Easy Chair — From the November 2017 issue

Preaching to The Choir

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Once, on a river-rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, I traveled with a charming, good-humored man who happened to run an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. He liked to rail against Nancy Pelosi, who had recently become the Speaker of the House. One day I told him that I, too, disliked Pelosi, because she was well to my right on many issues. The man was staggered; he’d imagined that she defined the leftmost rim of the universe, beyond which nothing existed.

When the oilman was on land he lived in Colorado Springs; I’m a San Franciscan. Geography alone made us exotic species to each other. And the river trip came during a period in 2009 when I frequently found myself telling strangers, in frustration, that people in my hometown could be as closed-minded as any right-wing community. We were all living in our respective bubbles, preaching to our respective choirs; I was looking for more substantive exchange. Yet what transpired in my conversations on the raft was not, in the end, especially illuminating. I enjoyed the oilman’s Texas vernacular, and we found common ground in our appreciation for buttermilk biscuits, but neither of us changed the other’s mind about the fossil fuel industry, and neither tried to, which may be why the encounter seems so pleasant in recollection.

The phrase preaching to the choir properly means hectoring your listeners with arguments they already agree with, and it’s a common sin of radicals, the tendency to denounce others as a way of announcing one’s own virtue. But it can be applied too widely, to malign conversation between people whose beliefs happen to coincide. The phrase implies that political work should be primarily evangelical, even missionary, that the task is to go out and convert the heathens, that talking to those with whom we agree achieves nothing. But only the most patient and skillful among us can alter the views of those who disagree profoundly. And is there no purpose in getting preached to, in gathering with your compatriots? Why else do we go to church but to sing, to pray a little, to ease our souls, to see our friends, and to hear the sermon?

I asked Katya Lysander, who sings ancient and modern Eastern European music with a Chicago choral group, what she thought of the phrase. She pointed out that there are in fact four audiences in a church service — the congregation, the choir, the preacher, and God. A priest preaching directly to the choir would be facing the wrong way, away from the congregation, as the choir is usually behind or on either side of the pulpit. And, as Lysander might have added, the preacher also listens to the choir, to her bishops, her colleagues, her congregation. And then everyone catches up on the church steps after the service. The ecclesiastical conversation, that is to say, consists of a series of exchanges among people in many different roles.

What’s more, to suggest that you shouldn’t preach to the choir is to misunderstand the nature of preaching. Conversion or the transmission of new information is not the primary aim; the preacher has other work to do. Classically, the sermon is a kind of literary criticism that regards the key sacred texts and their meanings as inexhaustible. Adults, like children, love hearing the great stories more than once, and most religions have prayers and narratives, hymns and songs that are seen as wells of meaning that never run dry. You can go lay down your sword and shield by the riverside one more time; there are always more ways to say how once you were blind and now can see.

Karen Haygood Stokes, a minister in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who formerly belonged to the San Francisco Symphony Choir, explained to me that her aim is not so much to persuade people to believe as it is to encourage them to inquire into existing beliefs. “My task as a preacher is to find the places of agreement and then move someplace from there. Not to change anybody’s mind, but to deepen an understanding.” The common ground among her parishioners is not the destination; it’s the starting point: “Have we thought critically about why we agree?” It’s a call to go deeper, to question yourself.

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