Put the cookies on the bottom shelf!
If you’ve ever spoken in public, or had the privilege of preaching to a congregation, you have likely heard the above comment. If you’ve ever been on the listening side of a presentation or sermon, you’ve likely said it. The common meaning is that the content of a message should be easy to access by as many people as possible.
Don’t dumb down the message!
If you’ve every spoken in public, or had the privilege of preaching to a congregation, you have likely heard this comment, too. If you’ve ever been on the listening side of a presentation or sermon, you’ve likely said it, too. The common meaning is that the content of a message should not be oversimplified to the degree that is loses its meaning.
Every speaker and/or preacher I know lives in the tension between those two comments.
The essential task of the speaker/preacher, then, becomes discerning when they are “placing the cookies on the bottom shelf” and when they are “dumbing down the message.”
When I was growing up, my mom used to make chocolate chip cookies for my brother and I. Only my brother didn’t like chocolate chips. So when my mom baked chocolate chip cookies, she always make a dozen or so cookies without chocolate chips.
If you are a fan of chocolate chip cookies, you are likely aghast right now. You recognize that a chocolate chip cookie without chocolate chips is de facto NOT a chocolate chip cookie.
It doesn’t matter which shelf my mom puts the cookies on. Those chip-less cookies are dumbed down chocolate chip cookies.
When does a message become a chip-less cookie?
[I'm now turning squarely into the category of preaching the bible in a congregational context.]
This question was a major issue in the early 16th century reformation. The short-hand version of the problem was this;
- The clergy controlled the bible via two means. The mass was held in Latin, which the people didn’t speak. Prior to the printing press (mid 15th century), people didn’t own their own versions of the bible in their own language.
- The congregation members were passive recipients of a content controlled by the clergy.
In that environment, the clergy acted as gatekeepers to the content of the bible. They not only decided what shelf to put the cookies on, they decided what kind of cookies to serve. The result, which in part is what spurred on the reformation, was abuses.
Broadly, the abuses too two forms. One we could call a chip-less cookie. Essential messages within the gospels were lost or removed. Another we could call an oatmeal cookie. A bunch of ingredients were added, such that it ceased to become a chocolate chip cookie and became something else.
The struggle to put the bible into the hands of the people was a central struggle of the reformation (in both its magisterial and radical forms). The goal was to put the chocolate chip cookie – that was the bible and it’s essential message – on the bottom shelf – into the hands of the people.
The technological innovation of the printing press led to the first Bible printed on movable type (the Gutenberg Bible) in the mid-15th century. As the bible became more accessible, the strangle-hold the clergy (via the church) had on the bible was loosened. It took approximately 50 years from that innovation to give birth to a full-fledge reformation movement.
Becoming chip-less again
After all that struggle, it is difficult to see the drift back into clergy control of the scriptures. Today it doesn’t happen because the bible isn’t accessible. Some argue that the bible is too accessible to people in the West. Therefore, people have taken it for granted. I lean in a different direction, tho not disagreeing with that argument.
What I observe, from my perspective as a pastor who preaches, is the reintroduction of clergy control of the scripture through “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.” What pastors often call “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf” is, in my view, actually “dumbing down” the text.
What starts out as the monster cookie on the top shelf (you know the kind with oatmeal and heath bits and chocolate chips and nuts and everything you can think of – a solid, adult cookie) gets delivered as a chip-less cookie. Why does that happen?
In the American church in particular, there is a two-fold addiction to certainty and application-towards-self-improvement. There is pressure on preachers NOT to deal in ambiguity or doubt. There is pressure NOT to deal with questions or tensions within the text. There is pressure to deliver black and white statements of truth. Most importantly, people better leave the worship service with a “take away” that improves their lives.
It’s hard to do that when you are dealing with the whole counsel of the bible.
A little known secret
Every pastor I know, that is seminary trained, will tell you this: The most popular English versions of the bible do not accurately translate the Greek in key places. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, when talking about Paul’s writing on justification, is so bold as to say, “But I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.” (Justification, pg. 52)
One of the key tensions – created by seminaries that train pastors and teachers how to read the bible for all it’s worth – is the tension created by the bible as it really is and the demands of a culture that wants sure, certain answers in easily digestible forms.
This is the problem. When you alter the essential teaching of any bible text for the sake of certainty, expediency and easy application, one is no longer “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf”, they are “dumbing down the message.”
When one dumbs down the message what one has essentially done is put the bible squarely back into the hands of the clergy. The clergy, who have all this knowledge about the bible, assume a paternalistic role whereby they decide what kind of cookie the congregation will get to eat. Too often, the deciding factors have less to do with biblical fidelity and more to do with “what will preach” in the context of the American church today.
I’m certainly not suggesting that there is no faithful, biblical, preaching in the church today. I’m simply sketching out the contours of what I see relative to preaching today. I’m also not suggesting that clergy carry all the blame for this. In a cultural context where community and relationships and loyalty have given way to consumerist patterns of church engagement, many pastors are fearful that if they don’t spoon feed the congregation what they want to eat, they will simply choose a different
restaurant, I mean church.
It is one thing for a pastor to say, in the famous words of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You wan’t the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” That is paternalistic and wrong. That is not “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf”, that is “dumbing down the message”.
It is another thing for a congregation to say, “We want the truth as we already believe it to be.” That is wrong in a different direction. What happens if the bible says something, in such a way, that it challenges the beliefs and practices of some or all of a congregation? It is unfair to expect a pastor or preacher to dumb down the message.
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
- 2 Timothy 4:3
Many pastors who preach are terrified by this verse. They don’t want to abandon sound doctrine to say what people’s itching ears want to hear. Notice, however, who Paul is critiquing in this verse and who he is warning. The impetus for abandoning sound doctrine comes from the people who no longer want to hear sound doctrine. The warning is to Timothy, that he be on guard against the people who, eventually, will only want to hear what they like to hear.
Paul essentially instructs Timothy to put the cookies on the bottom shelf while not dumbing down the message. If it is a chocolate chip cookie on the top shelf, it needs to remain a chocolate chip cookie on the bottom self.
It is good to note that the tension in the verse is not between differing doctrines in different faith communities. Sound doctrine is known to Paul and Timothy. That isn’t the point. The tension is between sound doctrine and false doctrine within a particular faith community. Relationally the tension is between the people and the one preaching and teaching. The people don’t tolerate sound doctrine, so they gather around them those who will not teach sound doctrine. They don’t want to be pushed or challenged. They want to be told what they already believe.
How can you tell?
So, how can you tell if the pastor or preacher in a community is “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf” or “dumbing down the content”?
In order for it to be the former, and not the latter, the cookies must remain the same. If, in the process of putting the cookies on the bottom shelf, the make up of the cookies changes, then it is dumbing down the message.
Using 2 Timothy 4:3 as a guide, another pertinent question is, “How often am I challenged in my beliefs and practices?”
If you find that everything the preacher says is everything you already believe, some ears are likely being scratched. Some ingredients are likely being left out.
If you find you can’t tolerate ideas and understandings that differ from your own, it is possible that you don’t want sound doctrine either, you may just want your ears tickled.