Tuesday, November 08, 2005

this american life

Last weekend I heard Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, speak at the Blumenthal Center in Charlotte. This American Life is a public radio program heard by approximately 1.6 million people each week. The content of the program is the personal story, or narrative. Their research tells them that the average person listens to This American Life for 48 minutes, which is pretty amazing. We are sometimes taught that people will not listen to the spoken word, or not for very long. Over 1000 people were present at the Blumenthal. My friend, Henry, who supervises volunteers at the Blumenthal, told me that it was a significantly younger crowd than they see at the opera or the symphony.

Ira Glass spoke about a number of things: the need for narrative, or action, and then for a moment of reflection on that narrative; the importance of surprise; the benefit of those telling the story enjoying themselves. He commented that we are bombarded with stories: ads, songs, news items, the internet, emails. And yet he made the case for a story that is longer than usual, where a person can get into the reality of what is happening. He urged us to move beyond the topic sentence. Politician a says this, here are the reasons why this is good, politician b says this, here are the reasons why this is bad, etc.

Most stories, he argued, have the feel of a cartoon: not very deep, not very long, not very thought-provoking or involving. He is interested in telling stories that draw the listener in. He also spoke about the need for humor, especially in bad situations, and noted that most of us can recall humor in just these times (a family funeral, for example).

I wanted to hear Ira Glass because I enjoy This American Life, and I have also found it to be important to hear really great communicators, to listen to what they are doing, to try to learn something from them. This American Life has three stories (or acts) in each episode, and the cumulative effect is that in listening to them, something emerges. A good sermon might be similar, and a good sermon at Advent/Christmas might be so as well. People will be bombarded with stories, and the further difficulty is that they think they have heard this story before, and they know it. I love Tom Long’s analogy of preaching during Advent as giving the pre-flight instructions to a bunch of people who have heard it before.

I also thought about Glass in terms of a topic a small group of pastors are meeting around, preaching and resistance. How do we preach about peace in a time of war, or war when liturgically we are lighting the candle of peace? How do we preach about hope in a time of floods, or how do we light the candle of hope when so many have so little hope. How do we bring these narratives into our sermons in ways that go beyond a “topic sentence”, which then leads to arguments pro and con, and the crossfire in which we are stuck?

This is our challenge and opportunity during Advent and Christmas, as preachers of good news. The good news of the birth of Jesus did come onto the scene as surprise. There is humor in it, if we dig deeply enough. There is narrative action (after all, we reenact it every year). Maybe our folks won’t listen for 48 minutes (!) but they will be there, with us, this season.


Blogger jason said...

i enjoy this american life very much as well - i think a part of humanity that is accessible for almost every person is presented on that show, through narrative, in a way that we may not see elsewhere

i wish the church could do a better job in presenting this "human" side in testimony and everything else we do- myself included

another thing about the show is how powerful the music is at capturing the spirit of what is being said at the time - my four year old daughter loves music and she knows when something "bad" is going to happen in her cartoons and movies based on the music - maybe pastors need to have "mood" music playing in the background as they speak - maybe take a lesson from this american life

10:40 AM  
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Blogger John said...

I can't remember the last time that I listened to This American Life. A pity. Glass is an outstanding storyteller.

11:09 AM  

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