Back in June, I wrote about two apparently unconnected topics. The first was around the question of whether preaching should be monologue or dialogue, and how we might make the monologue we were forced into more dialogical. Within that, one of the questions I touched on but did not expand on further was the relation of preaching to power. Part of the argument for dialogue in preaching is the evidence of history, and Jesus’ own first-century context:
The social reality is that the life of the first-century synagogue, and by extension the life of the early Christian communities, were much more interactive and communal in their teaching, and much less directive and authoritarian than either Christian history has practiced or that we would like.
And one of the reasons we do want to hold on to monologue relates to power and control:
You cannot cast a vision by having a discussion. When Paul had the vision in Acts 16 of the man of Macedonia calling him and his team across to Europe, he didn’t invite discussion—he told them what God had told him! This isn’t perhaps the usual context of preaching, and there is an exercise of authority that we might not want to model the whole time.
Except that often we do! This relates to the other subject I discussed back then: Jeffrey John’s sermon on the ‘gay’ centurion’s servant. A friend on Facebook, Matthew Caminer, commented:
I am not sure that it is especially unusual to use the privilege of the pulpit and the authority of a bible passage to bolster and propogate a particular point of view. But that comes with risks and responsibilities: it is a bit like someone pointing out a bit of an oil painting…. “Do you realise that that bit of cloudscape looks like a dog?!” All you see thereafter is the dog! And thus it is with this passage. Am I forever condemned to be diverted down this particular interpretation every time this bible passage comes up? I think we have to be honest enough to admit that sometimes we may believe it is an abuse of the privilege and authority when we disagree with the point being made…. but totally acceptable if we do not!
Jeffrey John could only get away with his (what I judged to be very poor) exegesis because he was speaking to a receptive group but, much more crucially, because he was speaking pure monologue. If he had been in a more first-century-type context where there had been reading of the scriptures, then explanation, then discussion, he would have found it much harder to push such a view.
This underlies the reality about forms of communication: monologue offers control and power; dialogue diffuses it. In the recent failed coup in Turkey, the plotters took control of the (monologue) broadcast media, but failed to control the (dialogical) social media, and part of the way Recep Erdogan regained control was by sending messages on social media.
It is particularly interesting to reflect on this from New Wine in Shepton Mallet. It runs on a combination of ‘big venue’ sessions with platform speakers (a good number of whom are women!) and smaller seminars where there are always opportunities for response and questions. It is the smaller venues which are the places for dealing with difficult and controversial questions; the bigger venues need to be for input which is less controversial and has wider appeal.
When we are speaking, teaching or preaching in the church, there is no doubt we are exercising power. If we have had some theological training, we are exercising expert power. If we are ordained or licensed, then we are exercising institutional power. If we have learnt something about how to speak persuasively and deploy rhetorical tools, then we are exercising technical power. And if Brooks Philips is right, and preaching is ‘truth, personified’, then we are exercising personal power.
There is no need to be afraid of this exercise of power—after all, Luke makes quite clear (in the gospel and in Acts) that the Spirit gives power and that we should exercise it well. But we also need to be aware of the power dynamics, and if we take seriously Paul’s conviction (in 1 Cor 12 and elsewhere) that the Spirit is there to empower all God’s people, and not just a few special ‘anointed’ people, then we need to find ways to diffuse power, and ensure that our preaching is enabling of God’s people, not disabling of them.
I think there is an interesting contrast in this regard between Paul’s letter to the Romans, and his correspondence with the Corinthians. To the Romans he needs to give a clear message of explanation of the gospel that he carries and for which he asks support, and he also needs to communicate effectively that God is forming both Jew and Gentile into one people in Christ. His letter is clearly structured and shaped, and in that sense is quite ‘monologue’. But 1 Corinthians feel quite different. Although it has its continuous narrative sections, it is much more broken up—and it is broken up by the questions that the Corinthians themselves are asking. One of the reasons why it is hard to interpret is that it is not immediately clear what Paul is saying and what is quoting the Corinthians saying. He quotes them in chapter 6 and 7, and if Lucy Peppiatt Crawley is to be believed, extensively in chapter 11. When dealing with controversial issues, Paul engages in a dialogical approach, as far as it is possible in written correspondence.
If our preaching is to be enabling and empowering, we might need to think carefully about how we use the pulpit (whether real or metaphorical), and what other structures of conversation we need to put in place alongside it.
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