Bryan Wolfmueller and the world-famous Bagophanes

I was contacted by Lee Proudlove, a vicar in Nottingham and a reader of this blog. Like most of his colleagues he has been transmitting during the lockdown live-streamed services and sermons, scrambling as best he can up the steep learning curve. For ideas he searched the internet and came across Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller. He sent me a link to a video Wolfmueller did for Palm Sunday.

Before I even clicked to start, I registered two things –

  1. Peripheral stress. I’ve addressed peripheral stress before on this blog. If you are not too comfortable or secure, or if there are other stimuli snatching at your concentration, it can do wonders for control of normal nerves by masking their significance. In this case Wolfmueller appears to have decided to drive while preaching.
  2. A name that was new to me, claiming to be world-famous? Bagophanes? What a hook to grab passers-by! Anyone with any curiosity is going to stop for a closer look. Why do you think I used it in the title of this posting?

Without yet having heard a word from him I suspected that Wolfmueller was a smart man. Therefore I pressed “start”.

He opens with a self-deprecating account of how he had recently accidentally recorded a sermon without audio. Self deprecation is good so long as it isn’t making pre-emptive excuses in advance of a lousy performance. My impression was that it wouldn’t be that. Then, settling down to watch the rest, I was struck by a key question. How many ‘takes’ was this recording going to be able to accommodate? Did he have time to go on driving around merely to feed a gimmick?

The more I watched, the more everything fell into place. He has found a way of doing these videos that really works for his personality and is likely to resonate well with most viewers. Explaining something while driving, or listening to someone doing it, is such a familiar experience for anyone interested that the implied environment is as comfortable as can be. Occasional hesitations and/or “erm”, while checking for traffic, are so predictable as not to be noticed. Far from trying for the ‘perfect take’ (which if he even achieved it would be relatively boring) his target is simply to use a single take, warts and all, to put across a story and a message in an easily digested and memorable way. His being personable enables him to do that, while making any flaws in his delivery part of its charm.

Ah yes, memorable! I tell my trainees that the easiest way to make a speech memorable is to give it what I call a Face, a single phrase or sentence by which it will be remembered. Wolfmueller has gone for a single word – Bagophanes! I believe I shall never forget it, if only by remembering his slightly naughty alternative pronunciation. (Actually, on my side of the pond his alternative pronunciation is marginally naughtier – two countries divided by a common language.) I shall not impede your enjoyment by explaining Bagophanes. Suffice it that he has significance to the Palm Sunday story.

Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) said, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech”, and many others have made similar observations, but repeatedly pausing for upwards of ten seconds is brave to the frontiers of foolhardiness. Wolfmueller does that here. I doubt he would in a pulpit, but it works now because though he is silent and still, the surrounding image of scenery and traffic is far from still. Therefore we instinctively accept that he is pausing to allow the world to pass while he reflects upon a carpenter’s son riding a donkey, surrounded by people crying “Hosannah”.

I was right: he’s a smart cookie, and a fine communicator. My thanks to Lee Proudlove for bringing him to my attention, and also for pointing out that book sitting in the middle of the car’s backseat, held there by its own seatbelt. Bryan Wolfmueller is a Lutheran pastor and that book is a biography of Martin Luther – his ever-present backseat driver.