Saturday, November 26, 2011

In Defense of Shyamalan Preaching

Back in 2004, M. Night Shyamalan released his movie The Village.  And I went to see it because, like most of the nation at that time, I had not yet fully realized that Mr. Shyamalan was a one-trick-pony who was going to make increasingly horrible movies financed with the credit that is our increasingly begrudging continued respect for The Sixth Sense.

This one-trick that Mr. Shyamalan rode to fame was the plot twist, especially towards the end of the movie.  So, in The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis was really dead the whole time.  In Unbreakable, Bruce Willis was really a superhero the whole time.  And in Signs, Mel Gibson was really Bruce Willis the whole time.  I think.  I never actually saw Signs.

So by the time The Village came out, we all knew how this guy's movies worked.  Something was not going to be as it seemed.  Crazy twisty twists were going to happen and we would have to reevaluate everything we'd seen in the movie thus far.  And, like most people in the theater that day, because I knew that a twist was coming, I immediately went into The Village trying to figure out what it would be.

And figure it out I did in the first five minutes.  You see, the setup of The Village is that a bunch of old timey people are living in an old timey town and are all afraid of a bunch of monsters living in the woods.  And so, before the inciting incident, I thought to myself, "oh, the twist is obviously that they're only pretending to live in old timey times and the monsters are just made up to scare the kids away from the modern world."  

And once I figured that out, watching the remaining 103 minutes of The Village became a virtually unbearable experience.  It was like having to sit on your couch for an hour and a half while all of your friends and family gathered in your room, turned off the lights, then turned them back on and shouted "happy birthday" to commence the surprise party you knew they were throwing for you the whole time.

So the moral of the story is that if your audience knows you're going to pull the rug out from underneath them, you'd better make sure that they don't know precisely how you're going to do it.  At least, that's the moral of the story when it comes to three or five act story structure.  And that's why, in great part, M. Night Shyamalan is a really terrible filmmaker.

But when it comes to two part sermon structure, when it comes to Law and Gospel preaching, I don't think this rule applies so much.  In fact, I think there's great value in being a Shyamalan preacher.  Because unlike the job of a thriller filmmaker, the job of a pastor isn't to take you someplace that you never imagined you'd go.  His job is to take you exactly where he takes you each week: to the cross of Jesus Christ.

Look at it this way:

A pastor is preaching on the Parable of the Tenants.  And the setup, he tells us, is that we are all tenants of God's vineyard who have sinned against the ones God has sent to collect His fruit.  God sent us pastors to harvest from our hearts repentance and faith by preaching the Word to us.  But we abused them by refusing to turn from our sins and treating our pastors cruelly.  And in doing all of this, we, as tenants of that vineyard, are guilty of having killed the Master's Son.

So that's the scenario that the pastor presents.  That's the setup.  But because the pastor preaching this is a good pastor who won't walk out of the pulpit until he preaches the forgiveness of sins, the twist comes in.  And yet, the pastor tells us, through this very same death, the Son forgives those who put Him to death.  Through the blood that those wicked tenants force out of His veins, the Son erases their wickedness, undoes their despising of the preached Word and the preaching office, and gives them the right to join Him in His everlasting vineyard.

So who saw that coming?  Who expected that twist in the story?  Well, pretty much everyone who's heard this guy preach before.  They know that his story isn't going to end with sin ruling the day.  They know that his movie isn't going to conclude until Christ has drowned the sinner's sin in His blood.  They know that the sermon won't end until the twist occurs where the sins condemned become the sins forgiven.  And they know all that because that's what the pastor does every week.  Just like M. Night Shyamalan in The Village, his writing is really predictable and anyone who's paying attention already knows where he's going long before he gets there.

And that's exactly how it should be.  Because the Gospel is always different forms of the same story with the same twist and the same ending.  It shouldn't have come as a surprise to the Jews when John identified Christ as the Lamb whose blood would cause the wrath of His Father to pass over the sins of His people because that's the plot twist they'd heard every single time they celebrated the Passover.  It shouldn't have come as a shock when Caiaphas prophesied that Christ's death would forgive the sins of the world since that was the big reveal that had already been revealed a bagillion times throughout the Old Testament.  Nicodemus shouldn't have been caught off guard at the twist that God would save people through faith in the Son of God lifted up and made into sin for them because that's exactly the same twist God used when He had Moses lift up the Bronze Serpent in the wilderness.  So, to put it quite simply, if God's preaching is this predictable, ours should be too.

Granted, the same thing that happened to me when I went to see The Village is bound to happen when pastors preach in such a predictable manner.  People will get bored, roll their eyes, and mentally check out because they already know where their pastor is going.  But that's not a preaching problem.  It's a listening problem.  We only do that because our sinful nature will take any chance it gets to close our ears and ignore the Word of God.  Boredom is perhaps the most frequently used name on Unbelief's fake ID.  

But if ever a pastor encounters this reaction to the predictability of his preaching, he ought to consider it a blessing, a wonderful cross to carry, because it means that he's preached the Gospel so much that people just assume he's going to do it again.  If our world is facing a dearth of good filmmaking, M. Night Shyamalan is certainly not the answer.  But if our world is facing a dearth of good preaching, and it certainly is, a few more Shyamalan preachers would go pretty far in turning that around.

Peace out, cub scouts.

3 comments:

predigtamt said...

Oddly enough, I just this day made a post about the dangers of 2KR, in which I said roughly the same thing. Although I didn't have any Bruce Willis references. I'm kind of sad about that now.
http://predigtamt.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/law-and-gospel-are-good-enough-for-me/

RealityCheck said...

Christianity sure has loots of blood in it. Isn't that kind of barbaric and gross in this day and age?

Luke said...

Eugene L. Lowry, in his book, The Homiletical Plot, compares a sermon to a typical television series plot.

A typical movie plot begins with a felt discrepancy and works toward an unknown resolution. The typical tv series plot also begins with a felt discrepancy, but works toward a known conclusion. The unknown in the tv series plot is the middle, not the end.

So when I watch a Star Trek episode, I know that at the end Kirk, Spock, and McCoy will return to the Enterprise and continue their mission. When I watch a Rawhide episode, I know that at the end Gil Favor, Rowdy Yates, and Wishbone will mount their horses and hit the trail. How the characters reach this predictable conclusion is what changes each week.

Likewise when I listen to a sermon, I know that at the end the Father will send his Son, the Son will win my salvation, and the Spirit will create faith in my heart. The only difference from week to week is how the particular sermon text leads us to this predictable, blessed conclusion.