Sad Songs and Specific Sermons

By Bob Hiller

In the unfortunately titled but always intriguing Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell offers a theory about why country music can do sad songs and rock and roll can’t. He says it is because country music is specific. In the episode, “The King of Tears, he compares “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones and “Boulder to Birmingham” by Emmylou Harris. Both songs were written while the artists were coping with sorrow. The rumor goes that Mick Jagger wrote “Wild Horses” while his then girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, was seemingly dying from an overdose (she lived). He sat by her bedside and sang “Wild Horses couldn’t tear me away.” The comment is general. It can be applied to any number of circumstances. It’s sad, sure, but it doesn’t really churn your guts. (Jagger says it was actually written by Keith Richards, himself, and Gram Parsons).

Harris’ song, on the other hand, is quite specific in its lyrics. Written after she found out about the death of, interestingly enough, Gram Parsons, Harris doesn’t sing about some metaphorical wild horse trying to drag her away from someone. Rather, she writes about being on an airplane, while on an actual airplane and then walking from one specific city—Boulder, CO, home of all things hippy and progressive (according to Gladwell)—to another specific city—Birmingham, AL, center of stuck in the mud, backward thinking, (again, according to Gladwell). She would willingly walk from a place of her ideals to a place that might set her back just to see Parson’s face. The places, the situation, both are very specific. The specificity of it, coupled with Harris’ voice (which, unlike Jagger’s, can rip your heart out) really drives the song home.

Now, whether you agree with Gladwell’s views of Boulder and Birmingham is beside the point. Where Gladwell is on to something is in his take on specificity. Country music is more effective in making us sad because it is so specific. It doesn’t deal in generalities or abstractions; it deals in real life situations, truly sad scenarios, and concrete problems that people are facing. You can make fun of country music, saying if you play it backwards you get your dog, your car, your job, and your wife back. But the reason people identify with country music is because we’ve all, at some point, lost very specific dogs, cars, jobs, and wives (or husbands). Specificity matters.

This got me thinking about preaching and pastoral ministry (doesn’t everything?). Does specificity matter when it comes to our sermons? Can’t we just throw out some clichés and truisms and have folks figure out how they apply? If I preach about the Law and how it is supposed to work, have I done my job as a preacher? If I explain the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus with metaphors and theories (all of which truly do matter), have I given a proper sermon? I don’t think so. I am becoming more and more convinced that our preaching must fight against the abstract and strive for the specific.

This past weekend, my father retired from full-time ministry. He had been a pastor for 40 years and served the same congregation (which he planted) for the past 36 years. It was a wonderful weekend of memories, tears, laughter, and hope for the future. I was struck by how often people used the word “grace” to describe my father’s ministry. But that abstraction had specific applications. His sermons, they said, were full of grace because they always delivered Jesus to sinners. He was always present, no matter what people were facing. And everyone had a specific story or instance of when he was there. He was present with grace. They knew he loved them specifically because of the way he preached and served them in their very specific situations.

Then, on Sunday, the importance of the specific stood out in his final sermon. He spent a great deal of time recounting the life of the church—the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows. But I was really struck when he began to talk about the future. He became very direct in speaking to the concerns, fears, and even sins of the people. He knew exactly how they would respond moving forward, and his remarks were directed right at those attitudes. And then, of course, he preached the Gospel and pointed everyone to Christ. That sermon made an impact on that church, not because it was so wonderfully dynamic, full of wonderful biblical truths and doctrinal purity (which it was), but because it was so specific.

Now, this sort of thing may begin to sound like I’m going to say that we should avoid theological abstractions or doctrine. Of course we shouldn’t dismiss those. But if Gerhard Forde is right about anything, it is that theological precision and purity are not ends unto themselves. Theology is for proclamation. It is for the people of God. Having good theology for its own sake is like making an incredible plate of cookies that you lock up in a jar, only to take out and admire. Who cares if you make good cookies if you don’t serve anyone? What does it matter if we are really good at defining the atonement if we don’t actually declare, “It was God’s wrath against your specific sins which Jesus took in your place. He died for you.”? Pure doctrine is to be preached for sinners, not admired for its own sake.

Here is where specificity matters in pastoral ministry. We aren’t going to know what specific sins our congregations need attacked and how to best deliver the goods of the cross unless we are present in foxholes with them. We must be beside the people of God, down in the weeds, learning their struggles, sins, joys, and fears if we are ever going to give sermons that do more than merely teach. We need not deal merely with sin as a theological concept, but the actual idols being produced by the hearts of the hearers. What’s more, we need not describe how amazing grace is; we need to actually absolve the sinner in front of us. But how will we know how to preach unless we are present?

Consider some hot topic examples. It does little good to merely talk about racism or homosexuality from the pulpit. Turning such sins into abstractions only produces pride or despair (not the repentant kind, the hopeless kind). We do our people a disservice when we preach about racism but don’t call out the racist. We let fear and despair take over when we talk about homosexuality but don’t actual offer any hope or forgiveness to the gay person in the third pew. It is worth recalling that when Paul writes against a man knowing his father’s wife…um…biblically, that adulterous couple was likely holding hands in the front row of the sanctuary! (I Corinthian 5:1-11)

Specific preaching from the text of Scripture for the flesh and blood congregation is what Christ has given us to do. After all, ours is a God who deals in specifics. The devil is the one who tries to relegate Jesus to some manifestation of a universal religious myth. Our God sheds very specific blood of a very specific Jew on a very specific cross on a specific Friday in order to grant forgiveness to very specific sinners. That is, it was shed specifically for you!