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By Dale Ahlquist
I went to a very secular liberal arts college. Like most secular liberal arts colleges, it had been founded by a church. Its church affiliation had long since ended, but it still had a beautiful, Gothic-style chapel in the center of campus. The other remnant of its religious past was that there was a chapel service every Sunday. But no one attended, of course. Well, no one except the choir, whose members got a course credit for their singing. But they also had to sit through a sermon preached each week to the otherwise empty pews. It was a painful personification of the old phrase “preaching to the choir.” Like so many of those old phrases, this one has come to mean something almost the opposite of what it says. It is usually used to describe the encounter where you make a strong argument to someone who already agrees with you. But there’s no guarantee the choir agrees with you. They just have to listen to you. There is a vast difference between an audience of allies and an audience of prisoners.
When we say, “preaching to the choir,” we mean “preaching to the converted.” It suggests that a lot of energy is being squandered trying to convince people of something about which they are already convinced, which is why preaching to the choir, whom we assume to be among the converted, is considered a waste of time.
However, G.K. Chesterton says, “I believe in preaching to the converted; for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.” He says that common and popular sayings and old proverbs “always have something in them unrealized by most who repeat them.”
For instance, you’ve heard that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We take it to mean that old and idle things are dull and lifeless. But, as Chesterton points out, a stone is a dead thing. Moss is a living thing. “The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about.” Examples: dust, thistle-down, politicians. Whereas fertile things remain fixed. The lifeless thing is the restless thing. The living thing is at rest. The proverb is right, but not for the reason you first thought.
Similarly, Chesterton believed it was good to “get in hot water.” Why? Because “it keeps you clean.”
However, he thought it was a bad idea “to lose one’s head.” This vivid metaphor of decapitation is usually used to suggest that one should keep one’s temper. But Chesterton suggests there is much more to it than that: “The separation of body and head is a sort of symbol of that separation of body and soul which is made by all the heresies…The mere materialist is a body that has lost its head; the mere spiritualist is a head that has mislaid its body…There is one kind of man who takes off his head and throws it in the gutter, who dethrones and forgets the reason that should be his ruler and witness… He is the criminal; but there is another figure equally sinister and strange. This man forgets his body, with all its instinctive honesties and recurrent sanities and laws of God…. The head, detached and dehumanized, thinks faster and faster like a clock gone mad; it is never heated by any generous blood, never softened by any healthy fatigue, never checked or warned by any of the terrible tocsins of instinct. The head thinks because it cannot do anything else; because it cannot feel or doubt or know. This man is the heretic; and in this way all the heresies were made.”
And then there is the old proverb: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” We have heard it so many times we forget it what it means. But we need to be reminded of it, and we need to look more closely at it. Theologically, it is a precept that applies to every virtue. Chesterton says it is “only a way of stating the truth of original sin.” We were given an enormous freedom and fellowship with God Himself. We fell from this blessed state into a world of trouble fretted with many forms of bondage. But the story is not ended. The virtues are still available to us. We can still exercise them and still enjoy them but only if we pay close attention to what the enemy is up to. The virtues will protect us if we protect the virtues. We can regain what was lost in the Fall. Chesterton once mused that perhaps we are in paradise still, only our eyes have changed. In other words, it is a matter of keeping the good through keeping the right perspective. Christ summed it up succinctly when he told the apostles: “Watch and pray.” Eternal vigilance.
Yes, Christ, too, had to preach to the choir. “You have heard it said…But I say to you…” He repeated the truths that his disciples had heard many times before, but he took the commandments to a deeper level, closer to their hearts. They knew it was wrong to kill, but now they found out that hatred was as bad as murder. They knew it was wrong to commit adultery, but now they found out that lust was just as sinful. They thought they understood the legalities about divorce and swearing and revenge. But now they found out that in order to truly fulfill the law, they must be faithful and faultless and forgiving. They must be perfect as God is perfect, achieving a holiness that would never divorce, never swear, never hit back. They had always heard the commandments; suddenly they were hearing them for the first time.
There is a value in preaching to the choir. It is possible that at some point, the choir might start listening.
Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense.” Dale is the author of three books including G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published The Complete Thinker. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.
This article, The Value of Preaching to the Choir is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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