Chapter 4: Inductive Preaching and the Imagination
The inductive method of preaching makes such a demand upon the imagination that the nature and the significance of that demand need to be considered in detail. If, as has been stated thus far, the preacher is to communicate in such a way that the congregation can hear what he has heard, then he will not be satisfied to reduce the sights and sounds of his experience to points, logical sequences, and moral applications. He will fervently desire to recreate that experience and insight; he will seek to reflect it, not simply reflect upon it. In this task, the preacher will be served best by what Martin Heidegger calls the primary function of language: letting be what is through evocative images rather than conceptual structures.1 But we may be moving ahead of ourselves here. Perhaps our full appreciation of this idea and the role of imagination in preaching waits upon our being disabused of faulty and inadequate understandings of this particular faculty of the human spirit.
Imagination is fundamental to all thinking, from the levels of critical reasoning to reverie and daydreaming. It is unfortunate and unfair that imagination has been popularly allied primarily with fantasy and thus often spoken of pejoratively as “just imagination” in the sense of the unreal and the untrue. Problem solving of all types, in the laboratory, in the kitchen, on a battlefield, or in the board room places a great burden upon the image-making faculty of the mind. Our own age, committed as it is to facticity and to the literal sequences of printed words can easily forget its indebtedness to imagination. Alfred N. Whitehead, scientist, mathematician, and philosopher, has described the path of human progress this way: “The true method of discovery is like the flight of an airplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight into the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.”2
The galleries of the mind are filled with images that have been hung there casually or deliberately by parents, writers, artists, teachers, speakers, and combinations of many forces. The preacher knows they are there, and he knows they may or may not correspond to reality and therefore may aid or hinder communication and learning. For example, he knows when he says “saint”, an image appears and that image is very durable and most difficult to alter. If he goes on to speak of “a saint riding in an airplane”, he should realize that saint and airplane are two very different images for many of his hearers and they will relinquish one or both rather than admit his radical conflation of the two. It may privately satisfy the preacher to ridicule and scorn antiquated imagery but the persistence of those old pictures is a tribute to the communicative power of previous generations and an indictment of his own inability to replace them.
Images are replaced not by concepts but by other images, and that quite slowly. Long after a man’s head has consented to the preacher’s idea, the old images may still hang in the heart. But not until that image is replaced is he really a changed man; until then he is a torn man, doing battle with himself and possibly making casualties of those nearby in the process. This change takes time, because the longest trip a person takes is that from head to heart.
All this is to say that in dealing with the imagination we are not on a tangent moving away from the center of the sober business of the Gospel. We are, however, on a line of thought that moves against much common opinion. Recall how lightly pictures in a book are regarded in comparison to the script. Do examinations over a book include questions about the pictures?
In a manuscript culture. . .very little exact information is deliberately communicated with the help of pictures, which even when they contain exactly rendered representations of natural objects, tend to be decorative rather than informative in intent. 3
Because images, in a book or in a sermon, are generally regarded as decorative and hence optional in their bearing upon the principal form and content of the communication, the imaginative preacher may have to endure such comments as “His sermons don’t seem theologically weighty” or “It was too interesting to have contained much truth”, or perhaps such inverted compliments as “I was much involved in your talk, or whatever it was. It didn’t seem like a sermon.” But the preacher will know what he is doing and will understand the power of an image to replace an image and hence to change a man or a society.
Imagination is as essential to life as is hope; in fact, the re-activation of the dimension of hope in theology has begun to bring about more positive re-assessments of imagination. A significant little book appeared recently with the title Images of Hope and the subtitle Imagination as Healer of the Helpless..4 Imagination and hope belong together because imagination is ingredient to hope. Hope has many images: a lion and lamb lying together, breaking bread together, children beside a Christmas hearth, a banquet table, a bridal gown, a diploma, a pardon. No thoughtful person would toss these into a corner as “just imagination”; they are anchors cast within the veil.
For the minister, therefore, evocative imagery is not just an interesting introduction to a sermon nor a welcome break midway in the main body of the message nor a gripping conclusion. Images are not, in fact, to be regarded as illustrative but rather as essential to the form and inseparable from the content of the entire sermon. By means of images the preaching occasion will be a re-creation of the way life is experienced now held under the light of the Gospel. Here imagination does not take off on flights into fantasy but walks down the streets where we live. Here imagination reflects reality, and it is in their being real that sermons are delivered from dullness and impotence.
The place to begin discussing the function of imagination in preaching is not at the point of using imaginative words and phrases, but at the necessarily prior point of receiving images. As it is the person who hears who has something to say, so preaching begins not with expression, but with impression. This calls for a sensitivity to the sights, sounds, and flavors of life about him that is not easily maintained by the minister, or by anyone else.
Several factors are at work to close the pores of one’s psychological and mental skin and effect the loss of sensitivity. This loss is in part a natural one, a poor bargain made in the process of maturing and growing older. William Wordsworth lamented for all of us the fading of those alert years when “the heart leaped up” at the sight of a rainbow or when eyes not yet dulled by dissipation could catch the “splendor in the grass”. The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer once said, “There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”5 All his life the minister needs to do battle against this gradual loss, for he knows that, as far as his preaching is concerned, it is better to have a child’s eye than an orator’s tongue.
The battle can be waged with some success simply by staying alive personally. This means that the preacher does not allow himself to become only a dealer in those commodities that allow others to live; he himself lives. He does not just announce the hymns, he sings; he does not just lead in prayer, he prays. Time spent walking rustic lanes, pushing on crowded subways, strolling among window shoppers, or standing in dreary terminals where life is reduced to arrival and departure is not with notebook in hand getting illustrations for sermons. Rather these are the movements and scenes of his own life and from his own psyche they inevitably become part of his preaching. If the imagery of his sermons is to be real he must see life as life, not as an illustration under point two. This means that the preacher who sees a cloud as a cloud, garbage as garbage, a baby as a baby, and death as death will be able to share images that are clear and that awaken meaning. It is true that there are tongues in trees and sermons in stones but only he who deals with trees as trees and stones as stones gets the message. It was while looking for his father’s asses that Saul found a kingdom. Two men of Emmaus shared an ordinary evening meal with a stranger and that supper became a sacrament. Life on its grandest scale comes to him who opens the door to the ordinary.
This same open receptivity toward life mediated through literature will be equally rewarding in the effort to maintain sensitivity. Nothing is reflected more obviously in the content, mood, and dimensions of a man’s sermons than the variety of his own reading. The most valuable literature for preaching is the great book read when the pressure of the next sermon was not there to turn the mind into a homiletical magnet, plucking useable lines from the page.
Of course, it must be admitted that some of the loss of sensitivity in the minister, or in anyone, is necessary for thought and concentration. To a certain extent becoming deaf and blind to distractions, a process often referred to as negative adaptation, is nature’s way of enabling us not only to keep our sanity but also to earn a college degree, operate machinery, carry on a conversation, meditate, or get a little sleep. But even so, of all people the minister should most often be asking himself, “In addition to that loud television next door, to what else have I become deaf?” Knowing the usual professional hazard of becoming hardened to the very human dramas that first moved him to the ministry, he will beware lest he add to it the conscious hardening that serves as defense against pain and loss. To be sensitive and open to others is to be vulnerable; that was made clear at the outset, at Golgotha.
By this time it should be evident how indispensable to preaching, and most especially inductive preaching, is the pastoral involvement in the life of the congregation. When the pastor writes a sermon, an empathetic imagination sees again those concrete experiences with his people which called upon all his resources, drove him to the Bible and back again, and even now hang as vivid pictures in his mind. When a pastor preaches, he doesn’t sell patent medicine; he writes prescriptions. Others may hurl epithets at the “wealthy” but the pastor knows a lonely and guilt-ridden man confused by the Bible’s debate with itself over prosperity: Is prosperity a sign of God’s favor or disfavor? Others may display knowledge of “poverty programs” but the pastor knows what a bitter thing it is to be somebody’s Christmas project. He sees a boy resisting his mother’s insistence that he wear the nice sweater that came in the charity basket. He can see the boy wear it until out of Mother’s sight, but not at school out of fear that he may meet the original owner on the playground. There are conditions worse than being cold. Others may discuss “the problem of geriatrics” but the pastor has just come from the local rest home and he still sees worn checkerboards, faded bouquets, large print King James Bibles, stainless steel trays, and dim eyes staring at an empty parking lot reserved for visitors. Others may analyze “the trouble with the youth today” but the pastor sees a fuzzy-lipped boy, awkward, noisy, wishing he were absent, not a man, not a child, pre-occupied with ideas that contradict his fourteen years’ severe judgment against the girls.
Some ministers have conducted themselves on the principle that too much involvement in the lives of the parishioners constitutes an overexposure which weakens the force of their preaching. In other words, distance is essential to authority. In terms of one traditional view of the ministry, this observation is correct, but the inductive method cannot live with that image. In the inductive method it is essential that the minister really be a member of the congregation he serves. Some men seem unable, for reasons deeply imbedded in their own needs and fears, to live in this relationship with the people and hence to preach in this way. This is the meaning of earlier statements to the effect that one’s method of preaching is determined by and is expressive of issues and convictions far beyond the province of a course in public speaking.
The danger for preaching that lies in open sensitivity to the experiences of others is not in an erosion of authority by overexposure but in the overwhelming of the preacher’s imagination. Having his mind flooded by the wide range and multiplicity of conditions of human need, he may make one of three errors in the sharing of images received. First, he may feel that so many needs face him that he cannot be specific and concrete in his sermons. To preach a sermon that re-creates and interprets the world of a teen-ager would be, he may feel, to neglect the elderly, or vice versa. Thus aware of all, he stretches the canvas of his mind to include everyone and the pictures become vague and general and hence unable to evoke thought or meaning. Secondly, the preacher may, out of this concern for all the individuals before him, preserve the sharp clear imagery of concrete situations but crowd so many different pictures into one sermon that his kaleidoscopic presentation lacks unity, and lacking unity, it lacks movement. Both of these problems will be discussed in the next chapter. The third danger to preaching caused by an overwhelmed imagination is that of allowing the mind and therefore the sermons to dwell on the more spectacular, the more newsworthy images of the human condition. The news media now bring the world of violence, poverty, war, and moral debauchery to the mind on wide screen, in color. The preacher will need to be careful lest his messages all become widescreen and color presentations. While these conditions are with us and bear upon the meaning of being a responsible Christian regardless of how quiet and secure the local parish, it is also vital that the preacher not be seduced by his television into thinking that these are the only needs in the world. There are many “meanwhile, back at the ranch” people whose needs are not only very real but whose conditions are worsened by the fact that they have been made to feel that in a world as sick as ours, they have no right to cry for help. Many whose lives are small screen, black and white, push through the crowd to touch the hem of His garment, hoping for a little inconspicuous healing.
The minister who is most capable of receiving and sharing the images that reflect reality is the minister who is not suspicious of any of his own faculties for such impression and expression. Some men, for theological or moral reasons, are not only suspicious of but are negatively disposed toward some dimensions of their own physical and psychic make-up. For example, quite a large percentage of the life pictures that come to us and ask to be reflected in our preaching are markedly emotive rather than logical or rational. A minister who is suspicious of emotion or uncomfortable with it, will allow his preaching either to suffer the total loss of this flavor or to suffer the distortion of emotion by his poor translations of it into rational concepts. For this reason it is important for the minister to think through carefully his own estimation of those pathways in the human psyche along which men feel as well as think their way. This examination may raise the deeper but directly related questions as to his own ability to cry or laugh or celebrate.
Some of us have been educated to regard emotion negatively, to define it as disorganized behavior or a biological lag. In the wake of this perspective came a view of maturity that was without emotion. The mature person served afternoon tea to both teams but certainly never got caught up in the struggle. The result was a tourist class citizen, negotiating life with a calm indifference, preferring to die curled up on some principle rather than to give his life fighting for what might eventually be judged an error.
This is, of course, a confusion of emotion and emotionalism, defining a quality by its extreme. Certainly there has to he clear recognition of the dangerous possibilities for dishonesty, deception, and maneuvering people by emotionalism. A preacher of integrity will avoid the practice of imitative magic, manufacturing tears, laughter, and other emotional signs in order to generate these among his hearers. On the other hand, such tricks by the charlatans should not effect the error of the opposite. In a simple figure, it is quite all right if the cup overflows, but the minister should not tilt it.
In our own time, the dominance of facticity characteristic of a technological age has tended to submerge the normal channels of emotional life, often producing abnormal and unhealthy emotionalism when they do surface. However, there are clear and welcome signs in recent years that we have learned anew the presence of a full set of emotions is no evidence of the absence of intelligence, nor is the ability to feel strongly about a matter to be interpreted as lack of maturity. Effective preaching reflects the minister’s open receptivity to those life scenes which are noticeably emotional in flavor but which constitute memorable and important stations along the way most people travel. From the time a baby reaches from the crib to catch the sunbeam streaming through a keyhole until the day when he sits old and alone among the pigeons in the park, the significant turns in the long road are marked by images with an emotional force that lingers in the memory long after the factual details are faded and dim. The preacher must be a whole person to admit such material without distortion or apology into his sermons.
We are considering the large room that belongs to imagination in every life with the obvious implication that preaching which moves inductively from concrete experience must not radically diminish that room nor alter it beyond recognition. This requires first of all an empathetic imagination in the preacher, a capacity to receive the sights, sounds, tastes, odors, and movements of the world about him. That this be real and not contrived necessitates receptivity to the full range of human emotion. Related to and yet possessing qualities beyond emotion is the aesthetic dimension of human experience. Sermons that reflect and address reality do not easily and always dissect every subject into true and false, right and wrong. Such divisions are also distortions because they are both partial and contrary to the way much of life is experienced. Many parishioners have come to expect but still resent the minister’s reduction of life into the two categories — right and wrong. The reason for their resentment is that their experience has not been primarily one of right and wrong but perhaps could better be classified as the experience of beauty and ugliness. Should not the preacher include these categories if his sermons are to register the impression and the expression of reality?
Two objections may be raised against the homiletic embrace of the aesthetic. First, it may be argued that the aesthetic factors, while offering some interest and pleasure to the hearers, are, in fact, pure ornament and lack power to bring about any change. The urgent business of the Kingdom, we are told, demands that there be some leverage in all that we say and do, and beauty is powerless. Or to change the imagery, beauty is frosting, but it will not feed the world.
There is a practical ring to this position that is not without persuasion, nor precedent. It arises in church board meetings when the topic is carpets, steeples, stained glass windows, and pipe organs. It arose when a woman “wasted” an alabaster jar of expensive ointment when she anointed Jesus at Bethany. (Matthew 26:6-13) In a few minutes the aroma of that perfume has dissipated and what improvement was there in the condition of the world? The disciples had a point: the ointment should have been converted to cash and the cash to blankets, bread, and milk for the poor. Is Jesus’ defense of her, that she had done a “beautiful thing”, really adequate? The world needs food, not fragrance. According to the usual canons by which men make judgments in the marketplace, Jesus stands corrected by any observant schoolboy. Should roses cumber the ground where onions will grow? How impractical and spendthrift is the aesthetic spirit! A choir of seventy voices works a total of more than seven hundred man hours to prepare for a five-minute delivery into the air. That same amount of time and energy more practically directed would cut all the weeds along Interstate 35 from Wichita to Kansas City.
For all the wise caution and sound counsel in these clear-eyed observations, there still remains something essentially vulgar about this craving for utility. Whoever looks upon a forest as only so many feet of lumber, or upon clouds as only inches of rain, or upon meadows as only bales of hay operates his estate at a loss. Extract from man’s life a healthy portion of songs and flowers and you have reduced to something less than man “the creature the Lord God has made to have dominion over land and sea”. This issue involved here is no less than the nature of man. That person who refuses to grow flowers because he cannot fry rose petals in the fat of swine is a person who would, upon embracing the Christian faith, turn everything to practical ends: prayers help insomniacs, Bible reading settles nerves, clean living and honesty pay dividends, and church attendance wards off Communism. There is hardly any reason to preach to a man who would stand before a masterpiece in an art gallery with his hat on; he might hear the words but he would miss the tune of the Gospel.
If the preaching of the Church would address the whole man then let the imagination play over the facts and awaken tired spirits. Many of the parishioners are not so much evil as they are bored, and their entire Christian experience has never provided them a chair in order to sit for an hour in the heavenly places with Christ. They do not need an argument; they need air. Why not sermons that celebrate the unconditioned love of God? Instead of using Thanksgiving to scold the ungrateful, why not a doxological message? Instead of the weary harangues against commercialism at Christmas and the attacks against the once-a-year churchgoers at Easter, would it not be just as courageous to announce the Good News? Some Sunday mornings the minister should take the congregation by the hand and with them step off the dimensions of their inheritance as children of God. Some of them have been “preached at” for years but have never been given a peek into the treasury, much less to run their fingers through the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Is it true that there is no power in such preaching? Certainly not! The power of a revolution resides in the spirit that approaches life aesthetically. The great champions of the Social Gospel application of the message of Jesus and the prophets to the industrial, social, and economic problems of America were men who looked at those problems with aesthetic sensitivity. The poetic spirit of Washington Gladden was violated by injustice and economic imbalance; the ugliness and stench of poverty and disease stirred to action beauty-loving Walter Rauschenbusch. And those now involved in the church’s struggle against injustice would do well not to permit the aesthetic dimensions of the problems to be dismissed in the name of “stark realism”. The social crises of our time are, among other things, conflicts of harmony and noise, symmetry and distortion, poetry and prose, beauty and ugliness, fragrance and stench.
The second objection to the sermonic embrace of the aesthetic is that such preaching does not speak to every one. This position is predicated on the view that in the hierarchy of human values and needs, aesthetics is near the top and therefore beyond the experience of all but the cultured and leisure classes. These sober brows tell us that no preacher has the right to speak of beauty to the balconied few while the groundlings struggle with the soil for bread.
The facts themselves answer this objection. Man in his struggle for survival has never been so reduced that his privations snuff out his aesthetic life. Put man in the simplest cabin and he will plant petunias about the door; drive him into a cave and he will play the artist on the wall; leave him nothing but sticks and he will devise a flute; bind him in chains and he will drag them to some remembered cadence; imprison him and he will sing hymns at midnight. The song leader of America has been the Negro; what right has he to sing? Our country has been led in laughter by Jews who cannot remember when Israel did not have crepe on the door.
The preacher who shares the whole Gospel with the whole man cannot listen to the guilt-laden people who weary us with their counsel that we cannot celebrate Christmas until Herod is dead. Of course, the celebration is premature; all celebrations are premature. It is premature to sing carols at the crib when Good Friday is yet to come; it is premature to light birthday candles when death is one year closer; it is premature to kill the fatted calf when there is no guarantee the prodigal will not leave again. But Christ is born King even before Herod is dead. If in that harsh world a mother’s whisper and a baby’s cry could be heard above the clash of shield and sword, why should the preacher withdraw his own soft hopes and turn cynic? This is not to say that he will ‘‘use” aesthetics to infuse sweetness into bitter things. Rather he will remain sensitive to those meaningful qualities of human experience which are often muffled by the sirens that daily alert the public to the beginning of a new countdown. The minister whose imagination receives and shares these sights and sounds will preach with a realism beyond that of a journalistic mentality.
We are considering the minister’s capacity for impression as the necessary prerequisite for expression. An empathetic imagination means first having the wisdom and grace to receive the images of life about us and then secondly the freedom and confidence to reflect these with appropriate expressions. Such honest receptivity and reflection is fundamental to the nature and movement of inductive preaching, concerned as it is with the concrete realities within human experience. As we have noted these experiences involve thought, emotion, and aesthetic appropriations. Finally a word should be said about humor, because an honest reception of life’s imagery will naturally and normally prompt laughter. The reason for this is that humor is directly related to the experience of concrete reality. The extent to which the preacher’s mind dwells upon the general, universal, and abstract will be the measure of his lack of humor. Traditional deductive preaching, bringing general truths to bear upon the lives of the hearers, has therefore been marked by a lack of humor. But inductive preaching opens the door immediately to the presence of this dimension of our common life.
Inductive preaching will, therefore, have to face the criticism of often appearing less serious. Those who make such a criticism, feeling that the high seriousness of preaching precludes all humor in the pulpit, are more influenced by a Puritan heritage than by the Bible. They also fail to understand the nature of humor. Humor grows out of the genuine capacity to sense the seriousness or importance of an occasion, or an event, or a word. It is the person who is always apparently serious who is not really taken seriously. The force of humor as humor depends upon the direct evidence of truth or significance in the matter involved. An analysis of humor will reveal at its base something sacred, profound, or highly significant. Hence much humor involves occurrences in a school room, in a sanctuary, in domestic relations, or the attendance to creature needs. Even the sacraments of the church have provided occasions of humor, muffled, of course, by a sense of guilt which failed to see that only the true and meaningful can provide the leverage necessary for laughter. The human body knows this because its physiological adjustments are essentially the same for laughter and for tears.
The raw materials for humor are the concrete realities experienced by all of us. Humor arises not when these realities are viewed nonseriously but when these are brought together with incongruity, effecting a misplaced accent, a slight distortion of the usual, or the mixing of values. Mary’s little lamb at school, a bird in the sanctuary, a fly on the preacher’s nose, a leak in the baptistry, a stubborn lock on the restroom door, these very concrete and “experienceable” occasions prompt laughter. There is no laughter in broad references to education, adoration, stewardship, righteousness, and humanity.
The minister who receives and shares the authentic signals of life as the congregation knows it will have a sense of humor. This does not mean he tells jokes. Telling jokes is no clear sign of a sense of humor and is a questionable pulpit practice with much common sense against it. But a sense of humor is simply the freedom to receive and to share life’s imagery without the compulsion to evaporate the concrete into spiritual truths or melt it down into bland generalities. Thus understood, humor becomes for speaker and hearer a form of celebration, an expression of fellowship, a confession of trust in the Creator who made things as they are and who does not need the protection our humorless piety would afford.
Given, then, the capacity for being impressed by the full range of signals from life without and within, there remains for the preacher the task of expression. Simply put, this task is to use evocative imagery that will allow his congregation to see and hear what he has seen and heard. What he has seen and heard is not a special esoteric corpus of information about God which has been delivered to him to pass along, but our existence as it is in the liberating light of God’s graciousness toward us. God’s Word is not so much “a light which shines upon God but a light which shines from Him”.6 But how is the minister to speak so that the images he has received are formed in the imaginations of his hearers with clarity and force sufficient to effect changes in attitudes, values, and life directions? Perhaps the most adequate answer could be framed by distilling into several guiding principles what has been said or implied in this regard in this and the preceding chapters.
First, let the selection of images to be shared be drawn from the world of experience known to the hearers and let these images be cast in forms recognizable as real and possible. This is to say, at no time are God’s people to be given the idea that they are living at the wrong time, in the wrong place, on the wrong planet, to be really genuine Christians. It is a famous fault of preachers that they, perhaps to gain persuasive leverage, often draw upon the exaggerated, the extraordinary, and the extreme image to portray the Christian life. The history of the Church is embroidered with real but rare dramas of martyrdom; Polycarp, Ignatius, and Joan of Arc did actually exist. But if the preacher makes normative the sacrifice of Polycarp, the conversion of Saul, the stewardship of St. Francis, and the service of David Livingstone, then he will leave his most serious listeners wishing they were someone else, somewhere else. In the meantime, the Kingdom does not come to dull little towns where God’s lightning never seems to strike. And the same is true in portrayals of evil. Nothing creates hypocrisy in the average church so much as the sermons which succeed in identifying sin with those headlined crimes that plague distant cities.
Secondly, as far as is possible, let the preacher use words and phrases that image specific and concrete relations and responses. Each of his hearers is equipped with a set of senses with which he experiences the world about him, and addressing those senses will awaken that experience anew. The minister would do well to check his sentences to see if his words convey that which can be heard or seen or smelled or touched or tasted. If the sermon deals with marriage, words that re-create the image of a particular wedding communicate much more than references to “holy matrimony”. Holy matrimony does not reflect a single wedding ever experienced; it reflects upon all weddings, and all weddings means to the hearers no weddings, just as every where means no where. If the sermon revives the memory of the odor of burped milk on a blouse, it evokes more meaning than the most thorough analysis of “motherhood”. It is well to remember that much of the force of the sermon is dependent upon the preacher’s sharing what his hearers already know.
Thirdly, the principle of economy in the use of words, especially adjectives and adverbs, is invariably a sound one. The decision to do so is not simply in the service of brevity, but an economic use of words implements several principles of inductive preaching already discussed. The use of a few words suggesting the main lines of a picture permits the hearers to fill in the details and complete the image. This is their right and their responsibility as participants in the preaching. For the speaker to supply the total image robs them of this right, insults their intelligence, deprives them of a vital part of the process of arriving at new meaning and insight, and lastly, may cause them to feel some revulsion toward the speaker. The reason is that detailed and complete description, especially of scenes of great joy or sorrow reveals a lack of sensitivity in the speaker. Many ministers have gotten the opposite of their desired responses to very vivid and detailed portrayals of the Crucifixion. Communication, like revelation, must leave room for discovery. For example, no one ever directly reveals himself, but through specific attitudes, acts, and comments, observers are able to draw the portrait. This is the principle operative in the reaction of many Christians to the Fourth Gospel’s reports of Jesus’ sayings: “I am the bread from heaven”, “I am the good shepherd”, “I am the light of the world”. These are better understood as conclusions about Christ reached by disciples than his assertions about himself.
In this same vein, an economic use of adjectives and adverbs helps the preacher resist the temptation to tell people what to think in response to his comments. For example, if a speaker introduces a narrative illustration with such words as “I recall an event in the life of a very fine, genuine, outstanding Christian man”, he has already told his hearers what conclusions to reach about the man: he is a fine, genuine, outstanding Christian. Why not tell the story about “a man” and upon its conclusion the congregation may say to themselves, “that man is a genuine Christian”. In discussing the literary imagination, William F. Lynch has reminded us that “In tragedy the spectator is brought to the experience of a deep beauty and exaltation, but not by way of beauty and exaltation.”7 Let the minister pile upon his people long sentences about the “inspiring and moving” and he thereby drains the occasion of all possibility to inspire or to move.
A final but not unimportant reason for not being complete and exhaustive in framing images for the listeners is that had they actually been present to see for themselves what is being described, their experiences would have been partial and incomplete. Direct sensory evidence is never presented whole at a given moment but is always fragmentary. No one has ever seen all of a chair or football or automobile at one time. If “being there” means fragmentary experiences, the preacher should know that exhaustively detailed imagery smacks more of unreality than of reality. It is a child’s art that places both eyes on one side of the head to assure observers of the profile that the person portrayed had two eyes.
Effective words are set in silence, during which time the hearers speak. The real sermon is the product of all that is contributed by both speaker and listeners during their time together.
A fourth guiding principle for conveying to others images received is to avoid all self-conscious interruptions in narration and description. Dozens of times in sermons a minister may take his eye, and hence his listener’s eye, off the subject by inserting such phrases as “we find”, or “we see”. Under no other circumstance does a person interrupt himself by telling those about him “we read” or “we find in this story”. He just reads it and does not get between the book and those attending to it, unless, of course, he has an abnormal craving for attention. No one stands at a window with another and continually inserts distracting phrases such as “We are looking out this window” or “We see out this window”. One simply points to the bird or the meadow or the cloud. Then why should these worse than useless self-conscious phrases continue to weaken and scatter attention drawn by the preacher to Biblical narratives or to the life scenes about him? These wordy encumbrances serve the sermon as effectively as a conversation would be served by the conversants saying frequently to each other, “We are talking”.
A fifth and final principle to guide the effective sharing of images which awaken images is fundamental to the whole preaching task: the language used is to be one’s own. There was a time when the language of the English Bible and the language of the marketplace and of the home were much the same. In fact, the English Bible was for many the basic text for learning and for teaching reading and writing as well as for more advanced essays into the world of literature. In that time the minister’s own language, that of his congregation, and that of the Bible were very similar. Now this is becoming less and less the case. For the minister to fill his sermons with Biblical terms and phrases assuming they have meaning is to err tragically. In fact, it is a question whether there is in some of these terms real clarity of meaning for him personally. One has come to expect to hear “blessed”, “spiritual”, “righteous” and “soul” in sermons and they seem to caress the emotions of many, but little clear signification is conveyed. Some ministers and laymen may continue an indiscriminate reciting of these words because they lament the demise of the Bible culture and the growth of secularity, but if the desire to communicate is strong, the lament will be cut short. There is no intrinsic value in simply repeating the confessional language of other people, even if their words are in the Scriptures.
All this sounds very much as though the traditional language of the faith were being excised as an act of concession to modern ears untrained, untuned, and uninterested. The fact of the matter, however, is that this call for the vernacular in the pulpit is a call to obedience to Jesus Christ who talked of the Kingdom of God in terms of borrowing a loaf of bread at midnight, worrying a judge to distraction with a civil suit, scrambling for seats at the head table, pulling bums in off the street to eat the king’s banquet, and patching worn clothes. His refreshed hearers were happily amazed while his critics scored him for the clear absence of that jargon which often marks sermons off from all other human discourse. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote:
It is not for us to foretell the day but the day will come when men will be called to utter the Word of God in such a way that the world is changed and renewed. There will be a new language, perhaps quite unreligious, but liberating and saving, like the language of Jesus, so that men are horrified at it, and yet conquered by its power. 8
To refuse to use one’s own language is to refuse to accept one’s self, one’s words, and one’s hearers as an occasion for God. It is clear evidence of a lack of faith. But to offer up one’s own words in the service of the Word is an act of full trust in Him whose power is made perfect in weakness.
1. John MacQuarrie, Martin Heidegger (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1968), p. 48.
2. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan Co., 1929) , p. 7.
3. Ong, Op. cit., p. 51.
4. W. F. Lynch, (New York: The New American Library, 1965)
5. M. McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage. (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 93.
6. G. Ebeling,, The Nature of Faith. p. 190.
7. Christ and Apollo (New York: c. Sheed & Ward, 1960) , p. 77.
8. Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. R. Fuller, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1967) , p. 161.