Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Considering Rhetoric and Preaching the Gospel

At a point when I should be struggling with my thesis and a paper for my Hebrew class, I'm struggling with rhetoric.

I thought I had come to terms with rhetoric when it was one of the hot topics in the first year of Palm Beach Atlantic's honors program. We delved into Augustine and Cicero and took a diachronic look at Western rhetoric throughout the ages--from Gorgias and Demosthenes to Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Augustine was biased towards rhetoric, since he taught it for a good time before his conversion. After his conversion, he had to address the negative views of some Christians concerning rhetoric. They deemed it all sophistry, assuming Truth needed no human to dress it up. Truth sells itself. Truth is attractive without make-up and jewelry.

I remember Augustine agreeing to a point. He believed Truth is attractive, but he also believed people aren't always attracted to the correct things. And if Truth is already attractive, what would a little rhetoric hurt? If the Hebrew people could take gold from the Egyptians--gold used in their religious practices and gold made off the back of oppression--then Christians could also use rhetoric, even the practices elucidated by "pagan" men like Cicero and even the pre-Christian Augustine.

I wrote the above to re-convince myself about the benefits of rhetoric. I'm struggling with it as I'm preparing a sermon for Sunday, a sermon to be preached at a Baptist church I have never attended and will likely never attend again. A sermon on the sign of Jonah.

I think the sign of Jonah is not just about death--as Jonah was in the belly of a fish, so was Jesus in the belly of the grave (btw, Jonah's prayer from inside the fish is very reminiscent of descriptions of hell and the grave, at least in the Hebrew and my opinion). I think the sign is about Jonah's calling (I'll post my sermon at another time).

In preparation, I was reminded how much I think the story of Jonah is a dream dreamt on the way towards Tarshish. Perhaps Jonah went to Ninevah, perhaps he didn't. Perhaps God miraculously kept Jonah alive for three days and nights in a fish's stomach or perhaps that image is one of the nonsensical images prevalent in dreams--like three skinny cows eating three fat cows.

As I got excited about this interpretation, I began to wonder if I could preach it. I don't think you have to interpret Jonah as a dream to get out of it what I see in it, although some things are missed, because reading Jonah as a dream is reading a different Jonah.

I grew frustrated with the desire to censor myself and the desire to preach what is on my heart. I grew frustrated knowing people might stop listening to me if I implied Jonah was never in the belly of a fish or went to Ninevah or sat under a gourd. Actually, people would probably not even consider I was implying Jonah didn't go to Ninevah, because they would be more concerned with the miraculous fish-event; they would be concerned not with the thrust of the story of Jonah, but with the fish.

But if I have a message to deliver--and I believe I do--rhetoric dictates I form my message based on my audience. Just as I'm not going to use Hebrew words in my sermon, neither should I say something I know will stop my audience from listening to me or taking me seriously.

Rhetoric will change my message, but it will not take away the message.

But I hate to be censored. I hate to be someone else for people--to be fake. I hate that the rules of rhetoric dictate I should take out my earrings to preach in this church. In fact, I already agreed to take them out. It was a prerequisite.

The pastor did not ask me to wear a tie, but I imagine someone in that church will spend a few minutes being frustrated with my dress. Perhaps I should wear a tie. I hope they won't be able to see my shoes, because I do not own nice shoes and I refuse to buy any. My money can go to places much better than pretty shoes.

Actually, I'm incorrect. I do own one pair of nice shoes. Maybe I'll donate them to someone who needs them a little more than I do. Someone who needs nice shoes for a job. Why does anyone need nice shoes for a job? What do the appearance of your shoes matter in how you do your work?

I feel like I'm selling out and changing who I am to be a part of a group that is supposed to accept anyone and everyone. I feel like I am approving of judging a person by their style. But if I have a message, I need to convey it in such a way that those with ears can listen. And since I don't know the people in the church I'm preaching, I have absolutely no basis to accuse them of judgment, lest I, too, am asking for judgment.

I am going to preach about Jonah, but I am not going to show up at that church and preach Jonah's message. (Look it up.)

I think I have good motives. I'm not trying to conform, I'm trying to be a vessel of transformation--working with God to deliver a message for those in my hearing. I'm uncomfortable with the whole situation, but being right doesn't mean being comfortable. Sometimes being right will be comfortable, but the two are not the same. Never have been. Never will be.

Lord, you are overturning my heart like you tried with Jonah in his dream, like Jonah thought you would do to Ninevah, like the Ninevites did in response to Jonah's message. Please overturn me and my heart. Use my words to transform others and their hearts.

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