When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me. We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly. I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities. It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations. One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously.
When Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness. Preaching is folly. Preachers are fools.” This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor. An odd line in our job descriptions. The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”
In Friday’s post, Chuck spoke about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception. At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.
This second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts. We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.
Hopeful Realism: So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in. Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing. In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”
I think there’s a good analogy with pop music. Is there any chance for pop music? To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants. We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it. It’s a closed loop. How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.
Chuck Campbell: Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.
HR: Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe. Pop music is the safest of genres. It doesn’t change fast or much. It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant. How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?
CC: Love? Well they’re used to it. We think we know what we want to hear.
That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher. We don’t want to claim that. There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary. Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there. But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.
The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure. Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure. I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way. Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us! And a lot of people know it’s killing them. I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes. Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…
And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear. We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.” There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places. Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard. It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption. I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.
HR: I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…
HR: How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]
CC: Or in the book?! How did that slip by us?
HR: It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination. Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody.
“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”
There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool. I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.
CC: When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material. That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff. I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that. It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.
Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation. I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things. For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.
HR: There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this. He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.” I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps. After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps. What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.
CC: The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them. Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them. So they’re setting the agenda. Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.
The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary. It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.” And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing. Jesus is the one who does that.
One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting. It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.
HR: Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.
CC: We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.
What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth. They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard. One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.” Everything he says has two meanings. It’s all basically irony in a sense. While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else. In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart. Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on. This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work. These characters are here. They are around. We need to pay attention.
In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this. And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.” These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological. I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do. Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on. Characters like that are all around.
HR: A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?
CC: You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?
As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals. I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive. That might be deeper than even an issue. It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues. Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.
 Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 46.