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Sermons as Practical and Linguistic Performances: Insights from Theory and History

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Sermons lend themselves to ambiguous identification in the study of religions. On the one hand, they are easily recognisable practices, delivered on particular days of the week, or when special occasions or needs arise. They are usually given in clearly defined places at clearly defined times. They are given by designated or recognized individuals that vary according to the respective religious traditions. On the other hand, sermons are speech performances that may and often do vary from one occasion to the next. While prone to a certain formalism, sermon speech acts are open to variation from time to time, and from preacher to preacher. To extend the possibilities offered by sermons for reflection and analysis, I explore some of the theoretical insights suggested for sermons in ritual studies and from the history of sermons within religious traditions. There is no consensus within ritual studies, but there are some useful ideas and suggestions that cover and extend the practices and speech acts that constitute sermons. More significantly, I found the longue durée of the sermon in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to be more resourceful. The historical view of the sermon in comparable religious traditions brings forth enduring elements such as reading texts, employing rhetoric, producing effects (including affect), signifying and challenging authority, and marking time and space. More than the theoretical models for rituals from anthropology and religious studies, this historical perspective brings out the value of the practices and speech elements that constitute sermons.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies, University of Cape TownSouth Africa


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