Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Grief Service

She's fourteen. Earlier that day, I had encouraged her to lie on the ground and have her friend crack an egg into her gaping mouth. It was hilarious. Now she bounced up toward me towing her pal with her.

"Are you gonna do that grief service again tonight?" she asked almost nonchalantly.

"Grief service?" I was genuinely stumped.

"Yeah! Like you did last year at camp. You know the one where you like made everybody cry. Well I totally cried. And yeah I could really use a good cry tonight."

What was I supposed to say to that? No idea how to respond. The request is such an affront to all my sensibilities. Here is a junior high kid putting in a request for the evening chapel. She wants my 'speech' to make her cry. I was annoyed. I was baffled. Surprised.

A few mono-syllabic words blurted out in an attempt to 'throw her off the scent' and I made a speedy get away. But I have not been able to escape that haunting conversation since I first had it two weeks ago. It has been years now that I have wrestled with the device we commonly refer to as preaching. I have wondered about its effectiveness. Week after week, a man (usually) in dress clothes (usually) stands up in front of a bunch of people and presents a speech that he has prepared 'under the influence' of the Almighty. You would think that such an occasion would be highly transformative for those people who willingly and yes sometimes eagerly wait on the words coming from the pulpit. But the transformative power of those speeches is exactly what is so hard to gauge. And this is where my scepticism gets the better of me. Because although, as I am sure that teenage girl could attest to, can give opportunity for people to make various (even highly emotional) responses to spiritually related questions, it is really difficult to say whether the 'decision' made follows with any sort of significant change.

Perhaps that is not the intention of these 'speeches'. Maybe these talks are intended to do something else. Maybe they are meant to make the listeners feel good or better. That makes sense to me – at least somewhat. As a tool to create an emotional atmosphere, there is much effectiveness in preaching. In much the same way that listening to music, or seeing a piece of art creates a particular atmosphere and a certain emotional response. Preaching as an art form makes a fair bit of sense. It would explain the gravitational pull toward 'good' preachers. Oratory skills are still seemingly one of the most important tools in a pastor's belt. And if the result of preaching is to create an emotional response maybe we should not get so upset about the fear that preachers might be manipulating the emotions of the people they are talking to. After all that emotional manipulation may in the end amount to very little in terms of actual behavioural change. And we should not get too worried then if what is said isn't entirely accurate (in the same way that a Jackson Pollack isn't entirely accurate).

Creating emotional responses in the listeners is easy to do. Tell an appropriately convincing tale of loss or pain and people will identify. Craft your story telling to match your pitch and intensity to the corresponding emotional intensity and they will feel what you are saying. Craft your words to include some carefully chosen ways that your audience can identify your story with their own and pretty soon you can make them feel almost anything you like. Mood created – mission accomplished.

The problem is that preaching purports to be a lot more than just a glorified spiritual lava lamp. It usually claims to have some bead on the truth. It more often than not claims to be revelatory. And it is usually fairly precise on the behavioural modifications that are needed to comply with the content that is presented. That is where the whole manipulation question emerges. Are we using emotional manipulation to illicit a particular response? Are we causing people to feel certain emotions that are intended to lead them to certain conclusions? What about children/youth whose emotional control is far less precise than an adult's? Is it fair to do this sort of thing to them? Personally, I can't help feeling guilty about it each time. And here is the thing – kids go to camp listen to the speaker make decisions to change and then struggle to follow through. I don't care what kind of excellent follow up program you have – kids ability to meet the expectations of the decisions they make at a retreat or camp invariably fall short. Then you begin to wonder if these emotional pleas actually set kids up for failure instead of success because they prime the kids to crave the emotional triggers and leave them with little in the way of actual change. The faith journey then becomes this convoluted series of emotional decisions lived out in guilty failure only to be quenched in the next emotional experience. That kind of a cyclic pattern is typical (Neuroscience 2600 - Ian Whishaw) is more commonly known as an addiction.

It all feels shallow, hollow and small. Small in the same way a much anticipated and overly advertised product turns out to completely underwhelm the expectations. And the girl's request leaves me shuddering that I might actually have been or still am the purveyor of such a thing. And I can't find relief from it. But then maybe I am over-dramatising this whole thing. Do you need a tissue? There are people standing by…

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