The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence


After the horrors and violence of the twentieth century, words can seem futile. In this reflection on the place of preaching today, Richard Lischer recognizes that our mass-communication culture is exhausted by words. Facing up to language's disappointments and dead ends, he opens a path to its true end.

With chapters on vocation, interpretation, narration, and reconciliation, The End of Words shows how faithful reading of Scripture rather than flashy performance paves the way ...

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After the horrors and violence of the twentieth century, words can seem futile. In this reflection on the place of preaching today, Richard Lischer recognizes that our mass-communication culture is exhausted by words. Facing up to language's disappointments and dead ends, he opens a path to its true end.

With chapters on vocation, interpretation, narration, and reconciliation, The End of Words shows how faithful reading of Scripture rather than flashy performance paves the way for effective preaching; Lischer challenges conventional storytelling with a deeper and more biblical view of narrative preaching. The ultimate purpose of preaching, he argues, is to speak God's peace, the message of reconciliation.

While Lischer's End of Words will surely be invaluable to pastors and preachers, his honest, readable style will appeal to anyone concerned with speaking Christianly.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802829320
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Series: Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching Ser.
  • Pages: 179
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Lischer is James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Preaching at Duke Divinity School. Before joining the Duke faculty, he served as pastor of Lutheran congregations in Illinois and Virginia. A graduate of Concordia Senior College and Concordia Seminary, he also holds an M.A. in English from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of London. He is the author of numerous books on preaching, theology, and ministry, including A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel and the prize-winning The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America. He is also the co-editor (with William Willimon) of the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching. The story of his first pastorate, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, has been widely anthologized, and his most recent Eerdmans book, The Company of Preachers, was named Best Book in ministry in 2002 by Christianity Today. The End of Words is based on his Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching delivered at Yale Divinity School. Professor Lischer and his wife live in Orange County, North Carolina.

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The End of Words

The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Richard Lischer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2932-5

Chapter One

The Ultimate Vocation

In 1919 William Butler Yeats composed both the preface and the postscript to the twentieth century. With a prophet's instinct for catastrophe, he heralded the changing of the guard from one age and one construction of reality to another. His poem was called "The Second Coming," and it begins like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

According to the poet, the crisis of the modern world is a crisis of speaking and hearing, of call and response. A creation that was once on intimate listening terms with its creator now spins out of control. He tells of a falconer who can no longer communicate with his falcon because the creature, whose orbits have grown increasingly erratic, cannot hear the commands of the one who trained it. Its mission has descended into mere anarchy - "mere" because, when compared to its original responsiveness to its master, the bird's flight is little more than a chaotic scramble to freedom.

Whatever it was the poet believed binds life to life in a spiritual coherence was no longer working. He was doubtless thinking of the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, anarchism on the continent, and the troubles in his beloved Ireland. He had not even glimpsed with his physical eyes the terrors of our own day, when even a powerful country like the United States would come to feel like "a closed and guarded palace in a city gripped by the plague."

Why begin with Yeats? Because if his fellow poet Ezra Pound was right when he claimed that poets are the antennae of the race, Yeats had his antennae out early. He is our first alert. He sounds the first modern alarm that whoever has a serious vocation in language and proposes to communicate from depth to depth will be in trouble. Even preachers will say their "Thus says the Lords" in disintegrating circumstances. Even they will speak against the grain of their environment among people with a diminished capacity to hear.

The Silence of the Words

The multiple traumas of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries have produced a sense of futility among those with a vocation in language. Violence has a way of making a mockery of words. After Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, all the words sound hollow. What does one say after a televised beheading? The proclamation of God's justice or God's love meets a wall of resistance first in the throat of the proclaimer, then in the ears of the hearer.

When true convictions give way to bigger and bigger lies told with increasingly "passionate intensity," the poet knows that it is time to keep silence. Later in the century, certain theologians and preachers would join the poets in denouncing the corruption of language. When the message of Jesus Christ can be Nazified or made the tool of racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, or capitalism, it is time for preachers to shut up and take stock of themselves.

Before any prophet speaks, the prophet is absolutely positive that he or she must not speak. Moses claimed a speech impediment; Isaiah confessed his own impurity; Jeremiah appealed to his inexperience. After the temple was destroyed, the prophet Ezekiel was transported to a refugee camp at Tel Abib. There he sat for seven days stupefied among the refugees, or, as one translation has it, "in a catatonic state." Imagine the denizens of the twentieth century, beginning with the ninety-three million dead in wars, gazing up from their mass graves or through the barbed wire of their camps, stupefied, catatonic. Something has ended. Visit the Holocaust Museum or Dachau. The normative demeanor is silence.

How ironic that poets and preachers, whose stock and trade is words and nothing else, should respond to tragedy with a call to silence, that they, of all people, should feel that the human race has come to the end of words.

No prophet questioned the feasibility of the word more searchingly than the prisoner Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote from his cell in April 1944, "The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over." He said the world had come of age, by which he meant that men and women have outgrown the set of symbols from which they once received ultimate meaning. It has become possible to pursue science, art, ethics, and even religion apart from reliance on God or the comforts of religious language.

Bonhoeffer would have defined religion as any recourse to the transcendent that enables human beings to avoid the claims of Jesus Christ. In that view, religion has nothing to offer those who follow Jesus. Of what use is pious language that distracts believers from the concrete duties of discipleship? Any word that can breathe on its own apart from the life of the community is by definition false. For, according to Bonhoeffer, Jesus is already so materially present in the world that he and his followers have nothing to gain from the rules and rhetoric of religion. Nor should the preacher try to build on the assured results of science, politics, or philosophy, for these are no longer foundations for something else but free-standing idols in their own right. If there is to be preaching, all it can do is conform itself to the life of Christ in the community. Christians may practice their faith by maintaining a "hidden discipline" of prayer and love, but Bonhoeffer foresaw a wall rising between the pulpit and an audience that had outgrown it.

Christianity in America has followed a different course than the one Bonhoeffer predicted, but his basic assertion informs the thesis of this and succeeding chapters. The preacher's job is at once easier and more impossible than many have imagined, for he or she is trying to do nothing less than shape the language of the sermon to a living reality among the people of God - to make it conform to Jesus. The sermon, in fact, is Jesus trying to speak once again in his own community, but because he has assumed the full extent of our fallibility, the power of his word is hidden and often disregarded by the world. Nevertheless, believers continue to organize their common life of mission, worship, and service around the presence of Christ in their midst. The preacher does the same for speech, as he or she models for the community a distinctively Christlike way of speaking in an uncomprehending and often hostile world.

The theologian Bonhoeffer understood that preaching has become hard not merely as a result of extrinsic developments, such as the rise of modern science or the threats of dictators. Preaching bears the impossible weight of its own message, which is God's willingness to be pushed out of the world and onto a cross. Preaching has to conjure with its own apparent irrelevance. God (and the preacher) can relate to the world only via the great symbol of marginalization, the cross, and by means of the hidden presence of God's chosen instrument, the marginalized Man for Others. Paradoxically, God can communicate with us only by means of the one who remained silent before his accusers, whose death was so irrelevant that it was not even recorded by the authorities. Bonhoeffer understood better than any of his generation the incongruity of standing on a soapbox, puffing out your chest, and making a speech about the crucified God.

We find Bonhoeffer's theology a little intense for our tastes. His world of concentration camps and air raids seems far removed from our current revival of spirituality. Contemporary religion focuses on its own successes and avoids at all costs the paradox of the cross, a move that has produced a flood of compensatory words. There is an irrepressible chattiness about our religion, one that was utterly foreign to Bonhoeffer and those of his generation who were living just beyond their means on the boundaries of church and religious language.

Bonhoeffer ruefully tells the story of a terrible air raid during which one of his fellow prisoners cried out to God for help. He recalls that in this opportunity to witness all he could do was assure the man that the bombing would be over soon and not to worry. "Those who had been bombed out came to me the next morning for a bit of comfort. But I'm afraid I'm bad at comforting; I can listen all right, but I can hardly ever find anything to say."

Why is it that when we enter life's deep places - a friend's betrayal, a challenging or dangerous job, the death of a child - we so often feel at a loss for words or prefer to let our actions do the talking? When the occasion demands a spoken word of forgiveness, judgment, or hope, why are these words so hard to come by?

Those who are preachers have paced about an empty room or stood in a deserted chancel on a Saturday night, hoping that some word will be given. We were not warned about this particular problem. The New Testament contains an implicit theology of preaching but no operating instructions or tips for effective speaking. The closest Paul comes to rhetorical strategy is in the Corinthian correspondence, where he promises that he will not adapt his gospel to prevailing standards of communication, but defy them. What Paul offers is a mystical homiletic by which the word of Christ's death and resurrection is properly spoken only by one who is materially embedded in all the dying and rising that occurs on a daily basis in ministry. It goes without saying in the New Testament that such speaking will be occasionally dangerous and always accompanied by suffering, but never difficult. We never meet an apostle pacing around the catacombs on Saturday night trying to think of something to say.

It is not for lack of resources that the sermon comes hard. Some who teach preaching occasionally imply that if you do your exegesis carefully and trust your theological training, the sermon will preach itself. But ... the exegesis has been completed since Wednesday. The preacher's theology is impeccable. The New York Times has been consulted. Homiletics websites have been visited. And yet, the wordsmith is fresh out of words. Not, I repeat, for lack of biblical information or fetching illustrations, but because the path to authentic expression has closed. Yes, Bonhoeffer's world is far from ours, but his experience of the end of words survives as a familiar moment in the weekly ritual of sermon preparation.

A Sea of Words

Not fifty years before Bonhoeffer wrote his letters, G. K. Chesterton created an unforgettable Victorian image of Christian dogma as a great spike that fits exactly into a vast emptiness in the world with the result, said Chesterton, that "once these two parts of the two machines had come together ... all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude." He continues, "I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into place with a kind of click of relief" - an image ("click") C. S. Lewis would repeat in describing the harmonious aftermath of his own conversion. It is a nice industrial image, but one that has gone the way of pipes, fittings, and the industrial age itself. It is precisely that "click of relief," signaling the perfect fit between revelation and its receptors, that Bonhoeffer and his successors could not hear.

Indeed, contemporary preachers cannot help but notice a growing dissonance between message and sensorium, between the gospel and the all-encompassing sea of words, images, and ideologies within which we attempt to communicate it. Hence the rising urgency, even desperation, on the part of preachers to find just the right frequency for their message. The hymnodist might have been speaking for the besieged preacher when he asked, "What language shall I borrow/to thank thee dearest friend?" Some ministers have turned to the didactic or teaching sermon, in the conviction that ours is the most biblically tone-deaf generation ever. Others have given up on the sermon in its traditional form and replaced it with informal group discussions in a Starbucks-setting or film clips from The Lord of the Rings in hopes that the service might build on cultural resonances.

What language shall I borrow? An odd question when you stop to think, and one with a long and controversial history. Over the years, preachers have not been satisfied to speak from the embedded position. They have not been content with the starkness of the New Testament's theology of the word. They have sought other languages with which to communicate the gospel. When I was a seminarian, we all preached "existentially" after the manner of Bultmann, in the confidence that the existentialist analysis of the human predicament was pretty much the same as Paul's. When we weren't preaching existentially, we donned our white coats, lit our pipes, and preached therapeutically, in the equally misplaced confidence that psychologist Carl Rogers's view of the person was not all that different from Jesus'.

As exciting as those dialogues were, that is not where the action is today. Between religion and philosophy or Christianity and psychology you can draw a line and decide to cross it or not. In our current situation of total information, however, the lines are blurred. The preacher does not contend with competing messages that are easily named but with principalities and powers that envelop us and swim effortlessly beside us in the sea of words. The average American is subjected to approximately six thousand messages per day. Why should one of them called "gospel" stand out? What is one little message among so many?

Most of us like to think we have adapted to the information technology that surrounds us and harnessed it to the needs of the kingdom, but those who are preachers know the true and lively word - so rich in paradox, metaphor, and narrative, so demanding of community and time for absorption - does not match up well with its digitalized environment.

Our new electronic nervous system promises what the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard calls "[p]erfect information at any given moment." And when you think about it, that's exactly what we all expect. When we get home after a hard day at the office, we want to open a cold drink, put our feet up, tune in or dial up, and watch a war or a hurricane or some other crisis as it unfolds in real time. Lyotard also claims that any knowledge that does not mutate and adapt to the available technology in order to be bought and sold as information, cannot survive. If he is right, he is publishing the sermon's obituary, for there will be no such thing as communicating for the sake of the sheer goodness of the thing communicated, which is the very genius and freedom of the pulpit.

Our sensorium positions hi-tech versions of Ezekiel's wheels within wheels, their rims bulging with electronic eyes. As they silently encircle and monitor the planet, they give a synoptic account of all that is real and true. They transmit a quantity of information that would have staggered the imagination of Galileo or Erasmus. No single perspective is sufficiently compelling to integrate the many facts, stories, and images made available to us. No single narrative can provide a deep enough basket for the fragments of our lives. Instead, the catholicity of the medium itself exercises an authority greater than any one of its constitutive messages. We have become bit players in a pageant too big to be comprehended by any of us. These may be "the days of miracle and wonder" the poet sings about, but the miracle does not come from the transcendent God but from the new transcendence made possible by electronic awareness of one another. It is not that we are made in the image of God that makes us so wonderful, but that our images can be comprehended in the eye of the universal camera.


Excerpted from The End of Words by RICHARD LISCHER Copyright © 2005 by Richard Lischer.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The ultimate vocation 1
2 The final edition 47
3 One last story 89
4 To what end? 129
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