I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” earlier this year—outstanding book. It was non-stop action from start to finish. The descriptive language used by Tolkien is nothing short of genius. The moment I finished the book, I wanted to watch the movie—or movies, as I found out. I ran to WalMart that evening and bought the Hobbit trilogy, started the blue-ray and sat back for what I knew was going to be a great evening—three great evenings. I’m not sure my wife is happy with me yet. Throughout the entire trilogy, I was constantly saying “They added that” or “That’s not how it went in the book” or “They aren’t even in the book at all” or “Man, the book was really more exciting there.” Well, I stand by my words—I was not lying. She finally read the book and now she’s a believer. I mean, how do you make three movies out of a 340-page book anyway? Artistic license…
Artistic license can be defined as “deviation from fact or form for artistic purposes. It can include alteration of the conventions of grammar or language, or the rewording of pre-existing text.” Artistic license is sometimes referred to as creative license, dramatic license, or poetic license. This is the means through which a great book became three below-average movies. You may not have read The Hobbit, but I’m certain we’ve all watched artistic license gone bad.
Why am I talking about artistic license on a pastor’s blog? I’m glad you asked, actually. As a pastor, my job is to be in touch—to read a lot of books—to listen to a bunch of sermons. If there’s part of that job I fail at it’s probably that last point—listening to a lot of sermons. I’ve tried. I have honestly tried. And I don’t mean to say there isn’t some good preaching out there. There is. There are some preachers seriously trying to expose the meaning of the text to their congregations. I appreciate exposition every time I hear it. That’s the way church leaders preached for centuries—really until somewhat recently.
However, what I hear far too often from preachers is artistic license—but unlike Hollywood directors, the text these preachers are mutilating is the God-breathed Scripture; the Bible; the Word of God. Whether a man is using his reference Bible to chase down a bunch of verses that happen to use the same word or he’s just using a verse as a springboard, the result is often the same. Far too many times a verse is read, divorced from its context and used to say something that it simply does not say. There are too many “I think’s” or even “God showed me” and not nearly enough “Thus says the Lord”. If there is no intent to teach the congregation what God has said in a passage, then whatever is being done is not Biblical preaching.
As an elder in a church, I do not have artistic license. I cannot make it up as I go. And for the record, I’m not a prophet. God literally gave the prophets—you know, Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the like—He literally gave them His Word to write down. The Bible is a complete book. Pastors are not prophets—a thousand times no. Certainly, we do pray that the Holy Spirit will open the text to us. However, this will only be done through rigorous study—while comparing Scripture with Scripture. God is not giving revelation today and He is not dropping ideas in the heads of men to share in the pulpit without proving it from the Bible. That’s not how it happens.
Sermons that begin with “God told me this” or “God gave me this sermon” trouble me. More times than not, that’s an early hint that something tragic is about to occur with the text of Scripture. Paul didn’t tell Timothy to wait around on Saturday evening until the Holy Spirit dropped a sermon in his head. And for the record, there’s no red light that goes off when my thoughts are just that—my ideas, and not the Holy Spirit’s. No—Paul’s clear instruction to Timothy is Paul’s instruction to pastors today—“Preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). We aren’t allowed to discriminate between books and passages. We are not allowed to preach our pet topics every week while ignoring so much more. If we make every effort to “Preach the Word”—all of it—we will feed the people what they need.
Folks, if Hollywood is taking a good book like the Hobbit and ruining it because of artistic license, what do you think preachers are doing with God’s Word when they do the same. Preacher, if you are unable to prove a point in your sermon from Scripture, don’t make the point. Church, if the man behind the pulpit is making a lot of statements that he isn’t backing up with the Bible, you need another man behind the pulpit. The Lord’s church is far too important to endure bad preaching. And eternity is far too long for people to be numbed to God’s Word by their own teachers.