Poking the Bear

We live in the age of the provocateur.

We see this increasingly in our politicians and our celebrities, who have discovered that the way to attract an audience, and even a following, is to speak the outrageous. The particular substance of the statement appears to make little difference; the important thing is that it be as bold a frontal assault on conventional wisdom as possible.

That’s how you get noticed. That’s how you get heard.

In this environment, there is a great upside to being a preacher provocateur. If that’s what it takes to get people to sit up and take notice, then why would a person whose job is to proclaim to as many people as possible ignore the effectiveness of this rhetorical device?

We want people to listen, to take notice of what we are saying. Furthermore, many of us see our duty to get people to think, and to even change their thinking. The church has always been most faithful, most effective, when it has been countercultural.

This has its roots in Jesus’ own preaching. He was constantly making out-of-the box statements, challenging conventional wisdom. “You have heard it said _________ but I tell you __________,” was a standard format of speech for Jesus.

“Love your enemies.”
“Turn the other cheek.”
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
“I am the bread of life.”

All these were considered outlandish statements when Jesus spoke them — statements that made people sit up and take notice.

So shouldn’t we follow his example in the pulpit and rattle the church with our own outrageous statements challenging our parishioners? Didn’t Martin Luther say that one of the purposes of a sermon is to “afflict the comfortable?”

Here’s my concern about this: while this may be a way to get our message noticed, is this technique effectively proclaiming our message? We need to ask, “What are our motives for playing provocateur?”

For example, my Working Preacher columns seldom stimulate any activity in the “comment” section. As a result, I will admit that there are times when I’m tempted to come up with something especially outrageous just to provoke a reaction, any reaction.

I try to resist that urge because the purpose of the column is to stimulate thought, which may lead to a reaction. While it’s tempting to skip that middle step, a responsible communicator cannot.

It seems to me that today’s provocateurs not only skip the step about stimulating thought, they do so purposely. It is more advantageous to them to simply poke the bear. That’s because one of the less admirable traits of humans is that we love to see bears poked.

Doesn’t matter who’s poking or why as long as bears are being poked. If people were to think too much about it, we would realize that it’s a trait that appeals to our baser natures.

Why do we love to see bears poked? For the same reason we take pleasure is seeing others knocked down a peg. One great advantage of making outrageous, unconventional statements is that it can set us above others.

See, everybody else thinks______ but I am here to tell you that they are all wrong and, in fact, stupid, and I am right. It feels great to be better than others, doesn’t it, especially other “experts?” None of us are immune to that temptation.

Here’s a really crazy, provocative statement: society and convention is not always wrong. Resentment against the excesses of political correctness seems to have produced an excess in political incorrectness that is worse than the problem it scorns.

There is a difference between stimulating people to think in a different way (as Jesus did) and shocking people just to get a reaction. We need to ask ourselves, are we preaching to stimulate thought or are we riding a wave of the mob mentality by poking bears?

God bless you as you responsibly navigate the waters between them.