During the 1960s and early 70s, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a weekly column that was entirely comprised of reviews of sermons given by Philadelphia pastors. The column's format was identical to those that reviewed movies or plays, reporting pastoral hits, misses, and yawns with a soupcon of humor and humility. These reviews, believe it or not, were fun to read.
I am sorry to say that I don't remember the columnist's name, and the occasion of my reading his columns was entirely accidental and unimportant: I found them in a bound volume in the stacks at Walter Library at the University of Minnesota. It was a quirky enough discovery to sidetrack me for several hours then, and to remain in my memory now, 30 years later.
The Inquirer's columnist focused on mainline congregations, primarily, I suppose, because evangelical churches were fewer in number in those days and fewer still in northern urban areas. Consequently, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Roman Catholics received most of the attention, along with the occasional Baptist and Latter-Day Saint, but the Nazarenes, Assemblies of God, and Witnesses received nary a mention.
Common themes running through the sermons -- and reported in the columns -- centered on the values of working, saving, and denying the flesh. If anyone was having a good time, only the Episcopalians showed it; indeed, their openness to fun has been fully reported by John Updike, John Cheever, and a host of other (now dead) New Yorker writers.
Pastors weren't quite sure what to make of Vietnam. They worried about cities emptying out of white people, but they stood four-square behind civil rights. Aspects of Liberation Theology -- concerns about economic equity and power -- began to creep into Roman Catholic sermons, but one priestly sermon focused entirely on the bad example that Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were setting for America's youth. I vaguely remember that the title of the sermon was "What About Poor Debbie?"
If you're old enough to know who poor Debbie is, you probably remember that churches and pastors became increasingly involved in the anti-war movement as the 70s unfolded. When I came back from Vietnam, I was astonished by the ferocity of opinion regarding the war, and by how involved clergy had become in the various movements of the day. But that was a long time ago.
One of my teachers from that era commented frequently that the only things worth talking about -- in order of importance -- are God, sex, power, and money. I have found that largely true, but I have also found that almost every topic of conversation falls into one of those categories. That was true in the 70s and it is true today. What may be different today is the order of importance. The world's greatest novelist, Dostoevsky, was concerned almost exclusively with ideas about God, as were the best English-language writers, interestingly: Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O'Connor. Books about money and power may sell well, but I can't think of a single memorable author with those as recurring themes. Can you?
All these recollections have given rise to an amusing idea: why doesn't one of you resurrect the sermon-review column, hypothetically called "A Month of Sundays," and give our local vicars a run for their money? There are many things I'd like to know, including why all contemporary church songs sounds like country-western music, and whether there is any fun in fundamentalism. Surely, these would be interesting sermon topics.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more