Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Preaching Imagination, 3

OK, so I wrote tomorrow's sermon this morning. It's a guest gig and with a particular assignment. And the nature of the sermon, the expectations of the moment, have pushed me away from the things I talked about in the last post. I start with the recital of a text, but follow it with a big honking story, a large structure, a big old freaking funnel. Guidelines, instincts, not laws. FWIW.

I've talked a lot about the primacy of the text in shaping the imaginative landscape of the sermon. And most of my habits in concrete sermon preparation are related to the "world" of the text. Let me explain this a bit. Paul Ricouer talks about different worlds related to texts. There is a world behind the text--the world that produced the text full of historical and cultural meanings and a concrete occasion out of which the text emerged.

There is the world before the text. This is the world of meaning made between the text and the listener. This world is the primary world for Ricouer. Once a text becomes fixed in writing, it becomes independent of the world that produced it. Meaning happens in front of the text regardless of the intention of the original author, according to Ricouer. I take Ricouer's point here, though I am more optimistic about the lingering impact of authorial intention. I happen to think, however, that our best window into authorial intention doesn't come from reconstructing the exact historical circumstance, most of which is lost to us, but through attending to Ricouer's third world--the world of the text.

A text has a certain stubbornness to it. It can't mean anything. It can mean things never intended by the author, but its range of meanings are limited to an extent by the actual words and movement of the text. The text does something. It doesn't just lie there waiting for us to read whatever meanings we want into the text. It works on us. It zigs when we would zag. It has its own weather system. We can read in this world thinly, letting bare impressions give permission to take the sermon in whatever direction we care to. Or we can read thickly in the world imagined by the text.

This is more than asking what particular words mean. This is to ask,"what is this text trying to do?" This is a question of power. It is a question of rhetoric, not just literary device. This text has an interest. What is it interested in doing? And the next question is immediately, "what interests are being denied here?"

Take for instance, Genesis 1. This text is doing something, and it doesn't appear to be setting forth an exacting scientific account of the world we live in. It's giving us a sense that the good order we live in and count on is the product of God's word. And to say this is to say that creation is not the product of violence, of warring forces, gods and demi-gods, but of God's good intentions for all the created order. This is the world imagined by the text. And I want to read as thickly as I can in that world.

But there's another thick reading that makes for a good sermon. The sermon is after all, not simply a reading of the text. The sermon is God's word today. The sermon is part of the ecology of God's continuing word. It is supposed to say something about what God's word might be for this moment. So, there needs to be a thick reading of this moment as well. That requires a disciplined life as well.

So, a few commitments I have along these lines.

I read the NYTimes every day as a spiritual practice. I read it knowing full well its interests beyond simply reporting the news. This is part of what makes it valuable. It takes a stance in relation to the world--often one I appreciate, often one I resist. But beyond stance, it leads me into lives beyond my own. I pray for empathy. And I look for what drives people. What interests predominate our world of action?

I try to keep a biography going at all times, for many of the same reasons. I don't want my life to be the only one the sermon passes through. I've read biographies of Mandela, John Adams, Hannah Arendt, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the UN commander in Rwanda, Emily Dickinson, the list could go on. I rarely quote in my sermons from any of these sources. (I'm not sure I've ever quoted Dylan in a sermon). This is part of rending the world thickly. I'm not mining for illustrations. I'm trying to figure out what people think they are up to.

I listen to music. I do this because this is the place where our poets show up today. What is the world imagined by Springsteen? by Dylan? by Green Day? I also watch movies and read the occasional novel. These are the places where "worlds" are constructed, where interests appear. Here's the deal. Most of the people who listen to sermons have more allegiance to the world imagined by Avatar than they do the world imagined in Exodus. I'm not looking for straw men to beat down. I want the partnership of others who are imagining worlds so that one I invite others into on Sunday is thickly construed, not a cliche, a real conversation about what it is we are up to in God's world.

And I journal. I carry with me a moleskine nearly everywhere I go and I take notes. Writing, composing, observing, is so important in developing a voice. And voice is the most powerful part of the sermon from the point of view of the preacher. Voice is the place of authenticity and conviction. Voice is more than style. Voice is embodiment. I want to hear a preacher's voice, not their artistic productions.

Next time, a hermeneutics of thickness.


David said...

So helpful... keep this series coming!

Brad East said...

"The lingering impact of authorial intention..."


Kevin said...


This series is helpful for a young preacher. It both reminds me of good articles I read in preaching class, but most of all helps my preaching imagination.

Mark said...

I have really enjoyed reading your thoughts on preaching and what goes into sermon preparation!