On Preaching & Performance

April 17, 2013 — 1 Comment

One evening, a few weeks back, I came into contact with the work of Canadian, theologian and preacher Jamie Howison. The impetus of this discovery was my quest to answer the controversial question ‘is preaching a performance?’ Howison had recently published a book entitled ‘God’s mind in that music: a theological exploration through the music of John Coltrane’[1]. Being an amateurish Jazz enthusiast and budding theologian, I was immediately intrigued by this link between music and theological expression.

For context, I rate among the many that view anything ‘polished as false and sloppy as genuine’ (Dixon, 2013). There is justification for thinking like this, although ultimately it is flawed. For example, I am conditioned to think this way because of my negative experiences with churches that valued appearance, wealth and status above people.  Therefore my immediate, natural reaction is to reject any notion that preaching is a performance.

As so often can be the case my embedded theological position here was challenged by the deliberative theology I found myself immersed in. As a result I was corrected, and redirected beyond my predisposed cynicism. As difficult as it has been to shift my thinking on this issue, I find myself stating in the affirmative, preaching does in fact involve performance.

In order to come to this new point of view I had to differentiate between ‘putting on a show’ and the importance of performing, as being an important element within the art of effective communication.

Thankfully, my collegial brethren were there to force this distinction to the surface. As this truth unraveled, not too much unlike an approaching storm, I began to see the relevance that Howison’s work had to my newly found appreciation for performance. He is right to state that ‘every time any of us goes to hear live music, we are at least potentially a part of its creation’ (2012, p.10). After all, “theology is worked out in community’’, right?

My research prompted me to dust off some significant examples that were right there in front of me. Such as: Johnny Cash who as an artist points to, and is one of the better examples of combining preaching with performance, or theology with art.

Cash himself stated that

‘I don’t cram anything down people’s throats, but neither do I make any apologies for it, and in a song introduction, I have to tell it like it is’ (‘Cash: the autobiography 1997, p.275).

Likewise Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin makes the plea for the Church

‘to do whatever it takes to develop and distribute culturally relevant, artistically excellent materials that will make the world sit up and take notice’ (‘The unusual suspect 2006, p.248).

Whilst this could rightly be viewed as an overstatement, it is worth noting that Baldwin balances this by stating that

‘relevance does not mean adopting the culture’s methods to the degree that you lose the message’ (2006, p.245)

For Howison, ‘the very idea that the preacher (and the musician) has a significant role in the shaping of a shared intellectual life is important’ (2012, p.12). This is also reflected in Michael Quicke’s book ‘Preaching as Worship’. Quicke is an advocate for the use of social media. He ingeniously promotes the art of blogging in order to invite his faith community to participate in the sermon creation process.

The final words, at least for now, go to  lead-worshipper and teacher Kathryn Scott ,

‘’what we do spills out of the strong quiet knowledge of who we are’’ (2013).

In other words, when we are centered we don’t need to ‘put on a show’.  This is because our performance is found in ‘our vulnerability, the willingness to give of our best to others on a wholehearted level’ (Brené Brown). Out of this flows a natural performance because ‘our stories begin and end with God’ (McManus 2005, p.63). By it we take up the invitation to participate ‘with’ Father, Son and Spirit, and lay our self-righteous attempts to do anything ‘for’ Him at the foot of the cross. Here, right now, we are invited to serve directly from whose we are and who we are ‘becoming’ (Guthrie 2011, p.47).

Bibliography:

Baldwin, S. 2006 The Unusual Suspect, Faithwords Hachette Book Group New York, NY
Cash, J. 1997 Johnny Cash: the autobiography HarperCollins Publishers New York, NY
Guthrie, Steven R. (2011-05-01). Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human . Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.
Howison, J. 2012 God’s mind in That Music: theological explorations through the Music of John Coltrane Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock publishers OR, USA.
McManus, E. 2005 the Barbarian way: Unleash the untamed faith within Nelson books Tenn, US.


[1] (the title is named after a Carlos Santana comment about John Coltrane).

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