Monday, August 23, 2010

A Sobering Dose of Kierkegaard

I preached two weeks ago and led our church's worship service this week and, I won't lie to you, after all these years I am still at a loss as to how to evaluate such things. I can only hope and trust that God condescends to speak and be heard in and around our speaking and listening activities. I think we should probably do our very best with such things, but I am increasingly aware that "doing our best" can be one of the worst things that we do. Perhaps this excerpt from Søren Kierkegaard explains what I mean:
To ask whether Christ is profound is blasphemy and is an attempt (be it conscious or unconscious) to destroy him in a subtle way.
On the ensuing pages Kierkegaard explains that extravagant thought into the deep and profound which is treated as the key to removal of disbelief is treasonous, and that preaching becomes an exercise in such treason it is best described as affected. He then writes:
[I]t is corrupting when the thought process of the sermon address is affected, when its orthodoxy is achieved by placing the emphasis on an entirely wrong place . . . . If a son were to say, ‘I obey my father not because he is my father but because he is genius, or because his commands are always profound and brilliant,’ this filial obedience is affected. The son emphasizes something altogether wrong, emphasizes the brilliance, the profundity in a command, whereas a command is simply indifferent to this qualification. The son is willing to obey on the basis of the father’s profundity and brilliance, and on that basis he simply cannot obey him, because his critical attitude with regard to whether the command is profound and brilliant undermines the obedience.
But, we might ask, if God's Word is profound should it not be presented as such? The counter-question comes back: If God's Word is profound, what need does it have of you dressing it up as such? Kierkegaard puts a pretty fine point on it, no doubt, but it should still be a sobering word for preachers, not to mention worship leaders---One which is surely worthy of some reflection in this age of rampant justifying of means according to the worthiness of their intended ends.

Rhetoric and its tools abound. With music, words, media, and environment we can conjure up a feeling and create a desired response if we really try. But should we? I asked this question of a pretty prominent authority in homiletics a few years back and was startled by his seeming lack of concern over such things. Is everything in our arsenal to be crafted and utilized toward a moving presentation of the gospel or does the gospel itself demand that we not get carried away? I don't know. These thoughts can be either paralyzing or liberating.

(Quotation from Søren Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, 2009), 183-185.


Colin Toffelmire said...

I do get what Kierkegaard is about in that quotation, but it's the kind of idea that has a limited practical use. Like you say, it can be liberating or paralyzing.

One of the problems with our generation is that we have an unending beef with "rhetoric," but I'm not sure we think about it very carefully. Every statement can be evaluated on the basis of its rhetoric, and this goes doubly so for any form of public address. By its very nature a sermon can be either good rhetoric or bad rhetoric. Given that, why not use good rhetoric?

And speaking of good rhetoric, we must also keep in mind that ancient thinkers like Aristotle did not exclude content from their evaluation of rhetoric. For Aristotle, deception and misdirection (which almost function as synonyms for rhetoric these days) were signs of bad rhetoric.

I think what we need to avoid is any attempt to manipulate both hearts and minds. You draw a distinction between using our whole arsenal, and not getting carried away, but I think the dichotomy is false. You can use your whole arsenal and not get carried away.

One final thought. The reason that I think a preacher has a responsibility to craft her sermon carefully is not because of God's insufficiency or because God is not worth following simply because God is God. The reason is because our eyes are blinded and our hearts are broken. In our capacity as fallen mortals we need all the help we can get to see clearly. Good rhetoric is a useful tool in service of that aim.

Jon Coutts said...

Well, I guess one reason to suspect good rhetoric is when flare is mistaken for content, or which convinces us to forgive imprecise and misleading claims so long as the results are what we desire.

But if content has a hand in the evaluation of rhetoric, I suppose we should still opt for good rhetoric, and be sure we are getting the good right.

Certainly I've wondered whether in a time when we are suspicious of spin our own sort of "authentic" stammering isn't its own kind of rhetoric--the rhetoric of a kind of contrived humility.

Manipulation is definitely a huge concern for me, but I'm also concerned about a baptised reliance on and overconfidence in measures.

I like what you say: "You can use your whole arsenal and not get carried away." I'll have to think about what that means.

As for your final thought, about how our capacity needs all the help it can get. I wonder if self-help is the help it needs. I don't know. I admit I need to think through this more. But it is a problem for me these last few years. Thanks for helping me with that.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I think that this is one of the things where you and I are more or less on the same page, or struggling with the same tensions, just from different sides. I think that's how good theological discourse should work, so that actually makes me happy.

I thought about this some more last night, and I think that what I was trying to do was to emphasize a fundamental principal of hermeneutics, which is that you cannot divorce content from form. In any communicative act content and form are part of an indivisible and symbiotic relationship, each feeding into the other. This, I think, is one of the reasons that Aristotle was concerned with deceptive rhetoric. Deception in form hints at deception in content, and vice versa.

But the consequence, in my mind, is not that we need to abandon the use of rhetorical tools, or pretend that we aren't trying to convince people of something or change people's actions by means of our words. Instead I think that being conscious of the content of our theology (and particularly of our natural limitations as theologians and believers) should marry very well with good rhetoric. Good content makes good rhetoric and good rhetoric serves good content.

I'll try an analogy using TV shows. The Wire and CSI:Miami are both cop shows, both have huge budgets, both have well compensated actors, and they both deal with similar themes. That said, The Wire approaches television perfection, while CSI:Miami is a fetid pile of steaming horse crap. The Wire plays on emotion in similar ways to CSI:Miami, but the difference is that the producers of The Wire are trying to tell a Truth, while the producers of CSI:Miami clearly are not. And in CIS:Miami the lie is exposed in the form/content tension. It purports to be a show about law and order and keeping people safe, but the whole show is filled with violence and death. People rag on Caruso for his portrayal of Horatio Cane, but the truth is Cane is an un-actable character. He is supposed to be kind and compassionate and a great leader and blahdiblahblah, but you just can't be those things and also go around shooting lots and lots of people. If you did, you'd look like a douche who likes to take off his sunglasses dramatically. The form/content tension in CSI:Miami is just too much, and the whole thing descends into absurd farce. The producers use every rhetorical trick they've got, but all those tricks do is to expose the Lie more and more.

This form/content relationship is the key, in my mind, to good writing, good art, good preaching, etc, etc. Wow, that was a long ramble. Amusingly enough I came up with most of this while I was listening to Rage Against the about a powerful marriage of form and content.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jon, for writing about this stuff again.

Yeah, this stuff is still a struggle for me. I so want to steer away from the whole side of spiritual manipulation, but I've also realized that, as you said, ""authentic" stammering is its own kind of rhetoric--the rhetoric of a kind of contrived humility."
I think you could drive yourself crazy pretty much every Sunday trying to get it "just right".

So, for me, one of the ways that I've started to cope with this whole tension is by shifting my focus onto keeping the Holy Spirit as my "Plan A". When I start to believe that God's work in people's hearts and minds is the primary change agent at work, I fell much less pressure to get things "just right". Sure, I still craft out every word and power point slide - but I believe that God's work isn't as dependent on those things as I've often believed.
Sure is amazing how much people can still accomplish when God's the Plan B though.

Jon Coutts said...

Colin, this is some really helpful stuff. I tend to think about this myself and it only festers. Not to say we've (or you've) totally solved it for me here (the tension, that is), but you're words here help toward thinking it through. I think you are right. I have a concern, a huge one, about the seeming modus operandi of contemporary churchiness, but too often I let some bad things spoil my appreciation for good things. Indeed, letting abuse of rhetoric, or content-starved over-use of rhetoric, allow my to cringe at the sight of rhetoric of any kind would be the equivalent of never watching a cop show again because of having seen CSI:Miami.

CSI:Miami is so bad I wouldn't blame someone for stopping watching TV forever, but you catch my drift. By the way, I finally saw The Wire, season one. I'm assuming it gets a bit more polished down the road, but I could certainly see what you've raved about.

Jon: Glad to keep having this conversation. That seemingly resilient Plan B mentality continues to be disconcerting to me whenever I catch wind of it. I should mention that my current church isn't really the problem. This has always bothered me. Maybe because of the televangelism and the fear-based or sentimentality-based altar calls of my youth. Maybe because I tend to hear church-talk through a skeptic's ears. Whatever the case, this problem haunts me.

But yeah, both you and Colin have some good reminders to keep speaking, and to keep speaking well. I don't think that at all means losing sight of Kierkegaard's warning. The content of the faith should make us want to put it well, to put it right, and to put it rightly too.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Ya, I would never say we should forget Kierkegaard's warning, I just think it needs to be contextualized.

And I'd personally much rather that you struggled with this issue than ignore it. I kind of hope that most preachers struggle with it.

As for The Wire, it actually didn't really catch me in season 1. It wasn't until well into season 2 that it started to really get me, and to be honest it wasn't until I'd watched the whole series twice that it moved all the way up to my #1 show of all time.

Jon Coutts said...

It actually reminded me of NYPD Blue's first season. Trying a bit too hard to be avant garde made for some transparently "edgy" or "gritty" writing. But in there I could see a well-done show was forming.