Preaching to the Choir: Propaganda and the Pulpit

I. Turning Our Backs

Every preacher has a style. I don’t know what mine would be called, but its main characteristic is: I try to sound like myself.

I abhor “Preacher Voice.” If you are listening to me preach, I want what you hear to sound similar to the conversation we had the other day or how I spoke during Bible Study or what I sounded like during that recent meeting we were at together. I try to make everyone feel like I’m talking to them. A sermon isn’t a thing that soars out into the ether, but words from one person to other people. So, as much as possible, I like to make eye contact with people, and I even occasionally turn around and look at the choir. These are good folks who give Sunday after Sunday to the service of the church, and they deserve to not be treated like props or stage dressing. They’re real people who need a word from the Lord, too, right?

These days, people complain because they don’t like the visual, but it is true that the practice once meant the preacher could not be heard by the congregation. This is a problem. Most preachers so tightly construct our manuscripts that it’s a challenge to figure out when to take time to look and speak behind us. You certainly wouldn’t want to do it on the main point, but which set-up point do you allow the larger congregation to miss in order to throw a word or two to the faithful in the loft?

Definitionally, “preaching to the choir” is a common phrase we use to indicate we’re telling people something they already believe, or talking to a group of people who won’t disagree with us. The “choir” in this case are the faithful, the ones in our corner, the ones we don’t need to convince. Conversely, the “congregation” are those who might need the Word of the Lord you’re speaking today. That’s where the work is to be done. That’s where the word of hope or conviction really needs to land. The “choir” is committed. The congregation, less so.

It’s an imperfect binary, to be sure, but it serves our purpose: When we preach to the choir, we turn our backs on those who really need to hear what we have to say.

II. Art and Politics

The idea of “preaching to the choir” resurfaced for me as I was reading an essay in the magazine The Point discussing the idea and viability of “the political novel.” In “Resisting Oblivion,” novelist and poet Ryan Ruby probes the intersection of aesthetics and politics in light of calls during the Trump presidency to produce literature with “explicit politics,” literature that would contribute to #TheResistance.

In his piece, Ruby asks the question of whether art can serve politics. In his estimation, it can’t. The essay makes more than one point, but its main argument concerns the form of the novel itself. Ruby says:

If the answer is that novelists should contribute to the production of a desired political outcome through their fiction [emphasis in original], it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on why, in the current media environment, the novel is particularly ill-suited to achieving this.

In short, if you want a “political novel” to successfully impact society, it has to reach as many people as possible. To do that, the novel must trade on the overly familiar and simplistic, thrusting the “point” all the way to the front, leaving no doubt what the author wants the reader to think and believe. “By instrumentalizing the form, however, the explicitly political novelist depletes the novel’s symbolic power.” The novel ceases to be a novel, and becomes propaganda.

A significant difference between a novelist and a preacher is that the novelist can choose whether or not to write. Preachers do not have that luxury. There are significant moments which require us to speak, and not just speak but speak on behalf of the Lord as we find it in scripture. The question of how to do this is a constant one, and I have devoted a lot of brain power over the years to figuring out how to do it well.

Personally, I have asked versions of Ruby’s question of whether art can serve politics, for I understand the sermon to be an art form. Like the novel, I believe the sermon is “ill-suited” to achieve political results. To achieve those ends, the preacher would have to trade on the overly familiar and simplistic. They would have to resist nuance and subtlety, and, along the way, make the erroneous claim that scriptures written millennia ago in remarkably different contexts than ours provide a one to one correlation to the issue presently before us. That cannot be done with a straight face. To say the words of the Holy Writ apply wholesale to today’s social or political occurrence is a lie. And every preacher knows it. There is just too much literal and metaphorical translating that needs to occur in teasing out the meanings of a particular Bible passage.

When we preach, we are merely offering our best guess at what a scripture passage means. We are not 100% certain. Nowhere near it, in fact. We’re just trying to do our best to be faithful to the particular Bible reading in use that day. We work hard to let the Bible itself tell us what it means, instead of cherrypicking passages to serve our own point. Any preacher worth their salt studiously tries to avoid making the Bible say what we want rather than vice versa. (Which is, in large part, why I chafe when I read on social media: “If you’re not preaching X this Sunday, then you’re not doing your job.” I will note that, almost without exception, these words are written by those who do not have the responsibility of building a long-term relationship with a congregation through weekly preaching.)

Yet there are those who genuinely believe the purpose of the preaching moment is to utter a political Call to Action, to “instrumentalize the form.” With Ruby, I am of the conviction that this depletes the sermon of its power. The sermon is the chief instrument in the process of metanoia, of changing hearts and minds. To do this, a sermon has to surprise and delight with new ideas or new perspectives. Resorting and reverting to old simplistic tropes that merely regurgitate what some already expect to hear will not open anyone up to the new ways God is moving. It will only serve to reinforce a previously occupied position by allowing the hearer to feel smug or defensive in their “rightness.” To belabor and strain the metaphor of “preaching to the choir,” if a preacher chooses to instrumentalize the form that same preacher not only turns their back on the congregation, but they also have to make a choice of which choir to preach to.

So how do we meet important moments and bring a true word from the Lord without deciding ahead of time what needs to be preached and devolving into propaganda? How do we honor the need to meet a particular moment without wholesale becoming a tool of someone’s (perhaps our own) political machinations?

III. Repetition and rhyme

For many reasons, my favorite theologian is Paul Tillich. I discovered Tillich at a time when I was deconstructing my faith and honestly wondering if I could even call myself a Christian. The things my religious upbringing emphasized I found to be interesting but not life changing, and certainly not worthy of giving my life to.

One thing Tillich taught us is the questions people ask about their lives today are not the same ones we asked in the past. Remember when a lot of white Americans considered an “interfaith marriage” to be when a Methodist married a Catholic? That’s absurd to us today because questions about the varieties of religious expression are not really ones that concern the vast majority of people anymore. In my own ministry I use a rhetorical question that is “Tillichian” to its core when I ask: “Do most people really spend time thinking about whether they’re going to go to heaven?” I don’t think they do. I think there’s a real opportunity to teach people a fuller expression of who God is and what we mean by “Eternal Life,” but scientific thinking and discovery has blown a hole straight through our pre-modern conceptions of the the way the universe is put together. Including the afterlife. That horse has left the barn. (Not to mention those pre-modern conceptions of the afterlife are Greek/Hellenistic imports, and not solidly rooted in the Bible. But I digress.)

Tillich said, in his Systematic Theology: “The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence.” From my experience, the questions people are hoping religion can answer are the ones raised by the anxiety and fear we experience in our daily lives. We are troubled by the unpredictability of life and the reality that good does not always win. We are troubled that injustice runs rampant. We see our place in the vast universe and struggle to combat the belief that we are insignificant. What is this “abundant life” Jesus was talking about, and why don’t I have it? Why don’t I feel joy when everything is working in my favor? Why can’t I seem to catch a break? The list of questions and concerns goes on and on, but the characteristics remain the same.

It should go without saying, but “the Christian message” Tillich wrote of is rooted in scripture, especially where preaching is concerned. When we attempt to provide answers to the questions implied in existence, it is required that any answer be found in the Bible. But how do we accomplish that when, as we previously said, there can never be 100% certainty regarding the meaning of a given passage? To borrow again from Ruby: We make analogies.

To make an analogy is not to claim that a phenomenon has repeated itself in all aspects, it is to draw one’s attention to the continuities that nonetheless persist through historical change…

If [historical events and occurrences] are intelligible to us at all, it is because, while specific contexts change rapidly, structures of thought, feeling, and being change at a much slower rate. (Some, in fact, never change.) This is one of the things that makes it possible to translate experiences across the contingencies of time, place and circumstance – in other words, to make historical analogies.

Or, as Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The job of a preacher when delivering a sermon is to make analogies between the present moment and the scriptural text. In the pulpit we don’t say, “This is That.” We say, “This resembles That.”

To repeat is to propagandize. To rhyme is to preach.

IV. A Case Study

In 2015, the world was grappling with the Syrian Refugee Crisis. The UN Refugee Agency estimated over 75 per cent of those arriving in Europe during the year had fled conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, and many were the caused by the Syrian Civil War. In November of that year, a more than half of the US’s state governors had signaled or taken action to limit and oppose the welcome of Syrian refugees. In the midst of the debate and reporting Oliver Willis, Senior Writer at The American Independent, tweeted:

No doubt many a preacher who saw this tweet in the context of the political posturing of the moment thought to themselves, “That’ll preach.”

But will it?

Let’s assume the text Mr. Willis is referring to is Matthew 2:13-14, The Flight into Egypt:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.

A propagandistic sermon would blatantly and directly draw a line between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing Egypt and the plight of the Syrian refugees. Much time would be spent laying out the horrors of the refugee crisis, and the US’s historic lack of welcome for refugees despite being a nation “founded by political refugees.” I can imagine a point by point comparison of the two situations (and I can imagine it because I’ve heard numerous sermons doing just that on a variety of topics). The preacher might even say “Just like the Holy Family was able to seek refuge in another country, so we, too, should offer a home to the refugees of this crisis.” The propagandistic sermon (like Ruby’s “political novel”) puts the scripture text in service to the political message. The Bible serves to underscore the political point.

An analogical sermon would take a different approach. Rather than drawing clear lines of one to one correlation, it would note the similarities and raise questions. An analogical sermon would spend the majority of its time on the content of the biblical text. It would survey the form and flow of the narrative, often from a literary perspective. It might highlight translation choices. It would revel in examining characters and motivations. And only once the biblical text is well and truly explored does the sermon turn to the present moment, and doing so would resemble an invitation more than anything. “As we read this story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees, I cannot help but think about the present crisis in Syria. Here’s what thinking about these two stories, one ancient and one contemporary, has done to me.” Those preaching an analogical sermon would take the advice of Anna Carter Florence, who counsels preachers to see their task as one of “testimony”: The preacher enters into the text and is changed, and then testifies to the congregation of that change as a way of inviting them to be changed themselves.

V. Face Forward

Sermons are, and have always been, the best evangelism tool. Being evangelized is not a one and done occurrence, but is part and parcel of the “daily conversion” Christians are called to. To preach is to participate in the Spirit’s metanoia of the faithful, and this is why allowing a sermon to become propaganda is so offensive to me: In doing so, the preacher betrays a belief that they, not the Spirit, are the ones who change hearts and minds.

I do not think congregations are opposed to hearing a sermon that addresses difficult, or even political, subjects head on. I’ve done it many times. What congregations are opposed to is being treated like idiots who are pawns in the preacher’s performative game. Congregations want to be respected as people of sound mind who are struggling to be good disciples, They want to be respected and taught how to think about life vis-a-vis scripture, lest they be reduced to automatons.

When a preacher chooses to “preach to the choir,” it is a lazy choice. It is not difficult to say things you know people will agree with. It is not difficult to say something that will upset those who we don’t care about in the first place. But our call is larger than that. We are called to do the difficult work of equipping all people to see their lives as a part of the ongoing story of God’s people. And to speak to all the people we cannot turn our backs and face the choir. We have to plant our feet in the pulpit and face forward.

In Defense of “The Giving Tree”

I have heard and understood the critiques. As a promoter of self-care and boundaries, I appreciate the reframing of the tale. I desire to see people live whole and full lives, therefore I champion any effort to keep someone from becoming a martyr and whittling themselves away.

I still love The Giving Tree.

In my work as a Christian preacher and teacher, I like to say that “the Bible can mean a lot of things. It can’t mean everything, but it can mean a lot of things.” Just like the sacred text I live my life by, I have encountered very few texts that restrict themselves to just one point, and most of those are propaganda. The Giving Tree is as multivalent as any other.

I don’t offer a defense of the book because I think there is some sort of great point Silverstein was trying to make (He didn’t actually mean The Giving Tree to be read moralistically). I offer a defense in the hopes that we will still read it to children because there are certain of us who might find a moral point in it, even if the author didn’t intend one.

I was one of those people.

I am a person who lives with constant worry that I will be taken advantage of. I fear being the tree. I hesitate to give an inch because I’ve seen how easily it becomes a mile. But I am also a selfish person. I know this about myself. I hoard goodness by disposition and have found myself, at times, doling it out in drips and drabs.

I don’t like that version of me. Reading The Giving Tree challenges me to be a different (and, I dare say: better) person.

The constant refrain of the book is that “the tree was happy” when she gave to the boy. This, of course, is the target of the critiques leveled against it. But I’ve never been able to square these critiques with a major tenet of my faith that says I should sacrifice for others. I am taught (and I teach) that because God in Christ gave up everything for us, we are called to do the same for others. My faith, as I understand it, says that the only way this life we all live together becomes a better reality is if we do not hold back in our sacrifice. And if I have more to sacrifice than others, then I should sacrifice more than others.

I am a kind of person who is not often expected to give of myself. In fact, when I do, people routinely express shock and surprise. I am a boss. I am a man. I am white. I am educated. I am…insert marker of comfort and privilege here. I am someone who has a natural disposition and has been conditioned to unreflectively accept it when someone gives to me. If I have a need, I expect that I can ask and it will most likely be granted.

What I am striving to discover is whether or not I can be like the Tree. Can I give, and, in doing so, be happy? My faith tells me this is not only possible, but true and expected. This is what I preach most every week from the pulpit. If I revere the portion of the Bible that calls us to imitate Christ in the way he “did not see equality with God as something to be grasped, but he emptied himself” into a lowly human form, how do I look askance at The Giving Tree for showing me the same kind of thing?

Silverstein hated children’s books because he thought they lied to kids about happy endings. “It’s about a boy and a tree,” he once said. “It has a pretty sad ending…It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.” To quibble with the author, it’s only a sad ending for the boy. The Tree got exactly what she wanted. I find it telling that critiques of the book assume the Tree doesn’t know what she wants, that she doesn’t have her own agency. In the book, the Tree very clearly knew her own mind. What does it say about us that we cannot fathom a life of fulfillment and goodness that involves a lot of sacrifice? What is a “happy ending?” Is happiness being the one who takes like the boy did? I don’t think it is. Through my faith and reading books like Silverstein’s, I have come to believe and know that happiness is found in giving.

I hope you don’t choose to willingly misunderstand me. I hope you don’t impute into my words and meanings something that is not present. The point I am making is: I believe sacrifice is a good thing, that The Giving Tree added to my understanding by offering that sacrifice can and will make me happy, and that I am not the last person on Earth who needs to learn this lesson.

Thanks, Ted Lasso, for bringing us all together again.

A couple years ago, I was irritated when Netflix abandoned the binge model for several of its shows. I think it may have been The Great British Baking Show that simultaneously made me happy and mad about it. I had become accustomed to sitting with a series and blazing through it before moving on to the next one. It seemed everyone in our family had their own thing going, and, looking back, that wasn’t too healthy.

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Susan Pinker says:

“This find­ing aligns with a moun­tain of re­search show­ing that our brains sync up when we in­ter­act in the same lo­ca­tion, par­tic­i­pate in the same ac­tiv­ity, or sim­ply agree with each other. The new study goes one step fur­ther; it tests whether our heart rates be­come syn­chro­nized while tak­ing in the same nar­ra­tive—even though we’re not in the same room nor even lis­ten­ing at the same time as other lis­ten­ers.”

Last year, when our family picked up our lives and moved to Oklahoma City, one of the things that held us together during the rough patch was a weekly commitment to watch a television show together. We started with the new series on PBS, All Creatures Great and Small, and were pleasantly surprised when the teenagers got waaaaay into it.

Since then, once a week, we gather round the tube and watch TV together. I don’t think any of us is willing to give it up at this point. And when the show is lights out good, it not only makes family time more enjoyable but we get to have vulnerable conversations we maybe wouldn’t have. Watching Ted Lasso for the last three months has been a masterclass for us about vulnerability and fragility and resentment and forgiveness for which I’m unbelievably grateful. We’ve shared things with one another about our inner lives because this “same narrative” invited us to.

When we hear the same story at the same time, Pinker says, our “heart rates rise and fall in unison” making clear to us “we’re not alone.” I think the world needs less bingeable narratives and more opportunities to take time to hear the same story at the same time.

What if Facebook disappeared?

Hank Green spends 20 minutes helpfully unpacking Facebook and our response to it. There’s some YouTubey inside baseball stuff at the beginning, but skip to the 2 minute mark and you’re off to the races. Here are his time stamps:

2:00 So… Facebook is scary
3:56 We’re babies
6:58 Ok, but what is Facebook?
10:43 What should we do?
16:10 Platforms don’t just host!
19:02 Facebook is regulating society
19:40 The end

The thing that spoke to me was his exploration on our feelings of “righteous superiority” as a result of our social media activity. I teach a book professionally that tells me to “consider others as better than ourselves.” What results from social media is almost always the exact opposite. I’m trying to take hope in Green’s point that the technology is new and we’re still babies at this, but it’s hard not to feel discouraged about it.

“He came to himself”

I heard an interview with my favorite author the other day, Colson Whitehead (I’m a hipster about him, btw. Been reading him for 20 years now. Get back to me when you’ve read The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt.). He said that in the last 18 months, he’s lost the ability to read for pleasure. I was so sad that this mind I adore, who has shown us all so many incredible things, couldn’t hold space for anything other than getting through the work day. It also made me feel seen and not alone. I’ve suffered the same fate.

In a week or so, it will have been a year since I stood in front of a new congregation and accepted the invitation to be their pastor. This last year of moving on top of pandemic has stretched and challenged me like I’d have never before believed. It’s been good, but there were so many things I wasn’t prepared for. But we never are. Mostly, I’ve grieved the loss of any kind of expansive personal pursuit. I’m a boundary pusher by nature, and I’ve just not had the energy to gear up for a push.

More than a few things in my life have become “normal” recently. Probably not normal, but at least “the way they were.” I’m shooting more photos, I can read for a reason other than writing a sermon, and I’ve been running again. I sprained my knee earlier in the summer, but a couple weeks ago I finally got out on the road and it felt good and normal.

There’s a phrase in the Bible I love: “He came to himself.” It’s when someone has been a bit nutty and lost and they remembered who and where they were. I feel like I’ve come to myself again. Lots of people haven’t reached this point yet, but I’m hearing about more and more people who have. I’m praying it starts to come in waves soon.