Richard Mouw: Who knows him better?

Preaching at TEDS, Dr. Richard Mouw gives an illuminating illustration warning about the dangers of pietism. He recounts a oft repeated illustration about knowing Abraham Lincoln. I’ve reproduced it as he gave it below.

Imagine a professor at Harvard University who knows everything there is to know from the public record about the life and career of Abraham Lincoln. This guy can tell you about how Lincoln coming out a life of poverty taught himself, how he got into Illinois politics and eventually into national, as President of the United States. He can tell you the details of the debates that Lincoln had with Douglass. He could tell you about what Lincoln was thinking about in the third week of his presidency. He could tell you in detail the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking about the institution of slavery. He can even tell you what went into Lincoln’s decision to purchase Alaska. He could tell you everything there is to know from the public record about the life and career of Abraham Lincoln.

Now imagine a little girl who lived next door to Mr. Lincoln. Unlike that scholar who teaches today at Harvard University—that scholar did not know Lincoln personally—she did know him personally. Mr. Lincoln would come out in the morning and there would be a horse drawn carriage waiting to take him off to his important duties. But he would tell the driver to hold it. He would see the little girl playing in the yard next door. And he would go over and would talk to her, whisper in her ear, tell her a story, sing a song, play a game, give her a hug… She knew nothing about the purchase of Alaska. She couldn’t tell you anything about the institution of slavery. She could not offer anything like a definition of the difference between the legislative and executive branches of government, but she knew Mr. Lincoln, as a living, breathing, warm human being. 

Who knows Lincoln better? The scholar who knows all the facts about him, but has never met him personally? Or the little girl who may not know any of the facts about him but she knows him as a living, breathing, warm human being?

But Mouw goes on to emphasize that this is a form of pietism that stresses intensive knowing (closer and closer, warmer and warmer) versus extensive knowing. He illustrates the danger of this approach by giving the illustration again slightly altered.

Imagine a journalist, a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who knows everything that there is to know about a leading mob figure in the city of Chicago. This guy can tell you how this guy started off selling marijana in some local neighborhood, then went into the distribution of pinball machines. From there he went on to accepting protection money from local business in a certain precinct in Chicago. And finally, he got to the point where he was the mobster of the whole mob organization in the Chicago area. This reporter knows everything that there is to know from the public record about this mob leader, but he never met him.

And now imagine a little girl who lives next door to the mobster. And every morning he comes out and there is a stretch limo waiting to take him off on his nefarious, wicked business of the day, but he tells the driver to wait and he goes over to talk to the little girl, plays a game, tells her a story, whispers in her ear, tells her a joke, gives her a hug. She doesn’t know anything about organized crime. She’s never even seen an episode of the Sopranos. She knows nothing about the extent of the reach of organized crime in the state of Illinois. But she knows that mobster as a living, breathing, warm human being.

And I ask you, who knows that mob leader better? The journalist who knows all the facts about him, but has never met him personally? Or the little girl who doesn’t know any of the facts about him, but knows him as a living, breathing, warm human being?

Interpersonal knowing is obviously a complicated affair. It’s a good illustration and even a reminder that we may not really know the people whom we think we know.

Thoughts on Preaching and Relevance

Nearly every preacher makes it a priority to make his sermon “relevant” to his audience. The difficulty with this aim is that it often assumes that “relevant” and “interesting” are synonymous. In other words, a sermon must be relevant in the sense that it must capture the audience’s attention and imagination, leaving them with a concrete take away for practical living.

I have two serious criticisms of this approach. First, that something is “interesting” has as much to do with the character of the receiver as to do with the qualities of that thing. The job of a teacher, for example, is not only to pass on a body of “information” to his hearers, but also to persuade the hearer to see this bit of cultural tradition as vital both to self-understanding and to a broader understanding of the world. The teacher is working on the affections of the students, seeking to bring about interest in important areas that our tradition has always though ought to hold our interest because of their tremendous value in culture making. When my students say that the material is “boring” I hear the following: 

“I am unable to connect this material with any part of my regular patterns of thought in any way which I perceive to be interesting. In other words, it just might be the case that this material is so far above my understanding that I don’t even have a conceptual grasp about what it might be saying. Or I might be saying, that I am unable to connect this material with any real basis from which I make decisions, either due to inexperience or ineptitude in my decision making faculties.”

I understand the very fact that they find it “boring” is owing largely to a deficiency on their part. Now, granted, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to find ways to convince the students of this. But it is also incumbent upon students to deny their intellectual vice, which is the cause of their finding the world boring. They have a responsibility to be amateurs (French for “lovers”) in a radically interesting world.

Second, this approach assumes that “practical take-aways” are the most necessary part of change. Important to my critique of the discussion above is that an significant problem with American culture is that it finds really crucial things boring and really insignificant things exciting. How does one correct this with five steps? While personal and very practical changes are a part of what makes something “interesting,” this is only part of a larger pedagogical aim, to give the student (or congregant) ordered affections which flow from a proper understanding of the world and result in proper behavior. To skip to behavior is to truncate personal formation and to create mindless congregants. This is very far from Paul’s aim in Romans 12:1-2 where he sought to renew minds. The doctrine, for Paul, led to a proper assessment of self, others, and the world, which, in turn, led to proper activity in the world.

Quotable: Kant

Rhetoric, so far as this is taken to mean the art of persuasion, i.e. the art of deluding by means of such beautiful semblance (as ars oratoria), and not merely excellence of speech (eloquence and style), is a dialect, which borrows from poetry only so much as is necessary to win over people’s minds to the side of the speaker before they have weighed the matter, and to rob their verdict of its freedom. Hence, it can be recommended neither for the bar nor the pulpit.

Kant, Critique of Judgement, 155