We Would See Jesus, not You

[1] People who do not realize that their choices reveal their character think they have a choice as to whether or not to be self-disclosing. They don’t. Character is revealed by choice; as Aristotle says in his Poetics, we reveal ourselves in every choice we make from what we say, what we choose to wear, and how we deliver our sermons. We know a lot about a person on our first impression. Although we are told we shouldn’t judge people by their appearances, Oscar Wilde made mincemeat of this belief in his aphorism “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

[2] People who think they have to tell us about themselves, or they have to hear something revealing from a person to know them, by Wilde’s insight, must be shallow. If you don’t know a lot about me from my visible choices, my deliberate self-disclosure is not going to help you much. Sermons reveal who the speaker is, and their attitudes toward themselves, their message, and their congregation no matter how secretive or “honest” they choose to be with their congregation.

[3] That said, we are in an age of relentless self-disclosure, one in which everything is at the surface. This is after all the YouTube era, when people put pictures of themselves doing the most shocking things on the World Wide Web, without seeming to realize that with the prurient gaze of strangers comes the inevitable judgment. Still Wilde’s aphorism holds-when we see the appalling things people do in public, we are baffled.

[4] So how much self-disclosure should there be in the pulpit? Actually I would prefer to hear about Jesus. It is possible that Jesus has done something in the preacher’s life that could be edifying. I justdon’t want to hear much about how Jesus helped the preacher beat his addiction to pornography. I want to think about Jesus working in anyone’s life, without hearing about the salacious sins of my preacher. The effectiveness of self-disclosure really depends on how good the preacher is as a story teller. While you can’t control all that people are finding out about you, a good story teller is aware of how to create the persona of the narrator and can edit the information that the congregation is receiving in the so-called self-disclosure to create a certain picture or effect. Most of us, however, are not such gifted story tellers. I’ve heard preachers telling stories to the congregation by which they obviously think they are showing the congregation a picture of themselves as very sensitive or open. What is embarrassing is how much their intentions are at odds with what they are conveying implicitly. After one such self-disclosure about an experience the preacher had had in his bedroom, (Perish the thought! As Victorian damsels exclaimed!) one of my older wiser friends shook her head and commented, “Doesn’t that give you a real picture about how awful it would be to be married to him!” His misunderstanding of his own story made him seem all the more tiresome and insensitive.

[5] I have heard people say after a sermon that they liked something I said because I shared some of myself in the sermon. And it moved them. This attitude feels as though it is from someone who has to be told explicitly a great deal, and who is stunned to realize this information is quite apparent from the get go. Truth be told, however, in this age of explicit everything, there are more and more people in the congregation who don’t comprehend very much that is not explicitly told them. Otherwise they think they don’t know you.

[6] It’s a creedal mantra of the baby boomer set. My sister, who studies the generation closely for the purposes of predicting what their needs for housing, etc., will be, told about a panel discussion of baby boomers and their experience of aging when they began turning forty. The panel consisted of nearly famous people, sisters of pop stars, for example. As they told their own stories, amplifying on them with loving care, the audience started tramping out. Soon only a few were left as the speakers went on and on about themselves, a most delicious subject to each of them, but not to anyone else. I imagine most of those who tramped out would have been perfectly happy and equally long-winded if they themselveshad been talking.

[7] One of the real reasons to be very wary of one’s self-disclosure is that it simply feeds our own sense of self-importance. Oscar Wilde once again: “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” We are always more interesting to ourselves than we are to others, unless we are Madonna, whose narcissism is epic. A celebrity culture is interested in celebrities, not simple people like us, sad to say.

[8] This is basic Original Sin 101-we are hopelessly curved in upon ourselves. So we may talk about the self with great interest and bore our listeners to death. Think of the interest with which you tell your own stories of genealogical research, and the boredom with which you hear similar stories from someone else. A wise mother once told a friend of mine that the sad truth is no one is very interested in you!

[9] It’s something to remember the next time you are pondering whether or not to take a “risk” and tell something about yourself in a sermon. It may be telling far more than you know and, often, not what you intend. Do it only if it drives Christ-and here’s where you will need the good judgment of a friend or spouse. If they think it works, use it, but, here’s a little rhetorical tip-avoid overmuch use of the first personal pronoun. First person compulsive seems to be the tense and mood of choice these days-in post-modernism everything is referenced through me. It’s unattractive, but it does reveal something of that life-long romance Wilde spoke about. We would see Jesus, not you.

Gracia Grindal

Gracia Grindal is Professor of Rhetoric at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.