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The Rev. Dr. Jim Somerville The Rev. Dr. James Somerville

The Rev. Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, VA.

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Dr. Jim Somerville: Whatever Happened to Fire and Brimstone?

July 02, 2011

Here's a piece I wrote several years ago, after a hot summer Sunday when the air conditioner wasn't working at church.  Enjoy!

In Garrison Keillor's fictional boyhood home of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, air conditioning (A/C) was placed in the same category of suspicion as "dishwashers, automatic transmissions, frozen dinners, and liberal theologians," but until last Sunday I didn't understand why.

For reasons too complicated to explain we didn't have A/C at my church last Sunday and things began to get a little warm.  With the temperature nearing 90 degrees outside it was well above 80 inside.  Women with flushed faces began using their church bulletins as fans.  Men pulled off their jackets and loosened their ties.  Children squirmed in the pews.  And then the heat began to have another effect: it began to make people drowsy.  From the pulpit I could see heads nodding, eyelids beginning to close, and there, halfway through the sermon and desperate for an audience, I got what I can only describe as a "fire and brimstone" feeling:

I wanted to preach LOUD!

The way I see it preachers used to face a regular problem with the heat, especially in the South.  Even with the windows up and the funeral home fans flying, a southern summer Sunday morning could sap the attentive powers of an entire congregation.  A wasp bumping lazily across the ceiling would be enough to distract them.  A dramatic pause in the sermon and half of them might drop off to sleep.

Naturally, the preacher began to raise his voice, just to wake them up, and for a while that was enough ("...and MOSES saith unto PHARAOH, 'Let my people GO!'").  But people get used to things, and they eventually got used to loud preaching.  So the preacher began to punctuate his sermon by pounding on the pulpit ("...and MOSES [Bam!] saith unto PHARAOH [Bam!], 'Let my people GO!' [Bam! Bam!]").  But they got used to that, too.  Until finally the preacher had not choice but to preach on matters of life and death, Heaven and Hell ("...CAST them [Bam!] into the FURNACE [Bam! Bam!] of FIRE [Bam! Bam! (and) BAM!!]").  And that worked.  That kept the congregation awake.  And it was in that context that one of the great homiletical punch lines of all time was developed: "You think it's hot NOW!..."*

But then along came A/C, and suddenly those same people who had been dozing off before were sitting upright in the pews, wide awake, with eager, attentive expressions on their faces.  Preachers found to their amazement that they could speak in their normal voices, and even wander off into such tepid subjects as "Providence," or "Humility," while their listeners hung on every word.

As you might imagine that was the end of fire and brimstone preaching, and evidence enough that there is a closer connection to A/C and liberal theology than you might guess.  As Garrison Keillor says about some of the people who move away from Lake Wobegon: "They get A/C first thing and crank it up to Cold.  They drape themselves over it.  Then they find a church where God is the gentle mist rising from the meadow and the smile on a child's face.

"They don't want to get sweaty anymore if they can help it."**

---------------
*Little wonder that the wide band of fervent faith known as the "Bible Belt" stretches across the sultry South and not the lukewarm North; those Southerners have had just about all the heat they can take!

**Lake Wobegon Days, p. 132

[Taken with permission from Jim's blog, originally posted June 15, 2011.]


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