Tomorrow, it seems, the world returns to medieval times. A crass, arrogant overlord with no respect for God nor humanity ascends the throne of the Western world, an out-of-control demagogue. How can this be?
Maybe that's the question. How can it be?
I have rarely felt as ashamed as I did the day Donald Trump's victory was announced - secured, apparently, by evangelical Christians. Those among whom I would once have counted myself.
Perhaps, for too long, the West has denied justice to the poor, concern for the oppressed and reverence for God. The prophet Amos has provided the recent Old Testament lectionary readings. Appropriate maybe, that today we read "Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake". All is not hopeless however. Amos goes on to say "I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen ... I will restore the fortunes of my people."
I have no faith in easy solutions, triumphalist claims that Christians will finally be vindicated and enjoy victory over others. But I do believe that God is greater than Trump, and that He cares for His creation.
“I looked on astounded as from his ordinary life he made his art. We were both ordinary men, he and I. Yet from the ordinary he created Legends--and I from Legends created only the ordinary!” (Salieri on Mozart in Amadeus).
I wonder how many people leave church on a Sunday thinking something similar. Salieri was an accomplished composer favoured by the Austrian Emperor. The film Amadeus portrays his rivalry with Mozart, and, comparing their craft, Salieri draws this distinction – both are ordinary, both have access to wonderful material; the one turns “legend” into ordinary, the other turns ordinary into legend. If, as Leonard Sweet claims (Giving Blood 2014), “boredom is the deadliest sin of a preacher”, perhaps the next deadliest is to render the wonder of the word of God dull.
It is an oddity of church life that those who claim to think most highly of Scripture treat it with least reverence. Scripture, the somehow God-breathed words of life, are carved up into meaningless morsels of banality, while the actual focus of the sermon becomes prosaic platitudes either garnered from some simplistic book of superficial spirituality, or based on a few minutes breakfast time thought. No wonder that so many people feel the Bible is irrelevant. Thus presented, it is.
Preaching is the art and craft of getting people to want what they don’t know they need but can’t truly live without: daily experiences of Christ. Telling them what they need does not inspire them to embark on the adventure of finding it. Giving them an experience of Christ in the sermon might awake a hunger for more. As Saint-Exupery said “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there’s never smoke without fire.
Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.
The fear of many a preacher must be that the secret might come out. The secret that we are not quite who we hope our hearers will imagine us to be. The secret that the person we present in the pulpit is not the only person inhabiting the body the congregation sees before it.
A range of psychometric tools exists to prompt us to greater self-knowledge. Whichever you prefer, all are rooted in the belief that subconsciously there is more to us than meets the eye. Perhaps, more accurately, we both mold ourselves, and are molded so that we fit in. Firstly, we want to please, and when we received feedback that tells us we succeeded, then we reinforce the behaviour that gained approval. Basically, according to Carl Jung, we all learn to fit in by keeping other people happy. Early in life we learn to keep our parents happy. Then we learn to keep friends, teachers, partners, employers, and others happy by projecting the person they want us to be.
Rather like politicians or celebrities we develop an image of ourselves that is our shop window, the person we want others to think we are (and increasingly the person we want to see ourselves as). It’s what Goffman (Goffman, 1990) calls impression management. We arrange our language, our posture and behaviour in ways that will project the person we want to be. The problem is that the characteristics and personality traits we don’t like, do not go away. When we move them from the shop window, they simply go into storage. It isn’t that we have changed, but that we have squashed down the things in ourselves we don’t like. We become a guarded version of ourselves. Jung describes what we repress as our “shadow side”. And if we keep our shadow side pushed down, or grow it by deciding that even more aspects of ourselves are unacceptable, we can become depressed. Usually people push backstage things they’ve done that they want to hide because they feel guilty, or things about themselves they feel are wrong, because they feel shame. Unless we let out our shadow sides we can either become depressed, or they can explode out onto the front stage inappropriately. If we are to be whole people we have to let our shadow selves out, take of our mask, and allow our shadows can actually be creative. If we continue to operate behind a mask, we become so used to it we find it has eaten into our face.
Our hidden, unloved parts, are creative. Because we do not acknowledge them, they project themselves onto others, who become either fascinating or repulsive. Projection is always destructive, because it prevents us seeing others for who they really are.
When Jesus said “love your enemies”, in Matthew, and “love your neighbor as yourself” in Mark he surely included loving our shadow sides, the traits that we project on to others – not just love others, but love others onto whom you project the bits of yourself you don’t like.
What does this hypothesis have to do with preaching?
Firstly, preachers need to know themselves - shadow, unliked side and all – lest we project our disliked selves onto either Biblical characters we will be talking about, or onto members of the congregation. There is a Rabbi’s question we would do well to bear in mind: “what would happen if a donkey read the Bible?” The answer, of course, is that it would see itself. It would observe the wisdom of the talking donkey in Numbers, and the blessing of donkeys in Psalm 104.
Think of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. It’s easy to relate to Philip. He is a hero of the faith, obedient to God, reads the situation well, interprets Scripture and makes a convert. The Eunuch on the other hand, was on the road out of Jerusalem. He was neutered, defective. He could produce no children and so had no future, yet was among a people for whom the future seemed to be everything. He was identified by what he lacked, what had been taken away from him. Surely he identified with what he was reading from Isaiah - the lamb also had no future, no ‘voice’.
“Could Scripture have something in it for somebody like me? Somebody whose life has been taken from the earth?” he might have asked. If Scripture really did have something for the excluded and defective and unclean, then what could stop him being baptized? Perhaps he expected Philip to explain carefully to him why he could not be baptised. But the honest answer to his question is “nothing”, and Philip baptises him. Maybe in baptism this eunuch got a name instead of a label, a future instead of extermination, and identity based on what he had rather than what he lacked.
Why is it so much easier to identify with Philip than with the Eunuch? Perhaps because the parts of ourselves that we do not like are reflected in the latter, while the characteristics we would love to project are more like the former.
How might preachers become aware of their own shadow sides, then? Some useful general questions to ask ourselves might be:
Specifically at the time of sermon writing we might use a method of theological reflection that asks “what is my experience of this passage, or of the issues it speaks of?”; “what is my position/where might I draw a line in the sand on either of these?”. Theological reflection in preaching is an issue for another day. For now, the aim is to encourage self-awareness in preachers, so that by being aware of self the preacher might find deeper meaning in Scripture and a more authentic connection with hearers.