Ministry in an Oral Culture: Will Rogers, Uncle Remus & Minnie Pearl by Tex Sample
by Rev. Dr. Steven Monhollen on Monday, February 8, 2021
Ministry in an Oral Culture: Will Rogers, Uncle Remus & Minnie Pearl, Tex Sample
Book review by the Rev. Dr. Steven Monhollen
For those of you who want to enliven your preaching or listening in this fraught era of separation during the pandemic, it is worth revisiting this classic. Tex Sample is the sage of interpreting the delights, wisdom, and exasperations of storytelling, inviting intellectual people to build on what you already know using the insights of working-class people.
How do we sing of wonder and awe so far away from home? (Psalm 137:4ish)
Therein lies a dilemma of church people in this time of separation. Enter the matchmaker, Tex Sample, who is akin to a brilliant, earthy, compassionate uncle who senses that we are struggling. He’s writing to those of us who have a formal education and who may be in a church that values an intellectual approach to preaching, education, and worship (what he calls a literate culture). He wants to build on what we know by introducing the rich expressions of those who live with hard times each day.
So, Sample writes a small book of large issues (100 pages, six chapters) which, if we slow down to study it at the speed of noticing, might expand and deepen our ability to communicate more vividly. Sample is humble enough to know his ethnic limits, so he focuses on the hard times and culture he knows intimately: white, working-class people (what he calls part of an oral-traditional culture). They likely have neither time nor energy to study as intellectuals do, yet they have significant, thoughtful ways to respond to adversity.
If Sample had published this book today rather than in 1995, he would probably invite us to recognize that we are all living with hard times each day. It is not an overstatement to say that we live on anvils of political treachery, health calamity, racist infamy, and economic catastrophe. He would note that, to cope with these hard times, up to half the people in our congregations craft meaning and its expressions using traditional working-class culture, sometimes interwoven with intellectual culture. (6)
Consider the Silicon Valley church I attend. Before the Covid separation, you could fling a sugar-free, gluten-free donut in any direction and glaze somebody who has a doctorate, possibly from Stanford, UC Berkeley, or USC. Despite this level of education, at coffee hour and lunch we enjoyed the bonding process that Sample calls folk healing, which is a quality of working-class culture (23). We told stories of loss and dilemma to support each other and figure out how to respond to issues that we faced. Jeanne Farrington, a member, describes this story-exchange as “…how we share the fabric of our lives.”
I will accept no bull from your house. Psalm 50:9ish.
And that is the challenge in this time, to connect authentically with the lived experience of those who hear us. Sample and another clergy now make storytelling the center of their online preaching to strengthen the connection. They use the flexibility of storytelling, but not as illustrations of a point or vehicles for a joke. They create stories from life itself in the working-class sense of expanding the range of who our neighbors are, showing how our decisions affect a web of relationships, and creating memories that will stay with and inspire people when they face dilemmas (13-16; 35-37).
Sample’s book shows and tells us how story, proverbs, and relational thinking address life’s hardness, explore society’s brokenness, and, in a sense, exorcize despair. He invites us to draw from the language styles of working-class culture to energize our storytelling. Consider the following examples:
- Tacit meaning. The language is sometimes earthy and means more than it says: As I told my wife a tall tale, she finally responded, “The longer you talk the more your blue eyes turn brown.”
- Oomph. You’ll find phrases full of hyperbole: “He could start a fight in an empty room.”
- Remembering. Memorization is “…a way to give people portable and lasting support. What you cannot remember in an oral culture, you cannot know.”(13)
- Relational/communal scenario thinking. You’ll find people giving extra weight to how their decisions might impact a community. For example:
A manager for a government retirement program was due in court. That morning, he sat in his cousin’s kitchen, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper until he missed his court appearance. When his cousin asked why, he responded: “If I had testified, I would have been obliged to tell the judge that Mrs. Heath was not technically married to her deceased husband, and she would have lost her survivor and child benefits. I would have been responsible for ruining their lives. Having this coffee and reading this newspaper just seemed like a better way to spend my morning.”
That manager, who grew up in a working-class culture, applied communal scenario thinking, bent the law, and saved three lives…maybe more, if you count into the future.
In sum, Sample’s call for us today is the same as what he might have said in 1995: “Go out and be matchmakers of good news…and tell a powerful story.” And we would do well to visit this small but mighty book again to remember how to do this in a new day.
Rev. Dr. Steven Monhollen is Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Leadership, Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, Kentucky. To comment or complain, try .
Tex Sample is the Robert B. And Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at The Saint Paul School of Theology, Kansas City where he taught for 32 years. At 85, he is the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, Kansas City.