Archive for June, 2016

The Choice is the unfolding of Dr. Thomas’ discernment process in making important choices.  But, it is also more than that; it is also a demonstration of his preaching as decision process.  The book wrestles with the idea about making wise choices that emerge from a life lived “inside-out” rather than “outside-in.”  In other words, living out of our God-given passions.  Making choices out of our deepest, God-given passions allows us to be “victors rather than victims” to our circumstances.  Every situation (usually) offers us some kind of choice.  Inability to see options, to see choices, renders us prisoner to those various circumstances.

The recognition of choice does not solve the dilemma that faces us, however.  Rather, this is where the difficult work begins.  “How do we make a wise and good decision?” must then be asked.  We may be able to communicate what we think we want, but are we deeply aware of “what we want, really?”  In other words, the choices that we make reveal our deepest convictions about life, about ourselves, and about God.  Do these choices line up with the things that we say we believe?  Or, are we fractured people whose choices run counter to those beliefs we say we hold?  Our choices say a great deal about our implicit convictions.

Another hindrance or barrier to making wise choices that come from our deepest passions is fear.  Fear of the new and unknown future, fear of the risk of failure, fear of our own inadequacy, and fear that rationalizes other options can bind and arrest us from progressing toward the future to which God is calling us.  Forging new patterns of life is difficult; it is even more difficult when “success” is not guaranteed.  Dr. Thomas suggests that defining our choice helps us move past fear.  We are called to serve and to “renew our yes” to that calling.  It is at the intersection of service and our deepest passions where we find our vocational lives, our calling.  God continues to draw us to those places, if we would only say, “Here I am, send me.”

The final sections move us toward “executing the choice” and “releasing the choice.”  One of the most powerful things that I have found to be true is that I cannot do this journey without community.  Dr. Thomas asks if we have a “teachable spirit.”  In other words, are there those that walk alongside us providing accountability, challenge, encouragement, and wisdom?  The Christian community is called to do this for one another.  Of course, engaging in community can also be painful, even in the Church.  Yet, it is through sharing our brokenness that we are shaped for God’s new future.

In “releasing the choice,” we are reminded of the integral foundation of prayer in making wise choices.  Relying on our own strength and power to accomplish God’s future for us may very well land us in more difficulty.  To inquire of the Lord, to listen and wait, is the work of discipleship.  We follow where Jesus leads and the same is true in discerning the various choices set before us.  We cannot discern God’s voice if we do not inquire of God and listen carefully in each situation that present itself.

The role of backstory in preaching is that it is the contextual soil from which sermonic flora germinates.  Every sermon, interpretation, hermeneutic is contextual.  We are not a tabula resa when it comes to engaging in these activities.  We cannot interpret in a theological or experiential vacuum.  Instead, we bring these experiences to bear on both life and text.  The backstory in The Choice demonstrates the place from which these particular sermons to this particular community at this particular time arose (although it has been somewhat de-contextualized by virtue of being written).

I noticed several connections in the book to the lectures for class.  First, the power of human agency in choosing was evident.  Sermons are trying to get to “core belief,” which is also the center from which we intuitively make choices.  Sermons begin and end in an act of listening.  Wise choices begin there as well.  Also, the sermon is intended to end in celebration; there is a similar celebration that emerges when we begin to live out of our deepest passions that come from “core belief.”

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This was a short sermon (5 minutes) that I wrote for the ACTS D.Min. program in Chicago.  It utilized “incarnational translation” as part of the methodology for the sermon.  

 

The Pharisees sat in the pews keeping a suspicious eye on Jesus, waiting to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  Work was strictly prohibited on Sabbath.  The Jewish religious leaders had created numerous laws designed to restrict working on Sabbath.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  Don’t take too many steps on this day.  You can’t prepare meals on this day.  You aren’t allowed to do any manual labor.  It was a long, extensive, exhaustive, comprehensive, encyclopedic list of prohibitions they were required to follow.  The Pharisees prowled around the sanctuary just waiting for Jesus to step one toe out of line and break the Sabbath.

Jesus tells the man with the withered hand to stand where everyone in worship can see him.  As the congregation has gathered in their holy huddle, Jesus asks them an unsettling question: “What’s the whole purpose behind Sabbath?  Is it for doing good or evil, for sustaining life or promoting death?”  The Pharisees believe the Sabbath is about not working.  But Jesus says the Sabbath is about re-defining our work – not simply stopping it.  It’s not only about avoiding evil, but actively doing that which is good – preserving, sustaining, and blessing life for all.

You may have heard the old saying, “We don’t drink, smoke or chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.”  There have been times, we, as Nazarenes, were known for what we didn’t do.  We didn’t play cards.  We didn’t go to movies.  We weren’t allowed to dance.  We didn’t drink alcohol.  I’m not even sure we were allowed to smile.  Somewhere along the way, we rooted our identity in what we were against, but we weren’t sure what we were for.  We can list what we shouldn’t be doing, but we struggle to name what we should be doing.

While we may have avoided doing some harmful things, while we may have insulated ourselves from “a dangerous world out there,” we have also divorced ourselves from God’s Sabbath call.  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and upon doing so the man’s hand is healed.  Jesus demonstrates in this healing that the “work” of Sabbath is the work of justice.  It is the work of restoration.  It is the work of renewal.  It is the work of reconciliation.  Sabbath is not only rest – Sabbath is restitution.

We stand at a crossroads in the life of our state and community.  It is a crossroad which recognizes that worship which fails to engage the real issues of this world isn’t really worship.  Our state has experienced a massive shortage in money for budgets.  It was a gross mishandling of money entrusted to them by its citizens.  The result was significant cuts to education, mental health care, and loss of tax breaks for our poorest neighbors.  Simultaneously, huge tax breaks were given to large oil companies.  The disturbing misuse of power and privilege which tramples over the most vulnerable people in our state and in our community is unacceptable and we cannot remain silent.  We cannot remain on the sidelines.

Jesus stands in our midst today, asking us: “Why have we gathered here in worship?  Is it just to avoid being tainted by the world outside?  Is it to build a huge wall of security around ourselves so that we might not concern ourselves with the world’s brokenness?  Or, is it so that we might be empowered to do that which is good, that which is right, that which preserves life?”  Perhaps we have been gathered here in worship to be reminded that God wants to heal our withered hands so that we might be sent back out into the world to work for the good of others.

“We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed… It is the sober opinion of many concerned Christians, some who give the sermon and some who hear it, that preaching is an anachronism.”[1]  Fred Craddock penned these words in 1970, nearly 45 years ago!  Yet, this statement resonates with similar sentiment concerning preaching today.

Whereas Craddock was dealing with preaching’s struggle in the shift from Modernism to Post-modernism, I believe preaching is wrestling with a slightly different aspect of that same shift.  Simply put, preaching is wrestling to find its place in a technological and media-driven society.  Craddock’s dilemma has similar roots to our own preaching dilemma.  He struggled to shift from deductive methods of preaching to inductive methods.  Our situation is also a matter of language, but resides in the culture’s sense that language no longer has any meaning or value.  The problem facing preaching is like a hydra’s multiple heads connected to a common body.  Perhaps in lopping off one head, others have sprouted with which we must now contend.

Where we might break from a technology’s grip on our lives, more “heads” spring up.  In the face of such seemingly overwhelming barriers to preaching, despair or surrender may appeal as the logical options from which to choose.  In such a culture, does the sermon still have a place in worship?  Is preaching nothing more than an antiquated vestige of an institutional Church writhing in its own death throes?

These are legitimate questions.  Craddock notes, “To explain this general reaction, perhaps one need not look for reasons profound; it may be simply that these critics have heard us preach!”[2]  This may be the very thing that is most difficult to admit and the most damning.  The surrounding culture stands puzzled asking us why they should listen to our preaching.  What is gained or offered in such moments?  I am convinced that would not remain the sentiment about preaching if it proclaimed the power of the Gospel through which the Spirit transforms lives, including the preacher’s life!

Here is where the tension manifests itself.  Does fault lie with preacher or hearer?  There is no simple, clear-cut answer.  There are so many factors that have paved the way for where we find ourselves now.  In truth, it is quite possible, if not probable, that fault lies with both preachers and hearers.  We now turn to assess some of those hindrances and possible ways to navigate those choppy waters.

THE METHOD IS THE MESSAGE: METAPHOR AND EPISTEMOLOGY

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, provides insightful commentary about entertainment and technology: “Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever ‘languages’ we find it possible and convenient to employ.  We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as ‘it’ is but only as our languages are.  And our languages are our media.  Our media are our metaphors.  Our metaphors create the content of our culture.”[3]

Television, computers, social media, and the internet are the modern metaphors shaping our language, and thus our culture.[4]  The influence of these metaphors on the Church is easily observed by the extent of their utilization in its ministries.  Few churches are not employing the methods of communication of the culture in order to reach that culture.  In using these technologies we might gain something (i.e., accessibility) but we might also lose something.

For instance, technology connects us globally with intense speed.  We have a constant barrage of images, stories, weather forecasts, tweets, status updates, tragedies, war, business and other news whose origin is not connected with our own context.  The news continuously flashes isolated stories that lack narrative flow and connectivity.  Each story is a self-contained whole, needing no further analysis.  If the news is de-contextualized, then it has no real bearing on our lives.  It’s not real.  It only occupies our minds for a moment and vaporizes as a new story appears to take its place.

If this is true, it is certainly concerning for a congregation’s capacity to perceive sermons as pertinent and relevant to their contexts, their lives.  If a sermon is merely another de-contextualized “story” with no connection with what happens before or after it, then we quickly delete it from our memory.  It has no lasting import; it is simply another news story blurb. [5]  Add to this the overwhelming mass of messages available to us continuously, it is easy to see why language is flippantly dismissed as meaningless, even by those who should be language’s greatest stewards!

Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “…to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”[6]  The language forms that we receive in our visual and technological age undoubtedly shape our manner of life, it orients us to itself.  For instance, in referring to forgetting a memory in our minds, we might say, “I deleted it from my hard drive.”  The language of technology has replaced the language of biology.  The larger implication is that humanity’s perception of itself is centered in the computer.  Obviously, this is an issue from a theological anthropology perspective.

Postman’s critique of entertainment culture deals primarily with the cognitive aspects of technology’s instruction.  This does not give attention to fuller issues of our embodiment by which we are formed kinesthetically via technology and social media.  These technologies order our day-to-day living.  Alarms wake us up, much of our job is managed through technological gadgets, cellphones render us always available.  Technology shapes us, not merely through information, through its formational practices.

We are shaped by those practices that incorporate our bodies in the metaphor’s message.  James K. A. Smith writes, “Insofar as our being-in-the-world is navigated metaphorically, we can appreciate why Johnson posits a fundamental aesthetics of human understanding.  Even more strongly, Johnson will argue that our higher order ‘conceptual’ thinking is nonetheless indebted to – and dependent upon – primary metaphors that are linked to the bodily basis of meaning.”[7]  Technology exercises its power primarily because it integrates the whole body in its use.

Another way we might talk about the metaphor’s capacity to shape our lives is through the dual dimensions of desire and imagination.  That is essentially what we mean by the kinesthetic and aesthetic arena of our creatureliness.  The various metaphors that we employ, not simply the messages we hear, create a vision of what we want in life and what that looks like.  It is through what we imagine the “good life” to be that our desires are pointed toward a telos.  Out of this imagination and desire arises our action, our response.  Thus, no metaphor is a tabula resa.  Every metaphor communicates an assumption about the purpose for which we were created.

Because we are fully embodied creatures, preaching must also take this into account when seeking to shape a community of faith.  Too often, our preaching has been aimed primarily at the cognitive dimension of people.  That is not unimportant, merely deficient if we hope to allow preaching to be as formative as technology (which is difficult given the disproportionate time technology claims of us!).  It is necessary that the language, content, and form of preaching connect with the aesthetic, kinesthetic qualities of “human being-in-the-world.”[8]

Preaching, too, is a metaphor.  It shapes our collective imaginations, which further shapes our perceptions of reality.  Preaching uses language, which entails a form of life.  This life is then embodied in the various other practices, symbols, signs, and metaphors of Christian life.  We communicate messages, but we must also be mindful of methods.  The content of our preaching has not always meshed with the form of our preaching.  As mentioned earlier, so much of our preaching has been geared toward the intellect.  We are reduced to brains rather than fully embodied people.  This neglects the powerful influence of our bodies, emotions and senses to the Church’s detriment.

Our language, which is rooted in embodied life, cannot stop at only explaining the world but must also evoke a world.  So much of our interaction with our environment comes as second nature.  If, as James K. A. Smith suggests, we are creatures that engage the world in intuitive kinds of ways, not simply cognitively, then preaching must also engage this aspect of personhood in our communication.  By evoking the primary experiences of a congregation, the preacher has moved into that realm of the affective.  In other words, preaching must engage both the mind and heart of the listener.

THE ICONOGRAPHY OF PREACHING

Jacques Ellul suggests that images, which deal with reality (not truth), enables media to appeal to the aesthetic, kinesthetic elements of life.  Ellul finds a problem in the fact that images are decontextualized metaphors that necessitate explanation.  They, in his opinion, do not correlate with truth – only words can do that.  Images deny words their power and place and rob people of necessary community for discerning truth.  With the proliferation of images, the Word and its vitality are diminished and finally discarded.  This is the essence of the Decalogue’s prohibition against images, according to Ellul.  They necessarily, due to the fallen nature of the world, become idols.[9]

Yet, language cannot be entirely separated from images, especially due to language’s earthiness embedded in every life.  Although Ellul defends his position against dualism, his categories separate matter and spirit, truth and reality in a total bifurcation.  If the redemption of reality is part of the work of Christ, which the Church carries forward, then it seems appropriate that images might also be employed in our preaching and worship in faithful ways.

Jennifer Lord follows this thought:

“Our goal is to work with the textual words and images and to find our own words and images for each sermon.  This is faithful work because to shape appropriate new words in order to expand on textual words and imagery is incarnational work: we are tethered by the biblical text but work to show its gospel meanings for our lives now”[10].

The work of preaching is allowing the power of the Word to infiltrate our reality.  Obviously, we still await the fulfillment of the day when God shall be “all in all.”  However, we also recognize the privilege that we are invited to participate in the life of God even here and now!  Thus, the prayer that “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is not simply a future hope but an invitation for us to embody the Kingdom now!

Fred Craddock observes the dissonance in iconoclastic thinking and the implications for preaching:

Even the angry preacher, deliberately iconoclastic and anticlerical, preaches relevant sermons in a way no longer relevant.  The preacher is still saddled with the traditional image of preaching with its clearly discernible authoritarianism being communicated nonverbally not only in intonation and manner but also in the form and movement of the sermon.[11]

Even those trying to avoid images have an image that informs their methodologies and metaphors.  Moreover, the images are inherent in the metaphors themselves.

Carol Meyers, in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Exodus, comments on the Decalogue’s iconoclasm:

Its basic intent is aniconic; that is, it forbids the construction and worship of images meant to represent a deity.  There is some ambiguity in the wording: it may be forbidding people to make sculptured images, probably meaning metal ones, of any aspect of creation; or it may be forbidding the making of such images to represent a god.  Given the fact that representations of flora and fauna are part of the specifications for the tabernacle and temple, the latter reading of the text seems more likely.[12]

Throughout the Scriptures, imagery is employed as a sign or symbol of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.  The Tabernacle, Temple, Ark of the Covenant, Eucharist, the Church, Jesus (who also becomes Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice), all signify in vivid imagery God’s presence.  With the exception of Jesus, do they contain the whole of the mystery of God?  Certainly not.  But, that does not mean that images are prohibited.  Rather, images cannot pretend to be God.  Ellul’s poor incarnational, iconoclastic, and anti-ontological theology skims for proof texts that speak against images.  Yet, his assertion of the Word’s power does not seem capable of conquering his certainty that images can only degrade the Word.  In this sense, it seems that Ellul is unable to finally affirm the Word’s power of redemption (at least until the Second Coming).  But, one might question why the humiliation of the Word matters now if there is nothing that can be done until Christ returns.

Ellul posits that the Incarnation was a particular historical event.  It is not cosmic in its nature.  However, this, in my assessment, falls far short of an appropriate pneumatology that follows the Spirit of Christ at work in and through the Church!  Yes, we continue to wait for the eschatological consummation, but that does not mean that we as those that partake in the imago Dei are incapable, by God’s power, to embody the Word here and now!  Dennis Kinlaw makes this point abundantly clear, “As I read the biblical biographies of mighty preachers, I’m convinced that ultimately there is no great preaching unless the preacher partakes of the divine holiness in some measure.”[13]

Icons continue to be an important part of worship and in preaching.  However, preaching itself cannot be an icon because it is an aural and oral event.  As Walter Ong states, “Writing moves words from the sound world to a world of visual space, but print locks words into position in this space.”[14]  In other words, because preaching is oral it does not occupy visual space as do icons.

However, this does not mean that icons are not a vital part of preaching.  There are at least two ways that icons can play a supporting role in preaching: preacher and community as icon and sacraments as icon.  We cannot pretend that preaching is an isolated moment.  It takes place in the context of communal worship, whose audience is God.  That is essential!

Images do not contain the full mystery to which they point.  If they claim to do so, they are idols.  An icon is not an idol.  It is either one or the other, not both.  To use a metaphor, an icon is like a window that allows us to see through it to something beyond itself.  As soon as we become preoccupied with the window (perhaps we become entranced by the reflection of our face on the window’s surface), it no longer serves its function.  It is at this point that the icon becomes an idol.  And, yes, there is always a danger for that to happen!  However, we have yet to get rid of our Bibles due to the tendency for bibliolatry!  Does it then make sense to do away with any and every image for which this might be a temptation?  Eliminating images and icons from worship does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of idolatry.  We have always been adept at turning God’s good creation into our obsession (idolatry).

The preacher as icon notes the necessary aspect of a vessel consecrated to service with God.  One who has yielded to the Word and been deeply transformed by such an encounter is marked by a power in their preaching.  Dennis Kinlaw notes the importance of this kind of preaching, “…The Spirit-filled preacher knows how to relate the Word of revelation to the Word in creation.  No matter what a teacher says or how impressively he says it, if there is not some extrinsic witness to what he is saying, nobody will believe it.”[15]

In other words, when the Word bears witness through us, Christ is also incarnated in and through us.  This is also why there is such disillusionment that stems from pastoral failure.  Truth and reality are not aligned in the preacher and the congregation languishes under the dichotomy.  In a similar vein, if the congregation sees only the top of the preacher’s head while they read from a manuscript, the congregation may wonder if the truth of the Gospel has really gripped the preacher in their inmost being.  It is through the character, mood, intonation, passion, and Spirit-filled leadership that the glory of God is imaged through the preacher.

Preaching, however, is not only about the preacher.  It is about the hearers as well.  As we receive the Word, we are called out of our passivity to response.  As we faithfully respond to God’s call, we are also participating in the life of God.  The Word calls for us to embody, to become icons, God’s glory to the world.  Thus, we become visible reminders to the world that God loves and desires to redeem the Creation!

The sacraments as icons are also essential for preaching because they are the symbols of the Word’s transformative work already available in the ordinary elements of Creation, which includes us!  Bread, water, and wine are the elements of everyday sustenance.  Yet, through the Spirit’s power they become more than these things alone.  They become the means of grace whereby we encounter God’s presence!  The preached Word always moves to touch the ordinary elements of life, albeit transformed elements.

AESTHETICS, IMAGINATION AND DESIRE

In essence, we are back to where we started with metaphors.  The Word and Sacraments become the culture-shaping metaphors of the collective imagination and desire of a congregation.  James K. A. Smith puts it this way:

We don’t choose desires; they are birthed in us.  They are formed in us as habits, as habitus.  And as Merleau-Ponty helped us to see, the acquisition of such habits is ultimately a rearrangement of our corporeal schema – a reconfiguration of how we imagine ourselves and our places in the world.  Or as Bourdieu would put it, to acquire a habitus is to have been incorporated into a social body and its vision of a way of life.  And that incorporation marshals our embodied nature.  In short, the way to the imagination is through the body.[16]

Preaching, along with the Sacraments, has always been a means for being incorporated into the social body that is the Church and its vision of the “good life”, which is the Kingdom!

But, if our language has been ineffective and the preaching event seemingly inadequate, how might it be re-energized?  Several authors (i.e., Fred Craddock, James K. A. Smith, Walter Brueggemann, and others) have suggested that a primary means of allowing language to be evocative is through narrative and poetry.  That does not mean that preaching is simply a series of stories.  Rather, it calls for narrative flow and intentionality that begins and then goes somewhere.  This is the difference between Kierkegaard’s direct and indirect language.  Direct language is the language of the sciences.  Indirect language is the language of faith because it deals with the existential questions that are irreducible, it provides meaning.[17]

The language of narrative and poetry also provides us with the opportunity to see the world afresh.  Walter Brueggemann’s text, The Prophetic Imagination, undergirds the power of preaching in this way: “The prophetic imagination knows that the real world is the one that has its beginning and dynamic in the promising speech of God and that this is true even in a world where kings have tried to banish all speech but their own.”[18]  This is the difference between the closed speech of deductive methods and the open speech of inductive methods.  It is the distinction between propositional preaching and poetics.  For, as Brueggemann notes, “The newness wrought by Jesus will not be explained, for to explain is to force it into old royal categories.”[19]

But, poetry and narrative happen upon us in unexpected ways.  It is not the language of certainty, but allows the edge of mystery to circle about our worship.  James K. A. Smith states:

I imagine a telos or vision of the good life on an aesthetic, metaphorical, poetic register.  And that is why a ‘vision’ of the kingdom is birthed in me or inscribed in me through aesthetic means.  I come to imagine the kingdom in certain ways – because I have drunk up the stories of a people or a culture.  I am incorporated into the habitus of a people, and that habitus in [sic] inscribed in me, because I have been immersed in the stories of the body politic.  Liturgical animals are imaginative animals who live off the stuff of the imagination: stories, pictures, images, and metaphors are the poetry of our embodied existence.[20]

The technological and visual age has tapped into this realization.  Our immersion in that culture profoundly shapes our imagination by incorporating us into the cultural narratives.  Much of this happens on a sub-conscious level!  This is where preaching has opportunity to provide a counter-narrative, a poetic engagement with reality.  We are formed as a community as we are corporately storied and habituated through our communal listening to the Word and responding in obedience.  Preaching is the language forming event of the community of faith.  As such, it inevitably shapes the form of life for a congregation.  To ignore this vital duty is to ignore our calling and to submit ourselves to the culture shaping world of technology and media.

GOD CALLS PREACHERS

            If preaching really is no longer a viable option for communicating the Gospel, then someone should inform God.  It seems to me that the basis for continued efforts to preach and to preach well is rooted in a long and continuous history of preachers called by God to go and proclaim the Gospel!  If God still desires to call preachers, then it also follows that God is willing and able to empower the effective preaching of the Gospel.  Perhaps preaching’s decline is not due to God’s inability or preaching’s lack of relevance.  The problem may lie in impotent preachers and congregations who lack connection to the Source of our preaching.

Technology, as a dominant metaphor, often plays a significant role in this disconnect from God.  In this technological age, perhaps our only hope is to allow God to breathe through our preaching so that our imaginations are awakened to the Kingdom’s call, as has happened in every age where the Word is proclaimed by the faithful.  It is a Word that names the world, not only as it is, as it should be.  When this is our proclamation, iconic communities are formed whereby the glory of God is reflected for the world to see and hear the invitation to be transformed by the Word.

 

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Print.

Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.

Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. Print.

Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985.

Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

 

 

[1] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3-4.

[2] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, 3.

[3] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, 15.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. This is Neil Postman’s essential argument concerning technology’s capacity to shape our epistemologies.  Our entertainments have destroyed our capacities to speak, to think cogently, to have true dialogue, and to act.

[6] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953, Pt. 1, paragraph 19.

[7] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[8] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 118.

[9] Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985. This is the basic premise of Ellul’s work. He traces through both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament a line of thought that suggests images are entirely absent from these stories, unless these images are idols.  In his thinking, it is only the word that is capable of communicating truth. Images can only display reality, but can say nothing about the truth of that reality.  And, at best, those images only give the perception of seeing the whole of reality. But, in fact, we only see a small portion which must be interpreted but cannot be since images are decontextualized. It seems that the apostle Paul might not fully concur with Ellul’s assessment of reality. After all, Romans 1 has Paul claiming that nature clearly communicates there is a God, leaving us without excuse.  Perhaps reality is not entirely divided from truth, even if it can only communicate it in limited ways.

[10] Lord, Jennifer L. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 37.

[11] Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised and with New Sermons ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001,

17.

[12] Meyers, Carol L., and Bill T. Arnold. Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 170.

[13] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 18.

[14] Ong, Walter J., and John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 30th anniversary ed.; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2012, 119.

[15] Kinlaw, Dennis F. Preaching in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, 65.

[16] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013, 125.

[17] Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. Rev. and Expanded ed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002. 70.

[18] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, 64-65.

[19] Ibid, 104.

[20] Imagining the Kingdom, 126.

Postman begins by noting that the “medium is the message.”  It is not merely the information that is communicated, but also the form of communication, that produces a message or gives shape to the message.  So, for instance, he notes that philosophical discussions cannot be produced by means of smoke signals.  The medium allows certain kinds of discourse while negating others.

Orwell and Huxley both wrote notable books that visualized a future where cultures and freedom had been compromised.  For Orwell, huge forces, like Big Brother, would censor information and stymie learning through by controlling information and discourse.  Thus, culture would become enslaved to those able to control everything.  Huxley’s vision was far more subtle.  Culture would be undermined and destroyed by the things we love, namely entertainment.  Thus, television as a new medium matches Huxley’s paradigm far more closely than Orwell’s vision.  We have willing accepted, rather than had imposed, television’s role in education and curriculum and culture development.

Postman sees this in direct conflict and competition with the written word.  His argument rests upon the assumption that news and other such methods of information dissemination decontextualize the information.  Thus, we are able to hear about tragedies, war, and other stories that have no real connection to our own contexts.  The news also contains small stories that have no larger connection with the stories preceding or following each story.  Each is a self-contained whole and need no further explanation or connection.  As such, all news is relegated as unimportant and disconnected from our lives as a whole.  Thus, in Postman’s mind, it seems that television creates a culture of entertainment that allows for no real discourse or intelligent counter-argument.  Rather, as consumers of television programs we must accept whole-sale the “news” that we are provided.  Thus, information composed by images is vastly differing from arguments contained in words.

Postman decries the use of images as sufficient for dialogue and argument.  He even goes so far as to liken the culture’s use of image and icons to idolatry, quoting the Decalogue’s command to make “no graven image.”  Even though I agree with Postman’s basic intuition about the epistemology of television as information bearer, I disagree with some of his major points.  Namely, I disagree that “icons” are synonymous with idols.  Can they be?  Certainly.  However, this is not always the case, especially with a proper understanding distinguishing between an icon and an idol.  An icon draws us beyond itself to something greater than itself.  The Cross is one such icon; communion is another.  Not to mention, John 1 paints the picture of the Logos (the Word) becoming flesh and thus imaging God (imago Dei).  An idol draws our attention to itself.  Thus, if we worship the Cross or Scripture, we commit idolatry because it has taken the place of God.

The larger issue I take with Postman’s degradation of icons and images is the fact that all language bears imagery.  Or, as Wittgenstein would affirm, all language is a “form of life.”  Words are not Platonic, nebulous entities that float about disconnected from life.  Language is metaphorical because it is not the thing itself that is being described, but calls upon our experiences for understanding of the words we employ.  Postman seems to have a faith in the written word as a means of concrete communication that has little to no wriggle room for alternative interpretations between multiple readers.  Yet, many words are composed of a cloud of meaning.  Puns use this to their advantage.  Yes, news stories often decontextualize events.  Books are also often decontextualized.  Just read the Bible and you will learn quickly that not everything is abundantly clear without further information to clear up context.

Postman sits firmly within Modernism’s conception of reality, which relies heavily on the cognitive faculties with serious disregard or distrust for knowledge gained emotively.  Yet, there are some experiences that are too deep for words.  It is quite possible in those moments to discern elements of truth about life.  For instance, I don’t necessarily need a well-reasoned argument for resolving issues of poverty and malnutrition among children in our world.  Images of suffering can be explanation and argument enough for action.  That doesn’t always mean that our emotions are trustworthy and accurate, but that does not also mean that they are fully unreliable either.  Thus, images may have an important role to play in discerning truth.

However, despite my reservations, Postman’s assessment about television’s purpose seems quite appropriate and accurate.  Because it is largely based upon entertainment, it has re-oriented many things to this epistemology.  One of the profound impacts of television has been on education.  Education is now deemed to be an exercise in entertainment and amusement.  This is where I think Postman’s warnings are intelligible and helpful for the Church.  Parishioners, because they have been oriented around entertainment, view worship and Church life as an extension of television’s amusement.  Televangelists and the like have not helped this trend, nor have campus site ministries, such as Life Church.  It creates personality-centered ministries (Joel Olsteen, for instance, named a church after himself), which replicate show-business models of success.  Thus, “successful” discipleship is the church with the largest audience.  I will add that I’m not saying that ministries like Life Church are all bad – there is plenty they do well and from which we can learn.

The detriment comes when an audience is no longer entertained.  They seek their entertainment elsewhere, which usually means in the culture’s media because the Church cannot possibly compete with the substantial pocketbooks of the media moguls.  Also, as James K. A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom, worship centered on entertainment is ultimately about us, which is idolatry because it is not centered on God.  Thus, television’s therapeutic consumerism (entertainment) is applied to faith.  However, we quickly discover this is not true faith but merely a way to be inundated, and thus rendered without personal responsibility, from the cares of the larger world.

I think Postman’s concerns for the Church now would be their worries about the things they fear as threats to their faith.  Whether it’s big government or other world religions, the focus on these “threats” to faith actually blinds us to the real threat: those things that we love.  The things that we love are the very things that shape us without much reflection about how and toward what we are being shaped!  This is James K. A. Smith’s argument as well.  The church in North America tends to reflect an Orwellian orientation to the world.  Perhaps we would do well to heed Huxley’s caution.

What is Laytham’s primary concern(s) regarding the impact of entertainment on the church? What aspects of Laytham’s critique/wisdom were most helpful for you?

In regard to our technologies, Brent Laytham writes, “In the twentieth century, entertainment became a cultural superpower.  That has, inevitably, inescapably impact Christian discipleship, though not always in the most obvious ways.  Unlike so many authors that focus on the content or ‘message’ of our entertainments, I write with the conviction that entertainment’s massive impact on us is rooted mostly in its mundane everydayness: in the way it shapes our subjectivities, affects our affections, cultures our choices, and permeates our possibilities.  This power isn’t accidental; as a commercial enterprise, entertainment intends to shape patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting…  For disciples this matters precisely because following Jesus is a journey meant to transform how we think, feel, and act” (2).

As Laytham expresses, entertainment has significantly shaped us.  We have moved toward more virtual community rather than actual presence, which creates isolation.  Our words have lost meaning and power because of its erosion.  “There is a corporatized scripting of play and imagination” (4).  It organizes how we spend our “free time” and gives us the perception that we own time.  Laytham further points out that we have allowed television to determine reality through its discourse, which we continue to imbibe.  Laytham states, “So entertainment raises the question of attending to truth, which is finally a question about worship” (6).

Laytham relates a story about a pastor that employed the culture’s forms of entertainment as a way to shape disciples.  After a sabbatical, the pastor returned and was able to see that this form of worship was very shallow.  In essence, entertainment had become god rather than truly worshipping God.  Laytham is concerned that our worship is formative enough to withstand this movement and offers a counter-shaping narrative.

The entertainment culture measures its success and effectiveness by numbers.  The larger the audience, the better it is.  Perhaps this is why mega-churches have sprung up and been made the model of “successful” church in the past thirty years or so.  Number of parishioners in pews, which tends to be our dominant measurement, is the way we usually see how “successful” we are at evangelism and discipleship.

However, these numbers do not tell the whole story of a community.  In fact, merely looking at those numbers can cause us to be blind to sickness in a congregation.  Entertainment is about consumerism and, unfortunately, that is often why people go to such large churches – to have their “needs” met.  Let me be clear to say that attending a large church isn’t wrong.  But, as Laytham suggests, we must always recover the cruciform way of discipleship (whether in a large or small congregation) so that we can properly see our entertainments in light of Christ.

Another aspect of entertainment’s impact on us is how it causes us to arrange our time.  We have come to structure our time around our entertainments, whether vacation, sports games, television shows, and more.  The overall influence can be seen in relation to the Church calendar.  National holidays, sporting events, and Hallmark sometimes largely shape the Church’s calendar over against Christ’s life.  If someone thinks this is untrue, try skipping mentioning Mother’s Day or the Fourth of July.  You quickly learn that these have tremendous sway on our community’s imagination.  The same can be said for Super Bowl Sunday.  Rather than competing, we often allow church Super Bowl watch parties for “fellowship.”  Entertainment has significantly re-arranged our calendars.

Sports is another arena that Laytham points to some serious problems.  It creates an audience (notice quite often that congregations have become audiences as well).  We watch other perform or act or play instead of playing in the game ourselves.  Spectator sports have created an atmosphere that promotes lack of engagements and participation, which runs counter to the Christian life’s call for participation in life!

This is also connected to our idolization of heroes and entertainers.  The cult of personality has exploded in recent decades, even the Church is not immune (think of Joel Olsteen’s naming his church after himself).  This creates a problem when the Gospel is made “cool” by athletes, performers, and entertainers.  It suggests that the Gospel needs sponsors in order to be powerful enough to change lives.  This denigrates Christ’s work, the power of the Cross, the hope of the Resurrection, the revelation of the Word, the will of the Father, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

I think Laytham has several great points that should be noted.  First, he makes a strong argument that entertainment is not an innocent medium.  They are meant to shape culture by shaping our attitudes, desires, and thinking.  In other words, they are shaping our actions through enculturation.  We need to be wary of these formative practices and habits that shape us in “mindless” kinds of ways.  As such, entertainment is not innocent fun.  It has lasting impact on our hearts and minds.

Despite this fact, Laytham does not suggest that we do away with technologies and entertainment.  That would be difficult, if not impossible.  Plus, playing is part of who we were created to be!  Not all entertainment is negative.  As such, Laytham recommends using a dialectical approach to entertainment.  Using these things is not simply a “yes” or “no”, take it or leave.  Instead, it’s about saying “yes” and “no.”  Entertainments call for wisdom in knowing when, how, and the duration for our use of such technologies.  Technologies can have positive uses, even as they can have negative uses.  This calls for prayerful discernment from the community of faith in finding helpful ways to engage our culture.

The final aspect from Laytham’s work that is particularly insightful and helpful is his emphasis on theological anthropology.  Each of the technologies and entertainments that Laytham highlights (iPod, Youtube, Wii Play, etc.) give voice to a deeper longing that each human being was created with in the beginning.  These longings are natural.  The problem lies in allowing these technologies and entertainments to become the primary or only way of meeting these longings.  If God is not at the center of our lives, it is quite easy for these tools to become idols that replace gods for God.

In Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith further defines what he means by “homo liturgicus.”  He does this primarily through two terms: praktognosia and habitusPraktognosia challenges the intellectualist assumptions of the Enlightenment, which focuses primarily on epistemology and knowing by means of the intellect.  This approach neglects the affective, bodily comportment of our epistemologies.  This is praktognosia.  It is the bodily means by which we come to know and inhabit a world without needing to continuously reflect on our actions.  They become so ingrained in our being that we often act of this knowledge without need for reflection.  For instance, walking in a store’s aisle, we have been accustomed to walking on the right-hand side of the aisle.  Walking on the opposite side would be a violation of the surrounding culture’s praktognosia.  This is not done while asking why or how we have come to these kinds of practices, they are just assumed.

Habitus is a “fundamental orientation to the world… embedded in our bodies” (94).  We become part of a “social order or social body… by conscripting my body through the most mundane means: through bodily postures, repeated words, ritualized cadences” (94-95).  In other words, habitus is the social practices arising from a culture that create disciples of that culture.  In our nation, for instance, we stand, place our right hand over our heart, and pledge allegiance to a flag in unison.  Smith notes that habitus implants an orientation to the world in me by means of the practices and habits that are formed through routine.  Ultimately, this shapes the social and individual imagination (think desires) toward a particular orientation to the world.  This orientation is assumed as true and is difficult to recognize in ourselves because it has become such a deep part of us.

I think this has significant implications for how we understand media and technology and its impact on us.  As Smith notes, every form has underlying assumptions about the world and a particular teleological trajectory.  And, if we are truly formed by our practices and bodily postures, then media and technology, along with its various rhythms in our lives, have a tremendous impact on how we perceive the world and live accordingly.  For instance, iphones and computers teach me that power, information, and my desires are all available at the tips of my fingers and from any location (quite often) in the world.  There is little physical or mental exertion to diligently gain knowledge or experience or my desire.  It is there instantly.  If I don’t get it instantly, I become irritated.

Plus, I am instantly and constantly connected with what is happening in my world and with my friends.  Or, so I think.  The internet and its various media create the perception that I am privy to everything of importance happening in the world.  It is a superficial omniscience that I possess through the various technologies at my disposal.  Not to mention, much of the various forms on the internet are specifically advertising and catering to my likes or desires.  As such, I am shaped to believe that the world is centered on me and my whims.  This plays into the rampant individualism and egocentrism of our culture.  As burden of proof, the DSM V has discontinued the diagnosis of narcissism, primarily because it is so prevalent that it is deemed “normal.”  It seems that our technologies have helped shape us to this point.

Also, our technologies have made “efficiency” and speed priorities.  Not only should our desires be met but they should be met instantaneously.  Delays are problematic and discouraged.  This has significant repercussions for worship and discipleship.  We want instantaneous salvation and sanctification.  We want a life of holiness without the difficult disciplines of discipleship!  Worship that extends beyond our attention spans is “boring” and, therefore, deemed less than important or inconvenient.  We want quick fixes to our deepest issues.

This significantly shapes worship and the Christian community.  If I have come to believe the world is centered on me, then I will extend this bodily orientation to worship.  If the music, or speaker, or community does not meet my “needs” or desires, then I can simply search out another church that will fill those desires.  If I disagree or feel uncomfortable or unfulfilled, then I can justify church-hopping because my current church is “incapable” of adequately supplying for my perceived needs.  Of course, the Church (at least in North America) is not totally without blame.  We have re-shaped worship to reflect our technologically-driven, therapeutically-anesthetized lives.  We have tried to make worship entertaining or about self-fulfillment and self-help.  We are getting the kinds of disciples we shape – consumers.

I like Smith’s concept of liturgical practices and the value they hold for the Christian community.  They teach us to “take the right things for granted.”  In other words, the rituals and rhythms are ways by which we are trained to perceive the world differently and thus to inhabit a world differently.  Or, more appropriately, to inhabit a different world altogether.

Part of the way that cultural liturgies shape us is through the narrative and stories that are embodied in those same practices.  For instance, Smith tells a story about a man that regularly attended worship where confession and absolution were part of the natural rhythms of worship every week.  A significant and difficult situation happened with the man’s son getting into trouble with the law.  Upon entering the room where the son was being held, the son wrapped his arms around his dad and said how sorry he was.  Due to worship where he had received pardon for his sins every week, the man’s only “logical” response was to extend the same forgiveness to the son.  The liturgical worship practices embody a story of forgiveness that helps the man to perceive the world in a different way.

Flowing out of Smith’s work, it seems to me that we need to develop an aesthetics of preaching.  I do not discount Smith’s emphasis on things like sacraments.  However, in my tradition preaching plays a large role in worship, which includes its relation to the sacraments.  I think we need to re-think preaching in light of praktognosia and habitus.  Typically, Enlightenment styles of preaching have focused on principles, points, the underlying message, or the theoretical meaning of texts.  It has been primarily concerned with the dissemination of information.  Salvation was conceived as giving people the right information and allowing them to make the “right decision.”

Fred Craddock was one of the first major voices to confront this emphasis on logic and intellect, from which developed the New Homiletic.  This perspective suggests that the words in our preaching are not merely about “what” we say but also about “how” we say it.  This is akin to Smith’s forms, which cannot be separated from content.  In shaping disciples through preaching, it must move beyond intellect and incorporate into the aesthetic, bodily modes of reality which we inhabit.  That’s not to say intellect is unimportant.  But, we recall Smith’s notion that we are about shaping desire not simply decisions.  There is a difference in a sermon that I find logical and one that grips me in my gut.  Both may communicate similar “ideas” but the impact is significantly different.  I think faithful preaching will continue to facilitate discipleship through “(kin)aesthetic” means.  It still holds a significant place in the shaping of imagination for the Church.

What does Detweiler see as the blessing and curses that come with a technological age? What aspects of Detweiler’s critique/wisdom were most helpful for you?

Detweiler has an optimism for the various technologies that we employ on a daily basis.  This is not to be confused with a simplistic naiveté.  Detweiler’s optimism is grounded in the recognition that we are dealing with God’s very good creation.  The various technologies give testimony to humanity’s original purposes given in the Genesis account and typically encapsulated in the imago Dei.  The imago Dei points to God’s character and activity in the world and humanity’s reflection of God’s Triune nature to be embodied in the Creation as God’s representatives.

As such, the various technologies that we create and utilize are in some way reflective of this original call in Creation.  According to Detweiler, Apple was about aesthetics of efficiency.  Amazon demonstrated the abundance of Creation.  Facebook highlighted our relational orientation.  Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram was about social engagement and participation.  Google was about organizing the chaos.  In other words, these technologies mirror the nature of humanity created by God.

However, as with any good thing, it can be twisted toward improper ends.  So, for instance, Amazon’s abundance is quickly denigrated to hoarding, greed, and co-opted by a liturgy of scarcity.  This over-abundance in creation is co-opted by the “myth of scarcity” that creates fear and disregards charity.  What might have been good – sharing God’s abundance with everyone – is twisted by greed.  Thus, Detweiler suggests that these good creations and technologies are easily turned into idols – igods.

Detweiler’s approach to technology was helpful for two reasons.  First, it allowed me to see that technology echoes the cry of human hearts.  The need for beauty, relationships, participation and creation, and bringing order to chaos are reflected in the various technologies that are utilized.  There is a deeper longing that is tangibly expressed in their use.  This can be a good and helpful thing, especially when it comes to exegeting the culture.

Secondly, technology is not inherently bad.  Quite often Christian approaches to technology bemoans the negative impact of these technologies without also appreciating what good might come from them as well.  The problem with our technology usually comes from how we use the technology rather than what technology we are using, as per Detweiler.  This does not mean that technologies are neutral, rather they are “shaping stories,” as per McLuhan.  This goes along quite nicely with James K. A. Smith’s notion of forms in Imagining the Kingdom.  Although I do not always share Detweiler’s opinion, I do appreciate his balanced approach to the topic.

Another aspect that I also found helpful was Detweiler’s insight into the temptation of technology that pushes us to be formed into its image: “insistent (now!), efficient (faster!), and greedy (more!)” (225).  The lure of this image is the temptation and false perception that, through our technologies, we might be “like God.”  It is the perennial temptation of Babel, to “make a name for ourselves.”  Detweiler points to Facebook as a prime example.  Friends become fans, a base which we must grow and expand.  Our technologies then are meant to serve us rather than us serving others.  It can be a subtle, although significant, shift.

The various temptations, to be like gods, is one that constantly faces our congregations.  Technology gives us unprecedented power and an overall sense of independence and self-sufficiency.  So much is at the disposal of our fingertips.  This orientation makes it difficult for us to see a need for God.  If we’re broken, sure there’s something on our iphones that will help us fix it.  Do we have a need?  There’s ample opportunity to fill that need through the internet.  Are we lacking knowledge?  Google it.  This sense of omniscience, omnipotence, and seeming omnipresence grants us god-like powers to create, sustain, and provide for ourselves.  If that is our situation, where is there room or need for God?  Not to mention, the constant entertainment, noise, and distraction closes the necessary space for quiet reflection in which we are enabled to hear God speaking to us!  Discipleship necessarily must take these shaping forces into account and offer “thick” practices that help to counter-shape our communities.

One of the ways I suspect to be helpful is the emphasis of Sabbath.  Sabbath moves us away from efficiency, speed, and the inundation of our attention by our consumeristic proclivities.  Sabbath reminds us to stop, to be re-oriented, to be re-shaped as image bearers of God’s glory in the world.  Sabbath is hardly popular.  In fact, we often brag about our busyness as a sign of our value.  Sabbath undercuts the value systems of our culture and instills value by virtue of our creature-ness.  In other words, we find value in our connection to God our Creator.  Sabbath reminds us of who we are and whose we are.  We disconnect in order to re-connect with God, Creation, and Others.

There has been a general fad to incorporate technology into worship.  There are various reasons for doing so, both good and poor.  However, due to the infiltration and proliferation of technology’s shaping story in the lives of our parishioners, I am hesitant to utilize very much into worship.  As a space of counter-cultural liturgies, our worship spaces should be carefully considered before we haphazardly incorporate technology into our worship.  Because our technology is not neutral, it takes discernment to weigh the benefits and potential pitfalls for the use and endorsement by means of a “Christian” veneer.