I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise, my mother, who was not a church-going woman, beamed with pride when I told her. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” Darling was not exactly the kind of preaching I had in mind.
Sometime later, I had a conversation about my call with one of my college professors. A former rabbi who taught a course titled “The Bible as Literature,” he seemed pleased to hear I had set my sights on ministry.
“What kind of church?” he asked. Not at all sure how one made such decisions, I guessed it probably would be some kind of Baptist church. His eyebrows arched in dismay. “Oh, don’t go to one of those, John!” he cried. “Only hillbillies go there. No, I see you behind the pulpit of a nice Episcopalian church, with a large manse and maybe a Lincoln in the garage.”
I pictured a stately building in the Victorian style with ivy-covered walls and shuddered inwardly. He might as well have showed me the kingdoms of the world in their splendor and asked me to bow down and worship him. I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle, but I settled for a suit and tie.
Preaching in the Marketplace
The kind of preachers we become depends to a great extent on our mental image of what a preacher is. According to Thomas G. Long, “preachers have at least tacit images of the preacher’s role, primary metaphors that not only describe the nature of the preacher but also embrace by implication all the other crucial aspects of the preaching event.”1 This inner vision is often an imprint left by the force of personal experience. Our idea of what it means to preach is a mirror of those we have heard (or perhaps read) and admire. Our listeners are not the only ones who follow Paul or Apollos because of their style. We are just as prone to identify ourselves and shape our ministries by our heroes.
Our listeners’ expectations also leave their marks. In Athens, Paul took his stand in the marketplace and challenged the ideas of the philosophers.2 Today, the marketplace is not merely a location. It is a way of thinking. Those who are seated before us see themselves as an audience, a self-identity that has been shaped primarily by the culture of television. This is a realm where ideas really are on the market and credence is given based on the quality of a viewer’s experience. As a result, the church has opinions about how it wishes to be addressed that are as strong—perhaps stronger—than its notions of what it wants to hear.
Today’s listeners are more conscious of a speaker’s image than they are of a sermon’s line of reasoning, strength of argument, or its biblical content. We who preach to them also have been steeped in this culture and are tempted to try and hold their attention by the power of personality alone.
Because television is used to selling everything from deodorant to funerals, it is not surprising that some have urged contemporary preachers to look to this medium for role models in communicating the gospel.3 However, the ethos of television is radically opposed to the prophetic ethos of preaching.
A quarter of a century ago, when television evangelists such as Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell were in their prime, Neil Postman warned there are “several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible.”4 One problem is the environment in which television viewing occurs. Postman argued that a sense of being in sacred space is “an essential condition of any traditional religious service” and the context in which television is viewed, as well as the content displayed on the television screen, have “a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism.”5
It is television’s marketplace culture that is most hostile to preaching. James Twitchell observes, “The purpose of television is to keep you watching television, at least long enough to see the advertisements. Choice is the tribute the medium pays to the attention span.”6 From its Nielsen ratings which enable broadcasters to gauge the level of viewer interest to its seemingly infinite menu of program choices that can be recorded and watched whenever one pleases, television gives the (mostly false) impression that the viewer is in control of the experience.
The prophet’s message has the opposite effect. It reminds us God is in control and we are accountable to Him. The prophet does not try to make us feel comfortable or worry about whether we have enjoyed the experience. His chief concern is to arrest our attention and speak the truth.7
The prophetic model is an improvement on that of the television personality, but it is not the only biblical image which shapes our understanding of what it means to be a preacher. There is also a priestly dimension to the ministry of God’s Word. The apostle Paul acknowledged this when he described the proclamation of the gospel as a “priestly duty” (
Yet the sacrifice Paul had in view in these verses was not the sermon but the Gentiles who had become sanctified by the Holy Spirit through the gospel. In the apostle’s analogy, preaching is not the offering. It is the knife used to prepare the offering. The difference between these metaphors lies in the angle of vision that each provides. If we think of the sermon as the offering, our primary concern is with the sermon itself. It is enough for us to formulate and deliver the message. If those who believe are the offering, we must expand the scope of our concern to include those who hear the message.
Priests, as prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s Word.9 The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men,” but were “appointed to represent them” (
Whenever we take our places before God’s people to declare His Word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility of advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people, but we are also for them.
The key to priestly advocacy is identification.11 This means the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the Word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in their place, we ask the questions our listeners would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates, we also must ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not.
This, more than anything else, is what differentiates the priestly element of preaching from the prophetic. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. The priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify Himself: Will not the Judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have You afflicted us? We give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners, but we do not necessarily answer them.
Our priestly role demands we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain Himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with its members to the awful silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken.
As Frederick Buechner has observed, there is great pressure placed upon us, not only from the congregation but from within ourselves, to speak only the answer: “The answer is what people have come to hear and what he also has come to hear, preaching always as much to himself as to anybody, to keep his spirits up.”12 Buechner rightly labeled such efforts public relations rather than preaching. It is not our job to answer all their questions. We aim for a higher goal. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers or simplistic explanations.
Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense—too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what He Himself has not explained. Because we want to send our hearers away with something practical, we are tempted to resort to lists, truisms and oversimplification. In a misguided effort to compensate for God’s silent presence, we offer conventional wisdom that has been dressed up in Sunday clothes and brought to church.
Often what we introduce as “the thing the biblical writer is trying to say” is not necessarily biblical—or distinctively Christian. At best, it is a reflection of common grace, an example of the homespun wisdom God grants to all of humanity. It is the kind of thing you heard from your mother when she sent you off to school and told you that talking to others is easy if you let them talk about themselves.
Thomas G. Long warns: “Sermons on ‘Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Alive’ or ‘Keys to a Successful Prayer Life’ or ‘Standing Up for Peace in a Warring World’ may possess some ethical wisdom and some utilitarian helpfulness, but they often have the sickly sweet aroma of smoldering incense in a temple from which the deity has long since departed. They easily can have the sound of the lonely wisdom of Job’s friends, who can quote the Psalms and the Proverbs but have ceased to expect the whirlwind.”13
Then what other kind of preaching would we expect from a church that has taken its cues from the marketplace? Why should we be surprised when our prophets learn at the feet of Madison Avenue pitchmen and our priests aspire to be television talk-show hosts?
Preaching the Sharp Edges
Priestly advocacy means we will not be afraid to retain the sharp edges of the biblical text. The world in which the text was given was a world similar to our own—a world whose heroes were more likely to be thugs than theologians. This was a world populated by people with troubled marriages and rebellious children. These were men and women who found it hard to take God at His Word and seemed to have a gift for making the wrong choice—people who laughed and wept and sometimes got mad enough to kill…people just like us (
You would hardly guess this from listening to our sermons, where many of the inconsistencies and ambiguities of their character have been smoothed away. In such sermons, Samson’s sensuality, narcissism and clumsy wit disappear, along with Gideon’s cowardice and doubt. We are not shocked by Abraham’s eagerness to put his wife’s virtue in jeopardy for the sake of personal gain or comforted by the dull faith and persistent failure of the apostles. We are hardly moved at all by the weeping of Christ.
One reason is because we have idealized the text. The general contours of the story remain, but the characters have become two-dimensional. We tame the text through selective observation, careless reading and sometimes outright rehabilitation. The result is as flat and cartoon-like as the flannelgraph pictures our Sunday School teachers used when they taught them to us as children. This may be conducive for transforming the rough and blemished characters inhabiting these biblical stories into moral examples, but it does not work well as a mirror. We cannot see ourselves in such texts.
The other damaging effect of this flattening is its tendency to normalize the outrageous in Scripture. We treat these stories as if the events they describe are business as usual, thus stealing the wonder from the text and making it impossible for us to grasp the reckless extravagance of God’s grace. To those who first experienced them, God’s way of dealing with sinners must have seemed exceedingly strange. The God who makes the rules does not play by them. The race does not go to the swift. Favor is not granted to the deserving.
These biblical accounts are teeming with dubious heroes and undeserved reversals of fortune. Cain and Jonah, the prodigal son’s elder brother and Simon Peter share the same indignation and ask the same question. The chorus that rises from the pages of the Bible is a common one: “Lord, what could You possibly have been thinking?” Yet it is the question that is missing from many sermons. It is the question that reveals to us the true aim of these biblical accounts—not to make us comfortable but to astonish and at times dismay us, all of which points to the real reason we have trouble seeing ourselves in these stories.
It is because we also have misread the text of our own lives. We idealize the biblical text because we have idealized our own experience. We want to live in a world that is governed by formula and rules. We want to believe there really are five ways to keep our marriages alive or three keys to healthy prayer lives. Unfortunately, life does not appear to be aware of the rules.
“Nature seems to catch you by the tail,” Annie Dillard observes. “I think of all the butterflies I have seen whose torn hind wings bore the jagged marks of bird’s bills.”14
The same could be said of life. God’s people file into place every Sunday, similarly bearing scars from the previous week. They greet one another politely and turn their attention to the preacher, quietly wondering why the rules did not apply to them and why the formula did not work.
“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along” Annie Dillard writes. “I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.”15
She is writing about the natural world, but she could be describing the church.
A Failure of Imagination
In the film Cool Hand Luke, Strother Martin’s character says to Paul Newman, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Martin’s character complains further that there are some men you just can’t reach. We are inclined to agree with him. When it comes to our preaching, the failure is as liable to be one of imagination as it is to be one of communication. What we have here is a lack of imagination.
For nearly a century now, the evangelical pulpit has labored under the assumption that the root problem for preachers is a failure to communicate and that the key to communication is realism. This is a quality we try to instill in our sermons by giving attention to the historical details of the text, supporting our assertions with facts and figures, and using contemporary illustrations to assure our audience that the Bible is still relevant. This desire to preach realistically has produced in us an obsession with pragmatism. We are so consumed with realism that we have forgotten to use our imaginations. Imagination, it turns out, is the secret to realism in preaching.
Northrop Frye explains how this is so by drawing a distinction between the imaginary which is unreal, and the imaginative, which gives shape and language to what is universal. The realm of the imaginative, Frye explains, is the realm of the poet: “The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event.”16
This is one of the primary functions of literature—to provide us with a typology by which we may recognize ourselves. “You wouldn’t go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland—you go to it to learn how a man feels after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul” Frye explains. “When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don’t feel there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel there’s a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself.”17
The imagination exercises an even greater power by enabling us, not only to apprehend with our intellect what otherwise would be abstract, but to experience it in some measure. According to C.S. Lewis, this is value of myth. This sort of understanding is a matter of tasting rather than knowing, an experience of truth that transcends truth: “What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on an abstract level.”18
Lewis’ assertion that in Christ “myth became fact” may make us uncomfortable, but he does not mean the same thing by this that Rudolf Bultmann does when he argues the New Testament view of the world is “essentially mythical in character” and to expect modern man to accept it would be “senseless and impossible.”19 Lewis does not deny the historicity of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.”20
When Lewis describes these historical events as myth, he is pointing to their capacity to engage the imagination in a way that enables us to experience the reality about which the gospel truth speaks. It is the gospel’s mythic nature that guarantees its realism, and the imagination is the sphere in which this encounter takes place.
This explains why the Bible so often feels familiar and alien simultaneously. The people of the Bible are like us, yet they are not. We share their fears and failings. We identify with stories whose problems are similar to our own but whose particular details are unlike our experience. We recognize Moses’ ambivalence, although God never has spoken to us from a burning bush. We have not tried to walk on water, but we know how it feels to flounder. It is the mythic quality of their experience that makes them so recognizable.
Accessing the Imagination
If imagination is the vehicle by which we understand and apprehend the reality of biblical truth, how do we activate its power? In preaching, it is language that is the instrument—embodied in the words of Scripture and our own words—which God uses to stimulate the imagination. Much has been said about the importance of visual images in today’s culture, but it is language that is the primary gateway to the imagination.
It is possible to tell a story by images alone. There may be instances where a single picture is worth a thousand words, but there are things which language can do that no picture is capable of doing.
As J.R.R. Tolkien observed in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” the faculty of vision enables us to see the green grass and appreciate its beauty. The capacity of the human mind for generalization and abstraction allow us to distinguish the green grass from other things and see that it is green as well as grass. “But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent.”21
This capacity for language not only enables a person to become a kind of sub-creator through the story, but has the potential to ignite the spark of awe. Through language “[w]e may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm.”22
It is just this hidden sense that we seek to stir when we speak to the imagination in preaching. When we do, we are not pressing into service something that is alien to the nature of God’s Word or appealing to the lower nature of our audience.
According to the 19th century Scottish preacher John Ker: “The tokens of man’s highest nature lie not in his being able to comprehend, but in his ability to feel that there are things which he cannot comprehend, and which he yet feels to be true and real, before which he is compelled to fall down in reverent awe.”23 Indeed, Ker warns that it is dangerous to deny or ignore the heart’s need for this sense of wonder. When this happens the heart takes revenge, seeking its nourishment “either in trifles or in morbid and unnatural shapes.”24
According to Ker, our need for the experience of awe is manifested in three ways, first, by a craving for the new and fresh. God Himself is unchanging, but His creation is marked by constant change. God has created us to be explorers. “Man’s mind cannot long remain in a state of monotony without something like pain,” Ker warns, “or, if it does, it is a sign of the low level to which the mind has sunk.”25
Our need for awe also is ignited by a sense of beauty and grandeur. This is a higher order of appreciation than the love of the new because it leads us from wonder to admiration. It is the third dimension, in which we experience what Ker calls wonder, that is most important. When we experience wonder, we move from admiration to awe. How does this happen? According to Ker, “It comes from the sense of what we can touch with our thought but cannot comprehend.”26
This is our aim in preaching: to follow in the steps of the prophets and declare God’s Word; to take our place in the midst of the people, standing between the text and the congregation and speaking as their advocate. More than anything else, it is to provide those who hear us with a different kind of vision, to move our hearers to wonder, to enable them to touch with their thought things which they cannot comprehend.
We speak with authority when we preach, but we also speak with sympathy. We declare certainties when we preach, but we also preside over mysteries. Preaching seeks to mediate the presence of Christ. By our words, we hope to kindle a flame on the altar of the heart.
1Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (2nd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 18.
3Calvin Miller urges preachers to learn from the style of anchorpersons on the six o’clock news: “They read the text in so casual and direct away that they appear to be utterly spontaneous in the unfailing roll of words that flow from their lips,” (Marketplace Preaching: How to Return the Sermon to Where it Belongs [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995], 48). Others try to imitate the goofy friendliness and class clown nonchalance of late night talk-show hosts. See Dennis Beatty and Elizabeth E. Beatty, “Comedy Club Pastor: How a Course in Stand-Up Invigorated My Preaching,” Leadership 22:2 (Spring 2001): 111-114.
4Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1985), 118.
5Ibid., 119. Ironically, in the years since Postman first made this observation, many evangelical churches have worked hard to make their worship environment feel more like common space than sacred space.
6James B. Twitchell, Carnival Culture: the Trashing of Taste in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 200.
8Geoffrey Wainwright, “Preaching as Worship,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28:4 (Winter 1983): 328.
12Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (New York: Harper, 1977), 35.
13Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 38.
14Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: Harper, 1974), 236.
16Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), 63-64.
18C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 66.
19Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (ed. Hans Werner Barsch; New York: Harper, 1961), 1-16.
20Lewis, God in the Dock, 66.
21J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966),
23John Ker, The Day Dawn and the Rain, and Other Sermons (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1869), 62.