Theologian Amos Wilder said that going to church should be like “approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks. The sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.” I like to ask my seminary students, “Do you know that church?” But pretty much no matter how they answer, I continue to point them to Wilder’s phantasmagoric vision. It’s an image suited to this generation of the church’s life, I believe. And to this age of preaching.
Wilder’s metaphors remind us of the spark-spattering power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a theme that resonates with the view of Phyllis Tickle and others who describe this era of the church’s life as “the age of the Spirit.” In Tickle’s schema, the first 2,000 years of God’s project with human beings runs from the time of Abraham to the time of Christ; the second from the time of Christ to the year 2000; and the third refers to the two-millennia immediately ahead, the era we have our toes on.
The view is not put forward as doctrine. Unless you are a medieval mystic (like Joaquim de Fiore, the 12th century dispensationalist whose work loosely corresponds to Tickle’s theory), the model is suggestive. A way of connecting with the spirit of an age both more hopeful of and more jaded about spiritual experience. A way of promoting a little creative thinking about such an age.
To me, it seems right. All kinds of people are spiritually restless these days — and not just out here on the left coast. In the popularity of centering prayer and Ignatian spiritual exercises, the explosive growth of Pentecostalism, the fervent interest in Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, the commitment to interreligious dialogue, the rise of creation spirituality, and in the enduring interest in the Enneagram and the new interest in Integral Christianity, we see it. A kind of spiritual foment is afoot. Change is sweeping the church. Virtually everywhere you look the breezes are stepping up to gale force winds. Even worship is being re-made right and left throughout the church. To what should God’s people attribute this restless, volcanic energy — these invisible rays — if not the Spirit?
For years now I have been asking conferences, workshops, congregations, preachers’ groups, colleagues and my own students what they think it all means. If we took Tickle’s point — if we let her schema provoke our creative thinking about what the church and the world might need — what difference would it make to our preaching? What would preaching look like in an “age of the Spirit”? The answers I get fall into three groups: answers that have to do with preacher’s bodies, with their emotions and with their egos.
The body “thinks” and the body knows, communication theorists tell us. The body has its own way of contributing juice and power to the sermon and it is a foolish preacher who neglects the resource. In an age when the Holy Spirit is afoot, she is afoot in people’s bodies. Even in preachers’ bodies. One spirituality professor I know talks about the importance of the body-Spirit interface, even going as far as to claim, “The body is the Spirit’s message board.” She is thinking of the way our bodies provide clues to what is going on in our deeper levels and the way the Holy Spirit can surprise us with the insights that come out of those depths.
A few observations for the preachers of this peculiar age:
1. It is important not to give in to a body-versus-spirit way of thinking. The two are not opposed to each other. The Spirit always has been and always will be in the business of using human bodies to further the gospel. Ignoring the body’s input and wisdom or suppressing its role in the preaching moment does more harm than good.
2. In an age where the two-dimensional screen is queen, it is easy to lose sight of the power of the third dimension. But the Word came in three dimensions — not two — and it continues in the same way it came: through the to-ing and fro-ing of human beings. The Word came walking and talking and laying hands on people, and that third axis — the approach-withdraw axis — by which a preacher can close the gap or widen the distance between himself and the congregation is essential to the gospel. It is from this axis that preaching draws its electricity. Eye contact and the movement of the preacher’s body toward and away from the congregation fuel much of the sermon’s power.
3. Preachers access the unconscious — the realm of human experience many believe the Holy Spirit favors — through the body. Large muscle repetitive movement, for example, is a tried and true way for preachers to open to their deeper levels. The repetitive movements associated with pacing, praying, walking, biking, showering and even vacuuming represent proven ways to access creative thought and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.
In the limbic system of the human brain, an elaboration of vertebrate arousal patterns occurs and we call it “emotion.” It is more strategically important in preaching than we can say. It so often accounts for the difference between lively preaching and dead preaching, between juicy and dry preaching, between Technicolor and gray, gray, gray preaching. Want your sermons to have zoom, zip and zowie? Want them to fly out across the pews and not just dribble down the front of the pulpit and out into the aisles? Want them to sing? It’s not likely to happen without emotion.
Emotions elaborate thinking, theorists say. It is as if they arise during the preaching process and attach themselves to words, adding layers of meaning. There are few preachers who have not had the experience. Your mind is thinking the word, your mouth preparing to form it, your mental motion picture screen is conjuring up the image and all of a sudden up from your toes come the tears. Or the laugh. Emotions elaborate — they flesh out the bones of the word. They connect up our electrical circuits. They help us do what homiletician Charles L. Bartow describes as “turning ink into blood.”
That emotions can be just as easily misused as used, of course, goes without saying. “In theatre,” the great dramatist Arthur Hopkins said, “I want the thought that arises out of emotion, not the emotion that arises out of thought.” The first facilitates the listener’s experience, the other coerces it. The thoughtfulness that follows a quick-struck spark of emotion is more to be desired in preaching than the emotion that is born after a thought is thought and re-thought. Why? Because it is a more immediate reaction. And since it is more immediate, it is more likely to be an authentic, organic, holistic response — what actors call “true.”
The honorable use of emotion is one of the preacher’s most weighty responsibilities and it is most of all a matter of the preacher’s own integrity. A preacher who outers what she inners and nothing more will seldom abuse the pulpit’s power. Preachers who rely on trumped up volume, choreographed gestures (tell-tale sign: always a half a beat late) and put-on facial expressions to produce effects are playing with fire.
How does a preacher make sure that at least sometimes she reaches listeners’ emotions? By staying close to image.
When Fred Craddock says, “I am in the yellow leaf of my life,” what happens to you? Do you think about mortality and recall the major points of Atul Gawande’s new book on the subject? Or do you feel the pang of poignancy first, then stop to admire the metaphor? When Aimee Semple McPherson compares the church without the Holy Spirit to a dry fountain that “offers but the poor apology of a bucket of muddy water from a hardly reached well,” do you think, “I need to reconsider my pneumatology”? Or do you feel the stomach-drop of disappointment, the dust of worry in your mouth? Word-pictures or images are the language-trigger for emotion. Preachers who stay close to them stay close to one of the Spirit’s favorite tools.
How often do you start your sermon with “I”? How reliable is your internal clock? Is the preached sermon often longer than the one you’d planned? How many of your main stories, examples and analogies are drawn from your own life? Do your stories ever paint you in a favorable light? Even subtly?
All of these are questions about the preacher’s ego. In an age where preachers might be thinking anew about their collaboration with the Holy Spirit, such questions are crucial. In an era where preaching and the larger culture that surrounds it can be critiqued as having narcissistic tendencies, it is a particularly important issue.
What is the root of the humor you use most often? Does is have a quality of over-againstness? Does your humor subtly or not-so-subtly call attention to yourself? Highlight your role as a powerful person? Are you able to admit weakness? When you preach do you tend to loom? Do folks squirm under your eye contact? How do you make space for others’ voices? Have you found ways to share the limelight? How effective are you at reading the listeners’ non-verbal cues? Can you hear yourself? Do you ever have a Jack Horner glow? Where does it come from?
The use of self, body, voice, personality and even ego is unavoidable in preaching. It is part of the given. And perhaps the most hidden part of the given, the most invisible part of the preacher’s task is the question of what a preacher does with his or her ego.
“Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art,” Constantine Stanislavski advised the actors he taught. It is not bad advice for those of us who preach in this peculiar age where the stakes are high and the sparks are spattering. Where the invisible rays of the gospel still — through us and sometimes in spite of us — grace the pulpit.
JANA CHILDERS is dean, vice president for academic affairs and professor of homiletics and speech communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California.