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Preaching as Poetry
Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in Every Sermon
By Paul Scott Wilson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Preaching as Poetry in an Age of Math (Theory)
The problem facing the church in the twenty-first century is not postmodernism, it is modernism. Postmodernity is a not a problem for most of the young; it is their way of thought. It is a problem for those who have inherited modernist assumptions. Moreover, we all have modernity and postmodernity in us because they are in our culture and blood. These tumultuous times have so much in flux that preachers may need a fresh vision of what they are doing. Moreover, people in the culture may need a fresh vision of what the church has to offer them. The church could try to imitate what it finds around it in society, for instance, in the entertainment world or the business community, and thus try to make its message more appealing. The alternate suggestion here is that preachers name what is distinctive about the church and focus their efforts there. What the church offers by way of appreciative critique and what the culture offers are as different as poetry is to math. My hope is that preachers may be inspired to think of themselves as offering a kind of poetry to the world and thereby gain fresh confidence and hope for their tasks. They are pastors to be sure, but they are also God's poets-in-residence.
Poetry and Math
Poetry and math are two ways of knowing. There is poetry in math, for instance, in elegant solutions to problems, and there is math in poetry, for instance, in rhythm, rhyme schemes, and word patterns. That said, poetry and math tend to be contrasting ways to think. Math (at least basic math) generalizes from a vast number of particular situations to establish its rules, axioms, theories, and definitions. It is precise and looks for the simplest explanations. In first grade we were taught 1 + 1 = 2, and we were shown numerically representative pictures of apples, kittens, children, mittens, any objects really, and over and over the conclusion of math was the same, 1 + 1 = 2. Math is a way of thinking using logic that is largely indebted to the Enlightenment. Math has many applications to different parts of life. It is the basis for search engines like Google and many sciences upon which economic productivity depends. Math at its basic levels, as arithmetic and for instance math as Isaac Newton taught it, mostly deals with the material world and physical properties. It is rooted in reason and formulas. It is unchanging: more than 2,000 years ago, Pythagoras came up with a2 + b2 = c2. In a right-angled triangle, the sum of the squares of the shorter sides equals the length of the hypotenuse squared. In 20,000 years that will still be true. As one scholar notes, in math it seems like truths do exist "out there" as objective, necessary, and unchanging realities: "Many mathematicians, when pressed, admit to being Platonists. The great logician Kurt Gödel argued that mathematical concepts and ideas 'form an objective reality of their own, which we cannot create or change, but only perceive and describe.'" Math is an efficient way to communicate, reducing things to their basics, relying more on numbers than words. At least until the collapse of Newtonian math and logic, math abhored contradiction and paradox.
Math is a good metaphor for popular ways of thinking: Some young people in my own family speak at a faster rate than data travels on the Internet. Whole sentences are one long varied but uninterrupted sound with a slight rise at the end as though asking a question followed by a split second for breath. Clearly even youth are feeling the pressure: People want short answers, general truths, precise, simple responses, and quick exchanges of information in short bursts of twittered conversation. People want to be finished with one thing and on to the next connection and Internet link. Long answers, theory, and reviews of history provoke impatience.
A problem arises for the church in this age because much of the Christian faith is poetry. There is math in how some of the creeds are understood or moral rules are applied, but generally the way of thinking that faith calls for is poetry. It probes the depths of pain and brokenness within and around us, it points to the stunning beauty of God's love, and it opens us to mystery. In contrast to math, poetry looks more at particular than general events, and concentrates on what makes things unique. Poetry often needs interpretation; it may not fully communicate instantly. It invites relationship and beckons us to stay awhile rather than rushing off. It may raise more questions than it answers. It relies on words, not numbers, and often deliberately highlights contradictions and paradox. It does not seek to solve problems so much as to describe situations. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," will not tell anyone facing a decision what to do, it simply tells the reader what Frost did (he took the road "less traveled by"). But it also creates for the reader Frost's autumn experience, which in itself may unlock memories, feelings, and possible direction. Poetry deals with emotional, material, and spiritual matters all together. It is precise in many ways, but it also invites multiple meanings. Poetry takes time to savor and appreciate. It is associated with creativity and imagination, with things not practical. Thus some people discard poetry.
Why Math May Not Work
The temptation of the church in this age may be to adjust its message for the practical math mind-set. Preachers in this age have already done this with the wide adoption of PowerPoint to project outlines of sermons. They have adjusted, leaned into math, by underscoring and organizing their sermons with graphics, as in academic-type lectures. Some preachers may be encouraged to talk faster, as much of the culture does, so the sermon does not take so long. Or, they may offer summary statements of church teachings, or hand out fill-in-the-blank sermon outline forms, or post sermon themes on Twitter accounts, compact bursts of important information, or give renewed emphasis to propositional and cognate learning. This might seem nicely to conform to the ways of math. Some of these changes may be important. However, math may not work for several reasons:
(1) Christianity is unlikely to appeal to a postmodern mind-set that is suspicious of organized religion and closed systems of predetermined truths. People tend not to be interested in joining something to which they can bring little, where the problems have already been resolved and the answers determined.
(2) The church in some ways is at a disadvantage in being necessarily rooted in history, a subject for which there is relatively little patience. During the Enlightenment, the growth of history as a discipline provided new ways of looking at the world. History was important. Most knowledge lay in the past and needed recovery. The mantra went: Learn from history so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past in the future. If past, present, and future were a teeter-totter, in the modern era it would tilt down toward history, such was its weight and importance. Now, in a postmodern era, the teeter-totter tilts down toward the future. People say "that's history" as a way to dismiss something. They do not generally care about where things came from so much as where things are going. What is the newest technology, undiscovered business opportunity, or upcoming event? The future is in and the past is out. Young people are typically anxious about their futures. The past seems to have little to teach us, or to offer by way of practical outcome; what counts is information that is expanding exponentially with the help of computers. It comes to us out of the future.
(3) Math is not faith's strength, poetry is. Math and poetry are not necessarily in conflict, but the church in worship should concentrate on its strength. Granted, the world may not be any more patient with poetry than it is with history. Poetry often demands time for processing. Nonetheless, the world today is powerfully attracted by its own versions of some classical values, namely beauty, goodness, and truth. They connect with poetry. In the presence of beauty, goodness, and truth, most people I know want more, not less, and they do not mind spending time. All three values have undergone a postmodern change. If the church can learn from these changes, and build on the broad appeal that they have, its poetry may find reception.
(4) The language of spirituality is not certainty but poetry. As Hebrews puts it, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (11:1 NRSV). The contemporary world has a hunger for spirituality. Christian spirituality, as I understand, it is an awareness of God in the ordinary things of life, a sense of who one is in relationship to the world, and an alertness to the possibility of God both in one's neighbor and in ordinary and extraordinary events alike. It offers a sense of meaning both in and beyond oneself. Reason and its formulations are inadequate on their own to portray the sublime that the imagination and poetry are able to represent. Overreliance on reason was a basic failing of the Enlightenment project. Preaching recently has moved away from heavy reliance on propositions and in the direction of story, and now it needs to be reconceived as a kind of poetry.
The Preacher as Poet
Preaching is not poetry in the usual sense. In some limited ways the preacher is like a traditional poet, at least in being sensitive to language, to its limitations, for instance, in capturing the brilliance of a cardinal on a snowy cedar bough. In general, we speak here not of poetry as high art, or of preachers composing sermons in verse with rhyme scheme and meter, as some hip hop artists might be able to do with effect. To exaggerate, the contrast is between preaching as information and preaching as experience, but both are needed. Poetry is a way of pointing to God in the world, of praising God's beauty and love, and finding both mystery and ongoing purpose and meaning, often in the midst of suffering. Poetry here refers to the capacity of the sermon to "put a frame around the mystery," as Frederick Buechner once described preaching, or to awaken a sense of wonder, as Thomas Troegger says. Poetry refers to the sermon's ability to take the fragmented nature of daily life and offer in and through it glimpses of a coherent and meaningful whole and, even more, the hand of a loving God.
Poetry is a way of pointing to God in the world.
The poetry in question is not the preacher's creation but God's, God's purposes seen in and through the events of daily life. The beauty and elegance of the sciences are God-given and included in this poetry, but we are not confined there. The sermon opens windows to show the new creation amidst the old, Christ drawing all things to himself. I like to think that the best words in a sermon come not from the preacher alone, but from the Spirit. Thus each faithful sermon in part is a miracle. That is why, in an ascription of glory that sometimes follows a sermon, preachers say "All thanks be to God," not "All thanks be to me." God's poetry synthesizes, harmonizes, integrates, pulls together; its language portrays divinity infusing the common, ordinary events of each day. In short, preaching can be a source of beauty.
For the ancient Greeks, beauty was a fixed quality. It had to do with pleasing symmetry, proportion, unity, harmony, and balance in art. Aristotle simply said that "the beautiful is what is pleasant to the eyes or to the ears," and he connected beauty with desire. Together with goodness, he tied it to the origin of all knowledge: What we want motivates us to discover and learn. For purposes of preaching, beauty is the experience of God and God's purposes, the in-breaking of the future now. Jesus called it the realm or kingdom of God. Beauty is discovery of profound meaning beyond oneself, often in seeming contrast to the events of the day. Beauty is fruits of the Spirit: mercy, love, reconciliation, hope, healing, food for the hungry, jobs for the unemployed, peace for the war-torn, hope for the desperate, consolation for the inconsolable, joy for the sorrowful. I use the term unity to characterize beauty, because in God one may sense a wondrous unity and coherence beyond what one can fully apprehend and beyond the seeming chaos we may find in events around us. This is not the unity of a closed rational system of thought that seemingly allows no difference or entry—the kind of unity much postmodern thought reacts against. Rather the unity of which we speak is the unity of One who sees humanity in all its variations and contradictions and loves us all equally.
The notion of poetry might seem hopelessly romantic. Beauty may seem like a frill. What about all of the horrible things that happen in the world? They are decidedly not poetry and the sermon must unflinchingly name the worst the world has to offer. Without being voyeuristic or going into detailed horrifying description, it briefly opens portals on life in all of its ugliness, stink, brokenness, horror, sorrow, and sin. The sermon is poetry to the extent that it can do this yet still hold out strong evidence of God's love and saving purposes.
Poetry is not an ingredient the preacher adds to a description of reality; the poetry is to be found in reality when God's reconciling and renewing purposes are considered in the large picture with 360-degree focus. Sorrow, injustice, and lament still speak with their convincing logic, but they do not have the final word. God in Christ has entered the worst, thus poetry may be sought. The poetry of the end times is already heard as music in the present. Its refrains crack the foundations of all the powers that seem to reign. The new reality that this poetry communicates is already breaking in. The reign that will finally rule has already begun. This poetry does not answer all questions nor does it try. As Leonard Cohen sings in his "Anthem," we should forget perfection, because light gets in through the cracks in life. Theopoetry is sacramental; it bears God and all the hope that is needed in this broken world. Paul claims that "no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:3) and if he is right, only by the Spirit can one write or hear such poetry.
Poetry has the potential to portray a relationship with God as more than good behaving and right thinking. As preachers we may inadvertently have packaged the faith as work to be done, propositions to be unpacked, concepts to be understood, beliefs to be affirmed, formulas to be worked out. We tend to speak as though truth and meaning exist out there like ideas that we only need to grasp and affirm in order for us to be righteous. We may have communicated faith as a thing one has or not, an object one uses to get around in life, like a bike or a car. In daily life, intensity of personal and communal faith varies, questions arise, doubt lingers. Yet for many, the beauty of God, the trust in God's goodness, and the wonder of an ongoing relationship with a saving God abide. To communicate this, we speak of God as a person and of truth as relational. If I portray the kindness of someone at work, I do not go into philosophy; instead I recite the things that happened. Similarly, if I describe my relationship with God, I do not use math or science formulas. As with poetry in general, I use concrete language and focus on specific sensory details to carry meaning. Poetry helps speak of a wonderful relationship. Ideally, through the sermon God in Christ is perceived as a steady and constant friend, and the gospel is experienced as if for the first time.
The preacher is a poet in the sense of being an agent of God's poetry, someone who perceives God's beauty, goodness, and truth. In our own lives, beauty, goodness, and truth come from God. They are treasures God gives. These are given in the sermon, "not as the world gives" (as Jesus said of peace in John 14:27): Beauty is not the world's standard, but what is beautiful in God's sight. As some scholars have noted, our notion of beauty needs to include the death of Jesus on the cross. If it does not then it is at odds with the God who finds that ugliness beautiful. Goodness is God's character. It is what is virtuous and just in God's realm, what can be tasted now as a foretaste of what is to come. And truth is a living truth known in relationship with God.
Excerpted from Preaching as Poetry by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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