If you have spent any time in the academic (or quasi-academic) setting of seminaries and divinity schools in the South, you have probably heard this phrase. To be sure, this phrase can be heard in other settings (a Sunday School discussion, at a softball game, talking about politics in the grocery store), but the classroom setting is where I hear it most often. One of my classes this semester is Greek Readings in Luke being taught by Dr. Jim McConnell. This is a class in which I ask a lot of questions; most of them posed in the form of "why would the writer use X instead of Y which would have gotten the point across just as well if not better," where X and Y can equal words, grammatical styles, or idioms. His response is often prefaced by, "this won't be anything that'll preach..." It's a running joke that we have. He knows the last thing I'd ever be doing in an academic setting is looking for something "that'll preach."
This banter, though, has gotten me cogitating on this unique phrase and its usage. What is usually meant by this phrase is something along the lines of, "Now that's a good piece of information that I can put into a sermon and make a great point about." I think the intent is almost always benign. The result, though, is often half-thought-through points that become highlighted because they reaffirm a view or belief that the person already held. Two marquee examples come to mind.
- That one of the Greek words for love, agapao, means something along the lines of a divine love, an unconditional love. This is in direct opposition to other Greek words for love, such as phileo and eros (where phileo means "brotherly love," think Philadelphia and eros means "erotic love"). The point that is often made is that Jesus loves in an agapao manner while humans love in a phileo manner or, God forbid, an eros manner. The simple fact, though, is that there is no major distinction between how these terms are used within the New Testament.
- That Jesus always spoke in the perfect. This is a bit more of a joke, though, undoubtedly some take it seriously. Greek has 7 tenses, one of which is called perfect, which simply means that the action has been completed (as opposed to incomplete action or ongoing action, for instance). The point is then made that Jesus only spoke in the perfect tense because, well, it's perfect.
Now I know that many, if not most, of the students in my divinity school are on the lookout for something "that'll preach" while sitting in class. I think this is a disservice to the teaching that is going on and the potential learning that could be taking place as well. For, when we are looking for something "that'll preach" we necessarily are looking for tidbits of information that people in our church likely do not know and that will support some point we want to make in a sermon. This perspective then results in us ceasing to listen when we've heard something that we like, meaning that we often do not dig deeper to see if the point bears itself out under more stringent and closer examination.
I maintain that this is actually a rather large problem, and judging by its prevalence in my divinity school, it is infiltrating churches at a rapid pace. What is happening is that the academy is being used by the church to support their predilections and preconceived notions. Students are hearing/learning/knowing "just enough to be dangerous," as the saying goes. Students that have had one semester of Hebrew make claims about the Trinity being present in Genesis 1 and their churches eat it up, because, "hey, they've been to seminary and they know things that we don't."
The classroom is an academic setting that should be approached with that in mind, not with next Sunday's sermon. It is difficult for the gap to be bridged between the church and the academy if the church only listens to half of what the academy says and thinks they know more about the Bible than any professor or student who is only there for academic reasons.
I am certainly in the classroom for academic reasons, but that does not mean that I do not (or cannot as some think) read the Bible from a devotional/church perspective. I can and do, quite often. Very often what I have learned in the classroom makes it into a Bible study or sermon of mine, but this is because I learned the information first and my reading of the text was influenced by what I had learned, not because I had a view of the text and then hoped to back it up by quoting half of a statement by someone with a PhD. I do not pretend to have this balance perfectly figured out, for I certainly lean toward the academic side. This, however, should not preclude me from speaking to the harm that many are doing in countless churches because they are more interested in finding something "that'll preach" than in actually learning something, that may or may not influence their current position.
P.S. I fully expect you to speak of this post to someone with the phrase, "Now that'll preach!"