Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Preaching In-carnation

Ecce Ancilla Domini 1850
Christmas troubles me as a preacher.  The incarnation is surely God doing a new thing, but it’s so hard to express the wonder and shock of it.  Often it feels as if it’s all been said.  And I certainly don’t want to go down the weary path of complaining about consumerism.  There’s a kind of ‘expected part of the show’ element to Christians whingeing about how Christmas in celebrated popularly that I think is counter-productive.  What I’m looking for is some way of telling afresh how stupendous this birth is.  I want to convey that amazing but often tearful joy of when ‘the penny dropped’ for the first time.
That might be the retelling of those ‘penny drop’ moments of my own past: standing in the gloom of an ancient abbey as part of the bass line of a school choir and suddenly realizing with dub-struck awe the significance of the words of O Come, O Come Emmanuel; seeing the light of something beyond words in the sparkling eyes of an Alzheimer’s sufferer’s rare smile at the pulling of a Christmas cracker; recognizing in the playful determination of a small dog in deep snow a thread of life-joy that mysteriously connects sensate beings; or finding a gaggle of excited young children suddenly still and quiet as the story simply told touches them.  Fortunately I could tell of many such instances, but their power, though real, is so hard to recreate as a third party retelling.  Where then should I look for inspiration?

As is so often the case, looking back might be a key.  Looking back at what the stream of tradition we inhabit might offer.  And that brings me to a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), painted 1849-50.  What Rossetti portrays is the frailty of a young woman, a slip of a girl; a simple shift clinging to her figure, her arms bare, suddenly awoken from sleep perhaps, her knees drawn up, she cowers against the wall of her sleeping room.  She is thin, troubled looking, and possibly feeling threatened.  She avoids looking directly at the presence that has invaded her room.  She certainly doesn't look as if she considers herself favoured - much perplexity sums it up.  As one scholar suggests, Mary's exclamation at the end of the encounter, "Let it be to me according to your word" is more a shrug of resignation faced with the inevitable within the world of the sexual politics of first century Palestine, than the triumphant consent we usually take it to be.  The painting is suggestive of that fearful acquiescence.

Rossetti's version of the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary her pregnancy and its purpose has none of the studious contemplation and noble acceptance of traditional renderings so beloved of Renaissance artists.  This is a radical reinterpretation in which the humanity - the bodiliness if you like - of Mary is plain to see.  Her holiness is apparent by the halo, but the posture and the look make her clearly a woman not a superhuman saint.  The women figures of the pre-Raphaelite painters like Rossetti do have a romantic, otherworldliness about them - but those ethereal faces and forms all the more emphasise the feminine, passionate, mysterious and sensual nature of flesh, human flesh.

The picture is almost wholly restricted to white and the three primary colours - a curious goldness hangs around the angel’s feet, blue drapes signify heaven and the virgin, red hair brings to mind Christ's blood, and the whiteness of cloths and the lily mark purity.  The symbols that any earlier artist might have used are all there - yet the picture makes a new statement.  When it was exhibited in 1850 criticism rained down on Rossetti and he vowed never to show it again in public.

The Church sees fit to label this cowering girl the Blessed Virgin Mary – we should hear that not such much as a title but as a description of her body.  Virgin here can designate nothing else but a body.  Her swollen womb is just that, her carrying as tiring as any mother-to-be's carrying, her labour as painful and exhausting, her birthing as bloody and as emotional as any birthing.  God will be born a body of a body.  And we will carol the promise of long ago made new again in amniotic fluid spilt, a slimy form squealing and stretching in air for the first time, and breasts heavy with milk.

That's wonder; that's gospel.  God is born a body to make holy every body.  A place to begin .....

The sermon woven from this strand is here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Preacher be scared.

with acknowledgement to Churchill Centre and Museum
At over four million words, Churchill’s collected speeches run to eight volumes. His was a ministry of words comparable to any lifelong preacher. Indeed between the years 1900 and 1955 his usual average was a speech a week – a score similar to many regular preachers. That he was such a seasoned practitioner and that so many of his phrases remain familiar, might suggest that public speaking came easily to him. In fact that was far from the case. As Sam Leith points out in his brilliant recent book, You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (Profile Books), Churchill was often nervous to the point of nausea before addressing an audience and was completely incapable of speaking off the cuff.

Churchill’s evident mastery of public speaking was entirely down to sustained preparation and pre-event practice. Amongst the techniques he used were: reading the speeches of the ‘greats’ and committing them to memory; the composition of extremely detailed scripts for himself which included stage directions; rehearsal of speeches in front of a mirror (and in the bath!); writing speeches whilst listening to music that evoked the emotion to which he was aiming; and the reworking of phrases from the past to carefully suit the needs of the present. Each of those tactics could profitably be used by every preacher. To my mind the preacher’s golden rule is ‘prepare as if all depends on you; deliver as if all depends on God,’ and Churchill’s example reinforces that conviction.
Similarly, I think his nervousness also has something to say to preachers. I understand his anxiety had its origins in his speech defects – he both stammered and had a lisp. Although training enabled him to successfully contend with these disadvantages, the anxiety they had prompted never left him.
Preachers are always called to give voice to things that are beyond their vocal capabilities. We all do well to recall frequently that our speech is defective in terms of the holiness and graciousness of God. There is a nervousness about giving voice to ‘Godly speech’ that should never leave a preacher. That doesn’t mean embarrassed hesitance in what we say and how we say it; but it does mean an abiding consciousness that we are called to a task for which are not naturally talented. Fear that this task may be beyond our capabilities keeps us striving to work at our skills and the execution of them. That in turn gives an ‘edge’ to what we say and guards against complacency.
A kindly and experienced lay preacher took me aside many years ago when I was still new to preaching and said, ‘From where I sit I can see you’re very nervous every time you preach; you’ve no need to be, your preaching is fine.’ I appreciated his encouragement and thanked him for it warmly, but I had to say that I couldn’t ever imagine not being nervous about preaching. Almost forty years later I still can’t imagine ever not being nervous.
It behoves a preacher to be scared. A nervousness that is conscious of words as ‘words of eternal life’ is a witness against the verbiage of contemporary discourse. Nervousness keeps the preacher striving to name the purposes of God in ways that challenge and inspire.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Onlookers and Participants

How is Christ's mission accomplished in a complex and ever changing society in which it's hard for many to take the very idea of church seriously?  Following my last post I've been idling through more of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and I came across 'Watching the church'. This isn't a picture I know anything about but again like Friendrich's many other works it's worth pondering.             I think it's evening. The falling sun of the lengthening day makes the outline of the gothic church stark. The gothic form is clear and detailed despite the sharp light. Indeed the light suggests promise and hope radiating from that gothic shape.The two viewers are intent on the church with no hint of present conversation between them. They are themselves framed by an arch in the garden, perhaps part of a larger wooden structure, but its shape is much simpler than the complex building towards which they are staring. Have they come from evening worship and are pausing to look back and consider what has been? Or, is it that they haven't got as far as the church and its worship? The density of the foliage just in front of them suggests the latter. Today, at least, they haven't got as far as the church.
The artist is clearly 'at home' with the structure of gothic architecture - and yet there is a hesitation or reserve expressed in the watchers. They are obvously attracted by its beauty; but only from a distance. Like so many they 'look on' and wonder. Maybe they are longing to be part of this distant beauty, but maybe they are not. Will they join the artist at being 'at home' in this structure? We don't know. The artist poses the question whether his vision can be theirs?
It's so easy to assume that others long to share a living faith when in fact all they wish to do is to 'look on.' Like the artist those of faith have to be thoroughly 'at home' in ancient forms so that those forms remain clearly living traditions, but that doesn't necessarily turn onlookers into participants.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Realistic or Romantic memory

The landscapes of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) offer much food for thought. Every one of them has some symbolic twist that offers more than a simple comment on a country scene. I was intrigued therefore to find Friedrich’s famous Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (pictured here) as a marker of the argument presented in Alan Roxburgh’s latest book on church leadership.

In Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, Roxburgh suggests that churches have come to rely on rational processes and planning as means to attract people to faith. In doing so, communities of faith have tied themselves to the strategies of modernity at the time when those tactics no longer work. Or, to use his terminology, the maps used to determine where we are and where we might go no longer achieve those things. What the churches need are new maps that take account of radically changed circumstances.
And that’s where Friedrich’s painting demonstrates the point, according to Roxburgh. The solitary individual (actually Friedrich himself) stands in the foreground of a massive, mountainous landscape. He can see their impressive bulk before him; but what he can’t see through the fog is the confusion and ugliness of industrial life below him. The fog represents the pollution, disorientation and disarray of urban life that stands in the way of a majestic and clear vision. Friedrich, the paradigmatic Romantic, stands above the fog and achieves the perspective that none of those below can have.
Roxburgh writes, ‘This is the kind of Romantic temptation I fear we can fall into right now. Like the wanderer standing alone above the swirling fog, we, in the midst of a strange new space, can be tempted to believe that we too can get above the fogs of confusion and see a new solution, find a new method for making the church work as it once did. The truth, however, is that at this point in time, there are no formulas that will give us back control and no ideals in the forgotten past that can become the means for making our worlds work’ (page 110).
I’m with Roxburgh until that final clause of the last quoted sentence: ‘no ideals in the forgotten past ...’ What makes Freidrich’s landscapes so haunting is that their symbolism is shot-through with a profound awareness of the past. That past may indeed be overly romanticised but it is nevertheless the lens that gives Friedrich his vision. Those enveloped in the fog can no longer see the contours of existence the past provides. They are literally blinded by that forgetfulness. It is not that the Wanderer considers himself to have a superior view that’s above others’ confusions, but rather that he still has a memory that can spur his imagination and insight.
I believe regaining the memory of Christianity as a distinctive way of living and thinking is vital to mission in our times. To do that, we have to quarry our heritage and build from it a new house of being. This need not be, indeed it should not be, anything about romantic nostalgia nor overly rational dependence on the recovery of process. Instead it is a watchful and humble searching for resources of Christian memory that can sustain faith in secular times.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Hassle-free sperm donation?

“A growing number of young women in Britain have lost patience with the dating game and are turning to sperm donors to start one-parent families,” reads a story in yesterday’s Sunday Times that is quickly spreading across Internet news sites. The article went on to say that dozens of women in their early 20s – including graduates, nurses and bank workers – have posted appeals on Internet sites citing impatience and frustration with relationships for their decision to take the step into parenthood alone.

I’m not sure how seriously to take this piece. Let others examine the issues and the veracity of the evidence. The only point I want to make is that the story is believable. Most people, I think, would admit the possibility that a significant number of young women may have given up on personal relationships to achieve the motherhood they desire. The idea seems to fit with social changes of which we are all aware. Britain is becoming a nation of ‘aloners’: more people are living alone; lots of organisations have falling memberships; the ubiquitous use of earphones makes casual conversation impossible; knowing your neighbours seems more difficult that previously; and individual choice is the ideological ideals in most areas of life. We don’t seem as able to connect with one another (no pun intended!) as readily as we formerly did. Yes it’s all too easy to imagine that some young women have decided inter-personal relationships aren’t worth the hassle.

And yet at the same time our ‘alone world’ is more connected than it has ever been. All those mobile phone calls can’t be to automated digital services! As is constantly said, the digital revolution opens to all those connected opportunities to communicate beyond the wildest expectations of our forebears. At one and the same time we are more connected and but also more alone. Whether it’s actually true or not, that appears to be a widely held perception of our social world: too many possible relationships, too few real ones.

For a faith with communion at its heart the issues are pressing ones. Christians have to turn communication—real, attempted or idealized—into communion. And that turning is now more difficult than it’s ever been, perceptually and actually. And yet I take some encouragement from that very difficulty. Connecting is troublesome in every area of life; it isn’t a problem unique to the mission efforts of Christianity. The decline in church participation is part of a wider social phenomenon. Creating social communion is counter-culture—literally. Creating intentional communities where communion can flourish is our aim. Such communities are signs of better things for everyone—an antidote to ‘inter-personal relationships aren’t worth the hassle.’

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Barry from Watford and Barack from Washington DC

"What can you do with a beetroot, a jar of sandwich spread and a packet of Angel Delight that went out of date in 1978?" So said Barry from Watford, a character on the BBC Radio Two show Steve Wright in the Afternoon, urging listeners last week to discourage the giving of grocery parcels from Harvest celebrations. He went on to tell us of making a mint salad dressing from a previous Harvest hamper. Only after eating it did he discover that the tube of white liquid was actually peppermint foot ointment - he suffered no harmful effects but the next morning his verucas had gone! Barry observed that the groceries given are too often things from the back of the cupboard that no one would dream of eating. The truth of Barry's coments struck a chord as this listener and the studio crew collapsed in laughter.

A fortnight previously my emotions had been of an entirely different order as I watched on TV the events marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The solemnity and sorrow of the day was palpable aross the airwaves. President Obama read at the ceremony at Ground Zero and latter spoke at a gathering at the Kennedy Center. On both occasions he used words from the Authorized Version of the Bible - in the morning he read Psalm 46 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,' and in the evening he frame his speech around a verse from Psalm 30 'Weeping may endureth for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.' He words struck a chord and came across as well considered and fitting.

Both the joke making and the solemn remembering depended on collective memory for their power. Without the recollected shared associations that go with the creation of harvest displays and their dispersement, the jokes wouldn't have been funny. Without the echo of a shared understanding of the steadfastness of God expressed in biblical phrases repeated over generations, the pslam references would have been little more that a poetic turn of phrase. In tragedy and comedy it is what is remembered together - although often not expressed explictly - that gives us the scaffolding for a genuine community of sharing.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Tools for remembering 9/11

Stream, window in Nazareth
We all remember where we were when we first learned of the attacks on the twin towers in 2001. That simple point has been made countless times in recent days. Similarly, the 'right-ness' of marking the tenth anniversary at the actual sites where tragic loss of lives took place has simply been assumed by all. We might rationally argue that ceremonies of remembrance can be held at any location. The essentially subjective nature of remembering means its social enactment can theoretical take place anywhere. Yet when we saw President Obama joining ceremonies at the attack locations in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington there was clearly a self-evident appropriateness in the action. 
The same principle applies to the anniversary itself. Many survivors and others closely involved in the horrors of 9/11, when interviewed, said that in a sense a tenth anniversary is a wholly arbitrary occasion. Every moment of recollection has an awesome weight to it, however measured in time. But despite that reality, the marking of the tenth anniversary has a fittingness about it that no one can deny.
The 'right-ness' of last weekend's events demonstrates how collective memory operates. Locating the remembrance of tragic events in place and time is a necessary part of actually 'keeping the memory.' Physical memorials are part of that locating. Without these locators memories begin to fade or change character, even when what is remembered is momentous. Several of those interviewed last Sunday expressed precisely that worry. Their personal involvement guarantees their own memories, but they were concerned the wider social memory was perhaps changing or fading. 'We will not forget' requires more that subjective assent. To remember is to join a stream of social remembering.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Gaddafi's golden head: is this the memorable picture?

23 August 2011, Tripoli
We're being encouraged by the various news organisations to stay with their 'in-depth' analysis of what's happening in Libya. I've tried to do so, but what seems to be apparent is that the label 'depth' is often a way of covering something altogether more confusing and speculative. Brave people report what they think is going on, but so often the next day reveals that things weren't what they had seemed to be yesterday. Confusion appears to reign. We hope and pray that peace is a real possibility; that chaos will be turned into freedom and hope.Often, however, the positive isn't as clear as had been thought, and steps forward become steps back. Is there an irrefutable sign that the corner has been turned? Perhaps that's what this much broadcast picture is meant to be. Is Gaddafi's statuary golden head, underfoot and in the dust, the picture that signifies the moment of tyranny's end? It seems to fit the picture type: what was high has been toppled; what was one piece has been broken into many pieces; what marked status has been rendered as trash; a hated symbol is trodden on; what was above the people is now in the control of ordinary people; and what could not be touched is now thrown around as trinket. It may indeed become 'the' picture that symbolises a people's urge to freedom, or, it may not. It all depends on what happens in the next days and weeks. Events will provide a context that will decide whether this image is memorable or not. Without that supporting framework this will become just another conflict picture amongst many, many others. But if the evolving context confirms its symbolism, it will become an image of quite a different order. Then it will have a power that is unforgettable.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Signs of Chaos?

Perhaps it's a kind of contemporary morality tale. Several months ago I moved house. Two accounts I hold with one well known High Street bank helpfully provides a change of address slip on each monthly statement. Helpful customer that I am, I duly completed the slips and took them into my local branch the next time I was in town. The teller looked at me with a certain disdain, 'Oh, I don't need those, I 'll do it on screen.' Two minutes later I was assured all was changed and the slips were ripped up and consigned to the waste bin.
The next month the statements were delivered to the old address. I phoned to complain. After the usual 'Press this and press that, followed by hash. You are reminded that all calls are recorded for security purposes,' and having to detail the place of my mother's birth, I was assured that the corrections had been made.
You guessed it – the next month the statements were delivered to the old address. This time my wife went in person to the local branch to make sure all details on all accounts had been changed. 'Easily done, madam. Can't understand what's gone wrong. So sorry. It's all correct now.' This was interestingly followed up by a personal letter to me kind of apologizing. I say 'kind of' because the between the line message was that this was a security check to make sure I was still married to the woman who had appeared at the bank counter. Anyway at least the letter had come to the correct address.
The next month the statements were delivered to the old address. I phoned to complain. After pressing this and that and entering my security details – 'your security is our prime concern,' really? – I spoke to an advisor. 'This is awful,' she agreed, 'this shouldn't have happened.' 'Please hold so that I can speak to a supervisor.' The line went silent – that ominous silence that suggests your call has been dispatched to the outer reaches of digital space where nothing can be heard, ever. Then suddenly  good news: 'I have credited £50 to your account as compensation for our failures. I am so sorry, this really shouldn't have happened. I understand your security concerns. This really shouldn't have happened.  … …' This went on for several minutes until I began to feel uncomfortable for complaining. I beat a hasty telephonic retreat.
The next month one statement was delivered to the correct address, and one to the old address. Progress, or a computer glitch to fool me?
How am I to interpret this experience? I don't think anyone who dealt with my request had any ill-will towards me, but perhaps I'm fooling myself. Maybe my mistake was to ask a person to change the details. If I'd just posted the address slips perhaps the change would have happened seamlessly. Customer care might might really be shorthand for 'machines do all the caring here, don't try to speak to a person.' That's so often how it feels. Or is that the mass of detail in a computerized world is growing beyond what people can deal with? Behind the apparent detailed information there's actually something nearer chaos. World economics sometimes makes me suspect that. It's not very reassuring when the niggles of ordinary life appear to confirm that possibility.

Friday, 29 July 2011

A surefire way of generating ideas

Carrying the body of Saint Cuthbert
In the warm Southern Seas atolls suddenly appear above the water. An astonishing happening that has spurred so many romantic tales. Yet these new ‘isles’ aren’t magical creations; they are the product of the relentless work of countless unseen coral building organisms working below the ocean’s surface. Could it be that idea generation is similar—a myriad of unseen building processes below the surface of the mind? That was the thought that prompted a young publishing executive, James Webb Young, to write his 1939 book, A Technique for Producing Ideas. In just 48 pages he details what those unseen processes are and how any of us might use them.
I’ll try to sum those pages up in a paragraph:
The crucial principle is the fact that an idea is nothing more or less than a combination of old elements. What enables those old ideas to be combined in new ways is a person’s ability to see relationships between disparate things. In order, therefore, to generate new ideas a person needs to cultivate a habit of mind that’s always looking for relationships between things, facts, and experiences.  The method goes through five steps
1.    Gather raw material—as much information as you can that is related to your topic/product/focus. Be interested in everything because general knowledge is a key part of this material gathering.
2.    Digest the raw material you’ve gathered. Feel your way into each bit of information, turn it over in your mind, think on multiple meanings and significances, note things down, draw charts and pictures, and let it be a great jumble of ideas. This process should continue, advises Young, until you’re well and truly tired of it!
3.    Drop the whole thing. Go and do something you enjoy and forget about it. On many occasions this will be a period of literally sleeping.
4.    Take up the task again. Constantly think about it and the new idea will appear, often when you least expect it. It doesn’t need to be forced.
5.    Shape the idea into practical usefulness. This often comes much more easily than you could possibly have imagined during stage two because good ideas often have a self-expanding quality to them. Be patient in this shaping process and share it with other people.

It is such a simple process to understand. Unfortunately it is often hard to practice. Nevertheless I’m certain Young got it right. New ideas come from old ideas and spotting relationships is essential to generating those new ideas. This is a tried and trusted way of composing sermons, though perhaps not often so obviously systematized.
What’s already known is the key to what may be known. That is the way our imaginations work and that’s why it is so important to have a memory well stocked with the stories, concepts and symbols of our inherited tradition. Without that raw material available to us, the recognition of connections that generate exciting and motivating new ideas is so much harder. The collective memory of the community of faith is the powerhouse of good news—ideas that are new.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sorrow and prayers for Norway

Three brief thoughts from praying about Ut√łya and Oslo:

Tragedy is the only word that comes anywhere near the terrible events of Friday in Norway. The trauma of all must be devastating and deep. Even from a distance the brutal nature of the horror is hard to think about so I appreciate the truth in the words of the Norwegians who have described these things as of hell or a nightmare. Prayers and thoughts of sympathy and condolence are small gestures, but I hope that nevertheless the certainty that people of goodwill feel for those touched by this evil is some consolation, however small. I’m sure my prayers joined the prayers of millions of others this morning.

The news website News and Views from Norway particularly touched me. You can find it here Its combination of steadfast professionalism and common humanity seems to me just what we need in our commentators and journalists. Thank you Nina and colleagues, you’re an inspiration, and particularly so after so much recent jaundiced criticism of journalism here in the UK.

Domkirchen, Oslo on BBC on 24 July
Thirdly, the sight of so many Norwegians gathering at Oslo Cathedral and other churches tells me something about the collective memory that is this blog’s primary concern. In this time of such devastating hurt, churches seem the right place to be. In radio interviews this morning, people of no faith and of non-Christian faiths spoke of the cathedral as the place to show their immediate concern and solidarity. In this highly secularized nation, those of Christian heritage, if not regular practice, obviously shared the thought. Somehow a long memory of faith provides a way of gathering together that everyone feels to be important and safe. Although we may wish it otherwise, it seems to me that guarding that memory so it is available in such terrible times is a godly and gospel thing to do.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Encouraging frank sermon feedback (with apologies to Benjamin Zephaniah)

Be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday
Cos’ preachers just need to know—
What you’s hearing, how it’s grooving,
Touchin hearts, or changing minds?
Be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday.
Don’t smile, shake hands and pass on.
No ‘nice sermon Vicar’ that just leaves ’em wond’rin
Whether it was heard worthy of pond’rin at all.

So be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday –
Not polite, not reserved, not squeamish,
Not indiffer’nt, not respectful, not avoidin –
the one thing they long to really know.
Tell ’em straight, give ’em feedback, let ’em see
If you was shifted or touched by what they sermonized.
And if you wasn’t? Well, don’t hold fire,
Preachers need you to be honest. Tell em, ‘No prize.’

Preachers just wanna make connections
Preachers just wanna lift souls
Don’t you let ’em be vapid bellows—
The only hot air in de building when the stone walls give off their chill.
No sideshow, they’s a part of yus action.
Let them voices be tones to enthral you,
Let them words carve spaces in your mind
Tellin’ of goodness, and a grace that’s infinitely kind.

I once knew a preacher called ....... Preacher
Who, going each Sunday to tell it—
That gospel for sinner and saint,
Thought ’is words so stirring and compelling
And never once received comment or complaint.
’E ended ’is days disillusioned
On overhearing, behind a Tesco stack, ’is name
Pronounced clearly—as a boring and tedious hack.

So be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday
Own the work, make it yours, not theirs alone.
If the listenin’ stirs yu soul, then signal;
If the listenin’ comes hard, let ’em know.
We’s the Body of Jesus assembled, each wid a part
In dis message dat brings in new life.
Preachers and ’earers TOGETHER. Get it?
Speakin’ AND listenin’ – no boredom, no strife.

Inspiration drawn from Benjamin Zephaniah's poem Talking Turkeys in the book of the same name published by Puffin Books.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Relevance in preaching 1

Preaching isn’t about making Bible texts relevant. Of the things I say in attempting to convince my fellow preachers that our task is vital memory work in this amnesic age, that sentence about relevance is the one that troubles people most. 'Surely our job above all others,' they say, 'is to make the Bible relevant?' As strange as it obviously sounds, I’m convinced that it isn’t. Indeed I suspect that relevance as a first priority in sermon design and delivery actually undermines scripture. I’ll try to justify that conviction through this blog and a few that will follow it, as time allows.

Book cover WJK Press
Let’s begin with the work of that great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, since he exemplifies a determination to connect the text and the world. Brueggemann conceives the biblical text as always challenging and critiquing commonplace understandings of experience and reality, which means those commonplace understandings cannot be the interpreter’s beginning.

Interestingly, the word ‘relevance’ is a term he studiously avoids in his consideration of how preaching properly works.  Indeed, in a recent article he asserts ‘the text is not directly addressed to us, and we should not work too hard at making it immediately relevant’ (The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word, page 39).  As an alternative he uses the term ‘resonates’ as a way of indicating that the preacher’s task is to enable a word to be heard that comes ‘from outside our closed system of reality’ (ibid, page 4).  Preaching, he insists, must always be subversive (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, page 6) and he means that literally: it offers a version of faith lived in reality that gets under the dominant versions and opens new ways of existing.  He writes:

My theme is alternative, sub-version to version, the sermon a moment of alternative imagination, the preacher exposed as point man, point woman, to make up out of nothing more than our memory and our hope and our faith a radical option to the normalcy of deathliness. (ibid, page 9)

Preaching here is a creative activity in which each generation of faith reworks the tradition so as to maintain its liveliness:

We now know (or we think we know) that human transformation (the way people change) does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality. (The Word Militant ... page 26)

This is a radical understanding of faith’s collective memory in that it lays the emphasis on tradition’s continuity being found in the telling and retelling which is properly productive of changes and shifts in tradition’s content.  Here, the maintenance of a living tradition is clearly paramount; but processes of that maintenance are acknowledged as continually bringing to birth new ways of understanding how that tradition is experienced as living.  The ways collective memories change are an aspect of how tradition functions effectively rather than being seen as a threat to the preservation of tradition.  Brueggemann’s use of tradition works towards the creation of world-views in the anthropological sense; it is an insistence on an epistemology that shuns a too strident and dominating objectivism.   As he puts it:

Reality is not fixed and settled … it cannot be described objectively.  We do not simply respond to a world that is here, but we engage in constituting that world by our participation, or action, and our speech.  As participants in the constitutive act, we do not describe what is there, but we evoke what is not fully there until we act or speak. (Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, page 12)

The preacher’s task is to call forth a sermonic language that can construe the world in new ways.  Thus Brueggemann’s definition of imagination is:

The God-given, emancipated capacity to picture (or image) reality — God, world, self — in alternative ways outside conventional, commonly accepted givens.  Imagination is attentiveness to what is ‘otherwise,’ other than our taken-for-granted world. (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha, page 27)

This imaginative ability allows new insights and understandings to develop from within tradition.  Processes of displacement and forgetting may indeed be at work in this, as collective memory theory suggests; but that does not necessarily mean that previous memories are just abandoned.  Rather, imagination enables a reviewing incorporation of new perspectives that are beyond the easy conventions previously assumed. What is called forth goes beyond the strictures of relevance. What we take for granted shouldn’t be a determining factor in how sermons are designed and presented.