While ushering their congregations through a period of personal reflection and preparation, clergy have in the occasion of the sermon the opportunity to aid in the rediscovery of the church’s language, both as God’s medium of judgment and as his enduring, self-revelatory vehicle to the world…
For clergy preparing for their flocks a meaning-rich Holy Week, one’s quick Web search for sermon writing will return commentary from sources of various degrees of distinction. Of the sort, there is either an at-length appeal to the “how-to” of drafting compelling sermons or a more technical treatment of form. What follows is typical of neither, but is instead a brief critique of the pervading sermon culture that has become given to poor rhetorical discipline in the modes of over-sentimentality, poorly wrought attempts at apologetics, and a philistine lust for novelty. This critique is ‘conservative’ both by its appeal to orthodoxy and by its prescriptions for yielding the whim of self-expression to the authority of tradition and to the representative.
To begin, as the astute reader has likely detected, ‘sermon’ and ‘homily’ are herein interchangeable. There admittedly exists between the two an argued doctrinal difference, but for the purpose of this presentation no distinction is made. Instead it is assumed that surrounding any event of sacred communication, there looms the damage of a poor philosophy of rhetoric.
Assumed also is that through its language a culture discriminates between artifacts by their value relations to a core ideal of excellence. Over time these discriminations are made implicit, become intrinsically bound to self-ordered behavior, and are a given for one’s inclusion. This quiet truth, once obvious, requires that the custodians of a culture properly exercise the preference of the ideal, either in so grand a manner as to publish edicts of the normative or so subtly as to guard one’s own speech against the pressures and temptations of extraneous trend.
“Those who based their lives on the unintelligence of sentimentality fight to save themselves with the unintelligence of brutality.” – Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
Without a conviction for liturgy, the sermon writer looks into a wilderness of preparation, which impresses upon the mind either an imprudent forage for novelty or a retreat to unchecked feeling. The former of the two will be soon discussed. Regarding the latter, the crutch of experience at present is too readily leaned upon where the theology of Scripture’s authority is poor, making the biblical account something like a static screen upon which the reel of our solipsism is projected. Exciting the emotion through language is a consequence of one’s appraisal, and so the role of a disciplined rhetoric in the church is to deliberate between what is good, right, and proper and what is none of those things, in order to affect the object of one’s moral inspiration toward the ought.
As for testimony, while there is space reserved for personal witness within the Western worship framework, its language must not assume that God is the Divine Attendant to very human concerns. It must be stressed instead that our lives as Christians are but transitory entries and exits within the epic of God that is world history, and that the grafting of one into the story is a fortunate aside to the cosmic. The necessary hierarchy of realities is repackaged peer-to-peer, and so the urgency of Kingdom is by and large lost on Christianity in America as it advertises unconditional relationship without an expectation for improvement.
“We must remember that in saying anything about types of consciousness different from our own, we are making statements about worlds which are different from ours, though continuous. Truth on our level is a different thing from truth for the jellyfish, and there must certainly be analogies for truth and error in jellyfish life.” –T.S. Eliot, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley
Proclamation is the sole medium of the stubborn: by the faithful and for the faithful. If what inspires a sermon is external inquiry into the divine reality, then the sermon writer has at best forgotten his or her audience and at worst substituted a necessarily inscrutable God with the graven sum of our deductions. No matter how clever, if prepared for the context of an American Sunday morning, an apology convinces only its writer. If prepared as a proclamation event, however, the sermon’s power is borne either out of absolute conviction or of a dogged commitment to great guesses. Its contrast is the tact of apologetics, which in its now commercial form makes Christians appear less willing to take criticism than the martyrs were to take crosses.
Also with respect to the new apologetics craze, there is in addition a forfeiture of identity by means of blunting the controversy of canon through appeals to its essence. By retrograding an artificial bifurcation between the ethical and the cultural, the private and the public, the popularity of faith through another’s definition of reason has made way for one’s participation in the church polity without the consequence of believing the reality of the absurd. The preservation and survival of church culture is not dependent upon the inculcation of convincing or “relevant” speech, but instead of native speech. That is, of speech that is a given, its fluency bound up with the living memory of the Scripture’s inter-contextual conversations.
“A royal road to a reputation for originality is to impugn the verdicts of the past—to whitewash what is traditionally black or blackwash what is traditionally white.” –Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College
With canon at her rhetorical center, the church has a lexicon by which Christians past speak to the lives of Christians present. The result is timeless community. Without recognizing the authority of canon over her conversations, the Christian adopts too readily a vocabulary with implicit disapproval of tradition where it tyrannizes over the creative impulse. Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan writes,“is the living faith of the dead.” It is how the church maintains her form, and its aesthetic is a profound remembering of who she is.
The presence of the church is a challenge to the predominant worldview which looks upon the monuments of culture as interruptions to a collectivized schema and which permits holy texts only as lessons for adjusted lives. Within the bounds of crass utility the church’s definitions are circumscribed, and it is for a frivolous “relevance” that the miraculous is made useful for dismissive ends. Christians who intend for themselves a “modern” or any time-bound self-designation risk to abandon the telos of historical witness for the hypocrisy of faith assimilated to the conditions of society’s warm regard.
If sermons are not created to inspire superior lives of superior faith, the sermon writer has tossed a timeless pearl before the pigs of poor expectation. Amidst the deluge of cheap opinion in its various forms, the exercise of a disciplined homiletic anchors the conservative imagination to its ideal. To be sure, the new age of protest stands opposed not to strong convictions, but to unacceptable convictions, of which appeals to the re-ordering of the soul have become primary. The pulpit gives meaning to fact, and its power is kept by refusing a rhetoric forced upon it by its antagonists. While ushering their congregations through a period of personal reflection and preparation, clergy have in the occasion of the sermon the opportunity to aid in the rediscovery of the church’s language, both as God’s medium of judgment and as his enduring, self-revelatory vehicle to the world.
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