Exploring the Art of the Sermon

News & Notes concludes a monthlong series on religion in black America with a look at the artful ways sermons are constructed. Theologian Anthea Butler guides us through the various styles of some of black America's most popular preachers.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

In the late 19th century, the famed sociologist W.E.B. DuBois heard a sermon given by a country preacher. He wrote about it in his book, "The Souls of Black Folk."

Mr. W.E.B. DUBOIS (Founder, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People): (Reading) The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. The people moaned and fluttered, and then the gaunt-cheeked brown woman beside me suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lost soul, while around about came wail and groan and outcry, and a scene of human passion such as I had never conceived before.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: In the final installment of our month-long religion series, we asked what makes a good sermon? For an answer, we turned to theologian Anthea Butler.

Dr. ANTHEA BUTLER (Assistant Professor of Religion, University of Rochester): In "The Souls of Black Folks", W.E.B. DuBois talks about the preacher, the music and the frenzy. And I think this is an excellent way to sort of look at what we want to do when we start to pull apart the setting of the black sermon. I mean, what is that sermon what made up of? There's the preacher, obviously, who's up front and commanding the attention whoever that might be.

Now, there's a certain cadence in which that person might speak. It may be in a clipped cadence so depending how you preaches, if Baptist preachers, you might reach deep down into your throat and get that gutter old sound. Or you may say certain things throughout that sermon that call things.

There's another element in the sermon that usually, as I like to call it the organ or what we call or maybe the Pentecostal tradition. The running music, everybody knows those chords, dat-dat-dat(ph), and you hear the chord and you know that that's building up part of the sermon. But you don't have a really good sermon, even if you have a great cadence or music until you have a good text.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. G. E. PATTERSON (Former Presiding Bishop, Church of God in Christ): (Singing) I just want you tell somebody…

Dr. BUTLER: This is G. E. Patterson.

Mr. PATTERSON: (Singing) …you're being well get ready. You'll turn around is on the way. The Almighty is on the way.

Dr. BUTLER: G.E. Patterson, the former presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ who passed away in March of 2007, is what I call the quintessential black preacher. And it's because he had basically a strong a, always a strong sermon text, be a really great professional, strong, black preachings, Tommy(ph).

He knew how to put the cadence in force. He also sang towards the end of all of his sermons and this is an example of the kind of black preaching that I believe is going away, a style of preaching in which we can blend sort of the old slay tradition with the post-reconstruction and civil rights tradition, but that we don't quite hear anymore in the pulpits of today.

Mr. DUBOIS: Thank you, Lord. Anybody here believe he's getting ready to turn some things around?

Unidentified Man #1: Are you too tired to dream? Or are you too weary to let your mind wander over distant hills?

Dr. BUTLER: It's also important when we talk about this aesthetic to talk about those black preachers who are really teachers. Someone like a Howard Thurman who could be really quiet but get out a powerful message at the same time. We often think of a frenzy as being the emotionality, the shouting, the dancing, all this stuff. But there's another kind of intense preaching that draw something out of people, which gets the call in response. But it may not get the physicality or the movement of the congregation, but it's still powerful preaching just the same.

Unidentified Man #1: For as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING (Clergyman, Civil Rights Activist): No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty, stream.

Dr. BUTLER: Martin Luther King also has a very interesting approach. He will always make you see a picture.

Mr. KING: And let's not wallow in the valley of despair.

Dr. BUTLER: You know, you see justice rolling down like waters, every biblical scripture that he sort of picks has an image to go with it. So not only is he bringing it out an emotion, you see something. It's very visual what he does. And I think that's an important piece of King's expertise as a black preacher.

Mr. KING: …of today and tomorrow. I still have a dream.

Dr. JUANITA BYNUM (Preacher): And when God (unintelligible),that take Abraham to another level, he has something (unintelligible). Can I (unintelligible)? He had to buy a ticket. He had to get a hotel room.

Dr. BUTLER: I think Juanita Bynum is very interesting way to look at African-American women preachers. In part because when she started in ministry, she was very masculinized. She preached like a black male preacher and stand up in the pulpit, flatfooted and could, you know, howl with the best of them. Now, she's a little different. She's a little more feminized. It's a softer message, but still very powerful. And I think you can hear this in her voice as she preaches.

Dr. BYNUM: And I've never tried to pull the wool over the people of God's head. I feel like…

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. BYNUM: …the best preach that anybody can ever have is their life.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pastor THOMAS DEXTER JAKES (Televangelist): I'm not talking to the people who got ordinary trouble. I'm not talking to the people who got trouble…

Dr. BUTLER: Well, if you look in the older parts of T.D. Jake's ministry before he had a mega church, this is really great where he starts to act out certain parts of the biblical story. And in that acting out, you draw people in to what that particular biblical character might be feeling. And that's also another way to invite people in.

Pastor JAKES: Why am I going to this storm? Why am I dealing with trouble? Why am I dealing with stress? I'm going to tell you why. It's because God is getting ready to use you like you've never been used before.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Dr. BUTLER: Especially with the frenzy if the preacher is skilled at what he does, he knows how to elicit that response now. In a lot of the church traditions they'll say, well, this is just the Holy Ghost. There's anointing(ph) on somebody's preaching. But I think, many times, there are preachers know how to look out in the audience, especially if you know to look at the church mother who's either sitting on the side of the pulpit on the front row. She will be the one that if it's a good sermon, she will start to respond, and then the rest of the congregation responds.

Pastor JAKES: It was my enemies that made me recognize that I must be a force or you wouldn't be fighting me like you're fighting. Thank God. Let's take a minute and thank God for your enemies.

Dr. BUTLER: One of the great classic texts about historical black preacher: John Jasper, who preached the sun do move. It was as though when people heard him preach, that the sun actually moved. And so that's the kind of aesthetic that the black preacher wants to give. You want to be able to put people into that biblical text. If it's Joshua, or if it's Moses, that preacher is able to bring you there, and the music and the accompanying call in response. When the preacher says something good, the audience may say, amen, or the congregation says, amen. When somebody will say, preach it, brother, and he comes out at you. Those are the elements that make for a good black sermon.

Pastor JAKES: Thank God for my enemies. He prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies. He anointed my head with oil because of my enemies. My cups runs over because of my enemy. Let's thank God for our enemies.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CHIDEYA: Anthea Butler is assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York.

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