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.
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.