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Too Moving?

By November 13, 2012 5 Comments

My last post two weeks ago generated more comments than anything I’ve done on The Twelve.   So today I will shift away from all things political and think about preaching, thus returning things to normal where no one will comment (!).

A week ago I attended a conference put on by Fuller Seminary (with partnership help from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and my Center for Excellence in Preaching) titled “Preaching in a Visual Age.”   As organizer Mark Labberton said, it made a lot of sense to hold this particular conference at Ecclesia Church, located as it is right on Hollywood Boulevard’s “Walk of Fame” in the old Warner Pacific Theater.  Conference speakers featured a mix of pastors, theologians, and film industry people, the latter group including Oscar-winning director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters Inc.), producer Ralph Winter, and screenwriting expert Bobette Buster.   The former group included David Taylor, Ralph Watkins, Barry Taylor, and Shane Hipps.

The conference was well done but it raised some questions I had not thought a lot about before, only one of which I want to raise here.  One of the best presentations across the three days came from Bobette Buster, whose insights on what makes for a good story were deep and rich.    I’ve long contended that good preachers are people who can tell good stories.    I have also long thought there is something akin to a 1:1 correlation between people who can never even tell a joke right (much less a story) and those who in the pulpit somehow manage almost never to catch fire in the preaching moment.   Thus, learning from Ms. Buster the ingredients in gripping narrative is properly right up every preacher’s alley.

But it was a larger point she made that gave me pause.  She pointed out that movies function best in the area of what she termed “orchestration of emotion.”  Screenwriters and directors know full well that what has to happen across the arc of a movie’s narrative is the manipulation and orchestration of the viewer’s every emotion.  

By way of example, Buster mentioned what in the industry is referred to as “The Rule of 3’s” in which a key thematic element gets visited in 3 different moments of a movie, each one deeper and more gripping than the last until the final one succeeds in bringing the viewer to exactly the emotional space intended all along.  By way of example she points to the theme (mainly visual) of the power of industrialization in Schindler’s List.   Move One showed the efficiency of Schindler’s pots-and-pans manufacturing facility–with just a few simple steps aided by wondrous machines, you make a pot to sell.   Move Two showed this same industrial-like assembly line efficiency in a far more grisly way as viewers watch the systematic sorting of all the goods looted from the Jews by the Nazis.   Shoes are on one pile, gold and silver candlesticks are shelved and catalogued, watches and wedding rings are worked on methodically by jewelers who remove the precious stones.  And then comes the final moment of Move Two when those same jewelers are asked to remove the gold from . . . piles and piles of human teeth poured out before them.   Finally at the end of the film Move Three comes as the Jews saved by Oskar Schindler methodically manufacture for him a golden ring by which the Jews wish to thank their savior and by which he will remember them.   And yes, by this point in even Ms. Buster’s presentation summary of all this, most of us at the conference were wiping our eyes.

That’s how it works in movies, and many preacher colleagues believe firmly that not only can we preachers learn much from all this but that because they work so well in precisely these ways, the more film clips we can weave into worship and preaching the better.  And to all that I say at this point: Perhaps.   And then again, perhaps not (or at least let me offer a “Not so fast”).

My caution stems from the fact that there is a longstanding tradition in spoken rhetoric (going back to Aristotle but appropriated by also many in the church) that warns against the excesses of emotional manipulation.   There is a definite “ethics” to communication–what my friend Quentin Schultze in more recent times has framed as a kind of “servant ethic” for public speakers–and a hallmark of that ethic is that the speaker–and most certainly the preacher in making a Gospel appeal–must be careful in how he or she handles the raw emotions of those listening.    Maybe even the Apostle Paul had something like this in mind in 2 Corinthians when he contrasted his way of Gospel preaching with the clever bells and whistles of the super-apostles.

I raise this not because I have answers yet.  I don’t.  I need more time to think.  And I raise it not because I fail to realize there is an utterly necessary emotional element in all preaching.  Of course!    The last thing preaching should do is aim at only the head and never the heart!   But how do we get to people’s hearts?   What is it that (pace Wesley) strangely warms those hearts?   Is it the sheer beauty of grace that always comes through when the Gospel is proclaimed or can we take a short-cut to that and orchestrate emotions the way Spielberg does? 

And while I am raising questions that will require more blogs in the future to sort out: if we should determine that there is something about movies that inherently makes them use this orchestration of emotion, could that be yet another signal to preachers to use caution in the over-use of film clips in worship and especially as part of a sermon?  Will the “orchestration of emotion” tail of the movies wag the whole sermonic dog eventually?

The PVA conference in Hollywood raised many vital questions.    Thankfully, we have more time to continue the conversation as a smaller, condensed version of this very event will be held in January at our next Symposium on Worship at Calvin College and Seminary.  Also, the folks at CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) will hold a capper event on these very topics in Chicago in June.   So let’s keep talking and thinking.    The “Visual Age” part of this conference’s title is undeniable and it is here to stay.   Thankfully, so is the “Preaching” part.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Scott – Just so someone comments – how's this for a piece of trivia? When my older brother was in junior high school he saw the Beatles in concert at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. His date for that memorable event – none other than your conference presenter Bobette Buster. Now that's a story.

  • Greg Scheer says:

    While I'm sympathetic to your caution against manipulation and don't think preachers need to pattern themselves after Hollywood, I feel like you're unnaturally splitting the mind from the heart.

    Why does it seem like a foregone conclusion that a sermon should change minds, but we get uneasy at the idea of the sermon moving the emotions? (You'd never see a blog post entitled, "Too Thoughtful?" in Reformed circles!) After all, you can manipulate peoples minds as well as their hearts.

    It seems to me that the Gospel needs to work its way deep into the "gut." Preachers and worship leaders need to fully engage the mind, heart, and even the body to help this process. If there's an emotional arc to a sermon, that's great. It's another way to engage the people in loving and serving God with their whole being.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    @Greg: As I indicated in the post, I ardently believe in preaching that touches people's real lives and hearts and emotions. If a student wants a low grade on a sermon, all he or she has to do is preach a sermon that is like a lecture but that did not address real people in the context of their real lives, replete with all the real fears, hurts, and sorrows they carry with them into church every Sunday. The question is how does the preacher do that–how does the Spirit do that through the preacher? Appeal to emotions and acknowledgment of feelings is something a preacher should do. It is the prospect of emotional manipulation–through over-sentimentalizing perhaps or being overly dramatic or through being somehow and exploiter of a situation or an emotion–that gives me pause. As a musician, you can tell, I suspect, the difference between songs that appeal to people on account of being sappy or over-romanticized and those that more appropriately move the heart and soul without reverting to the swoony or the syrupy. That's the kind of issue I'd like to ponder, especially where movies are concerned and where they might tempt preachers in this regard. Thanks for the reply!!

  • Peter Jonker says:

    You read my ThM thesis so you know that this is obviously something that I'm interested in, and I think there are a couple of observations that should be made:
    1. Ideas can be just as manipulative and cheesy. Glib theology ('God doesn't make junk,' 'this suffering is for your salvation,' 'you can't out-give God!' 'Life is short; handle with prayer') causes as much trouble as overly sentimental imagery.
    2. Avoiding sentimentality in ideas and in images requires the same discipline: honesty to the depths of life's troubles and honesty to the exegetical nuances of the Biblical text. If you are going to use a controlling, rule of 3 image in a sermon, that image ought to be closely alligned with the Biblical theme of that text. I always get misty when I read the end of Beuchner's "The Magnificent Defeat" and I think Beuchner KNOWS his readers will get misty reading it. But that's OK. The image of Christ limping out of the tomb framed by the rising sun of Easter morning is so closely matched to the image of Jacob limping across the river as the sun rises over the ford of the Jabbok, any emotion we feel is good and honest.
    3. I think we preachers shouldn't aim at the emotions with our preaching imagery. We don't start out by saying, "Hmm. I'd really like to make people cry here." We aim at the imagination. We set out saying, "I really want people to have a vivid and memorable picture of what the gospel looks like." Naturally, when we do a good job of painting the picture there will be an emotional reaction, but we should never begin with an attempt to hit the emotions.

    My 2 cents. well maybe 3 cents.
    I wish I'd been at that conference.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    @Peter: To your every point I say "Of course!" That's why I noted that the worry about emotional manipulation goes back to Aristotle and was pondered by folks like Augustine as well (and as you recall, the quality of the movies in Augustine's day was very poor!). My concern is not that you need movies to make you an undue orchestrator of emotions in ways that might be unethical but rather that the perennial temptation to do that is aided and abetted by movies (maybe) in ways preachers are not aware of due to their too-quick adapting to cinematic technique and flat out use of movie clips in preaching. But I well resonate with what you say here and agree on letting the biblical text itself inform the dramatic, lyric, and emotional content of the sermon. Too many preachers think the Bible itself is boring and has no drama in it (certainly it seems so vis-a-vis the movies, and by the way, one speaker in Hollywood last week said precisely that in a public forum) but that just ain't so!

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