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Preaching As A Social Act: Theology and Practice by Arthur Van Seters (ed.)


Arthur Van Seters is Principal and Associate Professor of biblical interpretation and preaching at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver, British Columbia; 1986 president of the Academy of Homiletics; and author of several papers for the Academy on social dimensions of preaching. Copyrighted by Arthur Van Seter, 1988, and published by Abingdon Press, Nashville. This material prepared for religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 6: The Social Power of Myth as a Key to Preaching on Social Issues, by Thomas H. Troeger


(Note: Thomas H. Troeger, associate professor of preaching and parish, Colgate Rochester Divinity School)

 Landscapes of the Heart: Challenging the Reigning Metaphors

 Politics begins in poetry, in the metaphors, myths, and symbols that command our loyalties and organize our social consciousness. Tyrants know this; consider Hitler. The first territory he set out to conquer was the landscape of the heart. Before he started annexing land he stormed the cultural consciousness of the German people:

The Germans were the best-educated nation in the world. To conquer their minds was very difficult. Their hearts, their sensibilities were easier targets. Hitler's strength was that he shared with so many other Germans the devotion to national images new and old: misty forests breeding blond titans; smiling peasant villages under the shadow of ancestral castles; garden cities emerging from ghetto-like slums; riding Valkyries, burning Valhallas, new births and dawns in which shining, millennian structures would rise from the ashes of the past and stand for centuries.(1)

I begin with this observation about Hitler because it presents in glaring light the potency of mythological images and stories to engage a group's energies for corporate action. By "mythological images and stories" I mean those metaphors, symbols, and narratives from which a group draws its reason for being, sustains its current life, and envisions and realizes its future. These mythic-poetic realities constitute the "landscape of the heart," the nexus of meanings that filters our interpretation of the world and shapes our patterns of response and creativity.

The landscape of the heart may be mined for good as well as for evil. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.:

By pleading the Negro case with such majestic themes as Christianity, non-violence, and universal brotherhood, and by linking these concepts with the great American traditions of liberty and justice for all, King has been able to demonstrate to the white man of conscience, the hypocrisy of his practice of democracy.(2)

King's appeal to the landscape of the heart awakened moral rage so that people's energies were engaged to bring reality closer to the ideals of their mythological world. King's preaching was effective because he envisioned for his listeners what might come to be if they lived out the best yearnings and hopes of their hearts. He realized that

most of our models for action are conventional; we simply do things as we have become accustomed to do them. But if we modify the typical patterns of our actions, we do so by imagining and choosing among alternative possibilities for action. Our choices may range from the automatic to the deliberately self-conscious, but in every case a pattern of relationships of a model for action is operative. Without such models, our actions would be random and purposeless.(3)

King helped people "modify the typical patterns of (their) actions" by holding up a model -- a dream -- that was congruent with the landscape of their hearts and that could therefore sustain a movement for moral and legislative change.

Anyone, then, who is going to preach on social issues needs to understand the power of myth and its poetic language of image and symbol, their grip upon the landscape of the heart, and the enormous energies that they may release for good or evil.

Our current mythological world is largely supplied by the mass media:

Far from being merely a neutral communication medium, television in America has become an integrated symbolic world filling the socially functional role demanded of it both by its viewers and its advertisers.

William Fore, the Assistant Secretary for Communication in the National Council of Churches of Christ, suggests that there are several other dominant myths in television programming that are of direct relevance for religious broadcasters. These myths are:

•The fittest survive
•Happiness consists of limitless material acquisition
•Consumption is inherently good
•Property, wealth, and power are more important than people
•Progress is an inherent good

Fore asserts that "the whole weight of Christian history, thought and teaching stands diametrically opposed to the media world and its values."(4)

If this last statement seems extreme, consider a single representative example from a kind of programming that is supposedly informational and educational, news broadcasting. During the "Iranian hostage crisis" (note that even the headline is like a television series, drawing on emotionally charged words) there were nightly special broadcasts, each of them bearing the portentous title "Day One, Day Two . . . Day Fifty-Seven," as if we were marking the passage of one of the most significant events in history. But after all those broadcasts to keep us would it be an exaggeration to say that not one American in a hundred knows what language the Iranians speak? Or what the word "Ayatollah" means or implies? Or knows any details of the tenets of Iranian religious beliefs? Or the main outlines of their political history? Or knows who the Shah was, and where he came from?(5)

Instead, the meaning of the event was shaped by a daily ritual broadcast of the images of chanting Iranians and burning American flags. The gospel values of trying to understand our enemies and the source of their alienation from us were superseded by the values of national pride as the media took control of the landscape of the heart, providing a melodramatic plot of good and evil. This, I believe, is a case in point of what William Fore means when he says, "The whole weight of Christian history, thought and teaching stands diametrically opposed to the media world and its values."

It is also an example of what Sam Keen calls "the hostile imagination," the way our consciousness is shaped to depersonalize the enemies so that we can feel justified in our hatred and destruction of them. "In the beginning we create the enemy. Before the weapon comes the image. We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or the ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them. Propaganda precedes technology."(6) Propaganda is the manipulation of the mythic-poetic world of the heart for the purposes of those with political and social power. We are apt to recognize propaganda in its most glaring forms, such as the nationalistic posters of earlier wars that illustrate Keen's book, but its impact is absorbed without notice when it flows through the river of images that pours out of the television set. For as Neil Postman points out, we have lost the sense of critical distance that we had when television first arrived; now "the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre."(7)

A purely rational appeal from the pulpit cannot counter the deleterious effect of the media's mythic world upon the life of faith and grace. Information and well-reasoned analysis belong in sermons, but they are ineffectual as long as the preacher has not entered the landscape of the heart and challenged the reigning metaphors of secularist national culture with the images and narratives of faith.

The first step in preparing for this task is to sharpen our consciousness of those assumptive metaphors that shape and rule our own hearts:

Whether consciously or unconsciously, all people live by metaphors. . . . To become aware of the metaphors that govern basic perspectives is, among other things, a political act, for the possibility of change both at the personal and public levels depends upon consciousness of hidden metaphors. . . . Once we become aware that we are interpreters and interpretation means seeing one thing in terms of something else, in other words, using one thing as a perspective on something else, then we have forever lost what we thought we had -- the innocent eye.(8)

One of the chief tasks of homiletics is to make the innocent eye the alerted eye, the eye that probes and detects the shadowed depths of our mythologic — worlds and is aware of its own distortions and blind spots.

The alerted eye sees that the assimilation of the gospel to media methods and images results in burying the gospel's demands. This is evident in the distortions of religious "broadcasters (who) now conduct regular market research to detect which aspects of the Christian message will evoke greater response from their audiences, even to the point of evaluating the acceptability of a particular host's prayers."(9) In effect, "the Christian faith, which stresses such things as self-discipline, sacrifice, and service," is reshaped "by a medium which stresses instant personal gratification."(10)

The distortions that the alerted eye identifies in religious broadcasting are not limited, however, to the gospel as presented on television. The mythological world and values of the electronic media often pervade and find reinforcement in the local church and the surrounding culture of popular literature and iconography. Thus, Allene Stuart Phy concludes her survey of best-selling religious novels by observing that they

display only the vaguest understanding of the classical Christian definition of the nature of Jesus. There is, in fact, an antitheological bias implied in most of these books. The reader is presented a Jesus of American culture, stripped of "theological accretions.". . . In this manner traditional Christianity has been sacrificed to a bland and colorless American religious pluralism.(11)

In a similar way, Ljubica D. Popovich summarizes her survey of popular American biblical imagery by concluding:

This art does not strive to expand experience but rather to reflect a piety that already exists in the viewer. The monotonous reiteration of established patterns and conventions, which may be likened to the familiar refrains of popular music, soothes and reassures but rarely poses intellectual challenges or expands and explores visual possibilities.(12)

We may be tempted to dismiss these observations as immaterial to so weighty a topic as the social dimensions of the gospel, but they are central to any attempt to mobilize the energies of the church on behalf of justice and peace. For unless we enter the landscape of the heart where these images are stored, no ecclesiastical pronouncement or pulpit proclamation- -- however well reasoned and argued -- will budge people from the dominant mythological world that provides them with the spiritual essentials of meaning, purpose, security, and a sense of the sacred.

This observation is supported by my work with a colleague, Carol Doran, on revitalizing the hymnody of the church. After a recent presentation to an editorial committee for a new hymnal, the head of the project told us how startled many of the denominational executives were at the outpouring of response to proposed changes in the language and selection of hymns. It exceeded the reaction to any of the denomination's social pronouncements. Rather than brush this aside as an example of the irrelevance of the church, it deserves to be examined as a revealing example of what I mean by the social power of myth. For hymns are one of the single most important ways that the landscape of the believing heart is shaped and revealed: "If you know what hymns a person loves most, or what hymns a congregation is most addicted to, you will be able to infer what, in Christianity, means most to that person or that church. And that inference won't be speculative: it will be perfectly sound."(13)

The hymnal committee had touched the power center of faith: the religious imagination, the hunger for beauty arid poetry, the mythological world that sustains and energizes the believing community. The surprise, and sometimes disdain, that such a reaction awakens in people who are eager to see the church take a stand for justice, reveals an ignorance of the peculiar nature of the church's political power. Such power derives primarily not from defining Christian positions on specific problems of civil governance, but rather from the mythological world that is inscribed in the heart by the community's corporate ritual. Thus the most radical action of the early church was the way it transfigured the dominant consciousness of the surrounding culture:

Those odd little groups (of Christians) in a dozen or so cities of the Roman East were engaged, though they would not have put it quite this way, in constructing a new world. In time, more time than they thought was left, their ideas, their images of God, their ways of organizing life, their rituals, would become part of a massive transformation, in ways they could not have foreseen, of the culture of the Mediterranean basin and of Europe.(14)

The transforming power of the church declines whenever it loses its religious imagination, by which I mean its ability to envision and communicate images of an alternative reality that can break the rim of normative consciousness. It is the loss of such imagination that makes ineffectual so much of the social preaching that I hear.

I think of a particular preacher who has a passion for setting things right in our society, most of whose sermons are a call to action. Even though the congregation is in sympathy with these concerns, the listeners' energies are not mobilized by the pulpit. An examination of the sermons reveals that the preacher's vocabulary and style are indistinguishable from that of the media which form the congregation's information network and world view. The preacher often uses the Scriptures in ways that show sound scholarship, but that does not make much difference because, in the final analysis, most of the sermons sound like nothing more than another editorial, worthy perhaps of a responsible citizen's reflection but never sending lightning and thunder over the landscape of the heart.

A more effective strategy for the preacher would be to realize it is not "enough to propose 'Christian solutions' to the problems of our society, because it is the whole framework in which these 'problems' are perceived which has to be called in question."(15) That current framework "can no longer satisfy us," and we therefore face the task of envisioning reality in a way that "will meet our sense of being at a dead end and open new horizons of meaning."(16) It is this "sense of being at a dead end" that cuts the nerve of action in this preacher's listeners.

Such a feeling arises whenever a closed system of meaning has exhausted its repertoire of interpretations and solutions to the puzzles of human existence. Newbigin identifies this situation as the central issue for the Western church as it approaches the twenty-first century. His analysis in the theological realm receives confirmation in the literary reflections of Czeslaw Milosz, who believes that the vitality of the poet's voice requires

some basic confidence . . . a sense of open space ahead of the individual and the human species. . . . As a youth I felt the complete absurdity of everything occurring on our planet, a nightmare that could not end well -- and in fact it found its perfect expression in the barbed wire around the concentration camps and gas chambers. . . . Today I think that, while the list of dreaded apocalyptic events may change, what is constant is a certain state of mind. This state precedes the perception of specific reasons for despair, which come later.(17)

There is a striking similarity of language between Newbigin and Milosz. The theologian speaks of a "dead end" and the need to "open new horizons of meaning." The poet describes a "future laden with catastrophe" and the requirement for a "sense of open space ahead of the individual and the human species." This similarity is no accident.

As Geoffrey Wainwright exclaims: "If the Western world is experiencing a crisis in lyric poetry, liturgy, and theology, the simultaneity of these critical manifestations should not be surprising."(18) The crisis in all three areas springs from a commonly shared sense of being at a "dead end," a situation in which socially responsible preaching involves far more than addressing particular issues.

The preacher I have already mentioned who is unable to move people to take action for the cause of justice and peace is communicating clearly enough. But the preacher never acknowledges the listener's primary state of mind that precedes their "specific reasons for despair" and that leaves them with no "sense of open space ahead of the individual and the human species."

Our analysis reveals why the distinction that is commonly made between prophetic and pastoral preaching is inaccurate. The terms are often used to distinguish sermons of social action from those that address more personal issues of meaning and faith. Newbigin and Milosz help us see that people do not move into action when the landscape of the heart is lost in a deep shadow and they perceive the world as a closed reality whose possibilities of transformation are spent. In the face of such a profound spiritual crisis the task of homiletics is to revitalize the religious imagination so that it creates a sense of open space in front of people, thereby giving them enough hope to work for social change. This requires the ability to witness to God with a language that grips the landscape of the heart.

Speaking a Communal Poetic Idiom to an Individualistic Technical Culture

Because of the individualistic character of our culture, the language that engages the heart often tends to be solitary rather than communal. Thus the authors of Habits of the Heart, an analysis of individualism and commitment in American life, discovered that most of their interviewees:

are limited to a language of radical individual autonomy . . . (so) they cannot think about themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition. They cannot express the fullness of being that is actually theirs."(19) Revitalizing the religious imagination will not transform this situation if we assume that the imagination belongs solely to the individual and is thus limited to the "language of radical individual autonomy." Tragically, this has been the assumption of most Western people who have lived after the romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment, when poetry, the primary language of myth, retreated more and more into "'(the) paltry ego, (humanity's) often empty and always cramped ego. . '(until) it withdrew from the domain common to all people into the closed circle of subjectivism."(20) The result has been a severe alienation between the poet and the larger human family so that the most imaginative users of language -- the poet -- no longer supply a vitalizing pulse to the myths of the larger culture. Thus Helen Vendler in her introduction to a recent collection of Contemporary American Poetry, explains:

The poets included here write -- as the earlier modernists did not -- from a Freudian culture, one in which a vaguely Freudian model of the soul has replaced an older Christianized Hellenic model. . . . Finally, all of these poets write within a culture in which physical science has replaced metaphysics as the model of the knowable. The epistemological shift toward scientific models of verification has caused the usual throes of fundamentalist reaction in American culture, as elsewhere; but there is no significant poet whose work does not mirror, both formally and in its preoccupations, the absence of the transcendent.(21)

In no way do I desire to fuel the "fundamentalist reaction in American culture." But I want to stress what Vendler's observation means for a medium as dependent on words as preaching is. The imaginative use of poetic language to reach the landscape of the heart has now become isolated from its original theological and corporate roots and has become increasingly the constricted domain of a specialized literati. The separation between the language of the heart and the "Word from whom all words have sprung, "(22) means there is no longer a dialectic between the generative power of the poets and the pulpit. This is as crucial a separation for theology as for literature since "to lose the vis poetica is at the same time to lose the vis religiosa.."(23)

In my experience of leading homiletics workshops with experienced preachers I have found many pastors who grasp this problem at an intuitive level. They give sermons that are technically accomplished -- biblically sound, lucidly organized, well spoken. Yet they sense their language sounds "tired" or worn or "like the same old thing." I admire these preachers for their refusal to settle for the religious cliche. But living in a world where the connection of poetry and theology has been ruptured, most of their attempts to vitalize their sermons have been limited to employing the culture's dominant language in the pulpit. Such a strategy makes sense because whatever area of thought a society invests with the power of discovering truth is the area from which it takes much of its leading language. This is reasonable: we want our words "to tell the truth" and the persistent hope is that if certain words tell the truth in one place, they'll continue to tell it in another. For the past few hundred years in Western society, and especially the past one hundred, science has been seen as the place where truth is found and told.(24)

Notice the complexities this analysis poses for telling the truth from the pulpit. On the one hand, to communicate with authority requires using the "language" of our listeners. But on the other hand, the truth we have to communicate is one that calls into question the stranglehold of that language upon the way we perceive things:

In a structure of thought dominated, as secular humanism's is, by the strict opposition of "human intelligence" to "divine guidance" and by the insistence that any reference to a transcendent reality is meaningless, obviously most traditional religious terms are going to be missing from respectable discourse (or mentioned only to be demeaned). . . . So in the list of words deliberately missing from expressions of the currently dominant ideology we'll find, for example, absolutes, humility, transcendence, truth, wisdom, wonder, soul, sin, grace, gratitude, and God.(25)

In other words the language of the culture shows the same theological bankruptcy as the language of the poets. Drawing on the analysis of Habits of the Heart and Peggy Rosenthal's Words and Values, we discover that popular speech possesses two main qualities: it is technical in dealing with the objective world of things and personalistic in dealing with the world of meaning. Such language supports the myths that science can control nature and that the meaning of life is limited to what is personally true for the individual.

How, then, do preachers find a poetic and communal idiom that will speak with authority to a society whose verbal medium is technical and individualistic?

We begin by creating some degree of critical distance between ourselves and the language that lies immediately at hand in the culture, by realizing the historically conditioned nature of language and its attendant values. The language of our culture does not necessarily present things the way they really are. Peggy Rosenthal has traced how the areas of thought invested with power have changed over the years, and subsequently so has the language that was considered to express the truth. Language that modern society disdains was once held in esteem, and language that used to have negative connotations has accrued positive value. These verbal transformations represent more than the quirks of popular usage. They reflect shifts in the substrata of society's structure of meaning, in the mythological worlds that occupy the landscape of the heart.

Preachers who lack a historical consciousness of how their speech is shaped by these shifts in language and values can easily bury the gospel in attempting to make it relevant. I remember a few years ago when T. A. -- Transactional Analysis -- was the rage in popular psychological culture. I lost count of the number of sermons I heard that equated Christ's acceptance of us with the psychological claim "I'm okay. You're okay." I was finally able to break through this puerile excuse for a theology of grace with the help of a cartoon that showed Christ upon the cross asking, "If I'm okay, and you're okay, what am I doing here?" It took the crudeness of that humor to snap the spell that had descended on one particular class of preachers.

The story reveals both the desire for a keener language in the pulpit and the weakness of the materials that are often uncritically accepted in that quest. Peggy Rosenthal concludes from her study of the interrelationship of words and values that we cannot

simply switch to some ideal set of terms or train of thought and expect that if we ride it religiously, we'll reach the good life automatically at the end of the line. . . . Neither are we simply trapped in those other (currently dominant) terms, simply stuck on the main train of thought of our time. As individuals with free will, we do have the power to get off the going lines at any point.(26)

This, however, is only an initial step since effective preaching can never remain long at a "position of detachment."(27) Having established some degree of critical distance from the assumed language and values of the culture, how do we develop a poetic and corporate language that can break the rim of normative consciousness and revitalize the religious imagination as a source of energy for social change? There is help in answering this poetic-theological question in both the history of Western poetry and the history of interpreting God's Word.

T. S. Eliot, in making his distinction between "classical" and "romantic" poets, suggests that classical poets, meaning all of the major poets of Western literary tradition prior to the rise of romanticism, arrive at poetry through eloquence; . . . wisdom has the primacy over inspiration; and (they) are more concerned with the world about them than with their own joys and sorrows, concerned with their own feelings in their likeness to those of other (people) rather than in their particularity.(28)

What a radically different understanding of the poetic voice this is from the contemporary understanding that "the price paid for individuality of voice -- the quality, after all, for which we remember poets -- is absolute social singularity. Each poet is a species to himself (or herself), a mutant in the human herd, speaking an idiolect he (or she) shares with no one."(29) The shift from a concern for commonality of feeling to social singularity in the poet's voice parallels the development of the "language of radical individual autonomy" that dominates the general culture. One way of conceptualizing the task of homiletics is to think of preachers as classical poets who draw on the language of metaphor and myth in order to illumine how our feelings draw us together in community rather than isolate us in absolute social singularity." Such a conception of the task of preaching leads us to recover the corporate, social dimensions of the imagination:

We are so habituated to conceiving of the imagination as a private act of the human spirit that we now find it almost impossible to conceive of a common act of imagining with. But what happens in despair is that the private imagination, of which we are so enamored, reaches the point of the end of inward resource and must put on the imagination of another if it is to find a way out.(30)

To reclaim the concept and discipline of a communal imagination is to do nothing more than what the Old Testament prophets did when they gathered in schools; or the psalmists did when they used the first person singular in a way that was expressive of the whole congregation's experience; or what the Gospel writer John did when he related "all things in his own name, aided by the revision of all"(31); or what John Calvin did when he gathered the preachers of Geneva to study the Scriptures together so that their interpretations would not fall into idiosyncratic distortions(32) or what the early English separatists did when they practiced communal biblical interpretation in their prayer meetings; or what the base communities of Third-World countries do when they reflect on their corporate experience in light of God's liberating Word. In every case the imaginative act of discerning the Word involves more than the individual preacher; it draws on the larger circle of the community so that a wider web of meanings and insights is available to the preacher's imagination.

This does not mean that preachers abdicate their calling to proclaim the gospel or that they do not bring their peculiar insights to the pulpit. These gifts are as necessary as ever, but now the minister reconstrues the role of preacher to be the catalyst and guide for this common imagination. He or she opens up new avenues of imagination by helping the community envision what cannot yet be seen: creative ways of solving racial conflict, a world without weapons and war, possibilities for sharing the earth's resources. The minister suggests to a community that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem.Where does the minister obtain such hopeful assurance? In the treasure house of the community's traditions. It is the role of the minister to bring these traditions to life again so that they can call the community to conversion and comfort.(33)

That phrase, "the treasure house of the community's traditions," is significant not only because it resonates with Jesus' observation: "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matt. 13:52), but because it is richer than simply "the Bible." Scripture is central to preaching; I will not debate the point. But to speak about "the treasure house of tradition" is to honor the revelations and gifts that the Spirit has made that fall outside the canon, particularly through the work of those creative artists who have not retreated to "absolute social singularity," but who have possessed the faith and grace to bend their talent to the sovereign source of all art and to express what lies in the community's heart.

Any homiletics that is going to engage the religious imagination for the cause of social change must enter this treasure house of tradition and rediscover there the connection to the transcendent and corporate dimensions of imagination that have been lost since the rise of romanticism and the technological society.

In a sense, the historical process of alienation between the religious imagination and the dominant Western consciousness is similar to what happens when late adolescents attend college and are swept up in the tide of novel ideas. At first, they dismiss what they have been taught to value, what has shaped and nurtured them. Their delight and their delirium is in what is new, in all that seems to liberate them from their old constraints. But if they are healthy persons, over a period of time they will begin to look critically at what they formerly granted facile acceptance. They will not merely return to their past-that is neither possible nor desirable -- but they will draw on what was best in their upbringing and meld it with what they have learned and experienced beyond the boundaries of their initial environment. We say of such people: they have matured, they have grown up, they are adults now.

So it is with Western consciousness. It has been in a period of extended adolesence since the Enlightenment, discovering wonderful new ideas through science, technology, psychology, and art. But it has also distorted its health by forgetting its earlier upbringing, by discounting what century after century knew to be true: that there is a depth to our existence that is the source of all life and that claims the first loyalty of our hearts. And this reality is none other than God, who has so patterned the motions of the molecules of the human cranium that they give rise to a subjectivity never satisfied by anything less than being in harmony with the Creator.

The peculiar calling of preachers in this age is to help Western consciousness move beyond adolescence, to integrate the ancient wisdom with contemporary knowledge so that the religious imagination may be reengaged in the cause of personal and social transformation. Such integration needs to take place not only through content and concept but also through the character of the language that marks the pulpit. I believe the great stress on story in homiletics during recent years represents in part the eruption of this need: that is, the non-discursive and poetic qualities of narrative have appealed to preachers as a way of breaking beyond the constraints of an overly argumentative rhetoric. However, a transition to purely narrative and poetic forms of language would be no healthier in the pulpit than the former domination of cognitive, rational speech.

Interweaving Depth and Steno Languages: From Rhapsody to Reason

Preaching effectively for social change requires fluency in two languages: that which is evocative, narrative, and metaphorical, and that which is denotative, logical, and discursive. Philip Wheelwright identifies these different modes of speech as "depth" and "steno" language.(34) I shall use these terms as a convenient shorthand without implying that I fully accept Wheelwright's theory of language.

The spectrum of possibilities for our language is a witness to the fullness of the divine Word. Our capacity to draw on such a range of speech may be rooted in the way our brains are created and the physiological processes of thought.(35) Being made in the image of God means in part that we have been endowed with an ability to articulate reality through a richness of language that extends from rhapsody to reason. Nevertheless, there is in most people a tendency to favor one language over the other, to use predominantly either steno or depth speech. But the public role of preachers requires that they do not restrict their pulpit speech to their own natural tendencies. Confining themselves either to steno or depth language is more than a stylistic limitation: it is a theological distortion because

the fullest possible understanding of Christian faith (which is necessarily an understanding of the "witness" of scriptures and our common human experience) is inherently dialogical and "dipolar." It does not employ a single mode of thought but, rather, moves back and forth between . . . poetry and theology. As it does so, it not only uses concepts to interpret metaphors but also uses metaphors to interpret concepts, both the metaphoric and the conceptual entering into and interpreting the common ground of life experience, action, and commitment that gives rise to all understanding whatsoever.(36)

Burch Brown names this dialectical process "transfiguration," evoking the Gospel accounts which reveal the nature of Jesus and connecting the term as well to the transforming power of art.

Transfiguration has not been the dominant characteristic of homiletics. Instead of maintaining the dialogical process between theology and poetry, between steno and depth language, the church from the second century on tended to favor a more discursive approach in its proclamation: the "history of preaching, for all its complexity and diversity, bears one remarkable constant: the reflective shape of the sermon."(37)

The general bias of homiletics described in these broad historical terms has had a profound impact on individual preachers as they have stood in the pulpit. It has been one of those forces that has shaped their voice even when they were not aware of it.

David Grayson gives us a sense of how the imbalance of steno language influenced a minister from his childhood in ways that muffled the preacher's authentic witness:

Somewhere, I said, he had a spark within him. I think he never knew it: or if he knew it, he regarded it as a wayward impulse that might lead him from his God. It was a spark of poetry: strange flower in such a husk. In times of emotion it bloomed, but in daily life it emitted no fragrance.(38)

This effort to repress the poetic for fear that it is "a wayward impulse that might lead him from his God" represents something more than the preacher's personal preference. It is the breaking to the surface in an individual preacher of the historical bias of homiletics toward "the reflective shape of the sermon" whose mental processes of ratiocination inevitably favor steno language.

And yet if the pulpit does not engage the landscape of the heart with the appropriate use of depth language, then preachers of other gospels will step in to conjure up their own visions, and the poetically attractive invocation of satanic powers will lead to brutal historical consequences. At the opening of this chapter we have already seen how this happened with Hitler. He bypassed the people's steno language and appealed to them through depth language. The pulpit can only counter this kind of tyranny by maintaining the full spectrum of speech, using the depth language of Scripture to challenge the idolatrous images of nationalism and using the fire of that language to re-ignite rational faculties in the service of challenging and changing the state. Preachers who think they are being prophetic by delivering sermons that are purely rational are politically naive and ineffective. The pulpit that fails to regenerate the vitality of the church's primal images through the use of the poetic is helpless against the quasi-religious appeal of secular leaders. Despite the fact that we live after Copernicus, the universe we carry in our hearts and minds is still poetic and mythological:

Ideologies and superstitions, concentration-camp utopias and interplanetary folklore occupy the void left by the withdrawal of the Christian soul and scientific humanism, by the ebbing of Christian intellect and the elitist encystation of men (and women) of science in their special languages, waterproof compartments.(39)

When the pulpit ceases to be poetic, it creates a vacuum that sucks in the pathological images of a spiritually bankrupt and often demonic culture.

Augustine knew this. It was the basis of his argument for eloquent sermons as a counter-force to the malevolent uses of rhetoric: "While the faculty of eloquence, which is of great value in urging either evil or justice, is in itself indifferent, why should it not be obtained for the uses of the good in the service of truth if the evil usurp it for the winning of the perverse and vain causes in defense in iniquity and error?"(40)

The most radical voice for social change in the pulpit is not the one that sounds like the editorial page of the evening paper or a television commentator. Instead, it is the voice whose analytical speech draws fire from the visionary energies of depth language and (like the biblical prophets) shakes the foundations of the state with poetic thunder. This process also works in reverse: sometimes images and stories that on their own would seem merely decorative and anecdotal, bristle with life because they have been preceded by the clear rational speech of a carefully developed argument.

The process of transfiguration lies, then, at the heart of the fullness of the gospel and the ability of preaching to engage all of us for all of God. This does not mean that every sermon will be a perfect balance of depth and steno languages. There are biblical texts and pastoral circumstances when one language is more appropriate than the other. What concerns us here is that ministers examine their preaching over time, asking, Am I employing the full range of language that gives witness to the wholeness of God's Word, from rhapsody to reason? Preachers who can answer yes to this are participating in a process of transfiguration that reaches beyond their own personal development into the renewing cycles of poetry and philosophy that can sustain the energies needed for social change.

The Sermon: Preparation, Preaching, and Reflection

An ecumenical service celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach is the occasion for this sermon. The liturgy is patterned after the Leipzig service of Bach's own time and features the performance of the Easter cantata "Christ Lag in Todesbanden" as an integral part of the proclamation of the Word. I realize this is a special occasion and one that might even seem strange for a sermon on social change. But I have chosen it because it throws in bold relief the issue of how social change is facilitated by the poetic. Far too often, people contrast the aesthetic side of faith with the gritty business of changing society. But this dichotomy, as I have tried to indicate in my essay, is a modern phenomenon occasioned by the loss of the corporate and theological dimensions of the poet's voice.

The combination of Bach's genius and the Gospel text that was appointed for the day, Mark 16:1-8, telling of the women's discovery of the empty tomb, provides in my view an opportunity to break the rim of normative consciousness and revitalize the religious imagination. Many of the listeners are leaders in their own congregations, people already hard at work on the church's mission, many of them sometimes wondering if it really is possible to bring about social change.

I live with the text for several days, using standard reference works. I am struck with the observation that perhaps the reason Mark ended his Gospel on this strange note of fear was "to emphasize human inadequacy, lack of understanding, and weakness in the presence of supreme divine action and its meaning."(41) For these are the very realities that break through our normal ways of perceiving the world, and they are also the qualities of Bach's music.

I spend two hours with the pastoral musician, Carol Doran, who will conduct the choir and instrumentalists. I take notes as she explains the background and nature of the music. Like good exegetical notes, all of them will not get in the sermon but they make me secure about what I will preach, and they lead me to a deeper appreciation of Bach's interpretation.

My colleague lends me a recording of the work and I listen again and again, as intently as I have studied the biblical passage. Bach is helping me understand the Spirit, the depths of the text, the wonder of it all. The weeping strings in E minor have led me to the landscape of the heart, and I wait there in wordless prayer, perceiving truth that is like mist rising from a lake; it is neither water circumscribed by the curve of shore nor cloud silhouetted against the blue of sky, but effluvium from the source rising toward an articulation of form that cannot be predicted or controlled. Wonder, image, concept, clarity -- a sermon is condensing into a discernible shape.

A Primal Fearsome Wonder

And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had
come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid
(Mark 16:8)

 

What a strange ending for a book that opens,

"Here begins the Good News of Jesus Christ."

How does Mark get from Good News
to trembling and astonishment
and they said not a word to anyone for they were afraid?

His ending has bothered Christians
almost from the moment he wrote it down.

Over the years, readers have come up with all kinds of
theories about why the book concludes this way:

Some people speculate Mark got sick and did not finish.

Some say he intended to finish but never did. And others think he had another ending

but
it was the last page of the manuscript
and somehow it got torn off and lost.

It's understandable how people came up with these theories.

They must have wondered:
where is the high rhapsodic note of Easter joy?

If we want to find that, we will have to turn to Matthew.

Or Luke.

Or John.

I like Matthew for power.

Matthew knows how to end on a strong note.

The risen Lord gets the last words:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matt.28:18-20)

So if we want that high, thrilling vision of Easter,
the one that lifts us up and makes us sing,
we will have to turn to another Gospel than Mark's.

For Mark seems intent instead on giving us
the primal fearsome wonder of the resurrection.

And even
if we were ever to find some long-lost original ending,
there still is no way to hide Mark's bluntness:

"trembling and astonishment had come upon them;
and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid."

Now the greatness of Bach
is that he is not like some preachers
who might look at this text and think:

"Oh, my, it doesn't seem suitable.
We better fix this up
and write the sermon in a major key."

Bach has too much integrity for that.

Instead he writes the cantata in E minor.

Remember that opening sinfonia,
the strings playing rich minor chords.

Or think of the chorus singing
"the death," "the death," "the death"
again and again and again
so we feel the inescapability of death.

Or later on we hear the strings weeping over the Paschal
Lamb.

Bach leads us into the heart of Mark's words:

"Trembling and astonishment had come upon them;
and they said nothing to any one,
for they were afraid."

How could it be otherwise?

Think about it for a moment.

How could the first reaction be anything other
than trembling and astonishment?

Trudging through the dawn of that first Easter morning
those women carried with them a single comfort.

Just one:
they knew it was all over.

The task now was to grieve,
to come to terms with their loss.

That is not much comfort.
But it is some comfort.

I think of all the dear people who have died whom I have loved.
I have known comfort in the finality of death.

Have you not known it?

You realize all is over.

You have no choice but to accept it.

And so the women made their way to the tomb.

They knew what the future held for them.

Tears.
And more tears.
Then fewer tears.
Then getting used to the hollow place in the heart
that would never again fill up.

On the way to the tomb
maybe they dreamed of the empty days to
come and what they would say to one another:

"Oh, we had such high hopes,
but I know now it was all an illusion."

"Goodness glimmers for a moment.
Love lasts a little while
then evil wipes it out."

"Yes,
let's be realists.
Let's be honest about the world.
It's rotten. And the bad win."

Maybe they were thinking like this
until,
as Mark says,
"Looking up, they saw... "

Wait.

What did they see?

When they were here Friday, their pain and grief were so sharp
they did not take in many details.

"But the stone?
Wasn't it right there?"

"I don't understand.
Things are not the way I remember."

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." (Mark 16:4-7)

Wait.

Do you mean that the world is not the way we thought it was?

You mean we cannot be content to nurse our grief and hurt?

You mean our hard-earned realism
is called into question now?

If death
if the one absolute certainty,
if the one ineradicable truth of our lives,
is not fixed and closed,
then what about all the other certainties?

If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?
I will never forgive him.

If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?
I will never find it in my heart to love that person.

If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?
It is impossible for us to negotiate a meaningful arms reduction with the Soviets.

If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?
We can have no impact on apartheid in South Africa.

If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?
Women cannot do that!

If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?

You can't expect to overcome centuries of prejudice.
If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?

There is no way I will ever get rid of my addiction.
"Trembling and astonishment had come upon them;
and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid."

Of course they were afraid.

More than a stone had been moved.

The whole world had shifted.

They needed time to absorb that truth.

Time. Time --

Yet I can imagine over the next few days,
as they saw others who knew the risen Lord,
the truth began to grow in them.

They began to remember those stories
that on Good Friday
had seemed merely the vain efforts
of some dreamy-headed idealist.

I can hear them recalling various incidents in Christ's life:

"Do you remember when we were in the synagogue
and there was that man in the back?

He was possessed and the demon cried out,
'Jesus of Nazareth!'
And Christ healed him."

"You know what I will never forget
is the time there was that big crowd
in front of the door.

And four brazen men
got up on the house
and dug a hole through the roof
and lowered down their paralyzed friend."

"When I was making bread the other day,
I thought of those five thousand people
out on the hillside.
And all the food we could find
was what some child's mother had packed him for lunch."

So the stories began to flood back,
only now,
instead of thinking of them as glimmers of grace,
they were seen for what they really were:
signs of God transforming the world
and breaking their assumptions
that this is the way things have to be --
cruel, bitter, unjust.

God was showing them other possibilities
for life: the lame walking,
the hungry fed, the blind seeing.

And I can picture Mark,
having listened to all these stories,
getting ready to write them down
before they slipped away from memory
or get changed anymore than they already had been.

He has to come up with the hardest sentence of all:

the first sentence.

He thinks about the trembling and astonishment of the
resurrection
and the light that Easter throws upon the exorcisms
and the feedings
and the healings
and the cross.

While he thinks, the Spirit moves within him.

He writes: "Here begins the Good News of Jesus Christ."

And the sentence rings true for Mark.

It does not sound facile
or cheaply happ

because Mark,
like Bach who followed him,
has looked at the trembling and the astonishment
of the resurrection,
at the primal fearsome wonder of what God had done.

In some way in your own life you have been touched by that
trembling and astonishment.

Otherwise you would not be here.

And that is why I am here also
worshiping with you.

Because if I go back behind every reason for my being here,

I get to this final one:

Jesus Christ is risen.

How have you known that in your life?

Was it at the bedside of someone who was dying?

Was it when you walked from a grave and thought,
"I'll never get through this?"

But you did.
Or was it when you took a stand for justice
and you could have sworn
there was someone who steadied your trembling legs?

And afterward,

You walked away saying, "Jesus Christ, you are my all.
I love you.
Not nearly as perfectly as you love me.
But I will follow you.
I will serve you.
I will stand bravely for what is right."

And then the fear and the trembling gave way
and there was Good News.

Our prayer is that this day,
through the ministry of Johann Sebastian Bach
and these musicians, you may know again
the fear and the trembling,
the primal fearsome wonder
of the resurrection of Jesus Christ
so that when you walk out of here
your life will declare to other lives:

"Here begins the Good News of Jesus Christ."

Reflection

First a word about the form of the sermon. I originally preached it, as I do most of my sermons, with no notes. Then I made a transcript from a tape. I have polished some of the language for publication and left out a few comments that were germane only to that particular congregation, but the sermon is basically as I spoke it. I stress this because sermons are above all a spoken, not a written communication. The pace, inflection, pitch, and color of speech are among the most important aspects of preaching, and they are vital to the process of engaging listeners for social change. I am convinced that one of the reasons Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to facilitate change is that his delivery was so credible. Listen to his voice. You can hear the weeping of his people in it at the same time that it is fired with a passion for justice. The cadence, the pacing, the accents -- all reveal someone who is in touch with the music of language, that music that is the very spring of myth and poetry.

Robert Frost identifies the speaking voice as "the voice of the imagination."(42) And that is why it is vital, even if we do write out our sermons, that we write them with our ears and not our eyes. To make this our standard practice would be a way of disciplining ourselves to reclaim the religious imagination and to speak more effectively to the landscape of the heart.

The sermon also draws on the listeners' experience of hearing the cantata immediately beforehand. This is a deliberate strategy to integrate Bach's sonic manifestation of ultimate meaning with the structures of thought and feeling that constitute the organization of the sermon. I call on the music to help engage the imaginative capacities of the listeners so that they have more spiritual energy to respond to the issues of social change that are presented in the form of a litany: "If death has been overcome, what about this certainty?" and so on. Notice that the litany uses a primary logical pattern, "If... then ...," thus blending the rational with the poetic and providing a balance of steno and depth languages.

I have deliberately connected the resurrection of Christ to the task of social transformation. I want it to be clear that there is a theological reason, and not merely my personal bias, for the church's involvement in society. Easter addresses the ultimate fear of human existence -- the threat of not being -- and thereby frees us to look skeptically at all those other limitations in life that we unjustifiably excuse as "the way the world is." By drawing on the reality of Christ's resurrection I simultaneously address the existential anxiety of the individual while challenging the church to claim the full meaning of what it believes.

Easter points us beyond "our sense of being at a dead end" that Newbigin has identified as the root of our passivity (see pages 212-13) and opens what he calls "new horizons of meaning." We facilitate social change, not by promulgating a particular program but by entering the landscape of the heart and revitalizing -- through music, poetry and reason -- the listeners' belief in the source of all just and lasting change: the risen Christ

(Whose) high rhapsodic vision

Of truth and love and peace

Has loosened dreams and yearnings

That will not fade or cease.

We fear no earthly power

For we are claimed as friends

By that all-gracious ruler

Whose kingdom never ends. Thomas H. Troeger

 

Notes

1. Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 1310-31.

2. D. H. Smith, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Rhetorician of Revolt (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1969), 245.

3. Roger Lundin, Anthony C. Thiselton, Clarence Walhout, The Responsibility of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 59.

4. Peter G. Horsheld, Religious Television: The American Experience (New York: Longman, 1984), 47-48. The quotation that is cited is from William F. Fore, "Mass Media's Mythic World: At Odds with Christian Values," Christian Century, January 19,1977, 34-35.

5. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1985), 107.

6. Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, the Psychology of Enmity (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 10.

7. Postman, Amusing Ourselves, 79.

8. Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 55-56. The quotation cited by McFague is from Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 503.

9. Horsfield, Religious Television, 42.

10. Ibid., 45.

11. Allene Stuart Phy, "Retelling the Greatest Story Ever Told: Jesus in Popular Fiction," The Bible and Popular Culture in America, ed. Allene Stuart Phy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 76.

12. Ljubica D. Popovich, "Popular American Biblical Imagery: Sources and Manifestations," in Phy, The Bible and Popular Culture, 209.

13. Erik Routley, Christian Hymns Observed: When in Our Music God Is Glorified (Princeton: Prestige Publications, 1982), 3.

14. Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 192.

15. Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 55.

16. Ibid., 16.

17. Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 14.

18. Geofffrey Wainwright, "Theological Table-talk: Liturgy and Poetry," Theology Today, 41, 1975, 453.

19. Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 81.

20. Milosz, The Witness of Poetry, 26. Milosz draws heavily here on the writing of his uncle, Oscar Milosz.

21. Helen Vendler, The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), 10-11.

22. Carol Doran and Thomas H. Troeger, New Hymns for the Lectionary: To Glorify the Maker's Name (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 55.

23. Wilbur Marshall Urban as quoted by Nathan A. Scott, Jr., The Poetics of Belief (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 47.

24. Peggy Rosenthal, Words and Values: Some Leading Words and Where They Lead Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 53.

25. Ibid., 255-56.

26. Ibid., 257.

27. Ibid., 258.

28. T. S. Eliot, "An Essay on Rudyard Kipling," mA Choice of Kipling's Verse (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943), 26.

29. Helen Vendler in a review of William H. Prichard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, The New York Times Book Review, 14, October 1984, 41.

30. William Lynch, Images of Hope, as quoted in Kathleen R. Fischer, The Inner Rainbow: Imagination in Christian Life (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983), 156.

31. Raymond E. Brown, quoting the Muratorian Fragment in The Gospel According to John (i-xii), vol.29, Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday, 1966), xcix.

32. I am indebted to my colleague Professor Charles Nielsen for this example.

33. Fischer, The Inner Rainbow, 156-57.

34. Frank Burch Brown, Transfiguration: Poetic Metaphor and the Languages of Religious Belief (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 15. I am indebted to Burch Brown's discussion and development of Wheelwright's theory throughout this section.

35. For a thorough treatment of the possible connections between theology and brain research see James B. Ashbrook, The Human Mind and the Mind of God (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984).

36. Brown, Transfiguration, 175.

37. Don M. Wardlaw, Preaching Biblically: Creating Sermons in the Shape of Scripture (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 12.

38. David Grayson, Adventures in Contentment (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1907), 125.

39. Petru Dumitriu, To the Unknown God, trans. James Kirkup (New York: Seabury Press, 1982), 113.

40. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. and ed. D. W. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958), 118-19.

41. D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1981), 447, quoting R. H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St. Mark (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), 92.

42. Lawrance Thompson and R. H. Winnick, Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981), 172.

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