What Oprah 2020 tells us about the power of the spoken word

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.

 

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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15 thoughts on “What Oprah 2020 tells us about the power of the spoken word

  1. Great post Mike! That Brueggemann quote is a cracker!

    I agree wholeheartedly. I think for a while I would have liked to agree with Watts, but I couldn’t shake the personal connection and spine tingling inspiration I would feel when I heard a great speaker (sermon, secular or otherwise). It’s something that is hard wired in I reckon – most people find it irresistible. It’s probably why Paul warns us that teachers will be more harshly judged… the power they wield to beckon people on with story is immeasurable, so they’d better make damn sure they’re telling a good and true story!

  2. When I heard it I thought about Aristotle, (I’m a Greek Geek) in the sense that I thought it was a fantastic combination of Logos, Ethos and Pathos that those of us who preach could learn from.

    Our communication has power when we have earned respect and credibility (ethos,) have important, informative and interesting information to share ,(logos) and deliver it with passion and conviction appealing to our audience’s deepest held values and aspirations (pathos)

    I suspect in sermons too many of us focus too heavily on the Logos so it comes across as a lecture which might be informative but falls short of being inspiring. I think many African American preachers / orators are experts at this, they seem to manage to use the right amount of ethos without it degenerating into the crass emotionalism of the tv evangelist.

    Of course as Paul said we could master all the techniques of rhetoric and still fail to make an impact of lasting significance, for that we need the Holy Spirit

    “|For °our gospel did not come to you °in word only , °but also °in power, °and in the Holy Spirit °and deep conviction °, as you know what kind of °men we °were °among you for your sake ” 1 Thess 1:5

    The preachers of the Welsh Revival used to talk about the “Hwyl” when the Holy Spirit took seemingly ordinary words and gave them tangible impact on the hearers.

  3. You write a pretty good ‘speech’ yourself mike. Imagination shaping kind of speeches even 🙂
    Loving your blog mate.

  4. I think, from what I have read, that the studies of the psychology and neuroscience of preaching are somewhat against taking a positive view of preaching, Mike. Yes, they say, a new person giving a new message will cut through, and even an old person giving an old message will make a difference to a small percentage (maybe 30%). Telling stories, and telling a big story, will make a difference which is what makes your speaking more effective than most. But week in week out, monologue sermons have very little benefit for teaching or promoting change or for changing character. What they do is make people feel better.

    The neuroscience of memory means only a limited amount can be taken into memory (maybe 10-15 mins at lost) and much of that will be lost unless it is rehearsed, practiced, repeated, discussed, etc almost immediately. And even if it is remembered and assimilated into our long term memory, it requires something more for it to change us. Here are some references to check out. So even great talks which teach us something at the time will be largely forgotten.

    1. That’s only an issue if you presume that the purpose of every sermon is to transfer information that we must remember in total. Maybe sermons are meant to do something other than mere data transfer.

      1. Interesting…. As a chaplain I speak a little bit in schools and not much is retained. Luckily most of my job is in the listening and the conversation. But I’ve heard it put this way.

        Do you remember what you ate for lunch 12 days ago? Most likely not.

        But did it feed you and sustain and keep you going at that time? Most likely did.

        A good sermon encourages conversation and engagement which I think is more meaningful.

      2. Yeah, if a wek-in-week-out sermon has purpose, it must be something else, as you say.

  5. Finding people that speak like Churchill, Obama and Ophra is like finding the needle in the hay. All the preachers when they stand in the pulpit they all believe that their speech or sermon will cause change in those who hear them by the reality is different. There are gifted communicators and not gifted. I thinks Watts’ quote is for the majority of us (non gifted communicators).

    1. Maybe trying to preach a ground-shaking message every Sunday is the problem. Not even Churchill could do that.

  6. Several things; most of which were touched on above. Primarily, God the Holy Spirit is the most significant factor in the delivery and receptivity. And yes, we have an adversary thwarting these efforts. Preaching once to a person is rarely effective. It is the cumulative effect of the body of work that makes the difference. BUT, even that may not be sufficient because it needs to be lived out in a Body of Christ. Transformation happens by deliberate effort and the practice of spiritual disciplines. Then there is the relationship between the speaker and the hearer, which is a real thing in a small church setting. When the preacher is living as a true disciple of Jesus, and the hearer knows this, the power of the word is substantially enhanced. Back to God: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Incidentally, this past Sunday my sermon was interactive-more like a classroom discussion. I will stand on my head if it serves the kingdom!

  7. Well written, thoughtful and timely Thank YOU!

  8. We have a cute saying at our church – preach for transformation, not information. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. Great article Mike with some brilliant quotes. Particularly from Brueggermann.
    My mind took me to the powerful speeches of Hitler who motivated a country with false images & false hope.
    “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.”
    Isn’t that what happened with Trump. Clearly the American people did not buy his character & peculiar personality. They bought his new hope in contrast to Hilliary’s more of the same which had failed so many.
    The media is flat out attacking the character & personality of Trump but while he delivers the hope he promised he will survive.

  10. So what does it say when she ignores rampant sexual deviance and fails to help anyone stop it or be punished for it for decades?

    To me it says she’s full of crap!

    1. You might have failed to see that my article isn’t an endorsement of Ms Winfrey. It is about the extraordinary power of public discourse. Read it again.

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