Just over a year since my last post – I’ve shifted most of my net activity to Facebook so you can catch me there. In the meantime, I wanted a place to insert this reflection:
On Sunday I preached the tragedy of God’s grief over Israels’ rejection of him, and the coming consequences of that turning away in Jeremiah 11.18 – 12.17. I introduced it as a courtroom drama, and presented the reading (and exposition) of the passage dramatically . The previous week I had introduced the book using ‘Bruce’, a good kiwi joker, to narrate the context for God’s call of ‘young Jerry’. Both sermons can be found HERE at our church’s preaching archive.
Then today, when visiting a newer member of the congregation, he commented that my eldest son’s interest in and flair for acting obviously came from me, and related it to my recent sermons. This caused me to reflect somewhat on the impact of acting on my preaching. Firstly I recalled how, at the age of 17, I had to make a presentation to the school assembly. This was one of my very first experiences of public speaking, and I wasn’t terribly well prepared for it. What I was totally unprepared for, however, was the number of people who approached me afterwards to say how like ‘Zigger Zagger’ I had sounded. Zigger Zagger is the football hooligan lead role in the play by Peter Terson of the same name, and I had spent a large part of the previous year in that role. So when I stood up to address a large crowd, I had unconsiously dropped back into that persona; loud, brash, uber-confident, ironic, and sneering. Not who I actually wanted to be – though it did actually do the job at the time. The obvious trap for a preacher is to adopt a persona, to take on the role of someone they are not, in order to deliver the message.
The problem with this is that we want to preach the Truth, and the medium must match the message. If in our preaching we are false, then our message will be assumed to be false too. The medium of the message in preaching is not just spoken words, but the person who speaks – the ordering of thought, the choices of words, the gestures, small and great that convey significance alongside the words, and the tones of voice that communicate emotion, excitement, distaste, and delight. If we adopt a persona, and submerge our own personalities in a falsehood, then we surely mar the message.
In some ways, however, just as my early, unconscious adoption of the Zigger Zagger persona got me through that first public speaking ordeal, it isn’t a bad thing for a beginning preacher to be able to adopt something of the manner of a master as they learn their trade – to ‘act’ like someone else. When I was studying at Carey, Brian Smith gave us some teaching about preaching, and said at one point that we could not expect to ‘be ourselves’ as preachers until we had done a lot more work in the disciplines of preaching; in the meantime we should not hesitate to use the techniques and skills of other people. He shared with us his own methods to supply one such model. I appreciated much that Brian taught, though I have since used very few of his methods. What I did get from him was something more, as I discovered when watching a recording of an early sermon that I had to present for evaluation to Paul Windsor, the new principal (and homiletics teacher) the following year. In that video I did a moderately ok job of presenting some sufficiently careful exegesis, but the one part that I can still recall clearly, and that made my jaw drop when I first saw it, was a moment when I paused in my exposition to gather my thoughts, and in those few seconds raised the tips of my fingers, hands pressed together, to my lips. It was a gesture that was absolutely characteristic of Brian. I had not realised until then how much I had absorbed of the man, if not his methods. I was, in that moment, ‘acting’ like someone else. And it was the right thing to do, along the lines of Paul’s command to ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’. If you see real admirable qualities in another, then acting like that person is only a good thing.
Such imitation is often – as in my imitation of Brian – quite unconscious. It can be embarrasing, too. Once I preached the day after I had watched the movie, Chariots of Fire with my family, and they took enormous delight in telling me, afterwards, that for most of the sermon I had adopted the Scots accent of Eric Liddel! And other Scots preachers since then have reinforced in me the tendency to slip occasionally into accents that are quite foreign to this fifth-generation kiwi. I think this might even be a genetic predispostion – since my eldest daughter (and the severest critic of my faux-scots accent) turned up on Skype, after two weeks in Leeds, speaking like she’d been bred there.
Other aspects of acting are not so unconscious, but are deliberately learned, and many skills and disciplines of the stage are useful to the preacher: the ability to enlarge on ordinary gestures, and to project our voices, and to read not as though we are reading but as though we are living the words we read – and with the heightened tonal colour and range that may seem false in an intimate conversation, but that is necessary when you’re trying to communicate verbally with someone who is, despite the best in audio-visual technology, still many metres away; all these skills are valuable to the preacher.
I think, too, that the ability to create and present another character like my ‘Bruce’ as a means of illustrating or enlivening the scripture story is another gift of my drama training. This isn’t really adopting a pose, either, as it’s quite obviously a ‘put on’ character – as distinct as the clown motley I sometimes assume, and usually such characters are a means of illustrating what is in the text rather than what is in the preacher – they add colour to the sermon, but I don’t think they hit the heights of preaching; the communiction of truth through personality. All this is simply technique.
The most important acting skill for preaching is one that I think is at the heart of great acting, and relies upon a great script – the ability to be so caught up in the story, that the role becomes my life, and my emotions, and my thoughts, and my movements all correspond to that role, to that story. This is really not about ‘adopting’ a role or a pose or about imposing a learned technique or skill upon the raw material of the script, it is more about getting my self out of the way; putting my own story aside for a while in order to live this other story. It is submitting to the role, making me smaller so as to make more room for the character and the actions and the speeches demanded by the script. And when the script is the scriptures…
I think the comments of my new chum today, suggesting that I was acting when preaching, were both right and wrong. He saw and heard, I think, the reality of a grief that almost overwhelmed me as I read those scriptures, and shared with the congregation the observations I had prepared. I had not scripted or even really expected emotion, but the scriptures demanded it. The time spent in immersing myself in that story meant that when it came to sharing it with my congregation, it came alive. It was on the stage that I learned how to immerse myself in the story, and learned to trust the script to carry me in my prescribed role – to give myself to the Drama of it all. So you could certainly say that I am ‘acting’ when I preach. But if by acting we mean I assume a role that is alien to me and really false, I would have to disagree. It is in acting in conformity to the scriptures that we are most truly ourselves, and best convey the Truth of God.