David Foster Wallace on preaching’s purpose

February 28, 2013 · 1 comment

Post image for David Foster Wallace on preaching’s purpose

A half-finished thought:1

I was re-reading this 1993 interview of David Foster Wallace from The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and this particular passage jumped out at me:

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

But so what if Wallace wasn’t talking about fiction, but about preaching? Say he was interviewed for Christianity Today instead; might his response look something like this? (changes in bold):

I had a teacher I liked who used to say a good sermon’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious preaching’s purpose is to give the hearer, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to church for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of preaching can allow us imaginatively to identify with another’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

Might it just be that simple?

  1. Which I am posting here on this weblog mostly because the thought, while half-finished, is too lengthy for other medium particularly fertile for such thoughts, e.g., Twitter. []
  • Mike Stavlund

    Amen.