Dialogue Sketches 1. Introduction

On to chapter 2 Dialogue Sermons

Chapter 1.   Introduction.

This is a dissertation on preaching, which suggests that monologue preaching, however well used, blessed and developed over the years, is not the only, nor technically the most effective, medium of communication and learning. I begin with a look at the history of dialogue, in general use and Christian tradition, and then examine dialogue sermons and their apparent fall from popularity. Drawing support from communication and educational theory, I propose an original format – “dialogue sketches”, and explain some of the thinking behind the practical instructions offered on my website. A preliminary evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses uses the results of a congregational questionnaire, and a separate questionnaire for ministers. Some conclusions will be drawn, but I hope the technique will continue to be used and developed. The Appendix offers full texts of some dialogue sketches (here on other web pages), as well as the advertising and questionnaire material.

The narrative character of scripture has been much studied in recent years [1 – square bracket = reference at bottom of page]. But not only is narrative a common style, dialogue is an important part of it. God has hardly finished creation, it seems, before he has a conversation with Adam, and Adam (less beneficially) with his wife. As the story continues, we hear Abraham, Moses and others speak with God, and so learn the realities of heaven as well as the salvation-history of a people on earth. The book of Job centres on the record of a debate.

Important as this is, dialogue is not limited to speech quoted in narrative. The book of Malachi is distinctive. Robert C Dentan [2] suggests “The unique form in which the material is presented in the book – the dialogue of question and answer – is no doubt a literary device consciously adopted by the author, but it also reflects the actual situation in which he found himself in frequent verbal conflicts”. George Adam Smith [3] suggests that the structure is no personal idiosyncrasy, but “We rather feel that prophecy is now assuming the temper of the teacher”. Prophecy was in some way discredited or came to be abandoned after the exile, and the later prophetic books show various developments: the later chapters of Daniel moving towards Apocalypse, Habakkuk towards Wisdom, and Malachi (suggests Smith) towards the scholasticism of the Rabbis. Whatever the reason for this literary form, it is important to my argument as an early use of dialogue.

Outside the world of the Old Testament, literary dialogue is traced back to the Greek philosopher Plato [4]. He may have drawn from the early Fifth Century BC work of Sophron of Syracuse, but developed by 400 BC a form of philosophical dialogue, with attention to characterisation and the dramatic situation from which the discussion arises. The form continued with Lucian (Second Century AD), whose “Dialogues of the Dead” inspired many imitations when the Renaissance rediscovered Plato, and led to many imitations of dialogue form.

Jesus use of parables in teaching has been extensively examined, and the gospels note that his teaching was different in style from his contemporaries [5]. What is also interesting is the extent to which dialogue was assumed even by his opponents. When Jesus is questioned about his authority (Mark 11:27ff, cp Mt 21:23ff and Lk 20:1ff), he replies with a question. R McL Wilson [6] comments “As often (eg 10:3, 12:16), Jesus answers with a counter-question, not to evade the issue but raising the fundamental point: ‘If John’s mission was from God, he had pointed to Jesus as the greater than himself for whom his work was but a preparation’ (Turner)”. K Stendahl [7] writing about the parallel passage in Matthew 21:23ff says “To answer by asking another question is typical of rabbinic debate, and is not necessarily evasive, but may rather lead to the right answer or trap the opponent in a concession which implies the answer to the original question.” This is very much the thinking behind dialogue sketches, as we shall see. Strangely, the commentators seem not to ask, “Why did his opponents not tell Jesus to answer the question?” It is clear they were placed in a difficult position, and they must have known that the answer they gave was weak, so why not decline the counter-question and pursue their original line? In contemporary Britain we can imagine just such an exchange, but apparently the acceptance of this form of dialogue was so well established and strong that to have responded to Jesus in this way would have been in some way an admission of defeat. This example seems to me to underline the way in which dialogue is fundamental to the teaching and debating style (and in this way to the formulation of truth statements) at the origin of Christian faith.

Dialogue, in various forms, continues in the rest of the New Testament. Donald Coggan notes the affirming passages in Acts, and in reference to Paul’s work. [8] Acts also continues the gospel tradition of dialogue and reported conversation, and the letters do not lack this style. The reply to questions asked in 1 Corinthians is well known [9]; the formal argument of Romans is dotted with rhetorical questions (perhaps imitating a speaking style?) eg Rom 2:4, 3:1, 4:1, 6:1,2, 7:1, 11:1, 14:10. James shows similar touches (eg 2:1-7, 4:1). Even the visions of Revelation constantly draw the writer into conversation (eg Rev 1:10,17, 4:1, 5:5, 7:13, 10:8, . .).

Dialogue form continues in Christian use after the New Testament. Justin Martyr in the second century outlines the case for Christianity against Judaism in his “Dialogue with Trypho” [10]. Later Anselm of Canterbury would use a question and answer form for his work “Cur Deus Homo?” (“Why did God become Man?”), a classic treatment of the satisfaction theory of redemption, completed in 1099 [11]. At that time liturgical drama was also current. Stories from the Bible or lives of the saints were acted in or near the church, not as essential parts of a standard church service, but at least on some occasions as part of it. Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, in “Regularis Concordia” of the mid tenth century, describes a small scene representing the three Marys approaching the empty tomb, performed during Matins on Easter morning [12]. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries liturgical drama gradually increased in length and sophistication, developing into mystery plays and other vernacular performances outside Church worship.

References cited above:
1 The Oxford Bible Commentary, published 2001, makes frequent reference to narrative style, eg Henry Wansbrough, The Four Gospels in Synopsis, section 61 E “Luke’s narrative skill is particularly distinctive. His scenes are carefully crafted, often like dramatic scenes with ‘stage-directions’ of entrances and exits and liberal use of direct speech and dialogue . .”
2 Robert C Dentan, The Book of Malachi, The Interpreters Bible p1119
3 George Adam Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, p345
4 Encyclopaedia Brittanica, article “dialogue”
5 eg Mark 1:22 and parallels.
6 R McL Wilson, Peake’s Commentary, p812
7 K Stendahl, Peake’s Commentary, p791
8 D Coggan, New Day for Preaching, p27 ref use of Greek dialegomai in Acts 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, and ibid p116, 117 adding Gal 1:10 and 1 Cor 2:4 to argue that Paul sought not debating victory, but the conviction of his hearers.
9 1 Corinthians 7:1 “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote . .” NRSV
10 Encyclopaedia Brittannica, article “Justin Martyr”
11 Encyclopaedia Brittannica, article “Anselm of Canterbury, Saint”
12 Encyclopaedia Brittannica, article “Liturgical Drama”