Junk Food from the Pulpit

donutsIn 1960, approximately 14% of adults in the United States could be classified as obese. By 2008, the prevalence of obesity had risen to one-third. Public-health researchers have estimated that, if the current trends continue, more than half of the American population will be obese in 2030.

Why have our waistlines been expanding so dramatically? Experts agree that there is no single reason; drivers of the obesity epidemic are multifactorial and complex. But one of the crucial factors is our increased consumption of foods that are energy-dense and nutrient-poor. Energy-dense, nutrient-poor is the technical descriptor for what we commonly call junk food: fare that delivers large amounts of calories (mainly from carbohydrates and fats) but little protein, fiber, vitamins and other nourishing substances that our bodies need to stay healthy. Examples of these foods include pizza, french fries, and the classic American donut.

We crave these foods because they taste good. They bring instant gratification to our mouths and stomachs. But over the long term, an energy-dense, nutrient-poor diet leaves us paunchy, sluggish and malnourished. If we want to live long, prosperous and healthy lives, we would do well to limit our consumption of these things in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.

Not_as_CrazyAre there parallels to junk food in Christian discipleship? The answer is yes, according to Randal Rauser, a fortysomething associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta. In Chapter 2 of his 2009 book titled You’re Not As Crazy As I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions, Rauser draws a powerful analogy between junk food and certain kinds of preaching that are popular in the evangelical world. The kind of preaching that can make a crowd of like-minded believers stand up and cheer, because the guy at the podium is “telling it like it is.” The kind of preaching that seems powerful because the speaker exudes a charismatic confidence.  The characteristics of this kind of preaching include

  • passion – the speaker displays love for is beliefs;
  • conviction –he shows  a high degree of certainty that what he is saying is correct; and
  • simplicity – he makes his points in ways that are easy to understand, so that his message becomes as plain as day.

If a speaker displays these traits, many will instinctively think he is truthful and trustworthy. Indeed, these are some of the marks of Jesus Christ. All four of the gospels portray Jesus as a man who spoke with remarkable passion, conviction and simplicity.

If we are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, then shouldn’t we proclaim the truth as we see it with a Christlike degree of confidence? Not really, claims Rauser.  The reason is that we are not Jesus.  Although we should strive to be like him, we must do so recognizing that we are fundamentally different from him. Jesus is God and we are not. Jesus is sinless and we are not. Jesus had special knowledge that we do not have, a knowledge that came from his intimate relationship with his Father and his complete openness and submission to the Holy Spirit. There is a role for confidence in the Christian life, but it ought to be what Lesslie Newbigin called a “Proper Confidence” – a firm commitment to believing that Jesus Christ is the source of all truth, tempered by the recognition that because we are finite and fallen, we often cannot see that truth clearly.

billy_sunday_2As a primary illustration, Rauser uses the example of Billy Sunday  (1862-1935). Sunday was the most influential  American evangelist of the early 20th century. During the 1880’s, Sunday played professional baseball for the Chicago White Sox (then called the White Stockings) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (then called the Alleghenys). One day in Chicago, Sunday heard the gospel being preached at the Pacific Garden Mission and entrusted his life to Christ. A few years later, he sacrificed his career in baseball for full-time ministry and evangelism. By the early 1900’s, Sunday was crisscrossing the United States, preaching to large crowds at tent revival meetings.

Billy Sunday’s preaching was anything but boring. He combined the evangelistic zeal of Dwight Moody with the one-line zingers of comedian Rodney Dangerfield and the onstage antics of the rock band The Who. He would shout, leap from the piano, run up and down the aisles. Using the moves he learned in baseball, he would slide across the stage floor as if he were sliding into home plate. Sunday’s sermons were filled with memorable sound bytes, like this one which is still in circulation today:

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.

Billy Sunday’s preaching was fervently evangelistic. At his urging, many people were converted to a living faith in Jesus Christ. From the pulpit, he also railed against the evils of theater, dancing, gambling and drinking. His opposition to alcohol was deeply personal. In early childhood, he suffered abuse at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather. Sunday became a crusader for Prohibition, leading the effort to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920. Even after the social experiment had clearly failed and Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Sunday remained a staunch opponent of legalized drinking and continued to lobby for Prohibition until his death.

Sunday never attended a seminary and had no sympathy for what he called “liberal scholarship.” With a broad brush, he painted the scholars of his day as enemies of the truth. He proclaimed,

When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell.

He also adopted a hardline stance against the scientific theory of evolution, which he equated with atheism and godlessness. From the pulpit, he assured his audiences that Charles Darwin was burning in hell. Evolution, according to Sunday, was for “godless bastards and godless losers,” and those who wanted to teach it in schools were poisoning the minds of youth. He said:

I don’t believe the old bastard theory of evolution… If you believe your great, great grand-daddy was a monkey, then you can take your daddy and go to hell with him.

Although Billy Sunday had his critics, many more regarded him as a religious folkhero, a spiritual giant and champion for truth.

Is Sunday an exemplary preacher whom we ought to emulate? Randal Rauser doesn’t think so. Rauser writes (emphases mine):

As I have suggested, this way of identifying the seeker of truth – that is, by looking for blinding passion, unshakable conviction, and a simple clarity – is enormously tempting. It is like shopping for a restaurant by seeking the most caloric bang for your buck. Unfortunately, even if this method has its attractions, it is a very poor way to choose a nourishing meal: fast food may load you up with calories, but it offers very little by way of nourishing content. And so it is often for those who trumpet truth but have no appreciation for their own limitations of vision or fallibility, let alone the complexity of issues they address. Take in a Billy Sunday sermon, and you would get loaded up on a high caloric count of passion conviction and refreshing simplicity, but you would find a disappointingly low level of cognitive nutrition. In order to find a worthwhile meal, you cannot limit your criteria to the cheapest price and highest calorie count, for this is not sufficient for the body or mind. In the same way, when we are seeking truth, we cannot allow ourselves to be persuaded simply by passion, conviction and simplicity. The truthful person just may be the one whose passion is subtle, whose conviction is understated, and whose appreciation for clarity comes nuanced in qualifications that are necessary to capture an often messy reality.

I believe much of the truth passion that is currently gripping evangelicals… is but more of that Billy Sunday spirit that quashes critical distance, doubt and complexity by silencing it with passion, conviction and simplicity.

I strongly agree with Rauser. Passion, conviction and simplicity can be positive, but they are not necessarily the marks of good teaching, and in many cases they can mask immaturity and arrogance. If our goal is to become the kind of disciples who can make tough decisions and discern truth in a complicated and pluralistic world – the kind of Christians who can engage in thoughtful, open dialogue with people of different beliefs and live as winsome witnesses of Jesus Christ in diverse situations – then Billy Sunday-style preaching won’t get us there. Yes, that kind of preaching may reinforce our present beliefs and give us comfort and assurance that we are in the right. But it encourages us to disengage from and dismiss those with whom we disagree. It leaves little room for healthy doubt or self-criticism that are necessary for wisdom and maturity. It offers us the seductive illusion that we are God’s warriors, standing boldly for him on the side of truth, while discouraging us from developing the inner qualities of a person who actually seeks truth.

I have no reason to doubt that Billy Sunday was a sincere believer. I’m sure that God used him to draw many people to Christ. But that doesn’t make him a model for Christian discipleship. Nor does it imply that a steady diet of his teaching can bring anyone to spiritual maturity.

Consider this: If a person is literally starving, then giving him a box of donuts could save his life. But feeding him boxes of donuts day after day might eventually kill him.



  1. Thanks, Joe, for this enlightening piece. Several things that jarred me and caused me to reassess my stance as a Christian over the past decade are the following:

    * I am part of God’s special elite forces, specially called and chosen by God for His divine purpose. (The problem is I began to disparage all those who were “less” than what I felt they should be.)

    * Are you in or are you out? (Unless you are “in” like me, you’re out!)

    * It’s either my way or the highway.

    * You either shape up or you ship out.

    I mentored and discipled young Christians in such a way for over 2 decades. It is truly only the grace of God that I still have a few friends left, even among those who put up with my elitism and my overweening hubristic condescension toward anything and anyone who is not “up to par.”

  2. Joe Schafer

    Billy Sunday was mentioned this week in an article in the Wall Street Journal as a forerunner of Mark Driscoll. Sunday routinely railed against (what he perceived to be) the feminization and sissification of the church. He said:

    “Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.”


  3. Joe Schafer

    Another interesting fact I learned about Billy Sunday is that he probably didn’t practice what he preached. After his death, some people who were gathering up his belongings discovered in his home a collection of jazz records and brandy snifters. It appears that he sometimes enjoyed listening to the devil’s music and drinking the devil’s juice.

    And the messages that he shouted from the pulpit didn’t lead to positive outcomes in the lives of the people who were closest to him. All three of his sons died tragic and violent deaths (a suicide, a car crash and a plane crash) and alcohol was a factor in all three.

  4. Very sobering. Reminds me of Exo 20:5 (Dt 5:9). I know that who I truly am before my four kids in the privacy of our home (rather than in church) is the most crucial influencing factor on their formative years of life.

    • Joe Schafer

      Ben, I agree with what you just said, but I don’t want anyone to draw the wrong conclusion.

      Some might say, “If Billy Sunday had truly practiced at home what he preached in the church, never drinking alcohol or listening to jazz music, then his kids would have turned out okay.”

      There are no guarantees that our children will follow in our footsteps, or that their lives will turn out in any specific way, based on anything that we do or fail to do. They exercise their own wills and have a great deal of freedom, as we do.

      What I took away from this story was further
      evidence for something that I already believed: That teaching and preaching rules of behavior (do not drink, do not smoke, do not swear, do not date, stop looking at internet pornography, …) is a poor method of Christian discipleship. Even if the behaviors you rail against are truly sinful and destructive, such teaching lacks power to transform.

      Billy Sunday did preach the gospel in the way he knew how. But when it came to his pet issues, I think he went 0-for-3, or he struck out, depending on the sports metaphor you choose. History is not on his side.

      1. The 18th Amendment was a dismal failure.

      2. Evolution is taught in every public school, and more and more American evangelicals are coming to believe (as Catholics, Orthodox, mainline Protestants and European evangelicals) that the theory of evolution, and science in general, pose no serious threat to the essentials of the Christian faith. Accepting evolution would mean we have to rethink some aspects of our theology, especially how we approach Scripture, but we ought to be rethinking those things anyway.

      3. More and more evangelicals are recognizing how destructive it is to dismiss serious study, acting as though one man with commonsense and a Bible in his hands has better access to truth than all those highfalutin’ scholars in their ivory towers. That simply isn’t true.

      The gospel that Billy Sunday preached will always endure. But all the other condiments and causes that he piled on top of the gospel, thinking that they were matters of life or death, are gradually being repudiated.

    • Joe Schafer

      Here’s a quicker way of saying it.

      At home, Billy Sunday seems to have practiced a common sense that he didn’t proclaim from the pulpit. He occasionally drank alcohol and listened to jazz music. In other words, he was just a regular guy, not a super-spiritual hero. And God loved him just as he was.

      Rather than bringing the unreality of his church-values into his home, it would have been better for him to bring the reality of his home-values into church.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Joe. I fully agree that living right in our own Christian life does not guarantee that our kids will.

    I especially agree with this: “teaching and preaching rules of behavior (do not drink, do not smoke, do not swear, do not date, stop looking at internet pornography, …) is a poor method of Christian discipleship. Even if the behaviors you rail against are truly sinful and destructive, such teaching lacks power to transform.” – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2013/12/13/junk-food-from-the-pulpit/#comment-11698

    My hope and prayer for UBF is that we will move away from primarily imperative preaching and teaching that I do not believe really works for the long haul. Telling UBF people to constantly “make disciples,” “feed sheep,” “teach the Bible” for 50 years and counting simply does not touch or change anyone’s heart, simply because there is no Christ and no gospel with such imperative commands and emphasis. Can’t we see that?

  6. “…it would have been better for him to bring the reality of his home-values into church.” – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2013/12/13/junk-food-from-the-pulpit/#comment-11699 That’s probably why I have been constantly expressing just how much I love my cats, movies, sports, drinks, having fun, and my wife (not in this order!).