Rhetoric & Homiletics: Preaching, When Reality Becomes Optional

Preaching, When Reality Becomes Optional

Graduate education in Rhetoric is not about giving more speeches, engaging in theatrical productions, or oral interpretive readings. It is not the undergraduate experience on steroids. It is a move into the philosophical and theoretical. That is why an academic doctorate in Rhetoric and Public Address is called a ” Ph. D. in ____ ” — a Doctor of Philosophy.

Without getting into the philosophical and theoretical, let me simply say that there is an academic underpinning to communication theory.

Communication requires an agreement that there is a real-world that can be known,
and that that reality can be shared with the use of words.
That the use of words has the potential of moving and influencing people’s attitudes and actions.

Why does anyone write an article, publish a book, become a talking-head in the media, write news stories and magazine articles, publish academic papers, share their opinions in various conversational formats, tweet, post, or even blog? To excite and influence the thinking of others about “the world” of events.

However, times have radically changed when it comes to communication. As we all know, “truth” has fallen into hard times. It is now “my truth,” “your truth,” and “their truth.”

If you work in the world of words (and few — if any — people work in the world of public speaking more than preachers), you are preaching during a time when reality has become optional. [1]

How does that impact preaching? How do you navigate in the world of ministry when reality has become optional. You can believe whatever you want since it is unnecessary to know whether what you believe coincides with the real world.

Some would simply say . . . Preach the Word, in season and out of season. I understand that biblical truth, that necessary reality. However, if there is something that I can do in my preaching that addresses this present-day obstacle, I would like to know what it is.

I would suggest that because we are living in a world where “reality is optional” (and even elusive in a world that is able to photoshop and create images of a virtual reality), more time will have to be given to laying out the facts, fleshing out the real world for your audience.

The preacher was able to assume some agreed-upon assumptions and facts in the past, which he can no longer assume are held. More time must be given to establishing the concrete realities that are part of God’s world and human experience.

A few weeks ago, I attended a church service in Tampa where the preacher stacked up the facts! It was an exercise in doing just that — laying out the reality of the situation in a way that the reality was not optional — and it was effective!

The facts were non-partisan, credible, and compelling. I also thought about the time it must have taken in the study to peruse all that material (and far more materials than even used), and then to organize it into a meaningful whole.

If you bristle at that suggestion, and believe that you just need to preach the Word, or if you ignore the present-day reality that for far more in your audience than you may realize “reality is optional,” you may just be denying the reality of the situation.  You may have created your own reality.

. . . 



1. “Are we free to believe whatever we choose or whatever is consistent without prejudices, whether about Western civilization, the economy, or the credibility of Anita Hill?  Is there no independent reality that we need to check these beliefs against?  Are there no dangers in unfounded beliefs? In many cases, the most elementary analysis of empirical facts is enough to destroy popular beliefs and devastate the assumptions behind those beliefs”  — Is Reality Optional? — author, Thomas Sowell.

There are many recent articles on this present-day issue (of “reality becoming optional).  I am not so concerned as to the socio-political-cultural divide it has created.  Rather, my interest is in the preacher’s need to realize the world they speak into and how they might be better able to navigate and communicate in such a world.

. . . 

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