Richard Lischer

Read more of Kim Lawton’s interview about Gardner Taylor with Duke Divinity School professor of preaching Richard Lischer:

Q: Looking at the American religious scene, how significant has Gardner Taylor been?

A: He’s very significant, because he almost single-handedly has elevated and made visible great preaching in America at a time when preaching in general was seen as a lost art. He has managed to bring eloquence — which is the usual word people think of when they think of Gardner C. Taylor — into the public arena. He was a parish pastor for many years in Brooklyn in Concord Baptist Church [and] a tremendous influence not only in the black church on great black preachers such as Martin Luther King, but also he is one of the first whose influence crossed over into the realm of white homiletics and white preaching.

Q: What is it about his preaching that elevates it to the level of great preaching?

A: This is an age when information is the key thing, and eloquence is often forgotten. In the computer and television milieu that we live in, we go for sound bites and clipped, brief, dumbed-down sorts of expressions. And along comes someone like Gardner Taylor and [he] says, “The Bible isn’t written that way,” and what makes a preacher a great preacher is one who can “voice” the Bible. The Bible has a whole literary and emotional range to it, from blessings to laments to praise to prophetic denunciation, so a preacher has to have not only a physical voice, but a theological voice that enables him to let the Scripture speak. If you’re not letting the Scripture speak as a preacher, you’re going to be a dry well pretty soon. Gardner Taylor, first and foremost, is a biblical preacher.

Q: What about the sound of his voice and how he delivers his message?

A: The sound of his voice is inimitable. Generations of African-American preachers and now white preachers have tried to imitate what he does. He has a beautiful high baritone voice, like an organ, which he knows how to use, knows how to play without ever going overboard, without ever going too far. He has the full range at his disposal of the preacher’s rhetorical techniques, whether it’s alliteration or antithesis or parallelism. He is a person who brings his message to an incredible climax, a peroration, pulls out all the stops at the end, but without ever giving way to posturing, histrionics. He manages to keep an enormous range of rhetorical skill under tight, disciplined control, so that when you’re listening to a Gardner Taylor sermon, you feel like something is about to break out or explode, and the preacher is just managing to hold it together, to help you see something glorious. His use of language parallels the Bible’s use of language. There are these soaring denunciations and soaring expressions of hope to be found from Genesis to Revelation. Gardner Taylor’s style and voice are capable of giving voice to those.

Q: What about the intellectual along with the theological underpinnings that are also there? How do those work together?

A: In addition to being a scholar of the Bible, Gardner Taylor is a student of preaching. He has read an incredible number of treatises on preaching and [he] studies the great preachers. When he says the great preachers he usually means the great nineteenth- and twentieth-century preachers who speak in cadences that were perhaps more at home in the Victorian world than our own. But he mixes into that love of language the wonderful quotations from Langston Hughes and African-American poets and then adds his own knowledge of politics and what’s going on in Brooklyn, his own borough. I think that’s a very important thing to say about Gardner Taylor, as Tip O’Neill said: “All politics is local.” All prophesy is local, too, and a preacher really has to understand that, as Taylor did. He is not one — and this is perhaps why he is not as well-known as some other African-American preachers and other white preachers, for that matter — he doesn’t simply make pronouncements on the state of the world or on geopolitics or on domestic politics, but he begins where he lives. He talks about crime and injustice and terrible conditions in his own borough, on his own street, and moves out from that local vision, as any great biblical prophet would have done, to look at the larger, more apocalyptic picture. The prophet is always seeing something that the rest of us don’t quite see. He’s just glimpsing something that we are only feeling after. The prophet was called a seer, and it’s no accident that the prophet is called a seer, because he is speaking and seeing from a privileged position that God has given him. We saw this perhaps most dramatically in our nation’s history when Martin Luther King stood up in front of a quarter-million people and said, “I have a dream.” He was seeing something about America that in 1963 most Americans couldn’t see.

Q: What role did he play in the civil rights movement?

A: Gardner C. Taylor played a role I would characterize as a background but highly influential role in the civil rights movement. He not only raised a lot of money in and around New York City, as did other African-American leaders and pastors in northern cities, but he was a moral influence and a role model as what a great pastor and preacher ought to be for a whole host of leaders in the civil rights movement, most of whom were reverends themselves. Gardner Taylor was not willing to leave his congregation and to strike out as an operative, as it were, but he was an immense influence in the movement. He struck a balance between the prophetic voice that speaks to injustice across America and the pastoral voice that understands personal issues, problems within one’s own congregation.

Q: How did he influence Martin Luther King Jr.’s preaching?

A: His influence is very clear, but difficult to trace. It’s hard to find a smoking gun. You don’t find too many actual phrases in Martin Luther King that are taken from Gardner C. Taylor the way you might from Benjamin Mays, who was the president of Morehouse College, and other preachers and homileticians. I do believe Gardner Taylor was a role model for the very highest and most elevated view of preaching that was available to King’s generation and to ours. [Taylor was] a serious scholar of the Bible, a student of the Bible who insists on a message drawn from Scripture, and one that is delivered with the utmost power and authority. He has his purple passages, the way King did. He has all the rhetorical techniques, and King, too, was a master of alliteration and balance and antithesis, beautiful phrasing, and certainly the emotional peroration, which is marked by repetition and a growing sense of power. Both men, of course, had the ability to draw the congregation into them, so that the congregation would then feed them with its response and then create further power. In both cases of King and Taylor, they did not posture in the pulpit. Some preachers have a way of asking for a response, asking for it. King never did, and neither does Taylor. They’re simply themselves, at the best of the preaching tradition.

Q: And that calls forth, then, the response.

A: Yes. The congregation can’t help itself. The congregation is going to speak back, talk back to the preacher, even if the preacher doesn’t ask for it. Gardner Taylor can read a text, as I heard him once do from the Gospel of Luke, where he mentions some place names in Judea — Trachonitis — and the congregation was already, when he said the word Trachonitis, amening and saying “yes, sir.” It’s a form of authority, and it also is a form of partnership with the congregation that you don’t generally see in the white Protestant church. The event of communication becomes the achievement of the group, and that sounds like a facile way of putting it when you have a great speaker like a King or a Taylor, but it fact one can hear tapes, at least of King, speaking before an all-white audience, and if you walked out of the building, you’d say nothing was happening. But an African-American congregation will make something happen. There is a symbiosis there that works its way out rhetorically and theologically. Taylor touches on the great themes of humanity and biblical religion the way King did as well. He talks about the importance of being somebody, and that is rooted in Christianity’s doctrine of the image of God. Everybody is somebody, no matter how poor, no matter how oppressed, because God made you. He talks about the passion of suffering, and he roots that passion in the suffering of Jesus on the cross, and he puts you beneath the cross. He has a wonderful sermon in which he does a riff on soldiers of the cross. It’s about Jesus dying on the cross, but soon you see these old black storekeepers and workers in the fields walking from the cross, and Taylor has identified them as soldiers of the cross. It’s very moving, the way he brings the biblical picture and the biblical world into the real world of today. He also, along with King, spoke most notably about redemption and deliverance, and this is a theme that’s rooted in the Old Testament version of the Exodus.

In this, I suppose, Gardner Taylor comes the closest to appearing as an Old Testament prophet when he is announcing the deliverance of a people from captivity. But the pastoral dimension is always there, and all the great preachers preached from a place. That’s why I think King always preached from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He didn’t want to be a traveling preacher; he wanted to have a place where he could put both feet in the pulpit and be home. Taylor [was the] very same. All the great preachers preach from a place, because it’s only in that place that you see the individual, private hurts of a people and know what’s on their hearts. Without that, you’re making geopolitical statements.

Q: To what extent has Taylor also influenced white preachers and white preaching, and how unusual is that influence?

A: Gardner Taylor is very important for white preaching. You have to remember that in 1959, he was invited to take the pulpit of the National Radio Vespers. He was succeeding Harry Emerson Fosdick, thought by many to be one of the most influential preachers of the twentieth century — a white man, and also Ralph Sockman. As far back as the late fifties, at least, the TV networks realized that this is not a black and white thing. This is a great preacher. I’d say that Gardner C. Taylor has led the cross-over of influence from the African-American church to the white church and has greatly enhanced communication between the two. Somehow, the word on Gardner C. Taylor was out. It was out through his radio programs, it was out through his influence in Brooklyn, so that if white preachers in the United States didn’t know any other black preacher, they knew Gardner Taylor. When one looked into Taylor’s preaching, one saw that he was influenced by the same white homileticans that they were and quoted the same nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century poetry — Robert Louis Stevenson, Browning, and all the rest — the way white preachers did as well. Gardner Taylor didn’t do the full extent of the musical performance, you might say, in the pulpit, so the preachers were able to think of themselves, “Well, I may not be able to do that, but I could imagine myself doing that.” There’s a tremendous overlap and influence between Gardner Taylor and the white pulpit.

Q: Even today, at 88 years old, he is still teaching and preaching. What does that say about his lasting impact?

A: It means that as long as he is drawing breath he is going to be preaching, and he is going to be influencing other preachers, a whole new generation of young preachers. It’s important that they sit with him and listen to him, so that he becomes more than just an icon to them, because he has genuine wisdom to impart. What he did he did not do out of some native ability. He did it through study and hard work, rehearsal, practice, and performance. These are the sorts of things that are much more common in the African-American church than in the white pulpit. This is another thing that white preachers could learn from the African-American church, that performance is really important. There’s nothing negative or dishonest about performance. A sermon doesn’t exist as a manuscript. We shouldn’t be teaching our preachers to read their manuscripts. A manuscript is something to be put aside and performed orally. For whatever reason, and there are reasons, the African-American church has always understood this, so we have a great deal to learn.

Q: You are a pastor and preacher as well as a professor. How were you personally influenced by him?

A: It’s hard on the old ego to be a scholar of Martin Luther King and to have studied Gardner C. Taylor and then to have to get up and preach yourself. I came to Duke in 1979, and the first time I preached in our Duke chapel — an event for which I was mightily nervous, I’ll have you know — it was in early 1980, and I looked at the schedule, and the person that preached the very Sunday before was Gardner C. Taylor. It’s not good. I got through it; I’m still here. He is an influence because he sets the bar high for all of us. Preachers are always trying to negotiate the kind of language they use in the pulpit. There is one school of preaching that says you’ve got to talk the vernacular, you’ve got to use slang, you’ve got to use common street language. How are you going to reach people? And there’s a certain amount of truth in that. But then comes along a person like Gardner Taylor who says you also have to defy the vernacular, you have to soar above it for the sake of the dignity of the message, for the sake of the dignity of the Gospel. So preachers are always trying to negotiate that double use of language: the ennobling use of language and the communicative use of language. In that, as in so many other dimensions of preaching, Gardner Taylor has been a very fine teacher for us all.

Q: Thinking about the state of preaching today, where does he fit?

A: Let’s say that Gardner C. Taylor is probably not using PowerPoint in his teaching, or film clips, which can be seen as a bit of a retreat from the imaginative power of language. Most great preachers know that the most powerful of the senses for communication is the sense of hearing, not the sense of seeing. Most people would disagree with that, but Lee Strasberg, the great teacher of actors, would have his students voice the word “tonight” twenty different ways. You can’t do that with a picture. Taylor, I would say, is someone who is reminding us that we have a spoken word, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that salvation comes by hearing, not by seeing. Jesus says if you think you must see in order to believe, you will be lost. [Taylor] has held fast in a most eloquent and powerful way to the central tenet of Christianity when it comes to the spoken word, namely faith comes by hearing. As Luther said, it is an acoustical affair. Gardner Taylor has negotiated the public, prophetic call that all preachers have. He has shown how to be courageous and to speak out against injustice and foolishness in politics in the way few preachers have the courage to do. But in doing that, he hasn’t lost touch with what it means to be a parish pastor, and that means to be pastoral in caring for the individual hurts and needs of real people. If you read his sermons, listen to him, you will hear him doing both.

Q: Can you describe the musical dimension of his preaching, the cadences of his voice?

A: His sermons have a tremendous musicality about them. He intones phrases and words as a musician might. Some of his phrases follow an arc that musicians call a glissando. He comes very close at times to singing. His voice is so sweet and pure that the message is so good and so powerful it’s more like a melody that deserves to be sung over and over, and this is why African-American preachers can repeat their sermons just the way we repeat a song. We would never dream of hearing a beautiful song and then never listening to it again. This is the musical component of his voice, and he can also get down and “gravel” like Louis Armstrong, or when the content demands it, if you’re talking about the sons of God singing for joy in the morning, then you’ve got to soar with the sons of God. You’ve got to soar with the angels.

Q: When he is gone, what kind of hole will that leave?

A: I’d like not to think about Gardner C. Taylor as not being here, but when he is no longer with us, he will leave a huge legacy of care about the Scripture, of prophetic utterance and eloquence in the pulpit that will not be matched by anyone who comes along. That doesn’t mean that we have to be trying to produce new Gardner C. Taylors. But the whole trend in so much of contemporary preaching is toward self-realization. It’s toward prosperity, getting your own act together, finding yourself in the world, and so forth. These are themes that certainly Gardner Taylor touches on in his preaching continuously because, after all, he’s a parish pastor. But what I think his greatest legacy will be is what I might call the objectivity of the truth of God’s interaction with the world through Jesus Christ. It is a proclamation, which is what preaching means, first and foremost — a proclamation. Not a touchy-feely what do you think about this or let’s go with that particular idea. Taylor was not afraid to proclaim the Gospel. He would say with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” There is that objectivity, that glorious truth that says not only “I am certain,” but says “It is certain.” That is the legacy of Gardner Taylor.