David Mamet on Preaching

mamet bookWhat do acting and preaching have in common?

I am a fan of writer/director/playwright David Mamet’s work. This is the only reason I picked up his True and False: Heresy and Common Sense For the Actor when I came across it at a thrift store a couple of years ago.  I am not an actor by any means, though I hoped – besides just wanting to read something from the master storyteller – to get some notes on performance that might be useful to the preaching craft.

My hopes were well-founded.

Consider this jewel early on:

Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at the crossroads with a stake through the heart.  Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment. (6)

Preachers, at least in the post-Christian West, possess an increasingly unpopular vocation.  There was a time when actors were loathed and priests admired. Today the admiration is reversed.  Moreover, similar to actors of old, preachers possess a meddlesome calling.  While too many pastors see their role as primarily care-giving, the wise preacher knows her role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

As such, preaching is not “about” us.  Like Mamet’s noble actor, the preacher’s intent should not be convincing the audience of one’s own talent or giftedness.  Only sanctified intentions lead to “pure and clear” performance in the preaching craft:

Art is an expression of joy and awe. It is not an attempt to share one’s virtues and accomplishments with the audience, but an act of selfless spirit. Our effect is not for us to know. It is not in our control. Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make our intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate….our performances become pure and clear. (24)

Great preaching, like inspired acting, points away from itself to something greater.  For that reason, the best sermons draw us, not to the skill of the proclaimer, but to the wonder of the Proclaimed.  Like great acting, truly transformative sermons are not dazzling but “simple and unassuming”:

The greatest performances are seldom noticed. Why? Because they do not draw attention to themselves, and do not seek to – like any real heroism, they are simple and unassuming, and seem to a be a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the actor.  They so fuse with the actor that we accept them as other-than-art. (79)

Mamet has been involved in number of successful projects, including writing the screenplay for The Untouchables.

Mamet has been involved in number of acclaimed projects, including The Untouchables.

Mamet goes on to make an interesting case about the relationship of the actor to the script.  Acting at its best neither adds to nor subtracts from the script, but rather the actor simply shows up and performs. The actress does her best by neither inventing nor denying, but by being “truthful.”

For preachers, our “script” is the canon of Scripture.

Here is where I find the parallel to Mamet’s advice the most helpful.  Preachers also should neither invent nor deny.  Similarly, it is not the preacher’s job to make the text “interesting.” Our vocation is to preach truthfully:

Here is the best acting advice i know. And when I am moved by a genius performance, this is what I see the actor doing: Invent nothing, deny nothing. This is the meaning of character…[i]t is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor’s job to make the performance truthful. (41)

That’s why preaching, like acting, is not about talent but truth and bravery:

I don’t know what talent is, and, frankly, I don’t care. I do not think it is the actor’s job to be interesting. I think that is the job of the script. I think it is the actor’s job to be truthful and brave – both qualities that can be developed and exercised through the will. (98)

Truth and bravery both induce fear. It is easier to be inauthentic. Going with the grain is usually met with reward.  In preaching and in acting, it’s almost natural to feel like a fraud.  Thus, Mamet notes,

Most actors are terrified of their jobs. Not some, most. They don’t know what to do, and it makes them crazed. They feel like frauds. (118)

Feeling fraudulent or not, the show must go on.  Courage is only possible in the presence of fear, not its absence. I have heard of acclaimed preachers who still vomit every Sunday morning.  Nagging lies always come with us when we seek to give our best to a craft.

Get out on stage anyway:

You are going to bring your unpreparedness, your insecurities, your insufficiency to the stage whatever you do. When you step onstage, they come with you. Go onstage and act in spite of them. Nothing you can do can conceal them. Nor should they be concealed. There is nothing ignoble about honest sweat, you don’t have to drench it in cheap scent. (119)

No preacher or actor should ever get too comfortable. The script, biblical or otherwise, challenges us to performance that is truthful. Whatever the craft, any attempt at excellence will be be met with resistance.

Go out to the pulpit anyway, be true to the script, and preach from joy and awe.


What other connections are there between preaching and acting? Are their other arts whose habits are relevant to preaching? Leave a comment below! Don’t forget to subscribe and get new posts sent directly to your inbox.

Comments ( 3 )

  1. ReplyPJ
    Being a retired preacher and traveling full time, I have visited well over 50 churches in the past few years and would not return to fewer than 3-5. The preachers lacked authenticity and passion. They preached to impress and the lack of candor was disturbing. It's no wonder our church attendance is declining.
  2. ReplyLanny
    Thanks, Drew! You bring up a fascinating comparison. I think there is a great similarity in acting and preaching, especially as you point out in faithfulness to a text. In some acting settings, there is freedom for the actor to interpret the "spirit of the script" and explore their character and in doing so may actually deviate from the literal script. I have heard of many instances of this where it is done quite effectively. I think John Bulushi was notorious for this in the movie, "Animal House." I wonder how that might apply to Christian preachers (not "Animal House" but interpreting the spirit of the text). I do not mean to say that preachers have license to "make up things," but I do think that we have some artistic license to get into the spirit of a text and play with that to effectively convey God's intent in it. I think of Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for having literal understanding of the Law, but no sense of the spirit (or rather Spirit) in which it was intended. Of course, there are limits to this. Dr. Greg Jones used to talk about the Articles of Religion and the Creed as "touchstones" for our theological work. Another word I would use would be boundary markers. But I do think the Spirit invites us to walk around and explore the world of a text.
  3. ReplyJim Lung
    Very interesting, Drew. Reflecting on acting and preaching from the perspective of one who is in the audience each Sunday, I am remembering two sermons from two very different preachers. Both encounters are so seared in my memory that I can almost relive the moment I first heard each. At first blush I'm tempted to use the word magic, but there was no magic involved. It's the Spirit. It's also poetry and picture. The spoken words evoke an image that creates in the hearer an intuition of the meaning intended to be conveyed. Acting and preaching take the same raw material -- words -- and create an experience. Now I know why the preacher invokes God's blessing on both the preaching and the hearing. Without God, there's only empty thunder.

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