Rev. Wright and Fr. Pfleger -- and "Public Theology" Now

The controversy over Rev. Wright’s and Fr. Pfleger’s remarks teach one overriding lesson: not that zealous preaching is bad; not that outdated models of dealing with race in America are unhelpfully being invoked; not that a sermon can serve as a seismograph for Christian patriotism. The lesson is of the new moral situation we have entered with cameras inside the church that broadcast--now almost instantly--sermons onto the Internet. The sermons in question were written and performed for a "local," not "global," audience. They are performances--of defiance, passion, exhortation, meditation--however extemporaneous, that have a profound amount to do with the setting during the hour in which the sermon takes place. In being instantly broadcastable on the Internet, two things happen: First, they are made into public arguments: they are abstracted into the stuff of debate and analysis by people who did not share the formation or social situation of those for whom it was intended: the rhetoric of a particular setting gets forced to answer to wildly different presumptions and politics. Second, they become immediately attached to the spitstream of online commentary on video and blog sites, much of which is now the domain for reactive, impulsive "commentary" with the half-life of a news cycle. If almost none of it is worth reading later on, if few people feel lasting gratitude or consolation from this way of making sense of the world, we get a clue as to what has been happening to these sermons--they are made into fast food and chewed in the mouths of those who have only a remotest sense for what they are eating. We are back to a 1980s question, about "public theology," but in a new way: are sermons "public arguments"? No--and yes. No, in the sense that they are, especially in these two now-infamous cases, performances that are highly "contextual". Much of contemporary theology indeed is coming to the understanding that all theology, written or spoken, is a "performance" or rhetoric that is most comprehensible within the culture from which it comes. Very little commentary on these sermons has talked about the cultures of the black church in America. But on the other hand, yes: sermons are now public arguments insofar as any sermon, or its most provocative fragments, can be uploaded onto the Internet and made the object of a bewilderingly broad spectrum of speculation. There is something of democracy in this, in that the ideas from these sermons in the public domain can become occasions for individual and communal clarification, however meager, about the "common good." But there is also something of despotism, in which a certain knowingness, or a simple lack of education, about religion becomes further legitimized publicly--whether on cable TV or the Internet. Tom Beaudoin Santa Clara, Calif.
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10 years 7 months ago
Yes, but. It's going to be very hard to explain even to most reasonable and reasonably intelligent people that ''God damn America'' doesn't really mean what its constituent words seem to be saying. A literal message gets across directly to the intended audience, before and in addition to any coded messages it may contain. Language exists on various levels simultaneously. You can't avoid responsibility for any understanding that comes into being as a consequence of your choosing to use certain words. You'll seldom be tempted to blame an audience for misunderstanding you if you choose your words carefully. Also, public is public. Sermons are never off the record.
10 years 7 months ago
Tom Beaudoin writes a thoughtful essay. I have been to black churches and have been invigorated and delighted by the passions that can run high there -- but I never heard anything like ''Father'' Pfleger's ''sermon.'' I don't find his performance to be a political matter -- his sermon is a pastoral matter. Should a priest stand in a public forum -- even a public sidewalk -- and ridicule, berate and impute motives and inner thoughts to another human being? I regret to say that the lamentable words of that Catholic priest requires a more thoughtful assessment than Cardinal George made in his statement when he merely labeled it a ''personal attack.'' If no one is asking''What would Jesus say?'' can we not ask ''What would Martin Luther King Jr. say?'' Rev. King proved time and time again that he at least knew Jesus' teachings. Yet again, I am disappointed in our Catholic Church. Of course, I myself am not fit to be a priest or make sermons -- I am a woman.


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