Sermons as art forms

What is the nature of the sermon as speech act? Is the sermon a poem, story, report, oration, or what?

Listen to “Exploring the Art of the Sermon” from NPR.

How should sermons be evaluated? Are there different sorts of sermons? Are they intended to have propositional content? Or are they urging actions? Or what?

The discussion of the Bill Moyers/Rev. Wright interview raised some interesting points that might start with an analysis of the sermon as speech act. Several different points of view.

The interview.

What makes a person want to stand in front of a group and deliver a speech? It is a delicate, subtle, but very powerful and profound communal exchange whose nature is indiscernible to those unfamiliar with the ways of the spirit, with the task of growing a soul. Since the Enlightenment the meaning of human life has involved unfolding individuality in ways it had not before; “becoming a self” the existentialists explain. And individuals drawn to pursue “becoming a self,” through this peculiar public medium include the con man, the salesman, the lecturer, the prophet, the preacher, and the politician. They all employ rhetoric.

Rhetoric is distinguishable from conning. While the aim of both is to persuade, conning uses persuasion to exploit the hearer’s self-interest. But in both the character of the speaker is at issue because, as Aristotle noted, character is a mode of persuasion: “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.”

Rhetoric is distinguished from propaganda. While the aim of both is to persuade, propaganda distorts the empathy reciprocated in rhetorical relationships, something derived from presence. In rhetoric there is an implicit covenant between speaker and listener borne of their mutual presence, part of an ethic in conversation. In both propaganda and rhetoric the emotions of the hearers are at issue because, as Aristotle pointed out, empathy is another mode of persuasion which “may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.”

Does the Reverend Wright use rhetoric? Absolutely. But he is not presenting a cold set of propositions; his language is more directed at reforming than at informing, and always he is performing. Does he employ the careful analytic language of the philosopher or the scientist? Not at all. He dances his metaphors, paints with his similes, and exaggerates with his refrains. Is it bullshit when Shakespeare writes that “All the world’s a stage”? or “Ripeness is all.” When the Haiku poet tells us that “the world is like a butterfly” we are not to take that as a proposition to be assessed for truth value, but as an invitation for contemplation about the shortness of life, the beauty of change, and the ephemeral nature of beauty itself.

6 thoughts on “Sermons as art forms

  1. Speaking of art forms: When the Haiku poet tells us that “the world is like a butterfly” we are not to take that as a proposition to be assessed for truth value, but as an invitation for contemplation about the shortness of life, the beauty of change, and the ephemeral nature of beauty itself.

    That’s a beautiful sentence!

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  2. “but as an invitation for contemplation about the shortness of life, the beauty of change, and the ephemeral nature of beauty itself.”

    Hmm…I haven’t heard many sermons like this SOB89 & if I found such a preacher, I would be there more often than never.

    The intent of a poet is as you describe. This is not the intent of a preacher.

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  3. Ha..I knew it! Just before I hit ‘submit’, my thoughts went to you Bob. I was going to qualify my submission, by writing..’there are exceptions’. And, of course, there are. Thanks Bob.

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  4. I do apologise.

    Somewhere along the way I must have given the impression that I am confused about the differences in intent, meaning, and interpretation between reading or hearing prosody and prose. I also didn’t realize that a moralizing sermon was apparently a license to say whatever one wants to say without any regard whatsoever for accuracy or revelation using either mode. I must come to terms with the fact that my rhetorical deficiencies leave me unable at the present time to artistically appreciate the lovely turn of phrase – almost Shakespearean in poetic revelation – that invites the listener to contemplate the liturgical lilt and soaring spiritual beauty of “God damn America.” Should I read that as iambic or alter my pronunciation to trochaic do you think?

    But I have a suspicion that to compare, and find similar, great poetics to the bullshit explanations and gross inaccuracies Wright presents during an interview – presented, I should add, as the underlying reasons for his sermons – seems to me to be a bit of a… stretch. One would need to be a mental/moral contortionist to achieve such remarkable flexibility. I would prefer to keep the prosody of Shakespeare and Wright (whose orations neither instruct nor delight me) rather far apart.

    But that’s just me.

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  5. Now, now, tildeb, don’t get your knickers in a knot. You made some good points in answer to my question for specifics. I’m not attacking you; I’m trying to sort out different kinds of speech acts and how we go about assessing them. For example, when you write, “I do apologise” I get the sense that the speech act you are performing with those words is not the one known as apologizing!

    Your point about the difference between “the gov’t” and “the country” is thought provoking. I have come to think that the distinction is much clearer in a parliamentary government than in a presidential republic.

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