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Of Polls and Preachers

So as not to be found unwilling to follow my own admonition to my preaching students (I tell them they “must read 3 books a week for the rest of your life” in order to continually improve their preaching effectiveness), one of my three books this week is Charles Seife’s Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers. Seife’s book is nothing short of fascinating and should be read by all, but especially preachers. Preachers must make sure their “facts” tell the truth!

“If you want to get people to believe something really, really stupid, just stick a number on it,” Seife intones. The moment you slap a number on things, silly absurdities become plausible to gullible people, even the not-so-gullible. All kinds of misinformation lurk in everything from product labels to polls. For some reason, most of us are addicted to the stupefying combination of numbers and credibility. For example, consider the 2004 study done by zoologists, geographers, and public health experts. They analyzed the performance of athletes in the 100 meter dash in the Olympics and discovered a striking pattern. Male and female sprinters were gaining speed over the years. Female sprinters were gaining slightly more percentage speed than men. When graphed, several interesting conclusions emerge: women will surpass men in speed around the year 2156. But it gets better! By the year 2224, women will be running the 100 meter dash in 7 seconds (32 miles per hour). By 2600 they will break the sound barrier and not too long after that, relatively speaking, they would break the speed of light, travel back in time, and win races before they even begin! “Absurd” you say! Indeed it is, but such is the legerdemain of numbers.

One of the leading sources of “proofiness” in society today is polls. The American electorate is likely to be inundated with them between now and November. Seife describes a poll as “a factory of authoritative sounding nonsense.” Polls are a journalistic invention, perhaps going back as far as 1824. It is not difficult to discern the reason all journalists today are infatuated with polls: they help create news. Journalists have to write about something. When there is no news event, they sometimes find ways to create a “pseudo-event” and declare it newsworthy. “Pseudo-events” make for good “pseudo-news,” something in which our American culture is currently awash.

It is not difficult to discern the reason all journalists today are infatuated with polls: they help create news.

Polls are imperfect measuring sticks that can be easily manipulated according to the purpose of the pollster. Everything from the “margin of error” to “randomness” to “how questions are worded,” not to mention other factors, skew poll results. Whether the question contains the term “pro-life” or “anti-abortion”; whether the words “collateral damage” or “dead civilians” are used; whether a sitting President’s first and last name or the honorific “President” followed by the last name are used; can totally reverse poll results. Seife concludes that the news media regularly act with reckless disregard for the truth. Facts are often manipulated to foster someone’s version of the “truth.”

Polls are imperfect measuring sticks that can be easily manipulated according to the purpose of the pollster.

What does all this have to do with the preacher? Much in every way. Preachers don’t have to poll their congregations to find out what topics need to be preached. We already have a “more sure word of prophecy” than any poll: it’s called the Bible. The Word of God contains no “margin of error” with respect to its conclusions. Whatever it says you can bet your life is accurate to the tee. Preach it! Though the Bible is inerrant; preachers are not. The facts of the Bible are, for the most part, perspicuous. Nevertheless, the spadework of exegesis undergirded by sound hermeneutical principles is a necessary precursor to sound expository preaching. Failure in this area might lead the preacher to inadvertently “skew” the teachings of Scripture and present the wrong message to the congregation. As with polls, our methodology in sermon preparation must be sound or we might just tell some unsuspecting congregation somewhere the theological equivalent of Olympic sprinters someday breaking the sound barrier!

Preachers must also beware of bringing a presupposed theological grid to the text of Scripture and superimposing it over our reading and preaching of that text. Remember: exegesis first, then theology. There can be no true theology apart from the foundation of exegesis. Otherwise, you might have the “facts” of the Bible right, but misconstrue its truth!

We already have a “more sure word of prophecy” than any poll: it’s called the Bible.

Let’s make sure we always are devoted to “rightly dividing the Word of truth.” After all, we want our preaching to be “text-driven” and not agenda-driven; that is, we should want nothing more or less than God’s agenda in our preaching. Tilting too much to either side of the more or less will land our preaching in “Propaganda Swamp.”

And don’t forget – there is a 92 percent chance I am right!

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David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry

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