Monday, January 25, 2010

Preaching, the Thick and Thin of It

In recent posts, I've talked about my evolution over time related to my understanding and practice of preaching. That shift is a move away from a "bridge" theory of preaching. According to the bridge theory, we have two static objects, the text and the contemporary world, that are separated by a massive temporal gulf. The trick is to lift something universal out of the particularity of the text, walk it across the homiletical bridge, and find its dynamic equivalent in the contemporary world.

This is a tall task, and has three built-in deficits that I am trying to overcome. First, it leaves the particularity of the text behind in favor of some universal principle lifted from the text. Second, the quest for the dynamic equivalent is very difficult to calibrate. We've all had the experience of our illustrations overpowering everything else in the sermon. It's hard to measure those things out, find a term that weighs the same as another.

Which brings me to my third problem. Meaning making is far "thicker" than translating one term for another. The bridge theory is a "thin" strategy for finding meaning between two subjects. The "point" of the text, some universal meaning that transcends culture, is a thin strand around which to find shared meaning. This is not typically how we come to understand something or someone, particularly when that something is culturally distant (like the Bible).

Clifford Geertz, a significant cultural anthropologist, marveled at the capacity of humans to gain understanding of each other across massive cultural divides. For Geertz, it was impossible to escape one's own cultural trappings in order to think like a native. It was equally impossible to find universals that could be taken for granted in every culture, thus providing a basis for translating one cultural meaning straight into another cultural setting. Against these "thin" strategies, Geertz proposed "thick" description as the way most of us come to understand one another across cultures. The more thickly we describe our own context and that of the other (through empathy), the more opportunity we have for meaning making. We're not looking for a thin link, but a web of overlap between two thickly construed realities.

While this produces understanding, it also simultaneously creates a new understanding. To understand oneself through another always makes for something new, what Gadamer calls a fusion of horizons. The attempt to understand creates a new horizon of meaning. (The word is living and active...).

Brueggemann is one biblical scholar who takes Geertz (and Geertz's influence-r, Ricouer) seriously in the task of biblical interpretation. Brueggemann sees understanding occurring between two thickly contested worlds--the world of the text, and the world of the reader/listener. By rendering both thickly, Brueggemann sees the possibility for artful appropriation. Brueggemann doesn't see a text as simply making a point. A text is an exercise in power--in naming and shaping a world. And meanings in these are always contested, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Faithful preaching takes the claims and counterclaims of both worlds (biblical and contemporary) seriously through thick description. For Brueggemann this moves preaching from a monological endeavor where all the traffic moves one way or the other, to a dialogical event where text and world are simultaneously active. (Monologue=thin, dialogue=thick).

This is how I think about preaching. I want to render both text and world so thickly that new meaning emerges. I want to move past just making points and illustrating them to creating alternative worlds. For my money, it is only this kind of preaching that lives up to the qualifier "gospel."


Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

I am interested in this. It resonates even though I am having a difficult time at the moment trying to imagine what "thickness" looks like. How does a dialogue get preached or presented?

Mark Love said...

Lisa, that's the deal isn't it? How do you do it? It's not like the form of a question is socratic or anything like that, although there may be a place for posing/anticipating questions. It's more about how the sermon is conceived in the first place. I try to think of the sermon as a first word, not a last word, as an invitation into contested meanings.

But the bigger implication of thickness is how that notion mediates the relationship between text and world. Instead of moving from one "world" to another, I try to keep both in play simultaneously as much as possible. I'll post some examples as we move on.

Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

"The sermon as the first word, not a last word, as an invitation . . . " sounds very right in my mind. I am looking forward to reading the examples.