Preaching appears arrogant to people overwhelmed by the limitations of their perspective. That subjective humans could speak meaningfully of an objective God would be absurd were it not that God took the initiative to reveal himself. Perspective becomes an asset as the preacher bears witness to God in the flesh.
Is there anything as arrogant as a preacher? While perhaps not up there with trash talking point guards or raving third world despots, preachers still are perceived as pompous in the mind of the average citizen. Preachers are too sure of themselves in a world where no one takes anything for granted and where no one is certain of anything. “Don’t preach at me,” people say when they want to be particularly cutting.
Preachers are always telling people what to believe and what to do with their lives, implying that they have some privileged access to the truth. In postmodern times, such a claim is unforgivable. Surely it is arrogance to claim to know what is best for others and to be willing to proclaim these things to people en masse.
During the 1997 Canadian federal election, national news columnist Peter C. Newman found a particularly scathing way to criticize Reform party leader Preston Manning. Manning is “a preacher, not a politician,” Newman said (Newman 1997, 51). The implication was obvious. Preachers are by nature intolerant, impatient, and arrogant. Preachers are “know-it-alls,” dangerous to the citizenry of an enlightened and pluralized public.
How things have changed! Preachers were once respected as key sources in the common search for objective truth. Ever since Descartes, optimism reigned as people pursued final answers to ultimate issues. No question seemed large enough to withstand the assault of human reason. If the answer wasn’t known it was only a matter of time. Every mystery could be solved by application of the formidable powers of the human mind. The scientific method was hailed as the tool which could unlock the very secrets of God.
In this context preachers thundered. Giants of the pulpit like Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody came to prominence, commanding the attention of thousands who heard in them the voice of God. Even country preachers, often the most educated persons in town, were powerful voices in the community power structure. Consensus was forming around biblical values in the constant pursuit of meaning. The Bible was seen as a book of wisdom and a repository of truth. Expositors who examined the Scriptures with scientific diligence offered people what they sought—a true word from God himself.
Loss of Confidence
Over time, however, such optimism faded. A purely objective sense of truth proved elusive. The more humanity learned, the less it seemed was known. For every question that was solved, multiple new conundrums were uncovered. The harder people pursued the goal of ultimate truth the more distant it appeared.
The world is much less certain today. The neat order of the past has come undone and people sense a need to hedge their bets. New voices daily challenge the consensus, leaving people feeling squeezed. Never before have individuals had to handle so much information in so little time. Technology ensures that the amount of information offered increases as fast as the available response time decreases. The first casualty is confidence (Oden 1990, 46). Ideas that once seemed beyond question are now up for grabs. New alternatives to formerly unquestioned convictions raise doubt among people used to a much firmer footing. Judgment is reserved for the time being as people find themselves unwilling to choose among a multiplicity of options.
Preaching suffers. Prophetic pulpiteers shouting “thus saith the Lord” appear as caricatures of a newly unwanted dogmatism. The confidence of these preachers doesn’t match the people’s own experience. Preachers arrogantly deny the obvious complexity. They are caught out of their time, anachronisms dangerous to the fragile psyche of a world which has lost its confidence.
The Problem of Perspective
Or so it is assumed. In fact, many preachers struggle with the same lack of confidence as the people in the pew. Choosing among the variety of worldviews available in a multi-cultural context would require some favored vantage point from which objective evaluations could be made. Unfortunately, such an exalted viewpoint is denied.
Even preachers are bound captive to their perspective and many of them know it. Every idea or event is evaluated through the grid of experience, education, conviction, and bias that necessarily forms around an individual in life. The preacher must function within the limits of time and space, experiencing life one moment at a time, one place at a time. Such restrictions seriously limit point of view. Simply stated, people are finite. Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton put the problem well:
How is it possible to judge the worldview of another person or group of people to be wrong when we realize that we have no privileged, universal access to truth and so can only pass judgment from the perspective of our own worldview? (Middleton and Walsh 1995, 30)
In the early hours after the death of the Princess of Wales, blame was fixed squarely on the paparazzi who had hounded Diana. The public was merciless in its condemnation of tabloid press photographers. Days later, blame shifted to the driver of the Princess’s Mercedes, who had been seriously impaired by alcohol and drugs. A week or two later, blame shifted again. Paint scratches on the Mercedes suggested that another car might have caused the tragedy. It soon became apparent that no one really knew what had happened in that tunnel. The only ones positioned properly to know the facts were dead, or in the case of the bodyguard, incapacitated. Determining the objective truth in this affair, so important to the public, proved unlikely due to the lack of anyone with the entire perspective.
Are preachers any different? They trumpet their interpretation of the world as they see it, locked in the prison of their perspective. Fixed in space and time, are they any more able to speak about truth objectively? At best, they offer an educated guess. Yet a guess in the guise of a prescription abuses the people who must listen and live from within the strictures of their own vantage point.
God has Spoken
The postmodernists are partly right. Man’s best reason could never conceive nor communicate the nature and will of God. Humanity could not imagine the objective truth about God. The best of human scholarship is not able to nullify the fact of man’s finitude and fallenness. Even the idea that truth is objective, that it is separate and independent, scuttles the idea that man could discover it independently. Everything man touches is stained by his fingerprints. The moment one apprehends the truth, its objectivity is compromised.
Except that God has spoken. Were the quest to know the truth solely the expression of human initiative and endeavor the enterprise would be doomed. The good news is that ultimately, this is God’s project. God made it his purpose to make himself known to man. It is through his self-revelation that man discovers the truth that could never be known outside of God’s own initiative. By revealing himself, God overcame the objective/subjective distinction, allowing humans locked in time and space the privilege to know the truth and be set free by it.
Certainly, the preacher must work from within the confines of his or her perspective. This limitation is not fatal. John Carey, in his anthology, Eye-Witness to History, describes the difficulty inherent in the process of journalism.
It is an axiom of modern critical theory that there are no accessible ‘realities,’ only texts that relate to another inter-textually. But even if he believes this, the good reporter must do everything in his power to counteract it, struggling to isolate the singularities that will make his account real for his readers—not just something written, but something seen. (Carey 1987, xxxii)
It can be helpful, in fact, to view the task of preaching as a kind of journalism. The preacher is a correspondent, describing the activity and message of God as personally seen and heard. Far from rejecting the preacher’s subjective nature in pursuit of an esoteric objectivity, the preacher revels in his or her subjectivity. The preacher is an eye-witness, a participant in the earthy interplay of truth in the trenches. The preacher describes not what could never be known but what has been experienced firsthand. Not content to point to disembodied truths which lie pristine and out of reach, the preacher describes that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched (1 John 1:1).
This witness inherent in preaching both acknowledges and overcomes the problem of perspective. Preaching revels in it. Authority is not bound by the restraints of the preacher’s perspective but is released by it. (Long 1989, 44) God has stepped into space and time, permitting his perception by preacher and people. In preaching, then, the ultimate becomes accessible.
A Disheveled Preaching
This is the kind of preaching that will play with postmoderns. It is a disheveled kind of preaching that is willing to mess with the mysteries and struggle with the sticking points. It is an exciting brand of preaching that will not abide the tidy triteness of disembodied messages. This kind of preaching will not be content to offer a sermon under glass, safe and unassailable. Rather, this preaching is unafraid to listen to God and to wrestle with the implications of the message that results.
Preaching might appear arrogant to those who are overwhelmed by the limitations of their perspective. The idea that a preacher could speak meaningfully of an objective God would be absurd were it not for the fact that God has spoken. God has taken the initiative to reveal himself in real time to the questions and concerns of preacher and people. Perspective is an asset as the preacher bears witness to the God who is present.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.” In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, 928-43. Translated by Ladislaw Matekja and I. R. Titunik. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Caputo, John D. “The Good News about Alterity: Derrida and Theology.” Faith and Philosophy 10 (October 1993): 453-70.
Carey, John, ed. Eye-Witness to History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Fant, Clyde E. Preaching for Today. 2d ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.
Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.
Madison, G. B. The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity: Figures and Themes. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Middleton, J. Richard & Brian J. Walsh. Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.
Newman, Peter C. “In Television Debates the Only Rule is to Win.” Macleans, May 26, 1997, 51.
Oden, Thomas C. After Modernity . . . What?: Agenda for Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1990.