A Word Fitly Spoken

November 4, 2008 will be remembered as a turning point in American history: like Pearl Harbour, the moon landing, or 9/11.

On that day I arrived early at the polling place, waited in line, and cast my ballot. Then I drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend worship at Asbury Seminary followed by lunch with their president, Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas, a seasoned Methodist minister old enough to be my father. We sat in a small diner in Nicholasville, Kentucky and talked about the campaign for the presidency. On many things we agreed but especially this: Barack Obama has dramatized anew the significance and success of public speech.

Rhetoric is often denigrated as empty and useless; give us policy, we say to the candidate; be practical, we plead with the preacher. But when a holy and hospitable vision is carried along by a simple and soaring eloquence, what comes forth is a transformational power that organization, ideology, or effort can not match.

Part of it is technique: cadence, language, inflection, tone, posture, countenance. “A word fitly spoken,” the Bible asserts, “is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”—rare, to be treasured, and able to captivate the imagination.

“When I come to church,” a woman said to me a few days ago, “I want to be inspired.” Taught, perhaps; warned, sometimes, consoled, when needed—but mostly inspired. What she confessed was the need to be lifted above ourselves, outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves by an appeal to our better natures and our nobler virtues, by connecting us with the spiritual currents of the universe, by instilling within us the possibilities of human endurance and achievement. Such also is the task of preachers.

“My heart is stirred by a noble theme…” the psalmist rightly wrote and sang, perhaps after hearing a preacher extol the greatness of God, the grandeur of love, or the glory of life.

This is the other part of effective rhetoric—a message. Not all rhetorical ability is tied to a good and just theme: think Hitler. But when a generosity of spirit, a wideness of mercy, and a genuine delight in the common good flow out of a speaker into the minds and imaginations of those who hear, transformational things can happen. It is the hope and prayer of all who preach the gospel.

Others will study this historic campaign and learn things about voting and vetting, organizing and mobilizing, friend-raising and fund-raising; these are all important. But as a preacher I am interested in the power of persuasive speech. Obama’s gifts of substance and style have brought him to the White House and have given to us a leader of inspirational power.

Other skills are needed in the White House: discernment, courage, humility, humor, etc; it remains to be seen whether he can govern. But his success as a public speaker has the potential to rejuvenate the vocation of rhetoric. Nowhere is this more needed that in the pulpits of American churches.


3 comments so far

  1. Nathan Creitz on

    Well written and well said. I have been preaching for 10 years now and I am back in seminary learning more about preaching. It’s important to craft a message that will provide substance and style in such a way that people are persuaded to act. Some consider all of these “skills” to be manipulation. On the other hand, what is it that keeps people from doing what they know is right? Usually, it’s a lack of motivation, laziness, or perspective. Preaching can inspire people and motivate them. A sermon gives perspective on an issue that the congregation may be ignoring. It can provide perspective on a Biblical passage that can be unlocked only through careful study of the text…these are some of the things that we learn in seminary and they are important.

    I’ve often said to the people that think sermons are no longer relevant that they should consider how many people flock to the politicians to hear them speak (and people don’t even like politicians usually). Amazing how many people will go and hear a comedian or the spoken word at a coffee shop open mic, etc. The preacher has ethos, logos, and pathos. In other words, the preacher has something more than a politician. He has character, substance, and style. Often, a politician only has style. We need to preach the logos.

  2. Greg Magruder on

    I was impressed with Barack Obama’s acceptance speech last night. It was moving and showed amazing rhetorical skill. I was touched by the obvious adoration the people in the crowd showed often with tears in their eyes. They are true believers and their dreams have come true. Change is on the way. The soaring words and victorious campaign results merged into an emotional and memorable celebration.

    I was struck also by Obama’s speech and its obvious debt to the preaching skills of Black pastors. Obama has learned the power of words to communicate and cast vision. My German professor in seminary said that Baptist preachers in Germany no longer preach in the passionate way they used to in the early years of the 20th Century. The reason was that Adolf Hitler studied and used the rhetorical style of those evangelical preachers to develop his own style of public speaking. (I hesitated to even bring this up because someone will say I am comparing Obama to Hitler and that is just not true. I bring it up because you have rightly stated that rhetoric can also be used for wrong purposes). So I congratulate Obama on his win and his power of persuasion. If he can put actions to the words, then we all are better off. If it is just more words, then we have been swept up into emotion and nothing more. In the meantime, we preachers can rediscover the power of public speaking and proclaim the word that truly inspires and truly brings change.

  3. John Kemper on

    Could you tell of the “substance” of which Obama speaks. His rhetoric is “puff” without specifics.

    It is a grand thing to be able to inspire people but to what does he inspire people to be? Better and more than we are? I think time will show us Obama has no substance and where leads us will be less a nation and a people.

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