Breaking The Fourth Wall: The Mockingbird Preaching Seminar

A few priceless transcriptions from the second talk of the preaching seminar that Paul Zahl […]

Mockingbird / 12.9.10

A few priceless transcriptions from the second talk of the preaching seminar that Paul Zahl conducted at the Fall 2010 Mini-Conference in Pensacola, FL. The first talk had to do with the message itself, while this one, entitled “Breaking the Fourth Wall” (also the title of seminar as a whole), dealt mainly with the means and method of its communication. The full preaching seminar files are available from our online store.

I see the preacher as a channel for the uninterdicted compassion of Christ that connects with the listener who is in some kind of need. How does the preacher get through to the real issues of a person’s need? The expression in drama is “breaking the fourth wall.” The chancel in a basilica church is based on Greek drama: a stage surrounded by three physical walls. When I say break the fourth the wall, I want to break through an invisible wall that separates the listener from the speaker. Great artists have been breaking the fourth wall forever.

How can I break the fourth wall? The answer is very simple: by communicating with myself. You know yourself well enough to be able to identify with that part of them that you have in you. If you do that, you’re on the same level playing field. And that is the essence of communication.

I’ve discovered that the overwhelming problem with most preaching is the person, not the message. Why is this person not connecting with the congregation? 1. They don’t have a clear bead on what it is they’re saying, or 2. They don’t know who they are. Now, obviously I’m not talking about morbidity or self-indulgent sentimentality, or someone crying in public…

A preacher does not write a talk, or a lecture, or a teaching. He’s not trying to “come up with something” on a Saturday night. Instead, a preacher comes to a text from a position of complete vulnerability. I used to say that the preacher, like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is the person who puts his hand inside his chest, takes out his heart and holds it up to all of the worshippers. It’s close. What preaching is, is actually taking your ribcage, cracking it open and lifting your heart out, and exposing your heart and your insides to the world. Not because you’re indulgent or because you have anything unique going on, but because when you do that, a part of you is going to be relating to the kidney over there, or the eye over there, or the lower intestine over there.

When you do that, people will ask, “were you a fly on the wall last night in our house?” Or worse, “How dare you preach about me?!” (The preacher says to himself, “I hardly know you”). But if you’re in touch with yourself even to some extent, you will connect at that point.

Jack Kerouac put it like this, trying to explain how he was able to write his amazing book The Subterraneans:

“The essentials of spontaneous prose: Write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then the reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by the same laws operating in his own human mind.”


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