Of Martin Luther King’s famous speech I have a dream, Gary Younge says that ‘like all great oratory its brilliance was in its simplicity. Like all great speeches it understood its audience. And like all great performances it owed as much to delivery as content’.
Simplicity, understanding one’s congregation, delivery … in applying these criteria to Christian preaching we might be inclined to dismiss the idea that the last has any relevance. To think of preaching as a performance is surely to introduce a misleading analogy for what is involved? But we should not dismiss it simply out of hand. Certainly simplicity is something to be sought after in any speaking or teaching, and the same is true for preaching. Understanding one’s listeners is crucial if there is to be any true communication. And we need to come back to what is involved in ‘delivery’.
The ‘preaching moment’ may be understood to refer not just to the giving of a homily during a liturgy but to any of the situations where Christians engage in what is one of their characteristic activities, preaching the Word to people. But the preaching of the homily at a liturgy has a kind of archetypal significance for thinking about preaching in other situations.
There are then three parts to what I am calling the preaching moment, what is said (simplicity), who it is being said to (understanding one’s audience) and who is saying it (delivery). We must attend to each one in thinking about what that moment involves and it will be a constant concern for us that we become ever more effective in each of these ways. Each one demands on-going study, reflection and care.
Reviewing a book recently that had the term discourse in its title and in the titles of most of its chapters led me to reflect on how trendy words, or buzz words, become increasingly empty of meaning the more they are used. The book made no attempt to explain why this word was used and only two of the contributors even acknowledged that it required explanation. Discourse too, whatever it means precisely, clearly it requires content, a speaker and a listener.
We will of course want our teaching or preaching to have content. We want it to be theological and prophetic as our brother Carlos [Aspiroz, Master of the Order] says in his 2002 letter to the Order on preaching. The Master says our preaching should be theological, compassionate, inculturated and incarnated, prophetic, undertaken in poverty, itinerant, communitarian, and shared (by which he means undertaken in collaboration with other members of the Dominican Family). Brother Carlos has written few letters to the Order in his time as Master, taking the view, it seems, that we have enough to be getting on with: one of the first things he did was arrange for the re-publication of letters to the Order from his four predecessors. It is all the more striking that he has given us a letter on preaching, then. Following Paul VI’s exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi evangelisation was named as one of the four priorities of the Order (by the General Chapter of Quezon City, 1977). We can take it that preaching and evangelisation always have been, and always will be, priorities for Dominicans.
We can take this lesson at least from thinking of preaching as a performance – the preaching (or teaching or other speaking) is not the text on the page even if we use a text, the preaching is the act of communication itself, a human being speaking to other human beings about important matters, a human being speaking to other human beings in words through which (they believe) the Word of God is spoken and heard, a Word made flesh again through the human act of communication that preaching is.
So the training of young preachers will be concerned with practical and technical matters like voice production, a good public address system, knowing how to use microphones, maintain eye contact, and all that. There is still some point in giving a theologically rich discourse even if nobody is listening – John Chrysostom says somewhere that preaching simply has to continue even if nobody is listening, just as the liturgy has to be celebrated even if nobody is present apart from the clergy – but there is clearly a qualitatively different point to giving a theologically rich talk which people can hear, understand and gain from.
Most of the trainee preacher’s time might seem to be focused on content. They study the Bible and theology in order to have something worthwhile to say when the time comes. But the other two parts of the preaching moment need study and attention also during the years of formation: who is speaking and to whom are they speaking.
Martin Luther King understood his audience. The preacher has to do the same, get to know the people to whom they are to speak. They must be conversant with them, know what is going on in their lives, and speak their language. What does it mean, to ‘speak their language’? One of the early Dominican general chapters (Paris, 1236) encouraged the brethren to ‘learn the language of the people nearby’, the language of their neighbours. In a superficial sense it means preaching in a language shared with the people to whom one is speaking in order to be understood. But it has a deeper significance also – it means being aware of what their lives are like, knowing their preoccupations, being familiar with their anxieties, understanding their questions. If the preacher shares those preoccupations and questions, so much the better.
The supreme example for the Christian preacher, in this as in everything else, is Jesus. Thomas Aquinas paints a portrait of Jesus as a mendicant preacher, sharing people’s lives so as to be able to speak the truth to them (Summa theologiae III 40; III 42 also for Christ’s teaching?). It is about what Aquinas calls Christ’s ‘conversation among human beings’, an older use of the term conversation, his intercourse with them, his being among them and being in relationship with them with a view to teaching them. Nowadays we would probably call it his lifestyle or his form of life. Aquinas’s main point is that Jesus lived as he did because his mission was to speak God’s truth to people. To be a preacher of the Word of God demands a particular lifestyle to support it, a form of life to sustain it. This is what I want to invite you to reflect upon, that if we are to do well the task of preaching that is ours in the Church then it is not just a question of having something to say and having techniques for saying it, it is also about a way of living and a spirituality that establishes us in a certain relationship with God and with people.
A recent discussion among Dominicans about preaching strategy revealed what seemed like very different views about how the preaching moment should be understood. One side of the argument stressed simply the preaching of Christ, of truth, of the Word whereas the other side of the argument believed the first thing to be thought about was the ones who are being addressed, who they are and where they are at. One side thought in terms of bringing the gospel to people, giving them something they do not already have, the other in terms of uncovering the gospel for people, illuminating what they already have. (I was not directly involved in this argument which happened at the general chapter of Krakow: each side will probably feel I am not doing justice to its concerns!)
It seems clear that there ought not be any need to choose between these and that the argument is about emphasis only. Reflection on what is involved in the preaching moment makes it clear very quickly that both elements need to be kept in mind, what is to be said and who is being addressed. This is precisely what the craft of preaching is about, to speak the Word to these people. If it is not the Word but simply something people know well enough already then the Christian preachers are not doing their job. If it is the Word (exegetically literate and theologically sound) but presented in such a way that it fails to connect with people’s hearts and minds, then they are not doing their job.
This is where the third part of the preaching moment comes in. One part is content, the Word that is preached. Another is the listener, speaking to them that they may share the joy of the gospel. And the third part is the speaker, the preachers themselves, the one who is speaking. Each part must be acknowledged, understood and constantly studied, not just what is to be said, not just its reaching a particular congregation, but the channel through which this communication is to take place and what that channel needs to be in order to be good at what it is for.
The preacher too needs to be ‘in the preaching’. This is not to recommend a kind of egocentric introspection and self-consciousness on the part of preachers. Nor am I suggesting that the preacher’s problems are everybody’s problems: a preaching that is too personal can quickly become mawkish and embarrassing. But what seems to be true is that the best preachers are the ones who are clearly speaking in the first place also to themselves, who have brought their own questions and anxieties to the Word of God, have allowed the Word to illuminate and judge those questions and anxieties, who do not regard the listeners as ‘them’ but regard both themselves and their listeners as constituting a ‘we’.
If we are to learn the language of the neighbours then the neighbour nearest to us is oneself. The strange thing is that if people listen compassionately, patiently and honestly to their own hearts, and are courageous in acknowledging the demands the truth makes on themselves, they will find themselves speaking very directly to others also. The preacher is an effective bearer of the Word to the extent that he or she has allowed that Word – cutting more finely than any double-edged sword – to reach between bone and marrow in himself or herself. In this the art to which preaching is closest is poetry: the labour of trying to find exactly the right words.
We live always, of course, within the paschal mystery of Christ. By our baptism the pattern of his death and resurrection has become the pattern of our lives and of all our experience. That mystery entails limit and transcendence, a breaking out (of Egypt) and a breaking through (into a promised land) and so all our words and actions reach a strange fulfilment in being ‘broken’: the disciples recognised him in the breaking of the bread, theology is closest to its goal at the point at which it has nothing left to say, when preaching breaks down (as did Paul’s on the Areopagus and the preaching of Jesus in John 6) then something of the deeper truth is being glimpsed – cutting across our words, cutting across our actions, and yet confirming them to be bearers of his life, fruitful in their breaking.