Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Wordless Preaching? What St. Francis Didn't Say.

Here's some really good stuff from author and senior managing editor of Christianity Today, Mark Galli. 

Francis of Assisi is said to have said, "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."

This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little. Fair enough—that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it.

The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age...

First, no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying. It's not likely that a pithy quote like this would have been missed by his earliest disciples.

Second, in his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle...

Why is it, then, that we "remember" Francis as a wimp of a man who petted bunnies and never said a cross word, let alone much about the Cross?

I suspect we sentimentalize Francis—like we do many saints of ages past—because we live in a sentimental age. We want it to be true that we can be nice and sweet and all will be well. We hope against hope that we won't have take the trouble to figure out how exactly to talk about the gospel—our unbelieving friends will "catch" the gospel once our lifestyle is infected with it.

"Preach the gospel; use words if necessary" goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets and Jesus and Paul put on preaching...

To be sure, words used cheaply, thoughtlessly are worse than no words at all. As Westmont College professor Marilyn McEntyre says in an essay in the upcoming August issue of Christianity Today, "In an environment permeated with large-scale, well-funded deceptions, the business of telling the truth, and caring for the words we need for that purpose, is more challenging than ever before."

That being said, a better saying (which you can attribute to anyone you like) is this: Preach the gospel—use actions when necessary; use words always.

Read the rest of Galli's enlightening, emboldening essay right here. Good stuff.