Monday, August 13, 2007

The Irrelevance of Relevant Preaching

~by David Mills in Touchstone Magazine

If the Christian revelation is both true and a truth to which fallen men are partly blinded, and a truth of great complexity and sophistication, a preacher may be most relevant when his language is least contemporary, and may be irrelevant to the point of fatuousness when it is most contemporary. (This is also true, I think, for liturgical texts, but for slightly different reasons.)

A Practical Question

What is effectively and accurately relevant is a practical question, and what bothers me in these discussions is how simple a view of relevance apostles of relevance like my friend take. They do not seem to have thought enough about what words can do and what people can understand, nor about the practical challenges of having to use words that people do not easily understand and therefore sometimes ignore or resent, nor about the ways this challenge can be met.

The apostles assume without much argument that we must translate biblical and theological terms into words the average man uses every day, and that anything at all unfamiliar is to be avoided. They dislike words like “atonement” and “incarnation” and “eschatological” in preaching almost as much as they dislike “thee” and “thou” or “Dominus vobiscum” and “et cum spiritu tuo” in the liturgy.

I have spent most of my writing life translating difficult subjects (government regulations, systematic theologies) into English accessible to average people (social workers, seminary students). I would not argue for the biblical language only because it is authoritative and established—though the writer does think about the advantages and disadvantages of using an authorized language—but mainly because it is the only language that says what the preacher must say.

Reading the apostles of relevance I often wonder if they are good enough with words, and whether they have enough experience in seeing how their words are understood, to know what works and what doesn’t. The ecclesiastics all preach, of course, which should provide such experience, but speaking at least for Catholics, a man’s ecclesiastical career has never depended upon his ability as a preacher. In those bodies in which it does, success does not always depend upon his ability as a preacher of the gospel (see Joel Osteen).

In my experience, the world understands quite well what you can and can’t do with words...

...The working of divine revelation—the Christian’s intellectual instrument, in a way—is at least as complicated as the device whose manual I wrote. In it are depths, subtleties, complex arguments, fine distinctions, unexpected qualifications, unanswered questions, new applications, all working for human happiness, all worth the effort to know—and all most clearly stated and most accurately conveyed in the inherited language.

Bending the Language

The preacher’s problem is that relevance is decided not only by what the hearer can and will hear, but what he needs to hear whether or not he wants to, and the latter may not be communicable in language he will naturally understand. The language can be bent only so far, till it is bent out of shape. The apostles of relevance do not see this problem, and hence toss away the truths they genuinely want to convey.

Because the right word is often the unusual or technical or “outdated” word, the preacher should not abandon a specifically Christian vocabulary even though the man in the pew may not understand it right away, and even though he may find it off-putting or even offensive. These words will be the language of the insider, and therefore almost by definition irrelevant to the outsider the preacher wishes to bring inside and many of those who are already inside but lack the conscious and energetic commitment of the real insider.

I think, from many years of listening to preachers good and bad (and the friend I began with was a good preacher), that the preacher almost inevitably loses the Christian meanings when he replaces the biblical and traditional language. Some may be able to translate without great loss, but this requires not only considerable verbal gifts but also synoptic knowledge and sufficient holiness to see the reality to which the words point.

There are many men in our pulpits who are holy and knowledgeable but not verbally gifted. The few who are have a gift so personal that the rest of us would be wise not to imitate them, partly because, language being what it is, we are not good enough to see our failure to do what they can do.

This was true of my friend, who had a creative but not a verbally precise mind. He was worried that the technical terms—the insider language—would drive people away. He told the preacher whose sermon he praised to replace “legalism” with “perfectionism,” and “licentiousness” with “permissiveness,” because most people would much more easily understand the new words.


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