Friday, June 16, 2017

What became of preaching? (asks a preacher 50 years ago)

A couple of months ago I was preparing a one-day preaching course at a local cathedral and went back to some classics on the topic of homiletics, such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Preaching and Preachers (the copy I'm citing is the 1971 edition from Hodder & Stoughton). It was fascinating to look back almost 50 years and see a British theologian asking something that could just as easily be asked in parts of England today:
Why then this decline in the place and power of preaching; and why this questioning of the necessity for any preaching at all? (11)
Even more interesting are the answers Lloyd-Jones offered. There are several factors, he said, but the first goes back to an 'antithesis' represented by Stanley Baldwin, Britian's Prime Minister in the 1920s and 30s. At that time, says Lloyd-Jones, Baldwin had to contend with great orators for power (think Churchill), and because he did not have the so-called 'gift of gab' found the need to carve out another niche. So he put into the public ethos that it was less essential to be a great speaker, and more important to be a 'simple, honest, ordinary Englishman.' In fact, he went so far as to suggest that 'if a man is a great speaker he is a man whom you cannot trust, and is not quite honest' (11).

In Lloyd-Jones' observation that represented something of a shift in the zeitgeist: namely the 'distrust of the orator'. It took hold in churches as well, and went on to find support in the general sense that we are 'more cultured and educated people' than we once were, and thus do not depend on the 'great orators' as we once did (12). Here Lloyd-Jones points to the phenomena of radio, television, and libraries, but had yet to even get a sniff of the internet!

So it was that 'sermons were replaced by ethical addresses and homilies, and moral uplift and socio-political talk' which more or less restored people to that which they already thought (13).

This was not all Prime Minister Baldwin's doing, of course. Another factor in this social-shift came down to the great orators themselves, and it sprang from their descent into what Lloyd-Jones called  'pulpiteering' (13). The skill of oratory can hold such power that it can be used to 'dominate the people,' and after a while the people become sensitive to being 'handled' and emotionally cajoled by rhetorical 'showmanship' (13). So it is that in reaction they become suspicious of direct address; especially the sermon.

Lloyd-Jones went on to discuss radio and print media further, wading into territory that has exploded beyond anything he could have imagined in the 1970s. Not irrelevant, however, is his comment on the proliferate 'publication of sermons' (which we now see in the form of youtube channels and podcasts), which he said had unfortunately turned preachers into 'essayists'. In his view this drifted the preaching event away from 'what a sermon should be,' turning it into an 'address' full of 'literary effusions'  (15).

Thus the sermon was less a congregation's act of coming under the guidance of the Word in their place and time, and more the congregation's participation in a large-scale public address that could just as well be for anyone.

In the book Lloyd-Jones goes on to complain about a number of other things, such as the formality of the worship service, the 'increase in the element of entertainment in public worship,' the elevation of 'song leader' to 'a new kind of official in the church,' and the elevation of testimony and therapy above the preached Word (16-17) -- all of which would make a fascinating comparative study with the as-yet unwritten After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. Lloyd-Jones concludes:
To make this list complete I must add tape-recording--as I see it, the peculiar and special abomination at this present time (18).
Perhaps Lloyd-Jones starts to sound like a bit of a geezer at this point, but it is worth asking ourselves what the homiletic event was in his day, which perhaps it should not lose. His answer to this comes later in the book. It follows a quote from Epictetus, who famously walked out of a room where someone had been speaking and said: 'The philosopher put his finger upon my faults. I must not behave that way again.' Reflecting on this, Lloyd-Jones observes how the sermon had wrongly become 'stimulating' rather than convicting -- and 'that is not what preaching is meant to be' (56).

But he goes on to say more, and if we shrugged him off as a mere Luddite, perhaps this cuts closer to the bone:
Preaching is that which deals with the total person, the hearer becomes involved and knows that he [or she] has been dealt with and addressed by God through this preacher. Something has taken place in him and in his experience, and it is going to affect the whole of his [or her] life (56). 
If one allows for the implication that a 'total person' means a person who is part of a local community who is sharing not only in the hearing of the sermon but also the living that it touches, then one sees why the distributed tape-recording could be such an 'abomination' to old-time preachers like Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

As the book goes on it becomes clear that this is not simply a nostalgic attempt to re-elevate the preacher to a pedestalled place of honour and authority in the church. The definition of a preacher is for Lloyd-Jones one of witness for someone else; an ambassadorship. The preacher is someone who sits under that same Word along with the congregation, who is charged with the task of giving it speech for the people with whom he lives (61).

For more of my own thoughts on preaching, see Preacher as Pastor: Shepherding the Community in the Word.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

How Good Writing Raises Empathy, not Snobbery

George Saunders wrote a fascinating piece in Saturday's Guardian explaining "what writers really do when they write." You can read the whole article here. I just want to isolate a couple paragraphs because they do such a good job of explaining why a preference for so-called "good literature" can come from empathetic rather than elitist motivations. In the process of explaining his editing process, Saunders manages to show how the refining and revising of a sentence can really be an act of compassion and an expression of trust in the reader. Here are paragraphs 3 and 4 of Saunders' piece (which I've bleeped for wider sharing). See what you think (emphasis added).

Revising by the method described is a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing. This, in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader. As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading. It loses its ability to create a propagandistic fog. Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room. 
Is any of this relevant to our current political moment? 
Hoo, boy.  
When I write, “Bob was an a******,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.  
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure a******” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.  
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving. 
Or we could just stick with “Bob was an a******,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.  
What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.  
But why did I make those changes? On what basis?  
On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there. 
This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead. 
Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.  
Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion. 
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”  
And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

This is of course not to deny that literary-snobbishness is an actual thing, but it does help to bust through the caricatures and show some of what might be at stake in the finer points of literary appreciation.

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo

Friday, December 30, 2016

For me the Novel, Film, and Album of the Year

In my early 30s I compiled lists of the novels, films, and albums which to that point had either become all-time favourites or left an indelible impression. Though now a less avid blogger, I've still been adding one more each year. So here they are for 2016, the year I turned 41.


NOVEL #41:



The book dates back to 2013 but my interest in its themes (aboriginal history and the missionary complicity in western conquest) goes back further than that. I'm very grateful to my sister-in-law Amy for recommending it. The story is gripping, the sense of place and time is strong, and the way it weaves in and out of the perspectives of its three main characters is beautiful.

Runners-up:
Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro (2009)
Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited (2006)
Dave Eggers, You're Fathers, Where are They? (2014)
Stephen King, The Shining (1977)




This isn't exactly new -- here's what I wrote about it the first time 'round -- but on second viewing this year I fell in love with it.






In this spot I could and probably should have put We're All Gonna Die, since it was actually released in 2016. Truth be told, since I listened to all five Dawes albums non-stop this year, top billing could also have gone to Stories Don't End or North Hills. But, for me and for this year, this one is most representative. Every song is perfect.



I used to keep a list of favourite non-fiction as well but my reading in that department is pretty eccentric and chronologically erratic. For what it's worth, the non-fiction that got to me the strongest this year included Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall, Wayne Morris's Theology Without Words, Elizabeth Johnson's Ask the Beasts, and Stephen Backhouse's Kierkegaard: A Single Life.

Needless to say, I recommend all of these highly.

Click the tabs in the blog-banner above for my full lists. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Readings in Race and The Christian Imagination

These days there's so much talk about ethnicity, culture, nationalism, race, and the church that I am increasingly drawn back to what I've learned from Willie James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter in this regard. Recalling that I had at one time shared excerpts and reflections from each of their works on this blog, I thought I would collect links to them in one place for future reference. Perhaps this may also serve as a primer for those who might be interested to look into these matters further.

Reflections on or related to Willie Jennings' The Christian Imagination:


Readings in J. Kameron Carter's "Race: A Theological Account"
  • Prelude

    "The ancient Gnostics thus ended up with a nonmaterial Christ ... lacking interhuman and interlinguistic Jewish flesh, flesh that was not embedded in the history of Israel.... [Here] I tell the story of how the loss of a Jewish-inflected account ... of Christian identity cleared the way for whiteness to function as a replacement doctrine of creation. Hence, the world was re-created from the colonial conquests from the late fifteenth century forward in the image of white dominance, where 'white' signifies not merely pigmentation but a regime of political and economic power for arranging the world."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bonhoeffer on Truth-Speaking

Today I found this bit of Bonhoeffer both personally challenging and theologically illuminating. It calls for truth-speaking with attention to the particulars of the relationship rather than out of some kind of principled idealism that ends up being an evasive moral superiority.
"Where 'the truth is told' without regard for the person to whom it is said, there it has only the appearance of truth but not its essence.

The cynic is the one who, claiming to 'tell the truth' in all places and at all times and to every person in the same way, only puts on a display a dead idolatrous image of the truth. By putting a halo on his own head for being a zealot for the truth who can take no account of human weaknesses, he destroys the living truth between persons.

He violates shame, desecrates the mystery, breaks trust, betrays the community in which he lives, and smiles arrogantly over the havoc he has wrought and over the human weakness that 'can't bear the truth.'"

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English) 16: 683.
In context Bonhoeffer seems to be suggesting that our approach to (or avoidance of) confrontation needs to be enfolded in a theology and actual practice of Christ-confession.