The whole lesson of history is that preaching doesn’t work. – Alan Watts
When Alan Watts made that claim in his provocative talk “Preaching is moral violence” he was convinced by his reading of history that no meaningful change in human conduct ever occurs as a result of listening to a speech or lecture or sermon.
He’s not the only one. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that preaching is redundant in the age of Google, that it’s an inefficient method of education, that digital natives are used to interaction and can’t understand monologues, etc etc.
But then along comes a moment like Oprah Winfrey’s triumphant acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Globe awards.
Her rousing presentation resembled a sermon or a political stump speech more than a Hollywood acceptance speech. She wove together her own rags-to-riches story with references to Sidney Poitier, Rosa Parks and Recy Taylor, as well as exhortations of press freedom, justice for sexual assault victims, and the contributions and sacrifices of ordinary women around America.
As Dahlia Lithwick wrote for Slate, “It was mesmerizing, pitch perfect, and gave voice to many lifetimes of frustration and vindication with eloquence and a full authority she has earned.”
It put me in mind of the then Senator Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In an equally rousing 17 minute speech, interrupted 33 times by the delegates’ enthusiastic applause, Obama stole the show from nominee, John Kerry.
Like Oprah’s speech, it was part autobiographical sketch and part sermon, sprinkled liberally with references to ordinary Americans making the nation great. And like Oprah, Obama concluded on a dramatic crescendo:
Hope! Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.
When it was over, MSNBC host Chris Matthews admitted, “We have just seen the first black president.”
Not surprisingly, Oprah is now being touted as the second.
Is that all it takes? Some people think so. In 2004, former Jimmy Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg said of Obama’s speech, “If he wrote that speech, then he should be president, because it’s such a great speech.”
Here we see the astonishing power of the spoken word. Some speeches are such a magical combination of eloquence, performance, poetry and moral authority that they move a nation.
The same night that Oprah Winfrey won her lifetime achievement award, Gary Oldman was handed the Golden Globe for best actor for his portrayal of another remarkable speech-maker, Winston Churchill. The culmination of his “We will fight them on the beaches” speech, reenacted in Oldman’s film Darkest Hour, is so embedded in the consciousness of Britons that many remained convinced they’d heard it live when Churchill delivered to the House of Commons in 1940. But no live recording was ever made. It wasn’t until nearly ten years later that Churchill recorded the speech, repeating his previous oration.
It’s a question of history as to how Churchill would be viewed if it were not for his remarkable gift of public speech. His policy errors and personal failings are well known. But, boy, could he write and deliver a rousing speech.
What Oprah Winfrey’s address on Sunday revealed yet again is the fact that when people hear a trusted voice speaking what they believe to be the truth, affirming them as ordinary people capable of great things, calling them on to create a better society than we have now, they will follow that voice.
Alan Watts might be right that not many people change their conduct simply on the basis of a lecture or a monologue. But it’s not true to say that public discourse can’t woo a person, or indeed, a nation.
What people like Oprah, Obama, and Churchill do is not to teach us new things, nor to change our behavior by laying down the law. They change us by changing our imagination. They give voice to a different world than the broken one in which we live. They fill us with hope!
Preachers can learn from this. If the sermon is merely a lecture on biblical subjects, we can find that stuff all over the Internet. If preaching gives us a new picture of matters long known, delivered by a woman or man with the moral authority to call us forward, who believes ordinary congregations can effect great change with God as their help, we’ll drink that stuff up.
Watts is probably right we’re not much changed by new rules, but Walter Brueggemann is also right when he says, “The deep places in our lives – places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently apart from our fear and hurt. That requires playfulness, imagination and interpretation.”
That’s what preaching should do. It’s not a Hollywood acceptance speech or a keynote address at a political convention. It is not a motivational speech or late show monologue. It should be a daring restatement of what God has revealed in Scripture, delivered not as a set of rules or reduced to a series of steps or simple lists or good advice, but as a story that touches those deep places in our lives, and fills us with hope, and calls us forth as different people. As Walter Brueggemann so poetically puts it,
The prince of darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed, and yet against such enormous odds there is the working of this feeble, inscrutable, unshackled moment of the sermon. Sometimes the prince will win the day and there is no new thing will be uttered or heard. Sometimes, however, the sermon will have its say and the truth looms large. When that happens, the world is set loose towards healing… Where the poetry of the sermon is sounded the prince knows a little of his territory has been lost to its true ruler.