Good Preaching, Good Prose

What can be said from a layman’s viewpoint on the topic “the sermon as art form”? There are, obviously, certain things that would be patently inappropriate—such things as how to construct a sermon, or what the particular task of the preacher is. Nor is it entirely fitting for laymen to inform the clergy what we wish to hear. That question is, in a sense, already settled for us all, clergy and laity alike: it is the Word of God (as distinguished from mere high thoughts, noble sentiments, or worthy maxims) that is the subject of preaching.

This last observation may open onto the path by which the layman may reflect on the topic. The Word of God is the subject of preaching, and its proclamation is the task of preaching. There is nothing else to be done. That’s simple enough. But of course that is the threshold to the edifice. How do preachers proclaim it? How do they go about their task? Where shall they find their cues? From St. Peter? Augustine? Dominic? Decolampadius? Simeon? Wesley? Spurgeon? Phillips Brooks? Fosdick? Where?

The tradition of preaching in the Church is, to say the least, an ancient and noble one. It has been no random, off-the-cuff activity—no question of one Christian’s merely “sharing” spontaneously some thoughts that the Lord has been speaking to him about lately. Sharing is, of course, a legitimate sort of thing in its place, as a snack of potato chips is in its place; but we do not want the chef in the palace serving up potato chips when we come for roast lamb. Similarly, the tradition has been that preaching, like the administration of the sacraments, is an activity distinct from other worthy activities in the Church, and is one to which sober attention and preparation are to be given. It has never been a question of a person’s merely keeping himself open to the immediate promptings of the Holy Ghost. That may be what occurs in the ministry of prophecy in the Church. But the act of preaching has, from the earliest epoch of the Church, been seen as one that asked sustained and painstaking preparation.

No one sector of Christendom has a corner on the activity of preaching. All traditions—Latin, Orthodox, Reformed, Anabaptist—would claim to take their cues from apostolic precedent, of course. But that does not mean that all sermons in all churches have been modeled directly on Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, or Paul’s address on Mars Hill. The notion at work in the art of preaching has been always to take the Scripture and, by shaping and articulating it by means of rhetoric (logic, exemplum, expositio, peroratio, and all the other tools of the orator), to deliver it to the faithful as truthfully, clearly, and forcefully as possible, the end being the nourishing and building up of the Body of Christ.

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On a hasty view, it might appear that all this craft—this preparing and shaping and elaborating of things—will somehow quash the vital influence of the Holy Ghost. It is a notion perennially appealing to the zealous religious imagination that all forms of structuring and institutionalizing and pre-casting are somehow inimical to the work of the Holy Ghost, who operates (on this view) via the spontaneous, the ebullient, and the random.

But this opinion, appealing as it is, would not seem to have quite come to terms with the obvious. It is by no means usual for God to disclose himself to us in the whirlwind, or in the chariots of fire, or in the angelic trump, or even in visions and ecstatic voices. Effective as these methods are, the oddity is that ordinarily that disclosure—the disclosure of the Ultimate, of the Unconditioned, if you will—comes to us in the commonplace: in Scripture, in circumstances, in advice and counseling from pastors and other Christians. Our very progress in holiness itself, certainly an activity of the Holy Ghost, is a thing we “work at.” The saints are people who have cultivated habits of holiness.

By the same token, the Church has understood this very central activity, the business of preaching, to be so important that it is not to be left to impulses or to private and immediate revelations. The pastors of the flock, from the apostles on down, have recognized that the preacher must do his homework: he has to know what the Bible says, for a start, and that takes lots of plodding work. It’s much more than merely dabbing at isolated and exciting texts. The preacher has to learn to think, and to speak (and Balaam’s ass, to whom be praise, is not the model), and to organize, and to vivify and articulate the Divine Word in terms that people can understand.

To vivify and articulate. That, doubtless, is the point at which we may speak of the sermon as “art form.” Not art form in the sense of mere objet d’art—a little gorgeous and brittle thing held up for our delectation. Rather, art form in the sense of something carefully constructed so that there is clarity (instead of blur) and force (instead of limpness). There are plenty of analogies from the merely human realm, if we doubt the validity of carefully constructing things. A Mozart symphony is carefully put together, with all the resources that Mozart could muster, and it is better than any random tootling and improvising we can come up with spontaneously. A Rembrandt “Holy Family” is painstakingly constructed, and the effect of clarity and force is achieved far better this way than by my (untrained and ad hoc) sketch of the same subject. Again, a spontaneous testimony from some blundering Christian is a worthy thing, and has its place in the life of the Body; but it is not what the faithful gather to hear when they come for the ministry of the Word.

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All sorts of expository and persuasive arts have been marshalled by the preachers in the Church down through the centuries. The Fathers were brilliant and powerful rhetoricians: Augustine and St. John Chrysostom (“Golden-mouth”) are formidable names. The preachers of medieval Europe got to using highly histrionic techniques, some of them becoming virtual one-man dramatic troupes as they enacted for the people the biblical stories. In the Renaissance, with the general intellectual return to Ciceronian categories for all of public discourse, the great preachers in England were men whose sermons show the effects of years of drilling in the art of rhetoric. And the tradition of orthodox preaching in England and America, on through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continued to be one of—of fervor, yes; and of fidelity to Scriptures, yes; but also of eloquence.

But it was eloquence in the service of truth, never for its own sake. And Christian imagination would suppose that this eloquence (that is, this capacity to shape ordinary speech into something beautiful and forceful) is a gift from God, as are all capacities (Mozart’s, Milton’s, the cook’s, the counselor’s, the hostess’s).

Not all preaching is “art,” in the sense of eloquence. But, like any other activity in the Church, or in ordinary human life for that matter, if it is worth doing at all, it is worth working at; and, as we test our cooking, say, against some ultimate cordon bleu standard, or our tunes by some Mozartian criterion, so we may look to the practitioners of the art of preaching as worthy models of this activity.

Of ten thousand examples of preaching that exhibit the sermon as “art form” to us, here is one that, besides speaking clearly and forcefully to us of something in Scripture, has, taken its place in the annals of art. It is from a sermon of John Donne, the seventeenth-century dean of St. Paul’s cathedral in London, and you can find it in any anthology of English prose. It is about damnation:

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When God, who is all blessing, hath learned to curse us, and, being of himself spread as an universal honeycomb over all, takes an impression, a tincture, an infusion, of gall from us, what extraction of wormwood can be so bitter, what exaltation of fire can be so raging, what multiplying of talents can be so heavy, what stiffness of destiny can be so inevitable, what confection of gnawing worms, of gnashing teeth, of howling cries, of scalding brimstone, of palpable darkness can be so, so insupportable, so inexpressible, so unimaginable as the curse and malediction of God [Sermon xxvi, folio of 1649; in Witherspoon, A.M., and Warnke, F. J., Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 1963, p. 105].

That is good prose, on anybody’s accounting. Of course, it is three hundred and fifty years out of date; and of course, not all preachers will choose such daunting imagery and syntax! But it is a case in point, from its own era, of the sort of thing that does us good when we encounter it: good preaching that is also good prose. The sermon, in other words, as an art form.

THOMAS HOWARDThomas Howard is associate professor of English at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

To Grapple With Pain

Gospel Films has released two superior thirty-minute color films produced by Mel White and available for rent at $25 each. Grappling with suffering in the Christian experience, both films portray true stories of families confronted with hard circumstances.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a first-person account of the capture and imprisonment of Howard Rutledge during the Viet Nam war. During the interminable days of solitary confinement, Howard finds himself groping to recall Bible verses learned in his childhood but long since forgotten. His hitherto nominal Christian faith grows rapidly, tested by torture, illness, and lonely years of waiting.

From Howard the camera jumps to Phyllis, his wife, who relates that the family back home is being tested in a different way. Not knowing whether her husband is dead or alive, Phyllis follows her children to church, attracted by the warmth and compassion of local believers.

The pastor prays regularly for Howard from the pulpit and encourages the congregation to continue interceding throughout the week. During this time, John Rutledge, the fifteen-year-old son, is paralyzed in a freak diving accident and relegated to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

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After seven years of praying and alternately doubting and trusting, the Rutledge family is joyfully reunited. The first Sunday after his release Howard publicly affirms his faith at the altar of his church. Exuberantly the pastor announces, “We knew God would answer our prayers!” This raises the question: Is God not answering prayers in the case of thousands of POWs who have not returned?

In both this film and the second, Though I Walk Through the Valley, the camera moves from character to character drawing from each a highly personal reaction to suffering. This technique lends texture to the thematic fabric as no two characters respond to their suffering in the same way.

Though I Walk Through the Valley will doubtless elicit ambivalent reactions. The viewer is at once horrified and humbled as the brazen camera intrudes on the intensely private suffering of a family watching the husband and father die of cancer.

This film came about when producer Mel White watched four close relatives and friends die in quick succession. In no way prepared for the shock, he determined to film a Christian family confronting death with hope and realism. In this way he hoped to help Christians across the nation prepare for death with greater confidence and understanding.

After six years, he found the Brouwer family, who agreed to let film crews record their suffering over the last six months of Tony Brouwer’s life. At the time of the filming, Tony Brouwer was chairman of the economics department at Calvin College. Throughout the entire story, he is a bastion of hope and down-to-earth realism. From him, the wife and two articulate daughters draw strength, though the daughters in their reactions differ markedly from their parents and from each other.

Filmed at the shore, in the home, at the hospital, and at the cemetery, Though I Walk Through the Valley barely escapes morbidity in some scenes, though as a whole it is infused with life and hope.

The viewer is constantly amazed at the willing vulnerability of the family members to the camera’s harsh eye. The film makes one wonder if perhaps death along with birth and sex should be protected from the ubiquitous lens. And is it possible to prepare for death by viewing the experience of others, or does a film of this nature encourage a type of sanctified voyeurism whereby one attempts to alleviate his own sufferings though a vicarious experience?

This film would best be screened to a small, mature audience where it can be properly introduced and followed with discussion.

CAROL PRESTER MCFADDENCarol Prester McFadden is a consultant and free-lance writer living in Arlington, Virginia.

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