Tuesday, December 28, 2010


     It is as though we are singing to each other all day long.
        ~ The poet Robert Pinsky, describing the musicality of everyday speech.

The topic of our annual synodical pastors conference (yawwwn… c’mon, stay with me) a few years ago was The New Technology for Preaching. (It had a snappier title, but that was the gist.) The keynote presentation was on how to bring verve to our preaching – and reach out to a tech-savvy generation – by the use of media such as PowerPoint and video clips.

To demonstrate, our presenter showed a clip from the movie, “Contact.” The scene is Jodi Foster, as an earnest young scientist, delivering a heartfelt address to a government panel. It did have a certain spiritual appeal (if that’s what a friend sitting next to me meant when he sighed, “God, she’s beautiful!”), but midway through the demonstration it occurred to me: We’re being encouraged to use video by being shown a video of someone giving a really good speech! I came away from the presentation confirmed in my preference for a straightforward capable speaker over more creative styles of communication.

I’m attracted to the use of PowerPoint in teaching – a kind of updated blackboard – but my experience witnessing its use in preaching has been either seeing it as a background distraction, or hearing the preacher reading to me, badly, what I can read for myself on the screen. (I’m not talking about you, my good friends, who use it with creativity and dexterity to supplement your well-thought-out presentation.) Anyway, give me a talking head – with something to say.

I certainly like a good drama, but I am drawn more and more to television programs which feature something like straight human speech. My favorites are C-Span’s “In-Depth,” and “After Words,” one- or two-hour interviews with an author or historian which probe the writer’s interests, ideas, latest works, and approach to writing. As conducted by Brian Lamb or one of his capable colleagues, these have the feel of a fireside chat. (Here’s a recent “In Depth” with Salman Rushdie.)

Boring? Talking heads can also be compellingly dramatic, as in HBO’s remarkable “In Treatment,” in which the passionately laconic Gabriel Byrne, as a therapist, brings me to the edge of my seat even though it’s only – in this case – two talking heads.

The junior psychologist in me posits that an essential part of our humanness (and our humanity and our humane-ness) is the need for the interaction of communication – for conversation. I respond to you, literally get to know you, by taking your words into my brain receptors, roll them around, and “get back to you.” (Thus also discovering more of who I am and what makes us both human.) Perhaps this is the appeal of a good speech, or a thoughtful interview. An idea-driven speech, lecture (or, yes, sermon), although it is a monologue, is actually a kind of dialogue – at least with the mind of the listener. And an interview or a dialogue has a sense of fulfillment to it similar to the resolution that drives a musical line to completion.

I read of a study that was conducted on why the overheard cell-phone conversation is so irritating. The researcher referred to a scenario in an airport waiting lounge, where passengers are sitting in those back-to-back lines of chairs, and the emotional difference between overhearing a conversation between two people sitting behind you, or overhearing a one-sided cell phone conversation. The study concluded that the cause of the irritation is the one-sidedness – you don’t get to hear (or be a part of) the other side, thus, you don’t experience the sense of completion. You’re left hanging. (You only think you’re irritated because the jerk is talking so loud!) In the experience of hearing a good lecture, you are the other side.

One of the reasons that radio keeps plugging along, a seeming techno-dinosaur in an age of ever-new modes of communication, is that someone is talking to you. The bad ones -- the ranters and canned dj presentations -- are almost as irritating as that one-sided cell conversation. But the good ones are connecting. I like Pandora, and I have set up many classical “stations,” but I much prefer to hear my music introduced to me by the wonderful live announcers of Minnesota Public Radio. They are speaking to me man-to-man (so to speak). Somewhere across the ether is a talking head with something to say.


Here's the Jody Foster Contact clip that we were shown.

And for some real fun, how about a good academic lecture series!

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