Mark Woods: Why I'm backing Perry Noble
I'm with Perry Noble.
There, I've said it. Conservative critics have been lining up to put the boot into the South Carolina megachurch pastor after a Christmas Eve sermon in which he appeared to re-interpret the 10 Commandments out of existence, even going so far as to say that they weren't actually commandments anyway.
Now, I have no dog in this fight. I'm not an apologist for Perry Noble or his ministry, and I have no particular beef with conservative Christians who've criticised him.
But what bothers me about the condemnation he's faced is this: the assumption that biblical truth looks like one thing and one thing only, and the sense of betrayal evidenced when someone breaks from the party line.
Noble's observation that the 10 Commandments weren't actually labelled as such is warped into Noble saying that you don't have to keep them: it's OK to lie, steal and commit adultery. Is that what he believes? No, though you'd never think it judging by the outbreak of moral panic. Could that observation lead someone to lie, steal or commit adultery when they wouldn't have done so previously? The chances are vanishingly small, wouldn't you think? – and anyway, I thought we didn't do the right thing just because we're told to, but because we love God.
Then look at what he's actually said. "You shall have no other gods before me" becomes "You do not have to live in constant disappointment any more." That's frankly a bit of an exegetical stretch, but you can see where he's going. "You shall not make a graven image" becomes "You can be free from rituals and religion and trust in a relationship." A bit more defensible, that one. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" becomes "You can rest." That one is entirely reasonable.
And so on. The point is that all of these commandments invite questions and require interpretation in the light of today. If they don't get that, they become dead letters. Frankly, I cannot remember the last time I was tempted to bow down before a graven image and I don't even know anyone with an ox I could covet.
Another criticism Noble has faced is his use of "coarse and profane language" – possibly referring to an evident use of the n-word in his Christmas eve sermon, though he has form in this respect. Well: I am not relaxed about that. The word offends me, and I think if he did use it (there's some doubt) he shouldn't have.
However, I am completely relaxed about language which is not of the drawing-room standard if a) It's genuinely part of the pastor's personality and is the kind of language the congregation is comfortable with (I do not move in such circles myself); or, b) It's making a serious point. For instance, at a Christian convention the evangelist and social activist Tony Campolo once said: "First while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a sh*t. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night." Result.
(The other reason I'm relaxed about it is because I've read Church history. How would Noble's delicate critics fare if they were had to listen to Martin Luther, for instance, who famously described the Pope as "a turd squeezed from the Devil's arse"?)
These criticisms worry me, not because I think they'll damage Noble – who doesn't seem to let them bother him – but because of the mindset that might lie behind them. That mindset puts the adherence to a theological purity and doctrinal correctness defined by a particular sub-tribe of evangelical Protestants before anything else.
But here's the thing: that's not what I want from a sermon. I want someone with flair and imagination, someone who'll take risks and go off-piste. I want someone who'll speak without notes and enter into an emotional and dramatic relationship with the congregation. I don't mind if they aren't "right" about something. I have a Bible, I can read it myself.
Because I don't believe that preaching and Bible teaching are the same thing. If Perry Noble wrote a set of study notes saying that his version of the commandments was better than the Bible one, I'd worry. If he says in a sermon, "This is what 'You shall not steal' means today, and it's not what you £**@?* thought," I'm fine with that – because there's a preacher who's not parroting something from a book or retailing second-hand ideas, but telling me what he thinks. Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously described preaching as "logic on fire". Ideally there'd be both: but if I have to choose, give me the fire and I'll supply the logic for myself.
What are Noble's critics so afraid of? That someone, one Sunday, might actually say something new or interesting? And if so, what does that say about them?