Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and former rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. She currently holds the Harry R. Butman Chair in Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. A popular preacher, speaker, and workshop leader, she was recently noted in Newsweek as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language.
"Reading of God's silence in the Bible gives me courage to explore the practice of restraint in preachingnot as a deliberate withholding of God's word nor, I hope, as a rationale for my own reticence, but as a sober reaching for more reverence in the act of public speaking about God."
In these 1997 Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching delivered at Yale Divinity School, Barbara Brown Taylor focuses on the task of those who preach and those who hear sermons in a world where people thirst for a word from God. How may we approach this seemingly silent God with due respect, proclaiming the Word without violating the silence, by speaking with restraint
Her first chapter examines the late twentieth-century language with which we talk about God in theology and speak to God in prayer. The second chapter addresses the question of God's communication in Scripture and how the "voice of God" was heard less and less in the land as the centuries progressed. Finally, Taylor explores what the silence of God means for Christians and how we may exercise "homiletical restraint" in speaking of the divine.
When God is Silent is the first in the new series of smaller format, gift edition books designed for meditative reading.
How shall I break the silence? What word is more eloquent than the silence itself? In the moments before a word is spoken, anything is possible. The empty air is formless void waiting to be addressed. Depending on what is said, earth could be all ocean, a blue waterworld in space. Adam could be a self-regenerating monk who sleeps alone by the glow of two moons, or three, and has to make his own decision about the fruit of that one beguiling tree.
Anything is possible until God exhales, inspiring the void first with wind and then with the Word, which is both utterance and act, which makes something out of nothing by saying that it is so. God says, and the logos yields the cosmos. God says, and a solemn procession of creatures steps out of the darkness, so steady on their feet that it is hard to believe they are using them for the first time. God says, and there are bats, bluebirds, fireflies, and luna moths. God says, and there are sea horses, manta rays, plankton, and clams.
But the most dangerous word God ever says is Adam. All by itself it is no more than a pile of dustnothing to be concerned about, reallybut by following it with the words for image and dominion, God sifts divinity into that dust, endowing it with things that belong to God alone. When God is through with it, this dust will bear the divine likeness. When God is through with it, this dust will exercise God's own dominionnot by flexing its muscles but by using its tongue.
Up to this point in the story, God has owned the monopoly on speech. Only God has had the power to make something out of nothing by saying it is so. Now, in this act of shocking generosity, God's stock goes public. "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them"human beings endowed by God with the power of the Word.
Anyone who stands up in front of other human beings to speak knows what a frightful gift it is. This power of ours has no safety catch on it. We are as likely to make nothing out of something as the other way around. According to one survey of people's greatest fears, fear of public speaking rates much higher than fear of sickness or death. The fear of self-exposure is basic to our nature, along with the fear of judgment by our peers. However well you have prepared, there is nothing like that moment of silence before you begin, when you look out at all those waiting faces and wonder if you are about to waste their time. Have you done your homework? Are your words the very best you could find? Will your body cooperate? Will your voice, your face, your spine, your hands help you make your point or contradict it? How will you break the silence? What can you say that will be more eloquent than the silence itself?
When the speech delivered happens to be a sermon, the stakes go up even higher. The conversation is no longer two-way but three-way, and the fear of judgment by one's peers takes a back seat to a more potent fear. There is a text, and a presence within the text, that wishes to be heard. The preacher must listen as well as speak, performing an act that is more complicated than solitary creation. The preacher's task is to create speech with One who has already spokento interpret what has already been saidso that it sings in the ear as something heard for the first time.
There are a dozen things that must go right in order for communication to occur, and not all of them are under a speaker's control. Because language is a communal act, as much depends on those who listen as on those who speak. Every word is a smoke signal sent up with great effort. The fire must be very hot. The wood must be very green. The wet blanket must be lowered and lifted at just the right moments. But none of those is any guarantee. If no one is watching the sky, you might as well be roasting marshmallows. In order for communication to occur, you need someone watching who also knows the language.
Even a knowledgeable partner is no guarantee that the message sent will be the message received. Language is porous, not solid. Every word carries its own history inside of it. A word such as charity does not mean the same thing now as it did a hundred years ago. Depending on a listener's own history with the word, the hearing of it may evoke a glow of contentment or a flush of shame. Send up a smoke signal that says "Practice Charity" and one person who sees it will go kiss her rebellious teenager while someone else will start rummaging through his closet for old clothes to give away. A third, who is perhaps most typical of our age, will have no context for responding to the word at all.
The inherent instability of language seems to be of more concern in literary circles than in homiletical ones. While the scholars of deconstructionism insist that even our best, most carefully chosen words are not sturdy enough to bear the truth, most preachers wield words such as God or faith as if they were made out of steel instead of air. It is not hard to understand why. Like the rest of us, those speakers rely on such language to pin down the flapping edges of the universe, even when it does not match up with all that we know to be true.
In the same way, we speak of "sunrise" and "sunset," although we know full well it is not the sun that moves. So why do we hang on to the old language? Because it describes how things actually look to us, or because the thought of "earthrise" and "earthset" gives us vertigo? The facts notwithstanding, it is easier to go to sleep at night believing that our perspective on the universe is the stable one. How could we sleep or speak either one if we could actually feel the velocity of our relentless slide through space?
What is at stake here is the sayability of the world. For millennia before now, human beings have written and spoken, read and heard words under the assumption that there was a reliable correlation between those words and the world they described. That assumption carried within it not only a belief in the reality of wordsthat is, in their ability to convey meaningbut also, I think, in their potential nobility. To say something well, or to hear something said well, was to reach a higher level of being (however temporarily). Why else do we have our young read Dante and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Toni Morrison, if not to expose them to words we believe will improve their lives?
And yet you know what has happened. In our lifetimes, language has taken a terrible hit. I cannot say that it has never happened before, but I do know that it is happening nowso many frontal assaults on language, on the reliability of the word that it is difficult to list them all. We may leave the complexities of deconstructionism and post- structuralism to the experts. Most of us can collect enough evidence of language in distress right where we live.
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