“Nothing Beats the Real Thing”: Buster Keaton, the Art of the Gag, and How It Helps Our Sermonizing

I am a Buster Keaton fan.  Some of you know who he is, but many of you may not. His heyday was during the silent picture era of the 1910s and 1920s.  If you watch the video above, courtesy of Every Frame a Painting, you see how they dissect Keaton’s movies and, as the video title gives away, the art of the gag.

When it comes to the art of preaching, we do not equate this with the art of the gag–except when it comes to execution. Pulling off ways to effectively communicate what you wish to communicate, believe it or not, has certain overlaps between preaching and Keaton’s art on the cinema screen.  Let’s interact with the narrator.

Tell your story through action.  Tony, the narrator, observes that Keaton’s writing and film making are about communicating through action.  Few storyboards are used, as was so common in silent films, in an effort to keep the audience apprised of the story itself.  Keaton used as few as possible, letting the action propel the story.

As preachers, we are governed by the Word of God.  Did you see that important word in that previous sentence?  “Word.”  But preaching is about action, movement, drama, conflict, and conclusions, all of which are found in these Keaton shorts and feature films later on.  As preachers of the Word, we recognize the redemptive action God works in every line of Scripture, moving toward the person of Christ.  Drama?  Yes, given the grave disobedience of God’s people and the movement of God’s enemies.  But it all comes to a conclusion:  come to Me, repent, confess, believe, trust!

Placement of the camera.  When you change the angle, you change the gag (as you saw in the video above).  Camera placement is crucial for the gag.  Framing is critical.  So what does this say for preaching?

Where is our angle?  If our angle is simply about moralistic therapeutic deistic philosophy that permeates our pulpits profusely, we simply believe the Bible is about doing good (moralism) so we feel better about ourselves (therapeutic) and move about as if God isn’t active in the world or our lives (deism).

But if our angle is a Christocentric lens of Scripture, then our angle will see that in Christ we were made, we sinned bringing a curse into God’s perfect world, and are in need of rescue–to which the Scripture moves from copy and type and shadow to the real thing–Christ.  And, as the last line of that clip above shows, “Nothing beats the real thing.”

What are the rules of this particular world?  Keaton had a stringent view of what the rules of this particular world of his movies would entail–reality!  The ‘impossible gags’ he called cartoonish and were abandoned in the feature films.  So the more real, the better–and often to his peril, and our terror as we watch.

The rules of the world of preaching are simply the reality of the text.  We preach what the text says so that the people listening will heed what the text says.  The text tells us the indicatives of who we are, and the imperatives of what we as children of God must do.  The text as quickened by the Spirit governs this world.  Anything else would be ‘cartoonish’ from the preacher and for the listeners.

“Nothing beats the real thing!”  As you watched this clip, what’s your thoughts on the matter?  Do you see any other parallels from Keaton to the pulpit?  Let’s hear from you!

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