“HOOKED ON CLASSICS” REVISITED
C. Philip Slate
Over thirty years ago several people were listening to—and even doing their aerobics to—“Hooked on Classics,” a collection of popular excerpts from operas, symphonies, and other larger pieces of music. The smaller pieces were strung together uninterruptedly without plot or structure, a patchwork of pleasant sounds held together only by a steady beat.
At the time, it occurred to me that listening to “Hooked on Classics” bore a resemblance to what can happen when listening to some topical/subject sermons as contrasted with those that involve the use of extended texts.
In “Hooked on Classics” one may hear a small section, the finale, of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and have no idea how it fits into the larger work. Indeed, over time the finale may become associated with something the composer never dreamed, something like the theme music for the Lone Ranger program. Evidence of that’s happening is found in the amusing but inaccurate definition of a “cultured person” as one who can listen to the finale without thinking of the Lone Ranger!
In “Hooked” a segment of “On the Trail” is heard, probably because it was popular as the theme melody for the “I Love Lucy” television program. The short piece is likely not heard as a part of the five-sectioned “Grand Canyon Suite” by American composer, Ferde Grofé. Consequently, on hearing it one thinks primarily about Lucy and fails to hear the hee-hawing of the burros as they begin the journey down the canyon trail—fail to learn of other sections of the suite, such as “Sunrise,” “Painted Desert,” and “Cloudburst.”
Similar injustices, as music lovers would consider them, are done to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Strauss, and others in “Hooked.” It is a musical version of quoting Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” without understanding how the words fit into The Tale of Two Cities.
I am confident that people can go to heaven without knowing that the Lone Ranger theme is part of the “William Tell Overture” or that the popular section of “The Triumphal March” is part of Verdi’s opera, “Aida.” The way of salvation does not involve our being classic music buffs. It is another matter, however, if we treat Scripture the way music is treated in “Hooked” since it would thwart accurately understanding the text.
It is quite possible to be “hooked” on select biblical texts and have little idea of the larger contexts that shape their intended meaning. Cases in point are “handle not, taste not, touch not” (Col. 2:21), God hears not the sinner’s prayer (Jn. 9:31), “No one born of God commits sin” (1 Jn. 3:9) and many others. The preacher who quotes them as single thoughts may know their contexts, but do his hearers? Does his method of preaching allow the hearers to perceive the meanings supplied by the contexts or get a glimpse into the thought of the narrative or epistle?
When in the sermon no reference is made to the larger picture which either shapes the meaning (as in Col. 2:21) or enhances it (as in 1 Sam. 16:7), the hearers are put in the position of listening to “Hooked on Classics”. Unless it is done well, topical/subject preaching can put the hearers in that position. Such patchwork hearing will often deprive the people of both the correct meaning and the desired punch of the biblical text.
It is one thing to quote Eph. 4:1 (“Walk worthily of your calling”) as an admonition. It is a different matter to show how that verse is a hinge of thought in the epistle and gives meaning to the entirety of chapters 4-6. It is one thing to preach the story of the lost boy (Lk. 15:11-32) without reference to the context, but the situation is different when one relates the story to its companion parables (vs. 3-10) and the two introductory verses (1-2). Listeners have a right to hear the Word of God expounded accurately and in keeping with the biblical author’s intentions.
The systematic presentation of biblical material on various topics/subjects is certainly appropriate, even necessary at times; but those lessons will be presented and heard better against a background of habitual exposure to lessons on larger texts. The word is to be preached, as Paul instructed Timothy to do (2 Tim.3:10-4:5). So the questions is not whether but how we should preach the Word for the spiritual health of the hearers.
The Whole Bible Like the Book of Proverbs?
The sixty-six books of Scripture take several literary forms. Over 40% of the Old Testament is narrative in form. The Psalms and sections of other books are Hebrew poetry. In the New Testament there are epistolary, parabolic, narrative, and other forms. Those forms influence both the authors’ meanings and ways of creating emphasis. Thus, Scripture should not be treated as an expansion of the book of Proverbs in which context often plays no significant part in interpretation. Biblical chapters and verses, while useful in locating passages, are a creation of man. Paragraphs divisions are intended to group thoughts, but that cannot be said of verses.
Stories have meanings as stories. They are not to be treated like diamond mines where one must sift through tons of useless material to get a few gems here and there. The story is worth the telling in its own right. Along this line, Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is still very valuable.
Exposition of larger texts, or at least a well-defined unit of thought, is beneficial for both the hearers and the preacher. He will be less likely to misuse the text or intrude himself into the text or display his memory or knowledge (“No man can in the same sermon show both that he is great and God is wonderful.”). The hearers will learn more Scripture and be more likely to receive the author’s intended meaning and impact. Great benefit comes from handling Scripture correctly.
 Adapted from my longer article that appeared in Image magazine as “Preaching: ‘Hooked on Classics,’” 6:3 (May/June 1990):24-5.
 Now available on YouTube where the larger piece of music is identified by subscripts.
 The Greek word translated commonly as “sound” is a health word, as in “sound in body and mind.” Sound preaching is the king that contributes to the spiritual health of the hearers.
So well did it serve people that the book has gone through several editions.