Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dust in the Wind?

I once read a fascinating, and surprisingly enjoyable, book called:  Humor in the American Pulpit: From George Whitefield Through Henry Ward Beecher.  Sounds a little dry, right?  It isn't.  The book was written by Doug Adams -- not Douglas Adams -- but this guy was a bit of a hoot, too.  I met Doug Adams during my days attending the annual National Clown, Mime, Puppet, and Dance Ministry conferences that were held in Ithaca, NY on the IC campus.  Yes, there really was such a thing and, yes, I really did attend. 

Doug Adams gave really brilliant, engaging presentations.  Another of the things that made him stand out was his habit of wearing what I remember as something like twenty to thirty stoles around his neck pretty much at all times, and before each of his presentations he would open a suitcase he carried with him and take another dozen or two out and hang them wherever he could.  These were really cool stoles, too.  And he did all of this because his wife made them and the money they raised through their sales went to fund a scholarship program.  (Maybe this is why I've taken to collecting stoles?)

Anyway, among other things he did, in this book Doug compared printed and published copies of sermons with people's diary entries.  Back in the day people actually paid such rapt attention to their preachers that they could go home afterward and write the sermon nearly verbatim into their journals.  One of the things he discovered in this comparison was that when Presbyterians published their sermons they were very serious and intellectual, but apparently when they delivered them they actually had a lot of humor and heart in their deliveries.  They seem to have taken this out when they published so as to look more "learned" or something.  Methodists, on the other hand, seem to have actually added humor to their published sermons that hadn't been present in the meeting house!  Given that I have both Presbyterian and Methodist DNA, I found this rather fascinating.

I bring all of this up by way of introduction to this post's point -- to publish or not to publish?  As I noted on Sunday, I had chosen that day not to write out a manuscript for that week's sermon.  I noted that preaching is essentially an aural form -- it is intended to be heard.  The words, in and of themselves, convey only a portion of the message.  Imagine, if you will, the difference between looking at a piece of sheet music and listening to that music played.  A very different emotional experience, no?

I do know that there are folks who really want to chew on the ideas that have been presented of a Sunday, so they want to be able to go back and read the text so that they can really think about it.  I guess you could think of this as someone who's heard a great piece of music wanting to sit down with the sheet music to see how the whole thing really came together and see if what they remember having heard is, in fact, what had been played.  I do understand this desire.

I also know that there are folks who miss a Sunday morning and want to see what all the hubbub was about, or who want to share a sermon with their nephew or someone at work.  And for these reasons, as well as many others, I'm sure, people like to have access to printed manuscripts.

But just because people want something doesn't mean it's good for them.  (Think of our obsession with fast food!)  Here at TJMC we make audio files of all of our sermons available online, so people can go back and listen again -- or share with someone else -- without recourse to publishing a printed version.  In this way we preserve the essential aural nature of the sermonic experience.

And then there's the impact on the preacher.  What does it do to us to know that someone's going to be pouring over our manuscripts?  Might it encourage a focus on the wrong dimensions of our sermon writing?

I'm not at all suggesting that we homileticians should be absolved of the hard work, the hours of preparation, the working to get a phrase just so . . .  But on Sunday I made reference to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of creating intricate sand paintings, only to destroy them almost immediately upon completion.  A reminder of transience, impermanence which, the Buddha said, is the essential nature of reality.  Might this question -- to publish or not to publish -- be seen in that same light?

Pax tecum,


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Bob Brett said...

"sermonic experience" should be the name of a band.

Gail said...

As someone who connects better with the written word than the aural word, it can be frustrating when I don't process the sermon in the moment. Yes, I get the essence of it through the delivery, not just the words, but words are powerful and I feel the power through private reading and pondering. People have different learning/processing styles. Just adding these thoughts, not as a disagreement with what you wrote at all.