Audio Content: Some call it famous, others infamous, but whatever you call it, the sermon that Robert Webber gave at Wheaton College’s November 5, 1970, chapel service was highly influential. Titled “The Silence of God,” the speech had a huge impact on the campus and affected students and faculty for days on end.
Coming at the time of great unrest and change in our nation, both politically and theologically, Webber spoke honestly, transparently, and passionately about the ways that modern evangelicalism was failing and falling short. He also spoke emotionally about his own struggles in the faith. Readers of Webber’s later works will hear the first echoes of important themes he held to and championed throughout his academic career.
You’ll also hear plenty that caused a stir at the time: “The answer is not the answer.” “God is dead and we are also dead.” “We should stop preaching the gospel.” Sound intriguing?
Bob writes about the experience in his groundbreaking book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: He had been asked to speak on the topic, “Where is evangelicalism going in the 1970s?” but as he prepared for the sermon, the more troubled he became. The “answers” were not satisfactory. He writes, “Then, in a moment of conviction, I stood to my feet, grabbed the answer part of my sermon in both hands, and vigorously crumpled the papers. Raising my right hand and arm high above my head, I tossed those answers with all my power into the wastebasket. I dropped back into my chair and sobbed for several hours. I had thrown away my answers. I had rid myself of a system in which God was comfortably contained.”
On the morning of the sermon, and after delivering the first part of his text, an evaluation of contemporary culture and the questions that Christianity had to address, he stopped cold: “Then I closed my notebook, looked at [the students] directly, and told them what had happened to me. I told them that the answers don’t work, that what we need is not answers about God but God himself. And I told them how God was more real to me in his silence than he had been in my textbook answers. My God was no longer the God you could put on the blackboard or the God that was contained in a textbook, but a maverick who breaks the boxes we build for him.”
Access to the audio file is presented here (below) for Contributing Members of the Ancient-Future Faith Network. Please also find a personal recollection and story from Bob’s widow, Joanne, and Bob’s official Wheaton faculty photo from 1968, two years before the chapel sermon. Click on the play button in the audio player below to hear this groundbreaking and historic sermon:
“The Silence of God.” Robert E. Webber. November 5, 1970. Chapel, Wheaton College. From the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections. The Ancient-Future Faith Network does not claim copyright over this material. Access for this particular copy was given to the AFFN by Joanne Webber. It is presented here without edits or signal processing.
Of the event, Joanne, Bob’s wife, writes this: “I talked quite a while with my sister-in-law [about that day] since she was there. She didn’t recall classes being cancelled or unattended but did go to Bob’s house [afterward], a few blocks from the campus, and so did many students and I recall Bob [talking about that]…. Bob did tell me that while he was speaking, another person on the platform walked up and put a note on the podium. It said ‘Sit down now!’ Of course, he didn’t. Not all [the] students or staff or faculty liked it and the students were divided, but it remains, I think, the most requested chapel talk of all time.”
One final item: In the sermon, Bob references Peggy Lee’s “Is that All There Is?” Here’s a YouTube link of Peggy Lee speaking/singing the song in a 1969 performance (one year before the Wheaton sermon). The sheet music cover is pictured, right. Originally written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (and orchestrated by Randy Newman), the song was also sung at the time by Leslie Uggams and Tony Bennett, among others, and many other diverse artists since. The song was inspired by a Thomas Mann short story from 1896 titled “Disillusionment.”