Faithful Preaching: There Is No App for That

Recently, my good friend and mentor Judy Rois, director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada, gave a talk at a Trinity College Learning Day about how Steve Jobs could help our understanding of preaching.

As I recall it, Rois feels that Jobs was a superb communicator, who could create vivid images in peoples’ minds with just a few words. Jobs was not just about the products he sold–he wanted them to be beautiful, and to enable human relationships. He also gave gripping and even dramatic presentations that stirred his hearers and viewers, practicing for hours to “get it right.” Religion at its best, for Jobs, is about experience, rather than forcing conformity to dogma or tradition. People crave connection and usefulness and beauty, and that’s what Apple has tried to foster over the years.

Preachers can take some cues from Jobs, says Rois. We need relevant, memorable ways of “hooking” people into the Biblical story. Preachers should consciously try to craft and practice beauty in their sermons, and facilitate for their listeners the opportunity to encounter, to experience, the living God.

We know that Jobs’ techniques work, she says, because Apple or Mac users are convinced of the superiority of the product; they often become, in a sense, “Apple evangelists.”

That phrase rankled me, and I tried to ask a question to help Judy understand my discomfort. Unfortunately, thinking on the fly, Judy understood my question as something like: “Shame on you…why haven’t you been talking about counter-cultural preaching?” She came up to me afterwards, very graciously, for a discussion, and told me that she felt accused. I want to apologize to Judy for misunderstanding her intent during her talk, and for any continuing misunderstanding now. When I realised how she felt, we were able to talk about the question I was really trying to ask, which goes something like this:

It is clear that Jobs is indeed an effective communicator, and Christians should feel no shame in incorporating ‘best practices’ from anywhere in any aspect of human endeavour, as long as these practices serve the Gospel. But it’s also clear that the story that Jobs is trying to tell is not fully compatible with the Goepel, because he has created a critical mass of passionate consumers–including many Christians who will spend more time talking to others about Apple than they will matters touching directly on the Good News of Christ. Can you give some advice about how to appropriate Steve Jobs’ techniques without accidentally smuggling in a consumerist story?

Feminist analysis might put it this way: “Can you build a just society for women and men using the same strategies that construct and sustain patriarchal systems?”

I don’t know what the answer is, but I want to be cautious. It seems to me that Jobs’ sense of what religion is supposed to do for people was not fully consistent with the Christian story. Let me put it like this. In today’s Church, there is a legitimate awareness of how much experience (which is always a combination of reason, tradition and Biblical reflection, for Christians) and our interpretive filters influence how we approach thinking and doing the faith. But I think there is an unwise tendency to decide that doctrine and dogma are merely dead letters that no longer speak to our experience. The doctrine of the Nicene Creed, it is claimed by some voices, is inherently oppressive to any number of people, and meaningless or absurd to many more.l

Despite the evidently political and politicized nature of how we came to have the Creeds, I still think the negative view of doctrine that favours allegedly dogma-less experience is a poor reading. Healthy and life-giving doctrines are rooted in the story of Scripture and arise because Christians have a living communal encounter with Jesus of Nazareth that needs to be spoken about as accurately and truthfully as possible within the beautiful inadequacies of human language. Nicene orthodoxy, with its few core agreements or assertions, has resulted in an explosively beautiful flourishing of Christian thought and life in most communities throughout history. This is similar to how a good hypothesis becomes a theory in the sciences, with thousands of pieces of data that fosters understanding of huge swathes of reality across multiple disciplines. Orthodoxy, “right worship,” is not a matter of going through mental gymnastics to affirm sentences on an ancient papyrus–it is a map that Christian communities use to help them navigate faithfully the storms of life for love of the Creator who became a human being to restore us to Godself. Nicene orthodoxy, precisely because it is telling the truth as well as the Church can for most of its history, is the matrix in which our experiences of God are most likely to continue to proclaim the story of Jesus to a world that needs to hear it.

Steve Jobs’ anti-dogmatic view of religion, though it would allow discussion, debate, and respectful disagreement, would not really give any coherent shape to experience, would not really be in a place to tell true stories at all. Yes, human relationships are important. Yes, beauty is a gateway into God’s presence. Yes, vivid and persuasive communication practices cannot but help the Church’s proclamation. But as amazing as Steve Jobs is, I don’t trust him as a preacher, because I don’t want to tell the story of Apple. And I’m not sure if his techniques–effective though they were–can be faithfully extracted from the consumerist story that made him so rich and famous.

FAITHFUL PREACHING: There is no app for that.

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