Plugging into a Richer Version of God and Humanity
Effective homiletics has always been responsive to the culture of communications in which the word of God was preached. We have only to think of St. Augustine’s defense of the use of classical rhetoric for presenting the gospel, or medieval treatises picturing gestures for preachers that were based on the visual art of cathedrals, or the integration of Biblical cadences with the patterns of call and response in African American preaching, or the development of testimony in marginalized communities to subvert the established powers, or the so-called “new homiletic” of the twentieth century that replaced the concept of a logically developed outline with a “plot” that was closer to the tension and resolution of film and dramatic television shows.
Thus for preachers to acknowledge and adapt some of the methods and qualities of our current electronic culture is not a novel turn in the history of how the gospel is declared and given witness. It is a continuation of the diverse and dynamic movements of homiletical development through the ages. However, like all developments, it is not automatically good or bad. It depends on how the media, their qualities and values, are employed.
Do they serve to enhance and deepen our attentiveness to the presence of God, to the risen Christ, to the living Spirit, to the fellow members of the community gathered about us, and to the world in which we are called to minister? Or do they become merely gimmicks, catchy but misdirecting our energy toward their showy effects without drawing us into a deeper relationship to God, into a profounder understanding of the gospel and its implications for how we live? These are valid questions for any homiletic, for any way of communicating the gospel to a particular community and culture.
Whatever methods we use to employ technology in preaching, I believe those methods need to be preceded by engaging within ourselves the multiple ways of knowing and expressing ourselves with which God has endowed us and the congregation. How can preachers, as biophysical, thinking, feeling, talking creatures employ the wholeness of who they are in giving witness to the wonder of God? This question arises from the first and greatest commandment – to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength – and from developments in our understanding of human ways of knowing, developments that technology reinforces through its simultaneous use of image, sound, and interactive transaction.
Columnist and commentator David Brooks has written that one of the major ways we are changing as a culture is in how we understand human cognition. We are coming to see how our varied ways of knowing need to be integrated. Last March Brooks began one of his columns by observing that an exclusive focus on rational and analytical ways of knowing distorts who we are as human beings. It makes us what he calls “divided creatures.” In a culture of divided creatures, Brooks writes, things operate this way:
“Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions. This has created a distortion in our culture. … When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things, like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say… Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on. ... I suspect their work will have a giant effect on culture. It will change how we see ourselves …”1
If a “richer and deeper view” of human knowing is “coming back into view,” where was it in view originally? One place it used to be in view is the best of Christian faith and theology. Listen to St. Augustine and note all the different ways of knowing that he invokes in explaining what he means by loving God: “When I love you, what do I love? … it’s something like light, sound, smell, food, and touch that I love when I love my God – the light, voice, fragrance, embrace of my inner self, where a light shines for my soul. That’s what I love when I love my God.”2
In light of the impact of electronic media and the wholeness of human cognition that characterizes the best of Christian tradition, how can preachers recover the “richer and deeper view” of human knowing that is now emerging in our culture?
Rather than answer this question in the abstract, I will share a condensed version of a sermon that employs multiple modes of human cognition and expression. It draws upon the artwork of children that was projected via PowerPoint, but it is not a children’s sermon. Rather it is a sermon for all generations that draws upon varied ways of human knowing, including: visual and kinesthetic intelligences, gifts that children exercise in boldly imaginative ways that can reawaken these capacities in adults. Here is a condensed form of the sermon:
Whenever my wife and I take a trip abroad, we purchase travel books about where we are going. The books usually have a section called “Travel Tips.” Travel tips tell you what to bring and what to be sure to see.
What travel tips do we have for the journey of faith? What do we need to bring and what do you want to be sure to see? I asked the children of this congregation to draw pictures from a journey of faith in the Bible and to describe what they had drawn. I then used their pictures and their words to formulate a travel tip for the journey of faith that is sound wisdom no matter what our age.
George Assousa titles his picture, “Shepherd and his sheep are following a star.” You see a star up in the sky above a shepherd and a sheep. Underneath them George has written his name in big, bold letters. He is the fourth character in the story. It’s a story about the star, the shepherd, the sheep, and George. Travel Tip: On the journey of faith, you be- come part of the Holy story.
Katherine Anderson writes: “An angel in the sky is looking down on the baby Jesus. The wise men jumped up in the air to see him closer. The shepherd and sheep stayed close to the baby Jesus.” Travel Tip: Jump or kneel. But do whatever you have to do to see Jesus.
The four- and five-year-olds of this congregation did Jesus’ journey into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil. Evan Baker writes of his picture: “This is Jesus saying ‘NO!’ to the bad guy.” Look at Evan’s painting. The giant word NO! leaps out at you. Travel Tip: Sometimes on the journey of faith you have to say “No!” You have to take a clear moral stance.
Nicholas Arends also does a picture of Jesus resist- ing temptation. He calls it “The Evil One with Jesus.” Note the blending and blurring of the water colors to create what looks like a modern abstraction with no discernible realistic form. Travel Tip: Sometimes good and evil run together. There are times on the journey of faith when it is not crystal clear where the good is and where the evil is. They blend together.
The fifth- and sixth-grade classes did the travels of Paul the Apostle. Shea Snider created a picture titled “Paul is healed.” You may recall the Biblical story in which Paul is blinded on the road to Damascus. Ananias later restores Paul’s sight by touching his eyes. Shea pictures Paul’s eyes shut with the hands of Ananias approaching the apostle’s face. Travel Tip: The touch of another person can bring healing.
These pictures have the profundity of the living Spirit of God in them. Looking and reflecting on them, we begin to understand what Isaiah the prophet meant when he said, “A little child shall lead them,” and what Jesus meant when he said that unless we become like children we cannot enter the Kingdom of God. We are thankful for every generation that joins us on the journey of faith. But at the end of this sermon, it is only fitting to conclude by offering thanks to God for the children of this church and their wisdom that leads us to the heart of God.
I cannot produce here the dramatic affect of the children’s pictures, brightly projected in large images on a screen at the front of the nave, easily viewable by all. The altar, baptismal font, pulpit, and screen were arranged in such a manner as to add to the beauty of the worship space. The sermon, however, depends on a great deal more than the skilled use of PowerPoint and its graceful placement in the space. Equally important are two other factors: first, the educators who worked with the children, creating a classroom ethos in which their artistic and imaginative efforts were encouraged, and secondly, how the sermon uses multiple ways of knowing, varied modes of human cognition.
The teachers were so creative that in the weeks following the service, they took the children’s pictures and my sermon and designed a calendar for the coming year that they then had professionally published. They sold the calendar at church fairs and in the narthex of their church. Each month featured two to four of the children’s pictures in the top panel, along with the children’s words and the travel tips I had derived from them.
Underneath the pictures and words was one whole month with a box for each day in which to write appointments and reminders. The church sold hundreds of these calendars. The sermon had morphed from PowerPoint and speech into another form of expression. Although not every sermon will give birth to a project this elaborate, the story gives witness to what preaching can become in a media age that not only uses technology but also the multiple gifts of human knowing that are present in the congregation.
The beginning of the sermon, each travel tip, and the conclusion all employ a form of human reasoning more adult and more conceptual than the children’s pictures and descriptions. This allows the sermon to draw forth from the art complexities that the children may not yet fully appreciate. Consider, for example, the contrast between these two
travel tips: Sometimes you have to take a clear moral stance, and sometimes good and evil run together. The boldness of the children’s art work in dialogue with adult modes of thought results in a more holistic understanding of the ethical complexities of the journey of faith.
If we eliminate the children’s visual, bodily language or if we withhold the more adult articulation of theological insight and principle, we end up with what I call “cognitive imperialism,” the stressing of one way of human knowing to the exclusion or diminishment of other modes of cognition. We be- come what Brooks terms “divided creatures.” The sermon is in part an effort to reintegrate the whole- ness of human knowing in the presence of God. This is a wholeness that, as we have seen, characterizes Augustine’s knowledge of God, and that flows from the first and greatest commandment.
This, then, is my critical principle for the employment of electronic media in the proclamation of the gospel: do they complement and enhance the wholeness of human knowing as preaching gives witness to the reality of God? I believe that electronic media can do this, but only if they are employed by preachers who are plugged into more than technology, preachers who are using the richness of gifts with which God has endowed them as biophysical, intellectual, spiritual creatures.
David Brooks, “The New Humanism” in The New York Times, March 8, 2011, p. 27-A.
Augustine, Confessions, (Book X: 8) as cited in Don E. Saliers, Music and Theology (Abingdon, 2007), p. 3.
Thomas Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School, has written twenty books in the fields of preaching and worship. They include Sermon Sparks: 122 Ideas to Ignite Your Preaching (Abingdon, 2011), Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons on Hymns, Music, and Poetry (Oxford, 2010), God, You Made All Things for Singing: Hymn Texts, Anthems, and Poems for a New Millennium (Oxford, 2009), Preaching and Worship (Chalice, 2003), and Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction (Abingdon, 1999). He is also a flutist and a poet whose work appears in the hymnals of most denominations. He is dually ordained as an Episcopal priest and a Presbyterian minister.