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Live and near: preaching as performance A review article in three parts

by

Christopher Burkett

Christopher Burkett is Editor of The Preacher.

Part Three

Embodiment, process and anticipation

Following on from that generalised commendation, I now turned to some specific areas of performance detailed in the book that bear very directly on the question with which I began, namely, does the widening use of personal technology within worship enhance its performance? I limit myself to three areas: embodiment, process, and anticipation. My particular focus, of course, is on preaching.

THE BODY IN PREACHING

The idea of performance directs our attention towards the inevitable embodiment that is preachers themselves. ‘How to Preach’ was a lecture much anticipated at the seminary at which I trained. After months of slogging through biblical texts, and repeated correction of our inadequate grasp of doctrine, we were going to be let into the secret of how to bring it all together in brilliant eloquence. Imagine how deflated I felt when the lecturer’s first point (he was a Methodist preacher with a national reputation) was, ‘Comb your hair, clean your nails, and polish your shoes.’ He was, of course, exactly right. The first aspect of any sermon for any listener, is the physical bodily presence of the preacher. I didn’t know it then, but John Wesley (1703-1791) had made the same point many generations earlier when he wrote, ‘… the whole is so to be managed, that there may be nothing in all the dispositions and motions of your body to offend the eyes of the spectators’ (quoted on p. 158).

Before any word is spoken the speaker is being evaluated and examined, and this continues as words are spoken in the assessments made as to whether what is seen matches what is said. For example, meanings may be attributed to gestures quite contradictory to the preacher’s words or intentions: sweeping repeated arm gestures may convey anger when the words are all about love; or clothing that is too casual or even unkempt may seem to contradict the seriousness of the words heard. Too often the body belies the verbalisation (p. 184).

Preachers need to think through these matters during preparation and rehearsal and be prepared to adapt and amend both body and words during the course of the sermon. During a traditional live sermon this is relatively easy to do, and most preachers almost unconsciously develop an ability to do so. The use of technology makes this much more difficult. If speaking with projected slides, the opportunity for spontaneity and response in situ becomes much more limited; and if such shifts go too far the connection with what is projected is lost, making the support technology pointless anyway. Similarly, streamed preaching adds a permanence to the address that can make preachers reluctant to stray from what was prepared earlier, adding a certain stiltedness to the presentation. It is not that technology prevents effective performance of the sermon but that its use makes achieving that effectiveness so much harder. What makes us believe that we can so easily perform a technology-mediated sermon with qualities of immediacy, personal engagement and contextual response? In kindred circumstances, actors and directors have taken years to hone the skills needed. Surely, we should not assume that our skills can be developed with any less effort.

NOT WHAT’S COME NATURALLY

To that objection I’ve often heard the defence that preachers are not aiming at excellence. It’s said that what we offer is a naturalness of voice and style that doesn’t need the sophistication of techniques used in other circumstances. That sermon-hearers will tolerate what grates elsewhere. Only ‘be natural’ is the insistence. This is a wholly fallacious argument it seems to me. If as embodied beings, we cannot NOT present ourselves since at every moment we exist as bodies in a social space (p. 31), then we have to ask what it is to be an embodied being. Saint Paul is absolutely and strikingly clear about the answer – ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23). So, if that naturalness is all that we have to offer it is the naturalness of a fallen humanity and the voice we have is nothing more than the most broken of broken reeds. Being ourselves in the performance of the Word simply won’t do. We have to rely on what is steadier than self (p. 37), namely God, alive and present as the Holy Spirit in the community of belief and interpretation that is the Church. If speech does things, as is argued throughout Performance in Preaching, then every one of us eager to use it must seek to be the best at its use that we can be – that’s part of the calling of a gracious God. We dare not rely on what comes naturally.

We must learn to perform in proclamation rather than expect it to come naturally. In early times in the Church the holiness of the preacher was something often mentioned. That was perhaps a way of saying that the saint concerned was obviously learning from Christ in his or her life and thereby clearly demonstrating the efficacy of what they said. What could be seen in the living body of the preacher in view made ‘really real’ the words that were heard from that person. The concern for embodiment expressed here directs our attention to that same logic. As Barstow puts it, ‘what we say (content), the way we shape what we say (form), and how we say what we say are all interwoven’ (quoted on p.76). And, as he further writes, ‘the talk is never all’ (p.75), there is always more than the words spoken. If that ‘more than’ is partly technology mediated, then it must serve and not detract from the embodiment of the Word. Preachers cannot avoid the embodiment that comes with being a living being.

PROCESS: ALL IS IN MOTION

Inevitably, the notion of embodiment brings with it attention to change, variation, and ageing. Bodies age, abilities change, and capabilities are utterly dependent on physical factors over which a person has limited control. Despite advertisements that promise the contrary, we all know that that ageing changes us; and that is perhaps an easier change to admit than rather more hidden factors. What we do and the way we do it varies subtly but enormously, not only because of variation in the social environment in which we act but also because we ourselves are not static. Everything is in process, even our very selves. If someone at the church door is brave enough to respond, ‘That was a rather dyspeptic sermon this morning, minister’, we are likely to feel guilty that we’ve displayed too much of our personal unease. Nevertheless, at heart we know, that our personal wellbeing, emotionally, physically and spiritually, is in constant and shifting tension with what we say and how we say it. And more of what is going on ‘inside’ of us is evident to those outside of us that we usually care to admit!

Saint Paul’s analogy about frail, easily broken vessels, comes to mind, ‘… we have this treasure in clay jars’, (2 Corinthians 4.7). As powerful, however, as that image is, it suggests an object static in a particular place and time, and that solidity, even when acknowledged as fragile, is very hard to find in the preaching life. Is it in the preacher’s preparatory reflections, in the preacher’s composition of what’s to be said, in the preacher’s intentions, in the preacher’s actual speaking, or in the listener’s response – immediately or later? Or is it somewhere else? NOW as a static moment is elusive in the process that is preaching. We may appeal to ‘the point’ or ‘a point’ often in what we say, but the encounter that is a sermon is so much more than a conceptual instant.

INCARNATIONAL

These issues are explored in Performance in Preaching in an important essay by Paul Scott Wilson (pp 44-66) that draws out the theological consequences of working with the motion (what I’ve called ‘the process’) of preaching. Using Nicholas Lash’s understanding that Christian community life is properly understood as performance of the biblical text and that any biblical interpretation is incomplete without acknowledgement of its use in that community (p. 48), he examines preaching as an incarnational process. What I’ve taken from this is a challenge to open up my preaching to all the dimensions of performance and to be less focussed on my own self-conscious performance in the event, as if all that the text conveys is limited in some way by it. In other words, I’ve shifted my thinking from performance as an ability in certain techniques towards performance as an aspect of a whole-life view of being a person in action with other people. In this sense we all perform most of the time; not to deceive but to offer the best interpretation of our understanding of what is happening. And in doing so, to give to the others the best chance of understanding and responding to what we are dealing with. For example, Wilson asks, ‘at what point does interpretation become performance?’ (p. 50), and he goes on:

If the measurement is when a text becomes bodily action, might a text not be performed when someone thinks about it and neurons in the brain start firing, for then the text has become embodied and the text may be said to be directing the neuron action? Might a text not be performed when thought about a text is converted to action in the form of writing about it, the hand moving in distinctive patterns on page or a computer keyboard in ways prompted by the text? Is a text performed when it is silently read with comprehension; when memory brings to mind what is prepared for delivery; when writing is converted to speech and action; or when the historical import of the text as the Word of God is properly understood and implemented in one’s life with the help of the Holy Spirit? When does performance begin? (pp 50-51)

Reframing performance in this way makes it plain that preaching is an ‘incarnational process of the Word becoming flesh’ (p. 52) that moves through time as a person strives to engage with the text and with the community of interpretation that is the Church as well as with the world in which all is set. The text, the world, the preacher, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit give birth to the sermon (the physicality of the action is intentional). This is much more than the interior reflection of the speaker relating to the interior reflection of the hearer.

TOWARDS THE END

This is incarnational in terms of process as well as theology. It is never solely a looking back. As Wilson puts it, ‘the preacher speaks of a past that is present and a future that is here and now,’ (p. 62). Performance of Scripture happens within time but is both timely (in the sense of relevant now) and beyond time as it seeks to move hearers (literally as well as metaphorically) beyond current anxieties. Wilson insists that the character of the eschaton is already known in Jesus Christ and that ‘for God past, present, and future are all in view at once’ (p. 61). Those realities should embolden preachers to speak with confidence. We know the End, which gives us absolute assurance in God’s loving kindness. Performance is not so much a matter of technique as an urgent need to connect with the performance of God. Frail vessels performing preachers may be, but to go back to Saint Paul, these clay pots exist ‘so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Corinthians 4.7). We must trust ourselves and our hearers to the process that is ultimately turning ink into blood (p. 49) however feeble we may feel ourselves to be.

So far, I’ve discussed firstly, embodiment and how understanding preaching as performance means we cannot avoid the significance of our bodily presence in the action of preaching. And secondly, process, that is that the preaching life requires the involvement of the whole of ourselves – bodily, emotionally, socially and spiritually – all aspects of personhood that are in continuous motion/process, in one way or another. Accordingly, I am arguing that preaching is an incarnational process that cannot but be physical and fluid-like in its use. And consequently, I suggest that anything that disembodies the voice or works towards making it static or wholly about ideas obscures the very nature of what preaching is – hence my concern about how personal electronic technology and software are used in worship.

ANTICIPATION - INEVITABLY

Next, and finally, I turn towards the mental framework that undergirds how preaching is heard. So, I am moving from ‘embodiment’ and then ‘process’ to what I am describing as ‘anticipation’. What I mean is that preaching follows certain expected structures of language, content, style, subject, tone and the like that have become conventions in our usage. This means that all present, to varying degrees, can anticipate to some degree what comes next. These conventions are generally recognised by all involved, but often go unremarked upon and even unnoticed (unless they are offendingly breeched). Generally, it is easy to recognise a sermon as a sermon even though the tradition in which it stands, the style in which it is delivered, and the form it takes, vary enormously there remains certain commonalities that all can see. Like breeds of a dog, models of a car, or varieties of a theatrical play, sermons carry within their very form identifying signs of their pedigree. There may be huge variety in content, expression, and what is seen and heard, but that never totally obliterates the underlying family resemblance.

Having certain assumed conventions of form and practice is something sermons share with other forms of discourse. We all know what sports’ punditry is and recognise that a political interview or a nature commentary is different. What we anticipate in a cooking demonstration is quite different to our anticipation in an investigative journalism piece, a TV talk show, or a so-called reality TV segment. The conventions are often fundamental to our enjoyment of what is taking place. Knowing what comes next, in a broad sense, gives shape, boundaries, and direction to our responses, and a certain sense of control that is reassuring.

Sometimes, of course, we are surprised or even shocked when conventions are ignored or even flouted. A comedian can deliver a lecture, perhaps to great comedic and factual effect; a politician can ballroom dance, perhaps with entertaining aplomb; and a broadcast TV play can disclose fundamental justice issues, maybe to more people and to better effect than countless formal reports. Notice, though, that these crossing of convention boundaries only go so far. The skilled performer (actor) only shifts the conventions to a limited degree, he or she works with the fact that not anything goes. A lecture isn’t the place for swearing, nor ballroom dancing for political grandstanding, nor can a TV drama about actual events to be wholly fictitious (although in other circumstances a totally fictitious narrative account might be appropriate).

Personal electronic technology makes the challenging of communication conventions much easier and is the reason that some preachers advocate its use. Preaching has become too staid, they say, whereas smartphones and tablets allow it to break from its shackles. With electronic gadgets it can become much more immediate and a lot more democratic – new opinions are sought, new responses elicited, and a multiplicity of voices can contribute. Furthermore, it is said, the use of ‘gizmos’ in communication is an arena in which younger people excel and are interested in, so it cannot but be a good thing in an ageing church. By now, I hope I have made plain enough my hesitations about this logic: it fails to recognise the electronic ‘distance’ imposed by the use of technology, ignores those who are technologically impoverished, and subverts the necessary embodiment of preaching. What always needs process over time isn’t well served by the instantaneous nature of personal electronic technology. Helpful anticipation is often not aided by the insistent demand to reply electronically. Tapping or clicking a keypad can be part of preaching as performance but only if the assumptions and hidden consequences of its processes have been adequately taken into account. A certain hesitancy that needs time is required to avoid the rancour, aggression, and ill-will so frequently evident in personal media forums.

MUSIC AS A GUIDING MODEL

Clayton J. Schmit, one of the editors of Performance in Preaching, draws from the performance of music some particularly helpful ideas about anticipation and externalisation (p. 231) as they apply to preaching. I think these have very serious things to say to methodologies too closely wedded to the essentially internalising personal screen of the phone or tablet. First, he makes the point that ‘music only exists as an activity that is externalized’ by the performer (p. 231). Cannot the same be said of the sermon? Both can be written down and analysed in a textual form, but it is of their very nature that to be what they are meant to be they must be heard in time and space. Sermons, like music, must be externalised by a performer. Technologies that constrict them to what which is primarily more internal alter their fundamental character. Neither is just one mind (whether composer or performer) speaking to another. The experience is external (and hence embodied and within a process) and is best served by what enhances that.

Second, Schmit discusses how anticipation works in music, as he writes, ‘Through knowledge of music’s conventions, a performer acquires a sense of musical inevitability and a corresponding sense of anticipation regarding where the music needs to go.’ (p. 243). Through the learning of, and practice in these conventions the performer gets to know the music so that is can ‘flow’ through her performance. Listeners hear the piece with a similar and satisfying inevitability of flow (whether the conventions are strictly followed or more playfully used). We simply ‘know’ where the music is going, as it were, and that inevitability adds to the experience. This is never, however, just formulaic; each performance is different, and improvisation is always possible. The argument is subtle and extended and worth reading in full (pp 243-252). As Schmit says, preaching also has a quality of inevitability about it. Far from being tedious, this given anticipation enhances the experience and allows hearers themselves a proper contribution to the performance that is preaching.

THE END IS GOD

The conventions of the sermon genre assumed to be a drawback by their critics is part of its performative strength. In its ‘knowing what comes next’, anticipatory quality, it constantly reassures its hearers that the story being told will always, but always ‘end’ in a gracious God. It is this End that must always be in view and be therefore anticipatable. Alternatives are not acceptable (unfortunately there are too many examples in history of sermons justifying unholy things far short of God’s purpose and end). Preaching that detracts from that End isn’t Christian preaching. We believe in a gracious and merciful God, made incarnate in Jesus Christ, and sustaining us now through the Spirit. That the conventions of preaching require the anticipation of such an End is its glory.

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