The Power of Images

I have a friend who lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and who hates the TV series The United States of Tara. Other people have told me how powerful that series has been in alerting them to the nature of an illness which many of us have never heard of, let alone experienced. Wikipedia begins by calling it "an extremely rare disorder," but then says it affects between 1 and 3 percent of the general population. This is not rare! On balance the series probably serves a good purpose.

But my friend is deeply offended by the series and with good reason; it glosses over the disruption of life and the pain. It seems to think that "just upping the drugs" fixes everything. (These are the words of my friend; I rarely watch TV and have not seen the series.) Other friends of the two of us found the series helpful in understanding and supporting and relating to my friend's situation.

This is the problem with language, metaphor, and drama. What may be helpful in once situation is unhelpful in another; even offensive. My Sudanese friends of refer to each other as "Nigga" in ways that I find offensive but which express camaraderie for them. There is no way I could use that word in speaking to, or about them. My friend, who called me a mad dog when I arrived at his shop yesterday in 42 degree heat, having just ridden a hundred kilometres, can do so because he is my friend and, as I reminded him a grin, because he does the same. I may take a different view if you call me a mad dog.

When I preach, I am addressing a friend with whom I am having deep discussions regarding Zen Buddhism, my Auntie who spent much of her life in a conservative church environment and knows half the good book by heart, people from Oz, India, Russia, and Brazil... and as I have learned, India of itself means nothing. It's a big country like Australia, where to call a person a dag is a compliment in some states and a serious insult in others. (Ask an Australian friend what a dag is.)

My newly arrived Canadian colleague was taken to the footy by some of the women of her congregation. She asked which team they were rooting for. She said she was told, somewhat frostily, that in Australia we barrack, and that no one would tell her what she had said wrong. Eventually she asked one of the men in the congregation, who told her it was slang for "rough and not particularly noble sex."  You can imagine that when an Englishman spent 45 minutes at a Microsoft conference talking to an Australian audience about security holes in, as he put it, "rooters," we Australians could barely restrain ourselves!

I have taken four hundred and fifty words to make the single point that language can go hilariously, or seriously, astray from its intent, let alone inflict deliberate grievous wounds, because it is the great challenge we preachers face each week. We all face this challenge in relating to each other with justice and compassion.

On the other hand... language can be immensely healing. This week I read, and quoted in my First Impressions post, the following from an Australian colleague. (Nathan Nettleton)

In the draft of a sermon title "Repenting like Jesus" (Posted on PRCL-L) he said

… think about the orientation of this new self in the new life that we now live in Jesus. Our good friend Michael Hardin points out that the Greek word for repentance is metanoia, and he argues that the linguistic opposite of metanoia is paranoia. Or in other words, the self that resists repentance turns in on itself, fearfully protecting itself from a multitude of perceived threats. But the self that has been surrendered to death in baptism into Jesus has nothing to fear and nothing to protect, since it has already died. Reborn to unquenchable life in Jesus, it is free to give itself away with extravagant openness and generosity; the same extravagant openness and generosity that so clearly characterised the life and ministry of the one who, in baptism, gave us our new selves.

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to find churches that seem to have a paranoid stance towards the world around them. They are always perceiving new enemies and new threats and talking about how their values are being threatened and eroded and how we have to fight to protect the Christian way. But we don’t seem to see any of that disposition in Jesus himself, do we? Where does he ever show signs of acting fearfully or defensively? And since everybody was out to get him, he could have easily defended paranoia on the grounds that in his situation, it was just good sense! But instead his whole life, and even his death, are characterised by the most radical openness and generosity and self-giving. 

This was a breathtaking and liberating discovery for me. As I wrote in the same post

I have a higher than average MMPI paranoia rating due to childhood abuse (not my family.) The words of Nettleton and Hardin shine in neon lights for me. True, true, true! Abiding in Jesus certainly saves me. Each time I leave metanoia aka abiding in Jesus and turn in on myself, I head back in the direction of sickness. 

I have a lifetime struggle not to be defensive and reactionary and negative. "Hyper-vigilance" someone correctly called it, but that gets nowhere near the pain it causes me, or the damage it does to me and to my relationships. Nathan's words described my situation very accurately. They were also profoundly healing and affirming in a way that I have yet to "unpack." They were words of grace.

In response to the post another colleague writes this:

My other response is to the metanoia/paranoia contrast and the pastoral implications of suggesting that repentance is somehow the remedy for paranoia. In my understanding, paranoia is a symptom of one form of a psychosis named schizophrenia. Several of my parishioners suffer from schizophrenia and it is an awful, awful disease. I think the best hope they have is to take the psychotropic drugs which work on their neurotransmitters. I think the idea of repentance as a remedy for their paranoia would be not only useless, but cruel and pastorally irresponsible. (Rev Greg Crawford)

I'm not suggesting that repentance is a healing for paranoid schizophrenia, as Greg knows. But there are pastoral implications; what I say can be heard very differently from how I intend. And churches have a long sullied history of suggesting people go off their drugs. That is "cruel and pastorally irresponsible." As I have written elsewhere

Don't listen to some jumped up priest, or counsellor, who doesn't really know what they are talking about! You would not trust your pastor to do your appendectomy; why trust them for your brain medication?

Indeed, what we say will be heard very differently from how we intend. In the situation of Greg's congregation the metanoia/paranoia contrast may not be a helpful illustration at all.

This problem exists as soon as we open our mouths! How do we manage it?

These are my guidelines— a kind of probability based risk management, if you like.

  1. Is the metaphor or illustration factually correct? The sense in which I use paranoia is a known and common usage.
  2. Does this metaphor have some basis in my experience, or am I simply repeating an anecdote?
  3. Preach humbly... "In my experience...."
  4. Never tell bitter condemnatory anecdotes about parishes or people: people will fear being the next anecdote. Sometimes the truth must be told. In that case: "I have seen this issue before... fine people... faithful Christians...  I liked them... but it sank us. How can we avoid this here...?" Even then,  we should "truthfully obfuscate" situations. Recently I wrote

There are two things which must be said here; please be clear: Fred is a real but amalgam portrait of some folk for whom I still hold a certain fondness. If you think you can identify Fred, you are wrong. And Fred has been a vehicle of grace for me. His breaking of me has been a part of my healing for life.

Part of that obfuscation is to use events from the more distant past, if we must use them.

  1. Praise and affirm people constantly. It means that people know their preacher is gentle and fair. They are less likely to feel got at.
  2. Listen to the feedback. A retired colleague said to me this week, "I know what you are trying to do here, but there are a bunch of folk who just don't get it." So I will adapt the same message to different words.
  3. Disambiguate. If I were to preach about metanoia/paranoia then I would greatly expand the adjective that Nathan uses; i.e. "the linguistic opposite of metanoia is paranoia." I would even perhaps directly say this does not mean stop taking drugs.

And in some cases, say if I have a congregant who has a history of getting "faith healed" and going off drugs and getting sick, I might judge that the image is simply irresponsible in the context of that audience.

  1. To whom am I preaching? It may be factual to outline that 1 in 3 women are affected by domestic violence and or sexual abuse. But to describe that in graphic detail, even if it is factual and well researched...? What effect does this have on the 1 in 3 women in the congregation who have this as their experience?

A Pitjantjatjara friend told me an anecdote about his congregation which was hilarious, and an enormously powerful illustration of a situation they needed to address. I would never use it here in Adelaide in a predominately white congregation, for in our context it would encourage feelings of racist superiority.

Am I preaching a story that comforts the poor and oppressed rather than validates the rich and powerful? Jesus did not tell pointed stories about poor people.

  1. How can I generalise this image to avert as far as possible having some people feel like they are being singled out, or used as an object lesson, or as an object of pity? There are lots of judgement calls here. Sometimes a good or striking image or anecdote may simply be unusable in a situation.

The temptation is not to use anecdotes and metaphors. I know a preacher who avoids conversational, metaphoric, and illustrated language. I greatly admire and like this person, but in the pulpit they become someone else; stodgy, wooden, often obtuse, even boring. But sometimes an anecdote or a story slips in, and the sermon comes alive.

We always make a judgement call. It seems to me that gentle, humble, experienced based preaching goes a long way to ameliorating our less successful judgements.

Andrew Prior 2014


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