Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Preaching Imagination, 2

In the movie, "A Knight's Tale," knights joust to the strains of contemporary rock and roll. Characters in medieval garb function as odd contemporaries, competing to the strains of "We will Rock You" and "Taking Care of Business." The movie does not depict an ancient setting, but neither is it contemporary. The genre of movie has created an imaginative setting in which a temporal warp allows the viewer to stand in various worlds simultaneously. Good preaching does the same thing. The genre of gospel, a dramatic turning of the ages, allows the preacher to stand in a new world, neither ancient nor of this age, but a world of the gospel's own imagination. The sermon is an intertextual web that brings into creative interplay the echoes and allusions of Scripture, the contexts of contemporary communities, and the instincts of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Under the influence of the gospel, the sermon insists on speaking, even if somewhat anachronistically, in the present tense.

I wrote these words at the conclusion of an essay on preaching for ACU Press book, Preaching Romans, 2002. It's my take on the whole issue of relevance, and it begins with an assumption about the gospel. The gospel is fundamentally the announcement of a dramatic turn of the ages. As Paul says, Christians are those "upon whom the end of the ages has fallen" (1 Cor 10). Richard Hays suggests that "Paul believes himself, along with his churches, to stand in a privileged moment in which the clutter of past texts and experiences assumes a configuration of eschatological significance" (Echoes of Scripture in Paul, 161). Paul assumes a "nearness" in Scripture, an immediacy given the inauguration of a new age initiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

One way to say this is that Paul doesn't read Scripture as addressed to a historically distant "them," but to an eschatologically privileged "us." Again, 1 Cor 10, "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down for us, on whom the end of the ages has fallen." I try to think of the sermon in the same way. In the sermon, by virtue of the gospel, Romans is not a word primarily for a distant "them" that we overhear, but a word to us. My job, in other words, is to assume relevance, not to make the text relevant.

This would again make my former professors of preaching faint. We were taught to think of the sermon as a bridge that connected what the word meant to the original audience to what the word means to contemporary hearers. I understand this impulse. It keeps the text in a position of primacy before we let our current notions slip into the potion of the sermon. And I certainly value the work of historical critics who have illumined the setting of so much of Scripture. I don't want to do away with this sensibility. I want to temper it, put it within a larger theological context.

There are several deficits built into a bridge theory of the sermon. Again, the bridge assumes that the biggest thing to overcome in the sermon is a historical chasm between the world that produced the text and ours. The way to overcome this is to isolate the original intention of the author through exegetical method, distill the text into some universal point or principle, and walk the point across the bridge by way of analogy and make the point contemporary through illustration and application. I will mention just two weaknesses of this approach here (if I can restrain myself).

First, the historical gap is not the only one that stands between the reader and the text, and it may not be the most significant. Ancient preachers and theologians knew well the historical spread between them and the text, but felt that this gap paled in comparison to the spiritual one that exists between text and proclaimer. The historical-critical method when applied to preaching tends to bracket these matters or hold them only to the final, secondary matters of sermon preparation. It was never suggested to me that I approach the text with any other question than "what did this mean to the original audience." (Forget for a minute the hermeneutical nightmare associated with that question). No one ever suggested to me that lectio-divina or other readings strategies might address far more significant gaps than the historical one.

Second, the text gets left behind in the sermon. The text too often is treated in the sermon as a historical artifact to be explained. The preacher and the listeners stand at a far distance from the text and observe it as visitors. Like zoo patrons, we plug a quarter into the machine and listen to an explanation of the text's original habitat at a safe distance. The text is trapped in the past tense. I have had students track when they feel most engaged with a sermon. It nearly always relates to direct address, present tense speech. The bridge theory of the sermon keeps the text in sepia tones, while the contemporary illustrations and stories are in vivid color. This is a crying shame given the dynamic range of much of Scripture. We're trading inspired writ for football illustrations.

OK, so I'm trying to move past a bridge theory of the sermon, and this is a theological move for me (more on this later), but for now a few implications for the sermon.

I assume relevance. This text has something to say, even in all of its strangeness (perhaps because of it), to all of us upon whom the end of the ages has fallen.

I preach as much as possible in the present tense. I prefer "Paul says..." to "Paul said to the Corinthians..." This is an instinct, not a law.

I frame the sermon with the language and images of the text, and I nearly always begin with the text. I can't tell you how many sermons I hear these days that begin with something other than the text. And because sermons, good ones at least, seek a certain symmetry, they tend to end where they begin. The illustrations dominate the imagination of the sermon.

I blend worlds as often as possible. One of my favorite comments about my preaching came from a friend who observed that there's a certain seamlessness between text and occasion. The sermon doesn't jerk you back and forth from one world to another. Narrate the text with a contemporary allusion. Talk about our world in the language and cadences of the text. Because of this instinct, I prefer echoes and allusions to full-blown stories and illustrations. I'm trying to open the imaginative landscape of the sermon, not close it down with one or two dominating images.

I know this post has likely raised as many issues as settled them. Which is the great thing about a blog. More to come.


Anonymous said...


Again, dead on. I appreciate much if what you say here, and we share many of the same instincts. I remember being so convicted by an article you wrote -- I think in Leaven, perhaps -- about present tense speech, that I attempt each week to do that very thing.

I have a question about allusions and echoes. No offense to any of my church members who might stumble upon this, but there are precious few people in my context who "get" allusions or echoes -- and not just those of a Biblical variety. There are multiple reasons for this. Therefore, I am attempting to find the middle ground. Jesus certainly taught by story, but as one of m,y other preaching professors has said, "People use stories because they work." He didn't mean it as a good thing. What he meant was that the hearers leave remembering the story and very little else. They think they've "enjoyed" or "liked" the sermon (whatever that means), but really they enjoyed the story. It's not unlike watching 'The Office' in that case.

So, how do we find balance (if that's the right word)?

Mark Love said...


None of these are laws for me. I will tell the occasional story. But I think you should know what you're doing when you choose that. Stories used as illustrations are designed to foreclose on the imagination. Story told for its own sake opens up the imaginative landscape. Story as a large structure is open, and I think most of my sermons have a narrative structure of sorts. But when used as analogy, as a trope, larger structures create one big funnel for all of the imaginative capacity of the listener. Smaller structures don't function as a funnel, but as texture. So, illustrate with stories when appropriate, just realize what risks you're taking when you do.

I don't worry much that listeners don't grab all of the allusions or echoes. You have to look at preaching as a strategy over time, not sermon by sermon. You create a sensibility, a way of moving and thinking, a world of sorts. Allusions pile up over time. Depending on the burden of the echo or allusion, you might need to reel out more line. Explain more, provide more context.

Contemporary allusions are easier. Our listeners have a greater cultural literacy than a biblical one. Most of them most of the time don't need the entire story to make good use of the allusion. I use them pretty liberally. But again, if the allusion or figure is meant to bear a lot of weight, then let out some line. Make sure the figure is sufficient for the load.

And I loathe the word balance.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the point I continue to make, preaching seen as individualized sermons, distilled into three fairly ludicrous and largely unthoughtful "points," shuts out the hearers, yet to a significant degree it is either (A) what people "want" or (B) what they think they "want." It's the Now-I've-Got-Something-To Stick-In My-Pocket-And-Take-Home mentality. IMHO, it require little to nothing of the hearer, which, again, may be the aim of some, but I also want to be careful.

As I look across the preaching landscape many of the preachers, pastors and teachers who employ these tools have large churches which are growing, planting other churches and serving around the world. These churches are doing good things. I'm not one of those folks who will castigate others because they have what I consider a "low-view" of the preaching event. At the same time, I look at our ecclesial tribe and note that none of our churches can break the 5,000 barrier. That's barely admittance into the Megachurch club. It makes me question whether we are doing something wrong, and whether that something has to do with our preaching and teaching.

I LOVE what you have to say about the preaching imagination, and quite frankly, am inspired by it. At the same time, I wonder if the low-view, dumbed down, guided notes, folks have something. Certainly there is room for both. So, I suppose my question is this; Is our preaching too smart? Does it ask too much? Heck, most people in the pew think of unicorns and fairy-dust when they read "imagination."

So, as the person I consider most helpful on these matters, what do you think? Is church of Christ preaching (at least the ones you and I would care to be associated with) too professorial?

Mark Love said...

I couldn't say. I do think people have to get used to a different way of hearing a sermon. When I first went to EC, all the note takers looked absolutely lost and for about a year the notebooks stayed in the purses during the sermon. But they came out again after awhile. It took them a bit to anticipate the sermon.

I will say that preaching is folk art, or should be. It should be in the vernacular. People shouldn't feel that they're not smart enough or hip enough to listen to the sermon. I don't think what I'm proposing is by definition professorial or high brow.That doesn't mean that everyone has to "get" everything in every sermon. Or that a sermon can't be smart.

I think Buttrick's notion of preaching in moves and framing helps here. It plants enough declarative flags along the way that people don't get lost forever if they miss something early.

But, there's no one formula. I've never used a handout in a sermon and I seldom use powerpoint. And that's in part because of how I think of preaching and outlines and powerpoint, but a lot of it is about what I'm good at and not good at. If I were good at it, I might do it more.

Last point. I was fairly transparent with the congregation about my commitments in preaching. I let them know what I was trying to do, especially how my preaching instincts were formed by the encounter with Scripture itself. I brought them into my sermon prep on Wed night. I think that kind of thing helps immensely.