Monday, September 01, 2008

Catholicism's Rhetoric Problem

I've just finished reading a masterful collection of essays by Richard M. Weaver which is bound under the title Language is Sermonic. Works by Weaver tend to be so insightful and impressive that the reader cannot help but see the world through a new looking-glass afterwards. So it is with this book.

In these essays, Weaver discusses the importance of rhetoric, the cause of the disfavor into which it has fallen in many quarters, and, in conjunction with the rise of Scientism, the correlating over-emphasis on dialectic. Weaver also contends that all language has tendency, even when the speaker and/or the listener is convinced that this or that presentation is "objective." In the final chapter, reproduced from a lecture which the author delivered in 1962, Weaver discusses the good use of rhetoric, and ranks the four topics according to (in his opinion) their importance or effectiveness. (For the curious, it's: 1. being, 2. relationship, 3. cause, and 4. authority, though authority is in many ways separate from the previous three.....but for heaven's sake, buy the book and read it.)

Yesterday, my local pastor began his sermon (and it was a good one) with a good argument from definition ("being"), and this, in conjunction with Weaver's work, got me to thinking about the delivery of sermons in the Catholic Church. Most times they're painfully boring and an insult to the congregation's intelligence. Often they are obviously poorly prepared, or they come from one of those homily cliff note pamphlet thingies. (One always knows that the latter is the case when the sermon begins with an obscure fact that no one would know, let alone care about--something like how many nuts a squirrel can eat in a day, or something like that.)

Contrast this generalized Catholic experience with my channel surfing last night. I had the TV on to cover up some late night jackhammering noises (thank you, Philadelphia Water Department), and I stumbled upon a rather well-known televangelist. I have many problems with televangelists, but being boring is not one of them. I sat there, with my finger on the remote, at the ready to change channels, but I never moved--not even after twenty minutes. This preacher was able to be accessible but principled. He was able to teach truth but also to draw upon real experience. He used great arguments from relationship and cause, and he was able to do it in a way that I couldn't bring myself to change the channel--much as part of me wanted to. In a word, it was compelling, and this came from a perfect union of dialectic and rhetoric.

So much of Catholic homiletics today is not compelling. I ask this question out of genuine ignorance: What are homiletics classes like in the modern seminary? Are they approaching this problem of boring sermons? It is not enough for a sermon to be true, to be dialectical (although in many cases even this is missing), it must also be rhetorical and beautiful. After all, what do visitors to Catholic churches think when a pastor delivers a sermon as though he were making widgets? What is the "tendency," as Weaver calls it, of the language of a boring sermon? If accounts are to be believed, it seems as though, in the past fifty years, we have gone from fire-and-brimstone banality to homily cliff note thingy banality.

Maybe Weaver's essays offer us some needed help on how to get out of this morass.

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