During the 1960s and early 70s' the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a weekly column that was entirely comprised of reviews of sermons given by Philadelphia pastors. The column's format was identical to those that reviewed movies or plays and it reported pastoral hits, misses, and yawns, with a soupcon of humor and humility. These reviews, believe it or not, were fun to read.
I am sorry to say that I don't remember the columnist's name, and the occasion of my reading his columns was entirely accidental (and unimportant) except to say that they were found in a bound volume in the stacks of Walter Library at the University of Minnesota. It was a quirky enough discovery to sidetrack me for several hours then, and now, to recall 30 years later. My recollections are joined by an amused suggestion that one of you resurrect the column and give our local vicars a run for their money. May I suggest that the column's title be "A Month of Sundays"?
The Inquirer's columnist focused on mainline congregations, primarily I suppose, because evangelical churches were fewer in number in those days and fewer still in northern urban areas. Consequently, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Roman Catholics received most of the attention, along with the occasional Baptist and Latter Day Saint, but the Nazarenes, Assemblies of God, and Witnesses received nary a mention.
Common themes running through the sermons--and reported in the columns--centered on the values of working, saving, and denying the flesh. If anyone was having a good time, it wasn't apparent unless it was the Episcopalians--whose openness to fun has been fully reported by John Updike, John Cheever, and a host of other (now dead) New Yorker Magazine writers.
Pastors were also concerned about Vietnam, civil rights, and urban renewal. They weren't quite sure what to make of Vietnam, they worried about cities emptying out of white people, and they were foursquare behind civil rights. Aspects of Liberation Theology--concerns about economic equity and power--began to creep into Roman Catholic sermons, but one priestly sermon focused entirely on the bad example that Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were setting for America's youth. I vaguely remember that the title of the sermon was "What about Poor Debbie?"
If you're old enough to know who Poor Debbie is, you probably remember that churches and pastors became increasingly involved in the anti-war movement as the 70s' unfolded. When I came back from Vietnam I was astonished by the ferocity of opinion regarding the war, and by how involved clergy had become in the various movements of the day. But that was a long time ago.
One of my teachers from that era commented frequently that the only things worth talking about--in order of importance--are God, sex, power, and money. I have found that largely true, but I have also found that almost every topic of conversation falls into one of those categories. That was true in the '70s and it is true today. What may be different today is the order of importance. The world's greatest novelist, Dostoevsky, was concerned almost exclusively with ideas about God, as was interestingly, the best writers in English, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O'Connor. Books about money and power may sell well, but I can't think of a single memorable author with those as recurring themes. Can you?
In the meantime, I'd like to know why all contemporary church music sounds like a country and western tune, and if there is any fun in fundamentalism. Surely, these would be interesting sermon topics.