Writings by Cole Huffman

Make Mine A Double

According to a 2012 Psychology Today article, public speaking is atop the list of people’s greatest fears. During my son’s college orientation this past summer, a university official made a core curriculum presentation. Groans throughout the auditorium when she explained not the math requirement but speech.

I note public speaking stories in my readings. Some stories are funny, like the one David Sheff recounts in Beautiful Boy about the guy rushing out his door to make a presentation. He mistakenly popped a Viagra instead of a beta-blocker, and it kicked in just before he stood to speak, without a podium. Some stories are pretentious, like the one Jon Ronson tells in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: A nineteenth century French doctor Gustave LeBon hosted grand luncheons in Paris for prominent people. Seated at the head of the table, LeBon kept a small bell beside him to ring relentlessly if someone said something he disagreed with. Some stories are cruel, like the eighteenth century English duke who amused himself by inviting people with speech impediments to a dinner, then introducing largish discussion questions (via Joseph Epstein, A Line Out for a Walk). And some public speaking stories I can relate to, alas. Didn’t I just read in the most recent Christian History magazine that Martin Luther went on strike from his pulpit in 1530? For all his admonitions and instructions, Luther felt his congregation remained godless. “It annoys me to keep preaching to you,” he told them.

The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. Paul wrote that to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:20), people who lived in a city that played host biennially to the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympiads in Rome. But the competitions in Corinth included public speaking and poetry readings. In ancient Greco-Roman civilization orators were stars on par with today’s athletes. Talk was power.

Not much has changed. Take the blowhardery of a modern-day Pharaoh Neco, “King of Bombast” Jeremiah called him (Jer. 46:17), whom I picture in a Make Egypt Great Again headdress. And what of talk radio colonizing resentment settlements? I turn the dial and hear Sting singing “they all look like game show hosts to me.” Fleecing their audiences to award themselves the prizes. Too many in the church of Jesus confuse kingdom power and political power and so, in ethicist Russell Moore’s words in Onward, “we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts and serially-monogamous casino magnates and prosperity-gospel preachers are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do to the gospel.”

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre tallies up the damages in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies:

“The generation of students coming through high schools and universities now expect to be lied to. They know about ‘spin’ and the profiteering agendas of corporate advertising. They have grown used to the flippant, incessantly ironic banter that passes for conversation and avoid positive claims by verbal backpedaling: ‘like’ before every clause that might threaten to make a distinction one might argue with, and ‘whatever’ after approximations that never reach solid declarative ground. They also recognize, because these corruptions have been so pervasive in their short lifetimes, how much political discourse consists of ad hominem argument, accusation, smear campaigns, hyperbole, broken promises, distortions, and lies. If they’re reading many of the mainstream news magazines and papers or watching network television, they are receiving a daily diet of euphemisms, overgeneralizations, and evasions that pass for political and cultural analysis.”

And spiritual analysis too. How much of our kingdom talk from pulpits is lying? Or just a blithe blathering on, like a college professor my dad remembers who always lectured with his eyes closed.

What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch! (Mark 13:37). Kingdom power is more like the professor who kept a tennis ball on his lectern. “Don’t go to sleep on me in this class,” he said, eyeing us like Clint Eastwood.

I don’t expect anyone to recognize the name William McCulloch. He was one of the right reverends of Cambuslang, Scotland, in the mid-eighteenth century, a man to whom God entrusted a rare phenomenon—a church visit from the Holy Spirit Himself (a.k.a. revival). McCulloch wasn’t a dazzling speaker. He was known as the “Ale Minister” around town because when he rose to speak many left to quench their thirst in the pub. But McCulloch was earnest in prayer and his preaching proclaimed kingdom power: the necessity of the new birth, the character of a God glorious in majesty and terrible in judgment. Men got lit in a new way via the power of God working through a speaker so boring he’d driven them to drink.

If I have a fear of public speaking it’s that I succeed in holding people’s interest with air beating, speaking to the times but not the timeless, losing the hinge between creed and conduct and helming the pulpit as a castaway. Put succinctly, it’s the fear that I would know kingdom talk and no kingdom power. The power of persona that impresses people with the speaker is fleeting. The power of the gospel that imparts something of the Christ is the power that opens blinded eyes and raises dead souls.

I’ll have whatever the Ale Minister was having. And make mine a double.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:41 AM
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