Preach Magazine Issue 1 - Creativity and innovation in preaching - Page 47

FEATURE 47 Rhetorical Innovation Finally, rhetoric. Recently I’ve been wondering, WWJT? (What would Jesus tweet?) The extreme brevity of the medium could be an advantage for gnomic utterances and might give them the ambiguity of a punchy parable. A pastor in Hawaii invites congregants – whom he knows will be on their smartphones anyway – to text him their answers to multiple choice questions that he poses on his PowerPoint™ slides during his sermon. Others allow Twitter feeds to scroll past during the sermon. So it seems that creative preachers restlessly search for new technologically-enabled angles, in the hope that they may thus compete with the mass media technoscapes which increasingly form the background and even the foreground of the lives of their listeners. In this they are arguably seeking to emulate the rhetorical innovations of the preaching of Jesus. Rhetoric, or the art and science of discourse, has universal rules codified by Aristotle, refined by the Roman Cicero and developed for Christian preachers by Augustine. Logos, the argument or power of the spoken word, is fatally undermined without ethos, the listeners’ positive perception of the character and integrity of the speaker. The argument is also weakened without pathos – the engagement with the listener’s emotions, and by extension the relationship of the message to real life. In the estimations of the gospel writers, the ethos of Jesus the teacher and preacher is unparalleled. According to all four writers he spoke with authority and power and wisdom that was ‘astonishing’. Luke refers to ‘amazement’ at the gracious words that came from his mouth. Matthew contrasts the remarkable authority that Jesus exhibited, compared to that of the scribes. At the same time as being virtually universal, rhetoric is culturally embedded, for the preacher cannot gain a hearing without thought-forms and speechforms comfortable for the listeners, or LWPT8173 - Preach Magazine - Issue 1 v3.indd 47 without ideas and concepts that address or correspond with the listeners’ felt concerns. As cultural expressions develop and change preachers need to know the difference, say, between Wallace Simpson and Marge Simpson as well as between wheat and tares. Where was Jesus wielding the rhetorical tools of his culture, and where was he making an innovative leap forward in first-century CE rabbinical discourse? The unequivocal evidence that would provide for that study is not there, as far as I can see. But the challenges that his preaching discourse raises for preachers today are instructive and inspiring nevertheless. We could start with his use of parables and enigmatic sayings (see Mark 4:11 and 4:33–34). However studying the parables of Jesus we quickly learn that, as Robert H Stein pointed out, Jesus was drawing on a well-established Jewish tradition of mashal.3 We learn also that the term parable is an umbrella term for a wide variety of figures of speech including simile, extended metaphor, little story, and allegory. The challenge of Jesus’s parables (which is also the title of an excellent compendium by Richard Longenecker) is particularly that they convey a point not only in intellectual but also in affective ways. (Sometimes: Julicher’s ‘single point’ understanding of parables has been widely superseded.) And even that summary risks undervaluing the way parables work. Often they seem designed to get past a mental guard, to get under the skin, or to turn preconceptions on their head so violently that laughter is the first, but by no means the only response. The deliberate withholding of clarity, as in Luke 8:9–10, seems to be an innovation too far for contemporary preachers who strive to be clear at all times. There is a challenge in Jesus’ use of parables to work with ambiguity and mystery, to expect the listener to do more work, and to preach in ways that are less spoon-feeding