28 November 2006

motivational speaking

I noticed a flyer on campus today advertizing a speaker schedule for this Friday - World AIDS Day - who will be talking to students about HIV-related issues. I'm sure he is a fine speaker and will raise issues that our students need to confront and engage with. But what I found interesting is that he was billed as a "motivational speaker."

As part of my committee work on campus I sit on our school funding board and we have a lot of proposals come to us asking for funding for these sorts of motivational speakers and this, along with seeing the flyer today, got me thinking about their role in contemporary culture. It's especially curious to me since, while some of these speakers are certainly hawking their books and videos, many of them are primarily selling themselves as bearers of a message worth hearing, presented in an appealing way.

It seems to me that these speakers, in some respects, function as modern secular parodies of roles that were once occupied by various sorts of other speakers, particularly pastors and political leaders - the sermons of Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, or countless parish preachers over the centuries; the St. Crispin Day speech of Henry V at Agincourt or the radio speeches of Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II.

The parody certainly is not an exact one. Motivational speakers operate in modes ranging from the therapeutic to the corporate, from the warm exuberance of Leo Buscaglia to the crass misogyny of Tom Cruise's character in the film Magnolia. And such modes of speech have run far afield from ideals embodied by the faithful minister or virtuous national leader.

I don't mean any of that necessarily as a criticism. But it is interesting. Is the rise of the "motivational speaker" merely a function of a growing diversity of social roles, an ever increasing division of labor? Or does it also tell us something about the erosion of the place of the church in culture or about a growing cynicism towards our political leaders?

And what are we to make of the way in which these secular parodies turn around and move back into the church? What of pulpits and platforms where therapeutic and corporate models of motivational speech begin to nudge aside the grammar of the faith and its place spiritual formation?