He was born from a breeding of Old Ben’s cocker spaniel, Blondie, and our brown and white cocker spaniel, Mr. Chips. At least that’s what we thought at the time. When Old Ben brought around the pups so we could pick one, the fact that they were all completely black didn’t deter us from believing that they were purebred—all except Dad. Dad was convinced that Mr. Chips had somehow been altered at birth by his breeder so as to control competition in the dog breeding business. It galled him to no end that Mr. Chips could enthusiastically go through all the motions but had never successfully reproduced, despite several attempts. The rest of us in the family had faith that Blondie’s litter of black pups were Mr. Chips’s procreational redemption but as it turned out, Dad’s suspicions may have been more than paranoia.
We named him Friday, I expect after the wonderful character in the 18th-century novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. We were a family of spaniel owners and as Friday grew into young adulthood it became more and more obvious that he was no mere spaniel. But he was no crossbreed either. Rather than appearing as a pleasant amalgam of breeds like most mongrels, Friday looked as though he was a dog thrown together from cast off spare parts. He had labrador ears, german shepherd eyes and border collie fine black hair arranged in spaniel curls. He had a large dog’s body but a small dog’s front legs. His front feet were pigeon-toed to the extreme. When Friday walked towards you it looked like he was about to fall, flattened by his own girth or tripped by his own front feet.
Friday’s back legs were the opposite of his front legs. His back legs seemed half again too long and they gave him the rather unnerving appearance of moving at two separate speeds at the same time. From the front it made him look like he was walking slightly sideways. At full speed you would think that his rear end was about to pass his front end. When Friday ran, you felt torn between cheering and praying for him.
But it was Friday’s tail that was his most disconcerting physical trait. It’s the characteristic that I remember most whenever I think of him now. Friday’s tail was docked in true spaniel fashion but in mind and body he was obviously built for a full-length tail. He had absolutely no idea how to wag a short-docked tail, so he didn’t. His tail wagged him. It was like his tail had a mind of its own. It would start to wag, seemingly involuntarily at the slightest provocation and before long it would be wagging his whole back end, which it did with such enthusiasm that it often looked like he was about to be thrown off of his feet. At times even Friday was alarmed by his unruly tail wagging. He would sit on it to try and control it, but to no avail. Friday’s tail just personified the phrase, “wag the dog.”
Friday was my childhood mate from about the age of seven until I moved away to go to college. I loved him dearly. He passed away at age 16 while I was at college. I think of him often and not just at times when I am recalling my childhood. I think of him whenever I become aware that I am falling victim to a wag the dog scenario in my life. And at no other time do I become aware of this so frequently and so acutely as each week when I prepare a sermon.
It seems to me the real temptation both in preaching and in listening to preachers is to let the tail wag the dog. Preaching is all about proclaiming scripture, or at least it is supposed to be. That being said, the scripture text is supposed to move the message, not the message move the text. But the real temptation is to choose a topic, usually one of my favorite ones, barge headlong into it and then find a text or texts of scripture to support what I want to say about it. All one then has to do is find one or two amusing anecdotes or stories to illustrate the “message” and it’s all done. But this is not only a gross misunderstanding of how story works in biblical proclamation but it is the tail wagging the dog with regards to preaching scripture. So I am getting better at choosing a single text, listening to that single text in its context, and letting that single text drive the message. I have come to avoid topical preaching like the plague. For me, it is a recipe for biblical wag the dog.
Wag the dog with regards to the Bible and preaching brings up another more important wag the dog issue: the Bible and one’s personal relationship with it. We Western Christians have come to have a rather odd relationship with our Bibles. We have it available in a plethora of modern translations and media and yet, in my mind at least, biblical illiteracy is the second biggest crisis we Christians face in our lives today. The biggest is the authority that scripture is given in the life of the Christian. N.T. Wright has said it well in the preface of his recent book, Scripture and the Authority of God: “Taken as a whole, the church clearly can’t live without the Bible, but it doesn’t seem to have much idea of how to live with it.” Wright’s book is all about wrestling with the question of the authority of scripture and it contains some good questions if not all the right answers.
After all is read and done however, I am left as an individual Christian to parse out how I personally relate to the Bible. Do I just ignore it? Do I go to it from time to time as just another interesting or perhaps perplexing read? Do I use it to proof text my favorite ideas and arguments? Have I fallen totally into 21st-century Gnosticism and rely solely on others with special seminary knowledge to interpret it for me? Or do I place myself personally under its authority as God’s word for me in my life? For me, in the second 30 years of my life, anything less than the last choice amounts to biblical wag the dog. As I have placed myself under the authority of the Bible as God’s word for me, as I have gone to it often and sought divine wisdom, insight, comfort and direction, God has always profoundly moved me, like a dog should wag its own tail. It has become for me, as the psalmist so profoundly said, “a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).