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The preacher as poet

By Peter K Stevenson.

In developing a strategy for designing sermons, the homiletician, David Schlafer, observes that most sermons are usually held together by either an image, a narrative or an argument. He argues that “in sermons that ‘work’, in sermons that actually make the Good News come alive, one of these three - image, story or argument - is the orchestrating, integrating principle that shapes the whole sermon”.[1]

So when Schlafer encourages preachers to discover their own distinctive ‘preaching voice’, he invites them to consider whether their natural tendency is to be a Poet, a Storyteller or an Essayist.[2]

In some church circles, the Essayist approach holds sway, with preachers whose default style is to deliver sermons which major on making ‘points’, advancing arguments in a reasonable, logical way. Within homiletics during the last 30 years there has been renewed interest in exploring narrative preaching; a shift which moves the spotlight onto the preacher as storyteller. However, my suspicion is there has not been an equivalent emphasis upon this idea of viewing the Preacher as Poet.

Preacher as Poet - an unhelpful connection?

Following my mother’s death in 2004, my sister unearthed some things produced by my class at primary school in the 1960s. The papers included my first recorded effort at writing poetry.

Sports Day has come,

With a lot of races,

Everyone with jolly faces,

Trying to win all their races.

 

Now at last my race has come,

Now to have a bit of fun.

I have run fast,

But come in last.

 

If the last time you encountered poetry was at school, and your vision of poetry is of simple, childish rhymes, then the idea of connecting preaching to poetry might seem an unhelpful idea.

On the other hand, if you have been exposed to certain forms of poetry, you may feel that ‘poetry’ is a synonym for allusive, enigmatic writing which makes sense only to an intellectual elite. From that perspective preaching and poetry may appear to be unlikely bedfellows.

At times I have heard some ministers talk in a derisory fashion about sermons which involve ‘three points as a poem’, which they take to represent an old-fashioned approach, ill-suited to congregations in a non-book culture.

Within Schlafer’s thinking, the Preacher as Poet is just one of the models for the preaching task. Without in any way claiming that this is the only or most important model, this article offers some reflections on the potential of seeing the Preacher as Poet.

Exploring the Preacher as Poet

a) Poets create Images

For poets, images and word pictures are the tools of their trade, and those images and word pictures are let loose to appeal to their hearers’ imagination. Here then is one area where the preacher needs to learn from poets about creating images and using pictorial language.The importance of pictorial language in preaching is picked up by Jolyon Mitchell in Visually Speaking. He refers to a religious broadcaster, Ronald Falconer, who argued that “in radio we make our own pictures; on television they are made for us by another. Whatever the radio programme, whether drama, documentary or act of worship, we are in a more active state, mentally, than when we watch its television equivalent.” Mitchell explains that “part of the power of pictorial language is its ability to engage the imagination, and so motivate the listener to collaborate ‘as an active participant.’ Preaching which employs this approach, and allows listeners to make their own pictures, has the potential to involve listeners in a more dynamic mental activity. By contrast, watching the television or a film demands less ‘active’ imaginative participation.”[3]

One criticism of preaching is that sermons have traditionally been aimed more at the intellect than the imagination, but if preachers can create images and paint pictures which appeal to people’s imaginations, then hearers are more likely to be stimulated to participate actively in the preaching event. In his study of the parables, the New Testament scholar, C H Dodd, offered this classic definition of parables: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[4] In a similar way perhaps the preacher is called to follow the example of the Jesus, in the sense of resisting the temptation to give the congregation all the answers on a plate, and preaching in ways that tease our hearers ‘into active thought’?

If Jolyon Mitchell is correct that “watching the television or a film demands less ‘active’ imaginative participation,”[5] then it is worth asking whether projecting images on a screen in church may be a less effective way of teasing people ‘into active thought’ than vivid word pictures?

b) Poets handle serious issues

Some poetry amuses and entertains, but many poets deal with life and death issues. Poets seek to open the windows of our minds, so that we might catch a glimpse of things that are of vital importance.  The preacher as poet similarly needs to be wrestling with life and death affairs. A British preacher from an earlier generation, R E C Browne, argued that “great preaching like great poetry, deals with love and death, with life and birth, with hate and treachery, in such a way that something significant is said about the tragic aspect of human life.”[6] The “tragic aspect of human life” is something which everyone has to come to terms with, and if preaching does not openly and realistically deal with that “tragic aspect”, then people will quickly begin to feel short changed.

c) Poets see connections

The contemporary Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail explains that the Irish word for poet, file, means a seer. Another poet, who spent some time working in Sri Lanka, once reported that the word for a poet in one of the local languages there literally means ‘one who sees the connections between things’.

The idea of someone ‘who sees the connections between things’, is a very suggestive image, not only for the work of the poet, but also for the preacher’s task. It ties up with the claim made by the Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra, that “theology is the enterprise of relating all human knowledge, as well as all our everyday activities, to God’s self-disclosure in Christ.”[7]

Surely preaching is intended to be a form of practical theology which seeks to see the connections between all human knowledge, our everyday activities and God’s self-disclosure in Christ. Perhaps we could go on to say that the preacher is called to help people ‘see the connections between things’, in the sense of helping people recognise the God who is intimately connected to every aspect of life.

d) Poets know the power of words.

The preacher has much to learn from the poet who appreciates the value and power of each and every word. John Killinger presents the challenge like this. “We can read - and listen to - the poets, wordcrafters, hewers of speech, who know from their practice of silence the heft and breadth and width of words. They work in language as other persons work in bricks or boards, making things tangible. The husks still cling to their words. The blank spaces on their pages are as viable as the print - sometimes more so. They teach us to speak slowly, carefully, quietly, that we not disturb the mystery we are describing.”[8]

Browne urges the preacher to listen to Ezra Pound’s advice about using words wisely and skilfully. “Use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation. The more concretely and vividly we express the interaction of things the better the poetry. We cannot exhibit the wealth of nature by mere summation, by piling of sentences. Poetic thought works by suggestion, crowding maximum meaning into the single phrase, pregnant, charged and luminous from within”.[9]

If every word is important and powerful, then it is well worth preparing and editing what we write and say with great care. For while preaching is different from poetry in many ways, and while many sermons may take longer to perform than poems, both preachers and poets need to measure every word and every phrase.

Words are explosive, and often fewer words may be more powerful. For fewer words create more spaces for people’s imaginations to kick in, allowing them to fill in those blanks with meaning and with love.

At one point in a sermon on the Cry of Dereliction in Mark chapter 15, I asked the question:-

“I wonder what helps you when you’re feeling down...

...when you’re feeling blue?

Maybe different personality types find different things helpful?

For me it’s often a piece of music which

Touches a nerve

Changes a mood,

Pours oil on troubled waters.” [10]

Rather than describing in detail what ‘feeling down’ is like, I hoped that a few words would paint pictures and create images which would tease my hearers’ minds into active thought and participation.

If words are so important, then the preacher needs to become skilled in their use, skilled in both shaping and delivering words which he or she prays will convey God’s message. If words are so potent and powerful, then perhaps preachers would do well to take heed of Cicero’s quip that “too much is more offensive than too little”.[11]

e) Poets point to a different world

Another writer who makes this connection between the preacher and the poet is Walter Brueggemann. In Finally Comes the Poet, he claims that the gospel has become domesticated, and accommodated to the spirit of the age. Into this situation the preacher must come as a prophet or poet to disturb this comfortable alliance with the ‘world’ and to tease people’s minds into active thought about a different way of seeing reality. Brueggemann wants “to consider preaching as a poetic construal of an alternative world.” Drawing an image from the poetry of Walt Whitman he goes on to say that “after the engineers, inventors, and scientists, after all such control through knowledge, ‘finally comes the poet.’ The poet does not come to have a say until the human community has engaged in its best management. Then perchance comes the power of poetry - shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities.”[12]

To some extent this portrayal of the poet preacher, inheriting the mantle of the biblical prophet, provides a useful summary of Brueggemann’s slant on theology and the mission of the church. At the same time, however, he also adds to our thinking about this topic by arguing that the way in which God resolves the problem of guilt must be “articulated poetically, because the reality of God’s self-giving outruns all our capacities to speak about it.”[13] If we proclaim the good news of a God who can never be trapped or defined in human language, then speaking poetically simultaneously stimulates the imagination and acknowledges the limitations of language.

f) Poets perform rather than explain

Anna Carter Florence argues that “poets are close kin to us preachers because they take words as seriously as we do: poets believe words can change a world.”[14] As a teacher of homiletics she finds that the behaviour of her students is well described by the poet Billy Collins who pictures how his students respond to his efforts to introduce them to poetry. I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a colour slide

 

or press an ear against its hive.

 

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

 

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

 

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

 

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.[15]

 

Poetry, like preaching, is a performance art. The poem is something that is to be spoken, performed and heard. The text is to be performed, not explained. For both preaching and poetry, the aim is to get people to hear and experience the text, rather than tying the text to a chair and torturing it until it yields up its meaning.

Anna Carter Florence finds, however, that her new students always feel under an obligation to explain the biblical text in their sermons. Rather than just explaining the biblical text, she longs for preachers who will have the confidence to release the Word without over-explaining it.

If the preacher is like a poet in the sense of performing the text, then maybe preachers need to spend more time proclaiming the text rather than only explaining it? In a biblically illiterate society, there is clearly a place for explaining the text, but at times do preachers over-explain it? Often the preacher’s main calling is to release the powerful word of God and allow and expect it to make its own impact upon the hearers.

The prophet reminds us that God’s Word has the power to communicate with or without our explanations.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10-11 NRSV)

Conclusion

In thinking about the preacher as poet, the aim is not to encourage preachers to design sermons on the basis of iambic pentameter or rhyming verse. The poet preacher is one whose sermons are held together by images more than by stories or arguments. Whilst those other elements will certainly be present, the image functions to hold things together.

Following the local elections in May 2007, I was preaching on Genesis 3 and the image that came to mind was of the political spin doctor who always seeks to put a positive spin on the policies of their own party whilst putting a negative spin on the policies of other parties. I went on to say that:

The idea of Spin - that subtle twisting of things - goes back a long, long way in history. Indeed the book of Genesis explains that it goes all the way back to the beginning.

For right at the beginning we see the first spin doctor at work;

for we see the serpent twisting and distorting God’s words;

we see the serpent subtly calling God’s trustworthiness into question.

And I’m calling the serpent the first Spin Doctor because he says ‘Did God really say...?’

The sermon said various other things about a familiar passage, but the idea of a spin doctor twisting and distorting God’s words was one which (I think) helped to hold the sermon together.

The invitation for preachers to ask whether their natural tendency is to be a Poet, a Storyteller or an Essayist style of preacher, [16] need not be seen as an attempt to prove that one approach is better than others. Reflecting on the style of preaching which comes most naturally and instinctively to me, prompts me to consider whether I can add other styles and approaches to my preaching repertoire. Given the varieties of people in the congregation, employing a variety of preaching styles may lead to more effective communication.

 

‘Much as the sacraments use physical entities such as water and bread and wine and oil to bring grace to bear upon us, so metaphor or poetic language communicates the things of God through familiar words and ideas.’[17]

 

Further reading.

Browne, R E C, The Ministry of the Word (London: SCM Press, 1958). See for example chapter 2 ‘Preacher and Poet - An Analogy.’

Brueggemann, Walter, Finally Comes The Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

Day, David, Embodying the Word: A Preacher’s Guide (London: SPCK, 2005). See chapters 7 and 15.

Florence, Anna Carter, ‘Put Away Your Sword’ in M. Graves (ed.), What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 93-108.

Mitchell, Jolyon P, Visually Speaking: Radio and the Renaissance of Preaching (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999).

Troeger, Thomas H, Imagining a Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).

Thurston, Bonny, ‘Words and the Word: Reflections on Scripture, Prayer and Poetry’ The Way 44:2 (April 2005) 7-20.

[1] David J Schlafer, Surviving the Sermon: A Guide to Preaching for Those Who Have to Listen (Boston: Cowley, 1992), p 65.

[2] David J Schlafer, Your Way with God’s Word: Discovering Your Distinctive Preaching Voice, (Boston: Cowley, 1995) pp 57-74.

[3] Jolyon P Mitchell, Visually Speaking: Radio and the Renaissance of Preaching (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), p220.

[4] C H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: Nisbet, 1935), p16.

[5] Jolyon P Mitchell, Visually Speaking: Radio and the Renaissance of Preaching (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), p220.

[6] R E C Browne, The Ministry of the Word (London: SCM Press, 1958), pp 77-78.

[7] Vinoth Ramachandra in H Peskett and V Ramachandra The Message of Mission(Leicester: IVP, pp 22-23).

[8] John Killinger ‘Preaching and Silence’ in D Day et al., A Reader on Preaching: Making Connections, (Basingstoke: Ashgate, 2005), 127-133.

[9] Ezra Pound cited by R E C Browne The Ministry of the Word, p 24.

[10] Peter K Stevenson and Stephen I Wright, Preaching the Atonement (London: T & T Clark, 2005), p 64.

[11] CiceroOrator, xx, 70.

[12] Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes The Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p 6.

[13] ibid, p37.

[14] Anna Carter Florence ‘Put Away Your Sword’ in M. Graves (ed.), What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 93-108.

[15] Billy Collins ‘Introduction to Poetry’ in Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (New York: Random House, 2003) p.3.

[16] David J. Schlafer, Your Way with God’s Word: Discovering Your Distinctive Preaching Voice, (Boston: Cowley, 1995) pp 57-74.

[17] Bonny Thurston, ‘Words and the Word: Reflections on Scripture, Prayer and Poetry’ The Way 44:2 (April 2005) p18.

Peter K Stevenson

Director of Training, Spurgeon's College, London

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You are reading The preacher as poet by Peter K Stevenson, part of Issue 41 of Ministry Today, published in November 2007.

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