Friday, February 28, 2014

The Sermonator

Kyle Idleman, AHA: The God Moment That Changes Everything

Sometimes, when reviewing Christian books, I encounter books that fail to savvy the difference between oral sermons and written prose. I always dread writing the ultimate review, because the author’s intent is sincere; the problem is strictly mechanical. But these mechanical problems get between the author and the audience. Such is the case with Kyle Idleman’s latest, which I fear will sail, unheeded, past its intended and desperately hungry audience.

Idleman’s years in the pulpit have taught him that true conversion happens according to a reliable formula, which he formulates by the acronym AHA: Awakening, Honesty, Action. He finds a demonstration of this pattern in the Prodigal Son narrative, and essentially spends the entire book equating that ancient narrative to modern circumstances. Unfortunately, he does this through two frustrating techniques which seminary freshmen know to avoid: hit-and-run examples and prooftexting.

While Idleman explicates the Prodigal Son at some length, he suddenly inserts anecdotes which supposedly support his position. Some are personal, like his peeing dog story or an amusing illustration about his barber. Others begin with “One father told me,” “A man getting ready to divorce his wife,” or the like. Though these stories putatively advance Idleman’s central point, he considers none important enough to sustain past one or two pages.

If these orphaned stories aren’t frustrating enough, Idleman frequently breaks into lists of one-sentence illustrations. He lists them with almost hip-hop rhythm, an interruption in his exegesis so sudden that it resembles the bridge in a pop song. Like, here’s a riff, then I’ll return to the real stanza. Except at times, he inserts them so often, his actual forward momentum just stops. Consider this representative sample from page 83:
A husband found the email correspondence, and the emotional affair was undeniable.
His parents found a joint in the floorboard of the car.
The boss finally fired the alcoholic for coming to work drunk.
She couldn’t pay her credit card bills and a court case was brewing.
It continues. Not only is this merely one sample of the kind of prose Idleman salts throughout his book, it’s barely half the list he prints on one page. There’s a similar list on the facing page, and another beginning on the next. All these people get their lives reduced to their lowest bankruptcy or, for the fortunate few, their greatest triumph. As the lists accumulate, it becomes downright dehumanizing.

Don’t mistake me: I’m sure that, as Teaching Pastor at one of America’s largest churches, Idleman has actually heard these confessions from parishioners. A pastor I know laughingly tells how parishioners walk into his office and say: “Preacher, you’ve never heard anything like this but…” followed by a confession that’s world-shaking to the parishioner, but consistent with everything the pastor’s heard before. Idleman reduces these moments to stray hit-and-run citations.

Between these illustrations, Idleman inserts Scriptural citations that supposedly reveal his message. Despite anchoring his focus on Luke’s Prodigal Son narrative, he mainly draws supporting Scripture from the Hebrew Bible, often only one or two verses. He’ll hopscotch among History, Wisdom, and Prophecy books, sometimes paraphrasing, and aiming at very small snippets, without context. This sometimes mutes the text’s original intent; other times, it completely changes what the Scripture actually says.

Theologians call this “prooftexting.” Rhetoricians call it “quote mining.” Either way, it functions by ignoring a citation’s role in the larger narrative. For instance, Idleman compresses the entire book of Job, most of which involves Job and God directly arguing, to a single paragraph. He shimmies right around Job’s true struggle, hastening straight to the conclusion, dismissing the entire forty-chapter disputation. Idleman wants to celebrate Job’s reward without Job’s struggle.

People who need God, people on the cusp of AHA moments, would read this sprawling,chaotic book and roll their eyes. People who read their Bible will finish as mystified as me. The only readers I can imagine reading this book already have their AHA behind them, but don’t investigate Christian theology deeper. Frankly, I’m not sure those people read Christian literature very often. This unfocused sermon won’t change their habits.

Idleman’s first book, Not a Fan, was a muscular call for Christians to live the beliefs we proclaim. I really liked that book and stand behind my warm review. This book reflects what many Millennials see when fleeing organized church: hummingbird-like thought, stained-glass language, and lack of will to face hard questions. Have you ever sat through a sermon that never found its point? This book reminds me of that.

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