Monday, May 18, 2015

How to Do Church When People Don't Read

           The verdict on television and every other form of contemporary multi-media has been in for some time. Watching electronic screens, even infrequently, has a profound impact on nearly everyone’s desire to read, ability to read deeply, and ability to read for any length of time. All of it makes us—well, if not stupid—deeply distracted and increasingly shallow.

            I’ve written about how this is so for years (here, and here, for example) and reflected on this insight as one of the basic shapers of contemporary faith in my book, Not Sure. I’ve also spoken frequently about how preachers and worship planners might adapt their approach to a changing audience. I’ve based some of my ideas on Walter Ong’s insights about how oral audiences—that is, audiences from the time before most people could read. What follows are talking points—ten ideas that might have some traction.

One: Practice Simplicity. Today’s audiences are made up of people who read less. Many know only what they remember or Google. They are often not reading scripture either, and almost certainly not reading much about scripture, unless it is something in the health and wealth genre. So, when preaching, keep it simple and forget the huge swaths of doctrine. Augustine said preachers should leave difficult matters to books. Walter Benjamin says that Berthold Brecht kept a toy donkey on his desk with a sign around its neck: ‘I too must understand.’” The Bible says that the common people heard Jesus gladly. And he kept it simple. Think parable, think the Sermon on the Mount’s proverbs and beatitudes, think of illustrations that will make children smile. Keep it simple like Jesus did.
            Simplicity is not an excuse to practice shallowness, however. And there lies the great challenge for most preachers today. And by the way, preaching a ten-point sermon with the help of a projector is not simple. No one can go home and remember ten points. If you do this, do it once a year to mix it up, and make sure all your ten points are really restatements of one core insight.

Two: Don’t shy away from pathos. Digital audiences respond more to honest emotion than to carefully constructed rational arguments—which they can’t remember ten minutes later anyway. Leonard Sweet once wrote something like, “Postmoderns don’t come to church wondering, ‘is it true.’ They want to explore whether or not it is real.”
            I don’t mean you should get on the pulpit and cry. Pathos is a seasoning rather than the main course. But audiences resonate with the authentic emotional life of the preacher. A bit of self-deprecating humor is good, too.

Three: Be local. Fill sermons with local color, local personalities, today’s news, familiar memories and stories. Fill sermons with the everyday stuff that people are going to talk about after church, no matter what you preached about. Like Jesus did in his parables. His sermons brought people into their homes, marriages, businesses and fields. And his audiences were with him.

Four: People whose memories are not shaped by the patterns written words make, or by the interior journeys that are so much a part of modern literature, usually do resonate with amazing battles in the heavens or our mythic cities. This is called agonistic storytelling. Stories like that of David and Goliath, or Moses and Pharaoh, or Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings are heavy on plot and action, miracle and spectacle, and that makes them memorable to non-readers and readers alike. These stories can hold a non-reading audience’s attention. Walter Ong says that, “Oral story tellers played to audiences who wanted action and movement and thus the stories showed no great command of character drawing.” So make up amazing stories, or retell them, or refer to them. The Bible does.

Five: Preach as if the rest of the liturgy matters. Digital audiences love the clutter of multiple channels of communication—even though this clutter can also get in the way of focus. Church services ought to be full of song and bulletins, of visuals on the wall and in the classroom, of liturgical smells and bells as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, of processions of laughing children and solemn adults. A wise old document of the Reformation, the Belgic Confession, notes that God added the sacraments to the Word because people sometimes couldn’t understand the Word without signs and seals. Right. We need church that is much more than sermons made of words.
            By the way, this does not mean church has to be “high,” as in the Anglican or Catholic traditions. It needs, rather, to be visual and diverse. At Lawrence Park Church, we’ve decorated the sanctuary as the Emerald City and members came dressed as Wizard of Oz characters for a sermon based on that book. We’ve done a series of four sermons on Les Miserables using the music from the Broadway production as the clothesline on which the rest of the service was based. We put the words of choir anthems on overhead TV screens and have a children’s sermon every week.

Six: Practice the Way of Beauty. Beauty is the Spirit’s favourite path into our hearts. That’s why Psalms and Songs have always been important; why banners and children’s art and solos and sermons that are full of aesthetic delight grip people of every time and era. Sermons should always “make sense,” of course, but to the degree that they can also be poetic, they should be.

Seven: Preach as if words matter. Perhaps this is just another way of stating point six. But there is a peculiar kind of heaviness of heart that goes with sermons preached as if they were books. This heaviness is predicated on the notion that if a preacher says it, the audience must listen; but if a preacher says it like a professor might write it; the audience must listen without smiling, for written words know little of mirth. Well, while this approach to preaching makes sense in graduate schools, it makes a mockery of the many varied and rich and aesthetically delightful ways words can be used to become more than truth—they can become good news, too. Preachers who preach as if words matter spend more time writing and editing sermons than they do studying their sermons.

Eight: Learn from the ancient storyteller. More on point six. The preaching that works for digital audiences uses the ancient storyteller’s bag of tools: rhyme and repetition, assonance and proverb, parallel structure as found in the Psalms, and rhythm. Rap music was designed, from the ground up, as music for a digital, oral audience. Preachers can learn from that. Sweet says, “Postmodern storytelling is a plague on both houses; it is abductive—concurrent, stacked, loopy, nosequential and image-based,” like ancient storytelling and modern TV, both.

Nine: Preach short. This is related to command one, “be simple.” The bottom line is that people who watch TV have shorter attention spans than people who don’t. Too many preachers preach far too long. Give people one thing to remember, and finish. They might remember. Give them two things, or three, or four to remember, and they are likely not to remember anything at all—even though you took twice or three times as long to say it. I try to keep all my sermons for to less than twenty minutes. Many are fifteen minutes long. It takes a lot more work on the preacher’s part to achieve this, but I never met a person at the door who said, “boy, I wish you went longer, pastor!” A few masters can go longer, especially when their audience is more literate. But I know my weaknesses in this area. Do you?

Ten: Encourage high levels of literacy. This is counter-intuitive, perhaps. But the truth of the matter is that even in our reading-bereft society, deep literacy is a very valuable commodity. In part this is because historically, the leadership of all societies since the time of the Sumerians and Chinese has always inordinately represented by highly literate people. The highly literate control the flow of information and ideas. Why shouldn’t those highly literate leaders be Christians?

How do we encourage literacy? Well, great schools are part of the answer. But in my family, we threw out the television altogether. Not because we objected to what was on TV, but because of what TV does to our habits of mind when we’re not paying attention.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Those Poor Professors of Theology. What Can They Be Thinking?

            I’ve been thinking about professors of Systematic Theology sitting in their seminary offices lately. What do they think they’re doing?

            I’m not trying to be funny. I’m not trying to suggest that whatever they’re doing, it’s silly. I just wonder.

            There are a few obvious candidate answers. Theology professors will teach the History of Theology—as they see it, of course, with lots of judgments thrown in. Just choosing what history you’re going to talk about requires such judgments. I’m not blaming them. I did it too.

            Theology profs will also want to teach from out of his or her own tradition—likely the seminary’s tradition, too. It might be Barthianism or Fundamentalism or Mormonism. The tradition will come with lots of presuppositions, a certain worldview, and perhaps even an ethnic or class culture. Every tradition is a rich resource for the judgments mentioned above. Again, no theology prof can avoid this, though hopefully they always pass on their tradition with a lot of soul searching.

            Theology profs will probably say that they also want to teach their students to think . . . somehow. I’m not sure which word fits best after “think.” Probably something like “rationally.”

John Suk teaching Hermeneutics at
Asian Theological Seminary, c. 2005
Teaching students to think rationally isn’t as critical as it first might seem. Most probably can do so pretty well already, even if they haven’t applied the skill to theology. But rationality gets more complicated if the point of teaching is to pass on a tradition. That’s because unless we’re talking about something that’s truly weird (Jesus was a Hindu mystic) most competing doctrines in different traditions are at least internally coherent. Both Unitarianism and Trinitarianism are rational, for example. “Rational” doesn’t mean, after all, “proven.” To think rationally means that, given certain presuppositions, there is a way to make sense of these doctrines; they are internally coherent.

            In fact, it strikes me that one’s presuppositions, worldview, parents’ expectations, and favorite place to go to church will have a greater impact on both the theology professor and his or her students than the goal of rationality. All these doctrines are rational, after all. Most theology professors then, are probably much more interested in convincing their students (either through careful argument or any of a dozen or so other rhetorical strategies) that the presuppositions the professor holds are absolutely right.

            Except that, if this is the case, are we really doing theology? Or, are we teaching the true presuppositions as somebody or some tradition sees them?

            I remember early on, in seminary, hearing some lectures by one professor on how theology was a “science.” That is, theology was subject to strict methodological rules. It’s object was the examination of scripture (and a tiny bit of creation) in order to theorize about true faith.

            Years later, I read some philosophy of science books. In them I encountered discussions about science’s “craft values.” That is, to be a good scientist, you will theorize in a manner that meets the approval of other scientists. A good scientific theory, for example, needs to be rational (of course), meaning internally and externally consistent. But also simple. Heuristic. It should have unifying power. And it must be falsifiable. Which no theologian truly believes about his or her take on things. If it is a science, rather than a parade of presuppositions, theology is a strange one, for sure.

            I mean, even if the odd theologian claims it, most theology doesn’t go for Occum’s razor. Inerrancy? Very complicated, once you read scriptures, or even just compare the gospels. Trinity? Persons (?) divided, but substances not? Original sin? Honestly, when there isn’t an original Adam and Eve to lean on anymore, this is a doctrine only Rube Goldberg could love.

            No, I don’t think theology is a science. And for most theologians thinking about their next lecture, I’d guess that many are really thinking indoctrination, even if they don’t admit it to themselves. They are thinking about how to pass on a tradition for the sake of maintaining it. To do otherwise, at least in most denominational seminaries, is to face a trial or maybe just be fired.

            In view of this sort of analysis, in the past I’ve suggested that we ought to make theology a playground. Theology ought to be experienced as a holy pastime rather than serious indoctrination. I know that this won’t do much for denominational distinctives, or upholding your sect’s idea of the true facts.

            But upon reflection, I also realize that calling theology a playground isn’t enough. So I’d like to offer some “rules,” for this playground—craft values for having fun with theology rather than doing mere indoctrination.

            So, first, good theology should probably be aesthetically compelling. It should be beautiful. And I don’t mean merely the beauty of something that is internally coherent. I mean it should be good poetry, or art. Theology ought to paint a picture that is worth a thousand “facts.” This quality, in fact, is what makes the work of painters like Van Gogh, or writers such as Marilyn Robinson such good theology.

            Good theology should be creative. If humans—whether in myth or history—were created by God as image bearers, surely human reflections on God should be, in turn,  creative, too. Theology should find new answers to the old questions of the problem of evil, or the nature of Jesus’ presence at the eucharist, or when to get baptized; new answers that break down old barriers and offer new insight or encouragement or joy. Another way of putting this is that every few years or so, good theology should lead to some major paradigm change when it comes to creedal or confessional conundrums.

            Good theology must be meditative. It ought to allow the thinker or the reader or the doer of the theology to step back from the rat race of the parsonage or faculty or student life and engage in seeking God seeking us, instead.

            Good theology should make identifying presuppositions a game, like Finding Waldo. Look, we know they are there in the writing and the teaching. Let’s name them! All! Ironically, it usually takes not only a hard look but also a childlike naivety to identify many presuppositions. Doing so, however, means that they won’t likely get a chance to be as  coercive as an emperor without clothes.

            Good theology should not be primarily thought of as trying to say systematically what the Bible says enigmatically. When it comes to the Trinity, we needed poetry but got a formula based on now-discredited Greek philosophical theories that has about as much connection to the original texts as Derridian deconstruction does.

            Good theology should focus more on ethics rooted in the summary of the law than in hotly debated disagreements about the Bible’s enigmas. If Old Testament Pharisees were too enamoured of the tithe, then the modern Christian academy is too enamoured of propositions.

            A good theologian has a full heart that needs to find expression in the words he or she speaks, rather than in ancient creeds or confessions that must be parsed correctly to be understood today.

            Look, it can’t be easy to be a professor of Systematic Theology. And thinking of theology as a playground rather than an arena is only a partial solution to the theologian’s problems. But theology is fun. Even if that’s just the beginning of the rest of the story.