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Fluency Is from the Top of the Head

Fluency Is from the Top of the Head, Not the Bottom of the Heart


I take issue with the common usage of “from the heart,” as applied to official speech (sermons, lectures, stump speeches, etc.).  From the heart, according to common usage, means unscripted and in the moment.  Which is supposed to prove such utterances are more authentic, the outpouring of true sentiment.


To which I respond with any number of unprintable exclamations (which, exclamations that is, also come “from the heart”), and this printable one: hogwash.


I offer this evaluation as one who has spent a lifetime in the pulpit, doing my best to speak genuinely from the heart for God. I do know a thing or three about public utterance.  I’ve composed it and listened to it nigh unto ninety years.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s nomenclature, I can "thin slice" oratory the way an experienced art historian can judge the authenticity of a Grecian vase.


What prompts this peeve is the commentary surrounding the recent commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the “I Have a Dream” message.  Pundits have insisted on repeating what they thought was news about that closing rhapsody to the vision of a world of true brother- and sister-hood, added at the urging of Marian Anderson (how did she know about it in advance?); and that it was “from the heart,” a wonderful, brilliant even, composition in the moment.




Hogwash… no, not the speech, the commentary on the speech’s origination.


Ordinary folk, unaccustomed to holding an audience by saying something that needs to be said, can be forgiven for thinking that off-script is more genuine than on.  When inexperienced orators stay with the script, they sound like one of those TV ads by the local pawn shop proprietor, wooden and phony. 


But the authenticity of any message lies in its content not in the manner of its delivery.  Congregations may be bowled over by fluency, the ability of a preacher to speak endlessly without notes. Usually fluency originates not from the heart but from the top of the head; it lacks specificity of content and substitutes clichés for careful thought.  Over the long haul of life together in the church, fluency wears thin along with the preacher’s tenure.


Obviously I cannot prove it, but I would bet my best shot at heaven with the observation that Dr. King did not go off-script with “I Have a Dream.” He jumped script, went to another sermonic riff composed and delivered on earlier occasions.  How else to understand Marian Anderson’s purported urging?


Consider an even more famous sermon, one delivered at the dawn of the Christian era on a mountainside in Galilee.  Matthew 5-7 contains enough thought provoking ideas to inspire two thousand years of sermons.  Jesus polished those verses, over and over again. They are not a one-time thing. Nor should they be thought to be.  They take a lot of digesting still, eighty generations later.  And who would dare complain about those red letter words that they could not be “from the heart” because not composed in the moment, but repeated over and over?




When I see a preacher step into the pulpit wielding a handful of papers, I am heartened. It means she has thought in advance about what she is going to say. It also means the message has an ending.  I would prefer that sermons not be read.  But better read than “from the heart” or, more likely, “off the cuff.”  Memorized would be good. But better still is it to be so thoroughly acquainted with what is prepared that glancing down is minimal.


So, please, please, talking head on TV or frequent worshipper assessing the morning sermon, don’t wax incredulous and adoring in my presence about the speaker who spoke “from the heart.”  Engage me instead with what she said, not how she said it.


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