Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Preacher, IV: Nothing Personal. Please.

Today I was led to Fr. Greg Alms' marvelous little post on preaching, whose title says it all: "A Continuing Guide to the Self Delusion of Preachers."

I'd like to highlight these two points he makes:

Preachers know that 90 percent of personal stories in sermons overpower and obscure the theological point being made.

90 percent of preachers believe their personal stories are effective homiletical tools.

My guess, preacher, is that if you're one who likes to tell personal anecdotes as a staple of your sermons, you will likely never admit, even to yourelf, that your personal stories obscure the Gospel. And that, dear preacher, is because of your sin.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as much of a sinner as you are, but by the grace of God I am what I am: a preacher of the Gospel. Have you not read St. Paul? We preach not ourselves, he says most clearly. So why do you think it's ok to go preach yourself? We don't want to hear about you. And frankly, we don't want to hear your little make-believe anecdotes about somebody else, either. Is it too much to ask you you preach Christ?

Sometimes I have heard preachers do nothing but string stories end to end and call it a sermon, and I'm not exaggerating.

Preacher, consider the sermons in the book of Acts. You don't see St. Peter telling personal stories.

For that matter, consider Jesus' own preaching. Now his device is the parable, which, to be sure, is a kind of story. But these stories arise out of the rabbinic mold, and as such are themselves rich in content; and they're certainly not personal ones.

The typical American sermon has become the heart of all banality. I'm amazed that people can sit through such insults to their intelligence, and then tell the preacher what a great sermon he had today, when all they heard was trite little ditties like Little Johnny was lost in the wood for hours one night; his father went out searching for hours; and when he finally found his son sleeping under a thin blanket of snow, he awoke, stretched, and exclaimed, "Oh Daddy, I found you at last!" Who found whom?

Oh, gag me! Preacher, stop reading Herman Gockel, will you? Or whatever books you're looking at to get your little extended metaphors.

When you tell them, you'll surely impress some of your hearers, but alas, you've just wasted valuable preaching time in which you could have been delving into the mysteries of the Sacred Page.

So some will tell you how wonderful your stories are. Preacher, listen, they're probably just being nice. Either that, or they really need some serious catechesis in the Gospel, which is infinately richer than tripe about little Johnny!

You want to use some stories to illustrate your point? Fine. How about using a great book I've found that's chock full of them. It's called the Old Testament. You want to illustrate divine grace? How about using Gideon's army, or David the shepherd-boy. The point there is that the victories were not gained by the strength of man. See? There are the stories you may use to your heart's content. And you'll be teaching them Bible stories to boot!

Stop preaching yourself, or your own little time-wasting anecdotes. Preach Christ instead.


Bryce P Wandrey said...

I would simply say first of all, if Paul preached at all like he wrote then he had plenty of "personal anecdotes". And secondly, stories (even if they are about you) most definitely help in analagous and metaphorical ways to make the gospel understandable to so many people. I would have figured the parables were perfect examples of just that.

What is the use of faith if it isn't incarnated in people, and how important is faith if it can't be (at times) be personalized?

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Interesting that you should use the words "incarnated" and "personalized" in your response.

When we speak of incarnation, ought we not be speaking first of the mystery of God in the flesh? This is our flesh which God assumed, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.

And He gives us Himself in the Holy Sacraments: in just this way He makes Himself quite personally known to us.

Such mysteries are beyond all telling, which is perhaps why so many preachers have chosen to dispense with it altogether. Yet in so doing they have shirked the very preaching task to which they were called.

I repeat: there is so much depth and mystery in the Scriptures which wants explication by the preacher; why should he waste his time talking about other things, then?

If you wish to cite St. Paul in this context, please do. You will find that he is quite taken with the incarnation, and his references to sacramental grace, while sometimes oblique, are nonetheless quite plentiful.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

Paul clearly speaks about his life in Christ as he proceeds to proclaim the gospel in his letters. I am sure I don't need to quote from his letters in order for that point to be made.

What I do not wish to do is claim that Paul is not "taken" with the incarnation and sacramental grace. What I do wish to do is claim that contemporary experiences, even contemporary stories that happen in my life of faith in Christ, can be helpful in explicating that same gospel.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

You say you're sure you don't need to quote from his letters, but since you don't, you leave me wondering which of the Apostle's experiences you have in mind.

In one case he lists his credentials as an Apostle, in another he refers to the fact that he is chief of sinners, and in another, that when he was a child he spoke as a child, etc. Then there's his opposition to St. Peter, which is rather more than a simple illustration. Let's see . . .

Nope, I can't think of a single time where he says something like:

"I used to smoke cigarettes. But suddenly I found that they made me ill. Some time later I learned that my colleagues had been praying that I would get sick if I smoked . . ."

In addition, for St. Paul to make some references to his own life is not for him to be more "incarnational" in his preaching, as you put it, but generally because of something relating to his apostleship. Not quite the same as you or me.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

If what you mean by personal stories is your smoking story, then no, I guess Paul doesn't tell stories like that.

I was thinking more in lines of him using his conversion/vision story as an example. Also, his "I do not what I want to do...I don't do what I want to..." as a personal story of struggling with sin. etc.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Well, the instance you cite is actually what I'd call an effect preaching device, namely, using the first person singular. In saying "the good that I would do I find that I can't do," he isn't referring to a personal incident in his life, but to a universal truth which here he applies first to himself. That kind of personal reference can be helpful indeed.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

I guess it is a case of "call it what you want" (the joys of the human language). But this instance in Romans 7, where Paul states "I do not understand my own actions," highlights for me the proper use of personal reflection that can used in a sermon.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Personal reflection? Not really; I'd call this an effective manner of speaking which employs the first person; it's effective because the speaker thereby identifies with the audience.

But you'll note that he doesn't give personal instances here.

In fact, no one even knows for sure what his celebrated thorn in the flesh was, which is precisely my point: he purposely kept the emphasis off of himself; and so should we.

O.H. Lee said...

Personal stories strung end-to-end were what we called in Dr. Senkbeil's first year Homiletics class at CTS "Sky-scraper sermons"; that is, one story after another.

I just have the same two thousand-year-old story to tell.

However, I'm not totally turned off to a short blurb of a story lasting a few seconds. I'm reminded of another point learned from Senkbeil: illustrations should be a window into the sermon, not a wall