'Fair and Balanced' for Churches
Copyright 2012 - Eco-Justice Ministries
A reputable religious survey in 2008 found that 64% of active church-goers had never heard a sermon on "creation care."
There are many reasons why pastors and worship planners might not lift up environmental themes in sermons, liturgy and prayers, but Eco-Justice Ministries sees a systemic factor that discourages Earth-aware worship. Our research shows that the Revised Common Lectionary -- the cycle of scripture readings used in countless congregations -- makes it difficult for most worship to express an eco-justice theology. An analogy from journalism helps illustrate the problem.
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The Fox News network has included the slogan "Fair & Balanced" in their corporate logo -- implying, of course, that other networks are unfair and/or unbalanced. Their loyal viewers agree with that description, while those who avoid Fox consider the network's "fair and balanced" claim to be dubious, astonishing or absurd.
Regardless of your opinions about any network, it is obvious that every news source has a perspective and a style that shapes its selection of stories, and the way it reports them. There is a clear difference between Fox, NBC News, and Al Jazeera. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and a small town's weekly paper are not identical.
In the presence of a flood of potential stories, news editors have to make choices about what is important, what is interesting, and what to ignore. Those choices are shaped by their journalistic and political philosophies, and by the desires of their audience. No single source will ever be comprehensive, or entirely fair and balanced.
The danger of the "fair and balanced" claim is its implication that there's no need to listen to others -- indeed, that it is misleading to do so. A more honest and helpful approach recognizes the distinctive focus, style, bias and omissions in our favored news outlets. When we're honest in seeing the leanings of every source, we'll do well, on occasion, to stretch outside of the publications that confirm our own beliefs, and listen to other voices.
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In the world of worship planning and preaching, I've often heard the "fair and balanced" message connected to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). To some extent, that's a valid claim. A lectionary is designed to push pastors beyond their favorite texts, and to expose congregations to numerous passages drawn from many books of the Bible.
When the Roman Catholic lectionary -- which is the foundation for the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary -- was dramatically revised and expanded in 1969, the goal was that "the treasures of the bible be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's word. In this way a more representative proportion of the sacred scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years."
I do affirm that the Catholic and ecumenical lectionaries provide a helpful structure and a broad scriptural base for liturgy and preaching. They expose congregations to a variety of texts. They often keep preachers from fixating on their own favorite themes. They do provide an opportunity for the development of solid worship resources and biblical study materials, and those are a blessing for harried and over-worked pastors.
But -- and this is a major but -- the Revised Common Lectionary does not give us readings from the entire Bible. The RCL is no more "fair and balanced" than Fox News or Al Jazeera. The lectionary's "more representative proportion of scripture" represents a strong theological perspective that -- I believe -- is not adequate or relevant for today's world of ecological crisis.
Just like news editors must use some criteria to filter the flood of breaking stories, those who selected which bible passages to use in the lectionary applied filters and values. In the primary principles used to select the 3-year cycle of texts, the RCL has a theological bias. And that bias, that theological focus, routinely and systemically excludes sections of the Bible that are essential for an eco-justice theology.
If 64% of active church-goers have never heard a "creation care" sermon, part of the reason is that the lectionary only rarely opens up the texts that would invite such a topic. The Revised Common Lectionary's core principles, its central goals and logic, don't expose us to some of the most important biblical texts and themes that will nurture creation theologies. I'll be fleshing out the details in future Notes, so today I offer a very brief overview of three main problems.
- The lectionary is Christocentric, not theocentric or Trinitarian. William Willimon wrote that the lectionary's "primary hermeneutical criterion is heavily, relentlessly Christological." The lectionary is structured around the church year, a sequence of seasons related to the person of Jesus. The gospel readings are the "controlling texts" that define what other passages are read, and those gospel readings define how themes from other passages will be lifted up. The creator God who cherishes and sustains all things, and the Spirit that enlivens all flesh, are not prominent in the lectionary's selections.
- In the lectionary's design, the Psalms are never used for preaching. These beautiful and challenging poems are placed in a secondary role, where they are voiced as a congregational response to the first reading of the day -- usually the reading from Hebrew scripture. The Psalms' celebration of nature, their diverse voices about God in creation and history, are edited down into short snippets that are never developed in sermons.
- Because the passages from the Old Testament are selected in relation to the day's gospel reading, the lectionary has a strong tendency to use passages from the Hebrew prophets that speak of hope and restoration. The more difficult texts which bring judgment, condemn complacency, and which show God allowing the chosen people to suffer the consequences of their sin are rarely heard. So, too, passages from wisdom literature and the books of the Law -- texts which lay out the moral principles of shalom for a community which includes all of creation -- are either missing, or re-cast according to a gospel topic. (The RCL does have an option for reading Old Testament texts that is somewhat broader, but which still misses themes of justice and shalom for all creation.)
I don't want to suggest that the Catholic and Protestant scholars who formulated the lectionaries had an evil intent. Their sense of a faithful and orthodox theology guided their structuring of the lectionary. When the Catholic lectionary was introduced in 1969, and when the RCL was proposed in 1983, environmental issues were not seen as a profound threat, nor was the whole of creation recognized as an important or recurring theme in scripture. It is only in recent decades that creation theologies and environmental ethics have become strong and growing topics across the denominational map.
The structure and focus of the Catholic and ecumenical lectionaries may have been seen as "fair and balanced" when they were formulated. But in our rapidly changing world of human-triggered ecological crisis, the lectionary's implicit theology is no longer adequate.
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Eco-Justice Ministries is deeply concerned about the way the lectionary discourages ecologically relevant liturgy and preaching. Our concern is amplified when the lectionary is also used as the basis for curriculum materials and spiritual development. Portions of scripture that we believe are essential for a robust and relevant theology are missing.
There's no simple answer to this problem. I don't want to suggest that the lectionary be discarded in all settings, and I don't have an alternative to replace it. (The "Season of Creation" that is spreading in churches is a helpful, but partial, option.)
In the coming months and years, Eco-Justice Ministries hopes to stimulate a lively and broad conversation about the lectionary and relevant worship. We want to engage a diverse group of pastors, academics, denominational leaders and lay people in a discussion about scripture, the purpose of worship, and how faith calls us to live and act in today's world. This won't be an exclusive topic for Notes in the future, but I will return to it with some frequency.
I invite and urge you to be a part of this conversation. Drop me an email, or give me a call, and share your feelings about the church, worship, the lectionary, and our environmental crisis. Pass along this issue of Notes, and future ones, to pastors who will be challenged by these questions.
Nothing can be "fair and balanced" in every setting and every occasion. No news source, and no lectionary, can say it all or say it perfectly. Please join with us as we launch a conversation about the lectionary's influence -- both positive and negative -- on the worship and preaching of the contemporary church.
Rev. Peter Sawtell
Re-printed here with permission by Rev. Peter Sawtell