On Sunday April 21, 1912, Karl Barth preached a sermon entitled “On the Sinking of the Titanic.” The entire text of the sermon is available online (reproduced in 2007 by The Princeton Seminary Bulletin). The “official” text of the sermon is on Psalm 103.15-17, but the actual text of the sermon – in terms of focus – is something else entirely.
Before I begin blasting Barth’s choice of text, a few details can help situate the sermon. In the spring of 1912, Barth had been out of seminary for about a year and was about a year from getting married. This is clearly not the Barth of his 1919 Romans commentary and he’s decades away from his mature, voluminous, magisterial theological Church Dogmatics which remained unfinished when he died in 1968. So, 1912 is well before he makes his decisive turn against his own weak-kneed liberal education, which he later rejected it in virtually every way.
The 1912 Barth is one who had swallowed whole the liberal Christianity of his professors, and this sermon shows how weak it was. There are comments interspersed throughout the sermon that the later Barth would have re-read in horror just a decade later. I say all of this to clarify that the purpose of this post is not to indict Barth, or his preaching, generally, but rather a critique of this sermon specifically.
Admitting to being preoccupied with the news in the days leading up to the sermon, he confidently asserted that this event “should speak to us” since “God speaks in this way even through a tragedy .. and we cannot fail to hear” (p. 210). He then proceeds to highlight the details of the sinking of the Titanic.
Notice first the title “On the sinking of the Titanic.” On the positive side, it’s transparent. At least he’s showing the content of his sermon. On the negative side, however, comments on the Titanic should never be the content of a sermon. The occasion might be an exercise in discussing morality, poor planning, trouble with big business, extravagance, or any number of other topics that Barth discusses, but a sermon it is not.
Admittedly, I think that there might be occasions when a current event might loom large in a service. For example, after 9/11 – in New York city or Washington, DC – I think a sermon or service that acknowledges such a life-altering event in the lives of a church’s members might be – with great pastoral sensitivity – be worthy of a moment of elevated attention, but it should not be the content of a sermon. But, these occasions – of elevated attention – would be extremely rare. How rare? Once in a lifetime. Maybe. Probably never.
To be even more specific: Suppose the leader of your country is assassinated or Israel bombs Iran, or vice-versa, or Martians finally do land a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico, or the Chicago Cubs do finally win the World Series … none of these merit a sermon. None. Might they necessitate a comment? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Would they need sustained reflection? A pastor in Roswell might be inclined – especially if the Martians visited on Sunday – but a pastor in Richmond, Virginia? No.
I suppose there’s a bit of sermonic calculus going on in my brain, where I take relevance x by distance, curved for percentage of the congregation affected, + relationship to the edification of the saints = never, never, never (!) would I preach a sermon on the sinking of the largest ship in the world. Never. And neither should you.
Replacing a biblical passage with a current event turns the current event, rather than Scripture’s record of God’s work in either the lives of his people or in the ministry of Jesus Christ, into the object of attention.
We have countless news outlets and a multitude of bloggers in pajamas to write, speak, and comment on current events. The time you get to preach should be used wisely.
My guess is that the mature Barth, the one who believed that a sermon was an essential element in the three-fold revelation of God, might have – in retrospect – used his own “current event as sermon” as proof of how shallow his theology was in 1912, and nodded approvingly that he eventually he had taken a grenade to it, leaving it behind, to sink into his distant past.
Barth was drawn to the Titanic story because of its ability to “speak” to his congregation. I wonder if Barth was merely admitting that in 1912 he didn’t really have much to say, so he relied on a current event to fill in the gap.
There is no doubt that a current event in the near future might appear worthy enough to be the topic of a sermon (or – gasp! – an entire sermon series). Resist the temptation. Don’t be fooled by the appearance. You have 66 books to choose from, any of which has multiple passages that will serve as a solid basis for a sermon. There is nothing as life-altering for your congregation than the testimony that God has acted in history to redeem sinners in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Messiah of Israel, Jesus Christ.
If you find yourself wondering what to preach to your congregation, struggling to know what they might find “relevant” to their lives, then consider Paul’s admonition to Timothy:
1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4.1-4).
Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.
Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.