After a period of discernment I decided to enrol in the church’s Licensed Lay Worship Leader (LLWL) program and I have been ensconced in studies for the past several months. This past weekend I experienced my first intense training program when I met with some 30 other trainees at Five Oaks Centre. I’ll save a description of the program or another article. This month I’d like to share a book report overview I prepared for the weekend: Barara Brown Taylor’s excellent work entitled When God is Silent.
Barbara Brown Taylor touches upon eight central ideas in her treatise, When God is Silent. She calls for homiletical restraint in preaching. For her less is more. The main ideas in this book are as follows:
Language is under attack
We are assailed by a language of untruths. Much of our contemporary communication is steeped in outright falsehood, prevarication, exaggeration and competitiveness. There is a huge discrepancy between the word and the reality. We are buried under a mountain of noise and the noise destroys our ability to discern.
We have not always been deluged with a culture of noise
In fact the distortion of language is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is fuelled by consumerism and the drive to accelerate a social and cultural model driven by consumerism. The more we engage in the practice the more distorted our communications become. This is a phenomenon of our lifetime.
The assault of consumerism has meant that words are chosen not for their truthfulness but for their power to seduce. The practice is so entrenched that we have become inured to it. We no longer accept words as a reflection of the reality we live in. Without this foundation of words our understanding of reality is undermined and distorted.
Preaching is a matter of influence and our ability to influence is undermined by consumerist culture
Barbara Brown Taylor’s work is a spiritual parallel to the work of social scientist Robert Cialdini who decried the practice of miscommunication in advertising in his seminal work “Influence”, written 30 years ago. Cialdini spoke of six weapons of influence (scarcity, reciprocity, commitment and consistency, authority, liking and social proof).
Taylor speaks of consumerism in much the same way. It drives a practice of seduction as opposed to a practice of truth. Cialdini describes the authority principle as one where a ‘televison’ doctor (Robert Young as Marcus Welby) is used as a spokesperson to advertise healthful products – Sanka coffee.
We are have lost the capacity to listen
We are not good listeners. We process information faster than people can talk. We live in a world where conversation is a competitive sport and the first one to take a breath becomes the listener. Listeners reject this designation. They don’t hear what is presented to them and the long for the silence of the unsayable.
The word has lost its sayability in the world. As Taylor says, this is a recent world phenomenon; one where people could spend the evening reading Goethe, Rilke and listening to Bach and Schubert and blithely go to work at Auschwitz in the morning. Words have lost their meaning.
Silence Offers a Respite from the Distraction of the Noise
Taylor points out that silence affects people who are no longer affected by sound. It is ecumenical. It takes us back to those a time before creation when there was no dogma and no crusade and silence was the womb in which the world slept. This is one of the ideas in the book that I found most enlightening; the fact that silence offers humanity a way forward from the noise of contemporary communication.
To be sure, in our world communication has a higher value than contemplation; information is in greater demand than reflection. In the paradigm of current societal culture we proceed from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. There is precious little place for the communication dynamics of reflection and contemplation. In fact, we are encouraged not to do so.
Information (answers) abounds everywhere. Just do a Google search and the miracle of the internet and modern day search engines will produce for us an answer to all of our dreams. However, the answers to our dreams are often without substance. They lack the insight of silence, contemplative thought and reflection.
Connected to everything but silence
Taylor reminds us that there was a time when only two or three people carried a phone around with them all of the time – one of them was the president of the US, who carried it in case of nuclear attack. Now we are all that important. We are all that instant. We are all so connected that we are never at a point when we are not. We are never at a point when we are just with God. And because we are not, it is no wonder we can never hear the voice of God.
On the contrary, God’s silence on questions of fate and contemporary life are deemed to be unacceptable by a world addicted to information, input and regurgitation of the banal. We are garbage in and garbage out. We are our own communication machines.
God’s Silence – the profoundly unsayable
As the preacher said very few people come to me because of something God said to them last night. Most come because they can’t get God to say anything to them at all.
Taylor points out that many of the sayings of Jesus beget silence: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who abuse you; and even more, in a world of machines silence signals malfunction. We are taught to treat silence as discomfiting.
What I find affirming about Brown’s treatise is the fact that it so parallels the void left by our socioeconomic and political system. The arguments made by the various political parties leave one gasping for air. So much information is being shoved down our throats about who is right and who is wrong. I found the health care debate in the US to be an example of this. Where was the consideration of the other?
As quoted in 2 Corinthians *:13 “The person who had much did not have too much, and the person who had little did not have too little.” Where was the contemplative thought that reached beyond the ‘me’?
Sometimes it is the unsayable which must be said
In our world the sayability of things has fallen into disrepute. But Brown affirms that”Silence is a central place of faith”.
Homiletical restraint requires economy, courtesy and reverence in the language we use. Say only what we know is true. Respect the autonomy of the listener by being courteous in our approach to language. Decry, avoid coercion. Be the authoritative listener, not the commanding authoritarian.
Explore the practice of restraint in preaching. When we stop talking it is not as though there is no more to be said, it is so the unsayable wishes to be said. And it is said in silence.
God silence is God’s voice. It is accessible through contemplation and reflection. As Brown points out if God were readily accessible religion would be obsolete.
And finally in speech, less is more. A short speech is more difficult to compose than a long one. Finding the economy of words allows the listener to contemplate the understanding of the message of God.
There are no definitive answers to the message of God. What God is saying to each of us individually is matter for each of us to discern.
As preachers it is most important to know what not to say. Answers for everything do not abound. It does not come with the territory – with the wearing of a preacher’s hat. It is a lesson to take away for me.
As Taylor closes her treatise on preaching she reminds us: “What we serve is not supposed to satisfy. It is food for the journey. It is meant to tantalize, to send people out our doors with a taste for what they cannot find in our kitchens. When they find it, they understand why we did not say more than we did. It was not that we didn’t. It was that we couldn’t. Our words are too fragile. God’s voice is too deep.”