Sondheim As a Preacher

I’ve spent many hours this week in an orchestra pit rehearsing for Chico State’s production of A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. Between keeping track of key changes, being anxious for the physical safety of our percussionist as scenery collapses above him, and enjoying the great voices of the cast, I have been evaluating Sondheim’s success as a preacher.

A preacher has to do more than convey information about “how one ought to live.” In my view, he has to show listeners how their lives are inextricably bound to God, and how that bond impacts their decisions. That mission calls him to engage listeners with drama, emotion, narrative, and especially characters. His preaching has to display individuals who struggle with God, both rightly and wrongly.

To fulfill this mission, the preacher has several tools: the Bible (source for the dramatic material), doctrine (derived from the Bible, and delivered as principles), life experience (his own, his listeners’), etc. In a sermon, he uses these tools to redirect the motivations of his audience Godward.

I’ve written about the inability of the evangelical populist to go deeper than sentimentality. So much of the spiritual deadness of evangelicalism, the dearth of transforming love, goes back to the shallow emotional range of its preachers. Most, it seems, can’t convey anything higher than healthful living habits.

Sondheim, though he presents what I find to be a spirituality of hopelessness, is skilled at preaching the worldly word. He has his source of dramatic material, a combination of what I’ll loosely call European tradition and American showmanship. His symbols, dramatic and musical, all derive from such sources, of which he has intuitive knowledge. Sondheim also shows keen insight into life experience. He flirts with audience expectations by using stock characters whom he later rounds out with humane understanding.

Which leaves doctrine.

There is a principle that animates the story of Night Music. The characters are all troubled, some driven to morose contemplation, others to flippancy, still others to cynicism. They struggle to find what a main character calls “a coherent existence,” and the field of their struggle is sex. Their escapades are often funny, usually humiliating, and occasionally moving. But each learns the doctrine by the end, learns it in his or her own way.

Night Music‘s doctrine? You recover a coherent existence when you find the object of your true desire. And to recognize that object, you must know yourself. The god this musical preaches so effectively is inside the human personality.

A few qualifications. Audiences don’t go to musicals for spiritual training. Tony awards like those lavished on this show are not given to productions that “make a point,” and this show is not “preachy” in that way. Sondheim’s goal was to give people something to enjoy, not to teach them. He may or may not believe the principle this story shows.

But Sondheim is a skillful preacher.

He shows how people’s lives are inextricably bound to the god of their desires, and how that bond impacts their decisions. His characters speak to people’s struggles.

My wayward imagination wonders how an evangelical, with his grab-bag of practical tips, would preach the Night Music doctrine. “Five Steps to Open Communication With Your Mistress.” “What Would Ibsen Do?” “Your Best Adultery Now!” If evangelicals preached sin the way they preach Christ, sin might go into as deep a decline as Christianity.

A preacher’s job is not to entertain, as Sondheim’s is. But evangelical preachers would teach and exhort with more potency if their Bible, their doctrine, and their life experience spoke to people’s struggles. The God of the Bible is not the God of easy answers. Jesus Christ struggles with us just as we struggle with him, if the Gospel of John is any guide. He is no stranger to relational agony. And he does not use gimmicks.

I notice that when I preach this God, using the Bible’s drama as powerfully and truthfully as I can, listeners take heart. They renew their struggles with greater insight, and they see God’s blessings. Their certitudes gained in struggle are earned, not purchased in bulk.

So I learn something about preaching from Sondheim. But I leave the orchestra pit relieved that the living God is larger than the gods of Broadway.

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