Code-switching and Preaching: knowing your context.

Preaching, at its best, expresses the Gospel in a specific context. Code-switching helps us to understand the contexts in which we preach. My previous post focused on the danger of code-switching into “preacher voice.” Before we can understand others’ contexts, before we can hear another’s code, we have to know our own. My undergraduate thesis supervisor, Orlando Espín, would often tell me that to understand another person’s context, you first have to know your own. You have to own that you speak with a particular code, based on culture and history, if you are to approach preaching with another code in mind.

In order to preach the Good News the preacher must know the specific people among whom she ministers, know their language, know their history, know their code. In traditional writing terms, you have to know your audience. I have to confess, I worry sometimes that preachers are writing more for their “followers” online than for the people in the pews. Our social network following tends to be naturally less diverse than a congregation (and that’s saying something). “Will my friends click like?” should be the last question a preacher worries about as he works on a sermon. There is danger in preaching to our Facebook friends. When we so constrain our sense of context, a sermon can become an “insiders” game.

Seminarian sermons tend to be laden with theological jargon. Seminarians live and breathe the context of academic theology. You can tell a good seminarian sermon when the multisyllabic theology words are limited and translated for the congregation. A great seminarian sermon gets a laugh out of that translation, because they know the congregation well enough to make them laugh. A preacher who knows her congregation well is in the business of translating tradition to a specific context.

Our task in the pulpit is not to teach the people to speak as if they had a seminary education. The work of the preacher is to make the Gospel available to the congregation. How can ancient stories and teachings come alive in a particular context? Code-switching helps us approach an answer. We have to learn to speak in the various codes of our congregation.

I was incredibly fortunate in my first call to parish ministry. I had the chance for four and a half years to preach among the people of St. John’s Lafayette Square, a historic congregation just across from the White House. Part of St. John’s vibrancy comes from the diversity of its members. I often found myself preaching in English in the morning and in Spanish in the afternoon. After a few sermons crashed and burned, I learned that I had to translate more than the words to preach in Spanish. I needed to think through the metaphors I used and stories I told, the emphases I looked for in the text. What preached in the morning among English speaking lawyers and government officials often fell flat with day laborers and recent immigrant families.

Code-switching is about more than speaking a language. Code-switching is about knowing the stories and history, art and poetry. Speaking about race in Washington is always tricky. Preaching about race at St. John’s got me in trouble a couple of times. A vestry member, a prominent figure in Washington’s black community, pulled me aside after a particular sermon to let me know I had made some assumptions I shouldn’t have made. I disagreed with his conclusions about some particular points in my sermon, but came to the realization that I had some homework to do. I asked him out to lunch.

I didn’t preach about race for awhile. I spent time with this parishioner, and with some other members of the black community at St. John’s. I got to know them better, to know their stories and passions. When the fourth of July came around, I was assigned as the preacher for the preceding Sunday. At St. John’s, this is a big day. They bring in a pipe and drum, and sing a number of patriotic hymns. The danger in this particular Sunday is American Triumphalism. It can seem in the liturgy like we are identifying America with the Kingdom of God, as if our nation were the fulfillment of God’s dream. I knew I had to say something about our nation’s ongoing struggles. I had to talk about race. I also knew now, I couldn’t just speak for myself. Hearing a white young man talk about injustice in his own words wasn’t enough. I needed some support. I leaned on Langston Hughes. Hughes was once Washington resident, a busboy at a big hotel, and I centered the sermon on one his poems:

O, let America be America again–The land that never has been yet–And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath–America will be!

The vestry member, who was a poetry buff, congratulated me on my sermon that Sunday. “Anytime you use Langston Hughes in a sermon, you’ve got me.” I’ll say, I didn’t think the sermon was perfect, but what I learned from the experience was that I could get a lot farther by listening to the people with whom I preached. I could communicate more effectively if I incorporated poets, writers, and songs that had meaning for the members of my congregation. I had to diversify my reading and listening to preach effectively. I had to listen. It takes time to learn to find the grace, the Good News, operating in another cultural context. It takes a lot of listening to the members of your congregation who have found that grace in the work that has given them life. I had to learn to listen with them. Listening doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a talker. I’m still learning to listen.

I know that if I want to be a great preacher, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time listening to the people among whom I am called to preach. It is rumored that Karl Barth said the task of the theologian was to open both the Bible and the newspaper. I would say that the task of the preacher is to open up the Bible and to open up the stories told round the kitchen tables of the congregation. Bringing the Good News to the people means knowing them, knowing the hymns they love and the assumptions that make them angry. To be a good preacher is to allow your congregation to show you how God has found them in their particular context. To effectively preach is to code-switch for the sake of Gospel in the multiple contexts of your congregation. I dare say, when I have approached preaching this way, I have been surprised by God’s grace. It turns out that God appears in ways I couldn’t have dreamed up on my own.

Code-switching and Preaching: When “preacher voice” means leaving our selves and God behind.

In my seminary preaching classes they taught us to avoid “preacher voice.” Have you heard such a voice from the pulpit, a voice that seems “put on” or unnatural? Preacher voice is often described as an astute sounding, carefully articulated, loudly projected, serious sounding voice. I know I’ve been guilty of “preacher voice.” In our worst affectations, some Episcopalians actually sound like we are trying to speak with a vague British accent like we are performing Shakespeare or trying to speak like Madonna.

When we introduce the concept of code-switching, “preacher voice” becomes more problematic. A recent episode of “Q” from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation Radio, explored the question: “Is Public Radio ‘Too White?’” The panelists argued that, regardless of ethnicity and cultural background, broadcast journalists tend to sound the same. Do radio personalities leave some of themselves behind when they step in the booth? Are they are paid to sound the same? I wonder about these questions for our pulpits. Are preachers tempted to code-switch?

I focused a lot on “tone” in the opening paragraph, and most of the discussions of “preacher voice” encourage you to find the “natural sound” of your voice. This is tricky work. Actor friends assure me that “voice work,” finding a natural and yet audible voice in a large room is some of the most difficult work in theater. But I find the CONTENT question even more interesting and perhaps important. To get to the question of word choice and content in Code Switching, I need you to watch this video from Key and Peele:

The laughs come because of the cultural assumptions, based on gender and skin color, that each character makes about the other. Two black men who don’t know one another see one another on the sidewalk, and they move into a particular code. Often in code-switching the sound of a voice changes, but notice the choice of words, even the topics discussed.

Code is about more than our accent and tone. Code involves culturally significant topics, words, and phrases. How many of us preachers “code-switch” in the pulpit by choosing not to curse, though cursing is a normal part of our language. I wondered if the roof was going to fall in the National Cathedral when my friend Linda Kaufman said the word “ass” in her excellent sermon at the consecration of Bishop Mariann Budde. (For the record, Linda wasn’t talking about a donkey). I’m not advocating for dropping the F-bomb in your sermon. Your congregation’s code needs to be taken into account (more on that in the next post). But I worry that we unconsciously code-switch in our pulpits. I worry when we leave behind a whole wealth of language and experience because a particular code is expected. Let’s not mince words. When we leave behind language and experience, we leave out ways that God is working in our world.

I remember in college listening to one of my favorite theology professors, Dr. Maria Pilar Aquino as she lamented the task of teaching introductory courses at The University of San Diego. She was critiqued when she didn’t teach the white European perspective. Her students expected an introduction to Catholic Theology class to include readings by Karl Rahner, Thomas Aquinas and others. Of course she included them, but she had to face questions when she chose to teach a topic with significant readings from Leonardo Boff or Gustavo Gutierrez. White, European, Male, was the default. Anything different had to be justified. It was true in undergraduate classes, is it true in our pulpits? Who are the theologians we quote? Who are the novelists and the poets we borrow from? Do we quote the artists and theologians that have shaped us, or do we leave some of ourselves behind? Do we discount God’s grace by only speaking a part of reality?

I know I’ve been guilty of leaving myself behind. In my own preaching voice, I’ve worried about sounding “too gay.” I’ve never blushed more than after a funeral a few years ago when a family member commented on my lisp.

I’ve thought about content too. I’ve left out discussions of gay rights and references to LGBT themed works of art because I was worried I would be pigeon-holed. As a cis-gendered white male, I have a lot of privilege. I’ve seen it at work when a colleague had to work to win over a congregation that unconsciously checked out when they saw a person of color climb into the pulpit. I’ve heard it when parishioners have described a female preacher’s voice as “shrill.” I acknowledge my privilege. That privilege makes getting to my “natural voice” difficult sometimes. For me it’s easy to speak the dominant code.

The gayest picture I could find of myself, offered as penance for leaving parts of myself out of the pulpit.
The gayest picture I could find of myself, offered as penance for leaving parts of myself out of the pulpit.

The question of code-switching isn’t entirely about style and aesthetics. Power is at play, and theology is at play. The sermon is the only moment in a liturgical service written specifically for that week, that congregation. The Biblical text and liturgy don’t vary, so the work of contextualizing the tradition falls on the preacher. What is said, and what is left out, in the pulpit matters. If we don’t name God for a particular people, what does that mean for them? If we don’t bring our full selves, if we don’t represent the realities of our community, we are making a statement by our omission.

In my first post, I mentioned a trans teenager who grabbed hold of one line in a sermon I preached. One line in that sermon helped them grab hold of God’s grace. Their reality was named, albeit imperfectly, in a far from perfect sermon. Acknowledging that some people’s bodies don’t match their gender was a code-switch for this one teen. They’d never heard a preacher voice that reality before.

Code-switching and Preaching: Can I talk to you about your sermon?

There’s always a moment of awkwardness when someone asks, “Can I talk to you about your sermon?” When you’ve put hours of work into crafting a message, when that message has a sacramental function, both praise and critique can be awkward to hear. A few times in my preaching career a visitor has approached me after church and asserted that my perspective in the pulpit did not conform to their ideas of Christian orthodoxy. The question “Can I talk to you about your sermon?” sets me on edge a little bit.

National Cathedral Pulpit

I heard the question recently after a sermon at Christ Church Cathedral. A teenager I didn’t know walked up to me, and pulled me aside and said, “Thank you for mentioning transgender people in your sermon.” The teen went on to say they had come to the Cathedral that morning because they were looking for a church that was open to trans people. The teen was still on a journey around gender. (I’m not using gendered pronouns in describing them, because I don’t know what the teen would prefer).

I had mentioned transgender people in passing in the sermon, in a list of people who are blessed, despite our culture’s attitude. It was one line. I didn’t really like this sermon generally. It wasn’t my best. But this teen was thankful for one line. Their response made me remember how I used to listen to preaching, as a young gay man. In college as I was first coming out, I sat through most sermons waiting, listening for my reality to be named. If I heard one line of affirmation, that’s the line I would remember.

The encounter came as I am thinking about an idea in communication: “code-switching.” The theory of code-switching asserts that all of us have various ways of thinking and speaking that are shaped by our gender, culture, ethnicity, personal history, and other markers of identity. Most of us actually are capable of speaking a variety of codes. Sometimes we have to have a more “professional” code. Often one “code” is privileged in a society. I think we also listen for our “home code(s).” We listen for markers in speech and action that tell us we are welcome.

The encounter with the teen continues to bring about questions for me. Who do we preach for? How do we prepare? What codes do we choose when we preach? Over the series of a few posts, I’d like to ask my fellow preachers: “Can I talk to you about your sermon?”