrine. If we focus on the stories, we miss the rest of it. For example, the gospels give us the story of the cross, then Paul’s epistles explain what it means.
When Noble describes Jesus’ tendency to tell stories, he misses the other part of that process, where most of his listeners didn’t understand the point of them. We understand Jesus’ parables now because the Holy Spirit also gave us the conversations between Jesus and his confused disciples, who had to have the meaning spelled out for them. If anything, the example of Jesus as a storyteller tells us that stories are a poor vehicle for presenting deep truths. Stories only work when they are followed by able preaching. A story, by itself, is not a sermon.
It distorts exegesis
Noble equates contemporary events with Biblical ones and assumes they’re the same thing. It’s one way he seriously and repeatedly misinterprets Scripture. For example, he assumes that God speaks to him the same way that he spoke to Moses. Most egregiously, he assumes that the Bible predicted Steven Furtick as the Messiah.
His slip of the tongue — Scripture, corrected to society — shows that these different types of stories occupy the same space in his mind. For Noble, a society story is just as useful as a Scripture story. That’s not unfair speculation; it’s exactly what he’s doing in this sermon. Barrett gets more time and attention than does Scripture.
It dilutes Scripture
By insisting that Gresham Barrett’s testimony is equivalent to the story of Nicodemus, Noble dilutes Scripture by adding to it. Scripture is quite insistent that it is sufficient and must not be added to, nor are preachers to preach anything other than what they find in it. At the end of his gospel, John tells us that most of the stories that could be told about Jesus weren’t included in Scripture, and the Holy Spirit has wisely left us ignorant of those wonderful narratives, assuring us that we have all we need.
If Noble wants to preach from a story like the one about Nicodemus, the Holy Spirit has provided a perfect one — in the story of Nicodemus. Why go further than what God has provided?
It misunderstands stories
The Bible has only one story, and it’s about Jesus, the Redeemer of fallen man. Every single story and page in Scripture points to Jesus and the cross. The sacred duty of every preacher is to show how the stories in Scripture point us to Christ and our need for him. Instead, Noble takes the story of Nicodemus and points us to NewSpring and a retired congressman.
That’s regrettable, but Noble takes it to a whole new level of fail with the point he actually makes from Barrett’s story. The underlying and aggressive message of the Barrett sermon is designed to separate us from Jesus, not bring us to him. More on that in the next post.