Recent Reading: A Psychology for Preaching

Some select quotes I found helpful. In no way do I agree with everything in the book (it’s fairly liberal for my standards), but I did find some good common sense about preaching that a lot of people won’t say (or at least I haven’t heard say).

– Edgar N. Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961).

PREACHING IS IN SOME SENSE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL

Art forms are characterized by highly individualized modes of expression, so the artful presentation of ideas through preaching is strongly tinged by the preacher’s personal qualities. It could safely be said that all preaching is autobiographical… (pp. xxi-xxii).

IT IS HARD TO BE INTERESTING EVERY WEEK

…The necessity of trying to be inspiring on a week to week basis calls for all the ingenuity that a preacher can develop (p. 18).

GRAB THEIR ATTENTION OFTEN

[Quoting a study:] It has been estimated that a class listening to a teacher, an employee listening to his boss, or an audience listening to a lecture has serious lapses of attention ever seven minutes. The expert speaker jerks attention back by telling a story, making a demonstration, or doing something unusual about every five minutes. Interest, action or noise will renew attention (p. 19).

NO PREACHER HAS EARNED THE RIGHT TO BE UNINTERESTING

Too often a man who has won the hearts of his people as a pastor seems to feel that he has earned the right to be a careless craftsman in the pulpit. No one ever earns the right to be uninteresting in the pulpit (p. 20).

JESUS ALWAYS ELICITED A RESPONSE

We have only fragments of [Jesus’] sermons, but we note that again and again there was an immediate and strong response to what he said. The listeners had been mentally engaged. They questioned him. They questioned themselves. They reacted. ‘They rose up, and thrust him out of the city.’ Any way we look at it, we must admit there are very few modern preachers who stimulate so vigorous a response. We may be sure Jesus spent little time sawing sawdust. He ripped into the real problems of people and his age. He generated real participation and response (pp. 29-30).

DON’T TRY TO FUNNY, BUT DON’T AVOID BEING FUNNY

[Quoting Charles Brown:] it is not well for a minister to go out of his way six inches to make a joke. But when some unexpected turn comes to him naturally in the treatment of a great truth, he is unwise to turn aside in order to avoid it (p. 36).

ALL OF LIFE IS SERMON PREP

In one sense the whole life of a preacher is an act of preparation for that moment when he stands in the pulpit (p. 36).

LEARN TO SEE CHRIST EVERYWHERE

It is a psychological principle that we see what we want to see or are trained to see. Sight is a learned art. At an accident near our home recently, I aw this principle in action. The physician who arrived saw the injured persons and their needs because that was what he had been trained to see. The state policeman saw the relevant facts about the vehicles and their relation to each other. That was his special training. A maiden lady, who happened to be near by, saw blood and fainted…The preacher who has developed the habit of looking or new and fresh material that is actively related to the interests of his people will begin to see it cropping up here and there where he had not suspected it before (pp. 37-38).

LISTEN TO WHAT YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO; DON’T LISTEN TO WHAT YOU SHOULDN’T; SELECTIVE HEARING IS REAL

People who live near a railroad get so they seldom hear the trains. persons who live near the town clock may be kept awake by it when they first move there, but after a time they learn a habit of exclusive listening. They hear what they want to hear. This is also true of the preacher (p. 38).

THE END OF THE SERMON IS IMPORTANT FOR SUSTAINED ATTENTION

Even the end of a sermon can be important in sustaining attention; the way the preacher ends his sermon can make the listener want to hear what he has to say at another time (pp. 44-45).

KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND HOW IT’S BEING DONE; COMFORT THE AFFLICTED, AFFLICT THE COMFORTABLE

…Because congregations tend to e made up of more than one type of personality it may be important for the preacher to employ a change of pace that will at one time ‘Comfort the afflicted’ and at other times ‘Afflict the comfortable.’ yet even here it is important to have some idea of what is being done, how it is being achieved, and what the effect is upon those for whom the message is not especially relevant (p. 54).

TRUTH THROUGH PERSONALITY

This concept of preaching stresses the role of the preacher as the creator in the employment of an art form. His own personality is then inseparably bound up with what is communicated (p. 61).

HELP OTHERS SEE WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN

[Jesus] indicated that his disciples were custodians of the privilege to help others ‘to see those things that you see…and to hear those things that you hear’ (p. 67).

LITERATURE HELPS US UNDERSTAND PEOPLE

Definite supplemental sources of aid in the developing of the pastor’s art of ‘seeing people’ are available to all. Invariably, the masters of understanding have been immersed in the great literature of the past. Jesus had at his disposal the books of poetry, law and prophesy of the Jewish tradition. Paul knew not only the Jewish literature but was conversant with the literature of the Graeco-Roman world as well (pp. 68-69).

JESUS PREACHED SIMPLY

[Jesus] was simple in his presentation. No one from the child to the scholar could be confused by what he said. he used stories that were related to the experience of his hearers, and each story had one main point that stood out too clearly to be mistaken (p. 162).

SNEAK-ATTACK

The timid trout is not pulled from the stream by loud noise and by flailing the water. Rather, it responds to the quiet descending of the unsuspected fly (p. 168).

HAVE ONE MAIN POINT

The sermon must drive with all power toward one point. It must have a theme, a center of concentration and a point of focus. There are many ways of presenting a theme (p. 185).

LEAVE OUT WHAT DOESN’T NEED TO BE THERE

Every part [of the sermon] must serve a purpose, nothing must be there which is not needed, and nothing should be omitted which is required (pp. 186-187).

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All Truth is from God

I’ve posted before (HERE) about Calvin’s take on reading and quoting non-Christian authors. Here are some more of his thoughts on the subject:

14. Next come manual and liberal arts, in learning which, as all have some degree of aptitude, the full force of human acuteness is displayed. But though all are not equally able to learn all the arts, we have sufficient evidence of a common capacity in the fact, that there is scarcely an individual who does not display intelligence in some particular art. And this capacity extends not merely to the learning of the art, but to the devising of something new, or the improving of what had been previously learned. This led Plato to adopt the erroneous idea, that such knowledge was nothing but recollection. So cogently does it oblige us to acknowledge that its principle is naturally implanted in the human mind. But while these proofs openly attest the fact of a universal reason and intelligence naturally implanted, this universality is of a kind which should lead every individual for himself to recognize it as a special gift of God. To this gratitude we have a sufficient call from the Creator himself, when, in the case of idiots, he shows what the endowments of the soul would be were it not pervaded with his light. Though natural to all, it is so in such a sense that it ought to be regarded as a gratuitous gift of his beneficence to each. Moreover, the invention, the methodical arrangement, and the more thorough and superior knowledge of the arts, being confined to a few individuals cannot be regarded as a solid proof of common shrewdness. Still, however, as they are bestowed indiscriminately on the good and the bad, they are justly classed among natural endowments.
15. Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.
-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 2 MAN NOW DEPRIVED OF FREEDOM OF WILL, AND MISERABLY ENSLAVED
In my other post, I referenced Calvin’s Commentary on Titus 1:12, in which Paul calls a pagan Cretan author a “prophet.” Here are his thoughts there:

12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own
I have no doubt that he who is here spoken of is Epimenides, who was a native of Crete; for, when the Apostle says that this author was “one of themselves,” and was “a prophet of their own,” he undoubtedly means that he belonged to the nation of the Cretans. Why he calls him a Prophet is doubtful. Some think that the reason is, that the book from which Paul borrowed this passage bears the title Περὶ Χρησμῶν “concerning oracles.” Others are of opinion that Paul speaks ironically, by saying that they have such a Prophet — a Prophet worthy of a nation which refuses to listen to the servants of God. But as poets are sometimes called by the Greeks ( προφὢται) “prophets,” and as the Latin authors call them Vates , I consider it to denote simply a teacher. The reason why they were so called appears to have been, that they were always reckoned to be ( γένος θεῖον καὶ ἐνθουσιαστικόν)a divine race and moved by divine inspiration.” Thus also Adimantus, in the Second Book of Plato’s treatise Περὶ Πολιτείας after having called the poets υἵους Θεῶν “sons of the gods,” adds, that they also became their prophets. For this reason I think that Paul accommodates his style to the ordinary practice. Nor is it of any importance to inquire on what occasion Epimenides calls his countrymen liars, namely, because they boast of having the sepulcher of Jupiter; but seeing that the poet takes it from an ancient and well-known report, the Apostle quotes it as a proverbial saying. (228)

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose? But on this subject the reader may consult Basil’s discourse (229) πρὸς τοὺς νέους, ὅπως ἂν ἐξ ἑλλ κ.τ.λ

When the Author Enters the Story

My daughter found this great example of what happens when the author enters the story from a children’s book:

‘Am I supposed to know you, boy?’ Auburn Sally asked.

Conner was shocked by the treatment he was receiving from his own characters. He had expected a warm and gracious welcome, but instead the heroine of his story was holding a gun to his head. Without him none of them would even exist! He wondered if this was what an underappreciated parent felt like.

He held his hands up and backed away from the pistol. ‘Okay, time out!’ he said. ‘Everyone just calm down and let me explain! My name is Conner Bailey, and this is my sister, Alex. I know this is hard to believe, but I’m your creator! We are living in a short story I wrote for my eighth-grade English class!

Auburn Sally looked at him with more perplexity than that of all her crew added together. ‘He’s got yellow fever,’ she said. ‘Prepare the plank! We need to get him off the ship at once!’

‘I’m not sick, either!’ Conner said. ‘Fine! If you don’t believe me, I’ll prove it!’

He then proceeds to call out each character by name to prove that he knows them/created them. The response:

…’There’s only one explanation for how a young man we’ve never met before could possibly know so much,’ Auburn Sally said. ‘He’s a warlock! Tie him and his sister up! We’ll burn them at the stake on the next island we find!

–  from Chris Colfer, The Land of Stories: An Author’s Odyssey, pp. 114-116

Literalists Lacking in Spiritual Understanding

My previous post (HERE) on the disciples’ insight into parables mentioned that there was a point (or points) when they demonstrated real perception into Christ’s teachings. Of course there were times when they didn’t as well. Related to that, in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book, Spiritual Depression (a personal favorite of mine), he likens the disciples to the blind man (at first only partially-)healed by Jesus, recorded in Mark 8. When Jesus asks the man if he can see, the man responds, “I see men as trees, walking.”

From this, Lloyd-Jones argues that Jesus’ miracle was performed this way intentionally in order to demonstrate a spiritual principle to the disciples. Like the prophet Nathan with David, Jesus was pointing the disciples to this partially-healed man saying, “You are the man.”

MLJ puts it this way:

It is difficult to describe this man. You cannot say that he is blind any longer. You cannot say that he is still blind because he does see; and yet you hesitate to say that he can see because he sees men as trees, walking. What then – is he or is he not blind? You feel that you have to say at one and the same time that he is blind and that he is not blind. He is neither one thing nor the other (p. 39).

He goes on to say that many struggling Christians are like this. It can both appear that they are and are not a Christian. This, however, is not my point in this post. So let me get to it.

MLJ describes the disciples in this way: the event of the healing of the blind man (in Mark’s narrative) is fresh off the heals of a discussion with the disciples about leaven (in which Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you not understand? Do you not see? Do you not remember?'”). Because he told them to beware the leaven of the pharisees, they began talking about literal bread. So, MLJ says, “they were literalists, they were lacking in spiritual understanding.” Jesus proceeds to call them out on this.

A literalist, in this sense, is someone who cannot see beneath the surface of a story or illustration or principle (and perhaps someone who cannot see beneath the surface without detailed explanations; maybe they see eventually, but it takes a lot of work). You might call this being spiritually obtuse.

I try to teach myself, my children, and want to teach my church, to be able to get beneath the surface of a story (a book, a movie, an illustration, and even the Bible itself) to see the Truth that is being conveyed – “to bring out treasures old and new” (Matt. 13:52). Call this insight or discernment or being spiritually-minded or whatever.

Douglas Coupland regularly makes the claim that only 20% of people worldwide are hardwired to recognize irony when they see it. I fear it’s maybe the same or less for Christians being able to recognize Truth when they see it: being able to see the not blind, not seeing man and recognize that we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. The distortion/illustration is meant to allow us to see more clearly. But we find ourselves being stared down by Jesus as he asks, “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see?”

From Illustrations to Parables, and Finding Truth in Places Where Others Can’t See It

The first interesting point Tasker makes here is that, if you follow the narrative of Matthew, Jesus at one point makes a conscious decision to move from simple illustrations to the use of parables. And this transition was clear enough (i.e. enough of a change from his previous preaching) that the disciples noticed it and were curious enough to ask about it.

The text in question is:

Matthew 13:10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

Tasker comments:

Perhaps the most important and distinctive feature of this chapter is that the evangelist, by the words of Jesus that he records in verses 10-15, makes it clear, as the other evangelists do not, that Jesus deliberately adopted the parabolic method of teaching at a particular stage in His ministry for the purpose of withholding further truth about Himself and the kingdom of heaven from the crowds, who had proved themselves to be deaf to His claims and irresponsive to His demands. Hitherto, He had used parables as illustrations, whose meaning was self-evident from the context in which they were spoken (e.g. vi. 24-27). From now onwards, when addressing the believing multitude he speaks only in parables (34), which He interprets to His disciples in private. Matthew alone tells us that the disciples, apparently surprised at this new development in His policy, asked Him Why speakest thou unto them in parables? The answer they received was that there were mysteries of the kingdom of heaven which could not be understood by those who, He said, using language similar to that used by Isaiah about his contemporaries (see Is. vi. 9, 10), looked upon Him with their eyes but never understood the significance of His Person, and heard His teaching with their ears but remained deaf to its implications. When such people heard a parable about the kingdom it would therefore be for them an interesting but pointless story conveying no revelation of divine truth. The disciples, on the other hand, had already grasped something of the supernatural character of their Master and of the kingdom He came to inaugurate…in their case there was another illustration of the proverbial truth that whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance

– R.V.G. Tasker, Tyndale New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, pp. 134-135

Another interesting point is his comment on “whosoever hath, to him shall be given…,” which implies that the spiritually-minded have discernment to perceive truth in places that others will see as nothing but an interesting story.

 

Extending Gaze Beyond the Surface

When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion…

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 45

Same goes for the preacher: don’t do what’s already been done to death, especially if you can’t do it as well as others who’ve done it. You’ll just end up being a bad copy of a bad copy. Extend your gaze beyond the surface always.

Spurgeon the Minimalist

I came across this quote HERE.

“Long visits, long stories, long essays, long exhortations, and long prayers, seldom profit those who have to do with them. Life is short. Time is short.…Moments are precious. Learn to condense, abridge, and intensify…In making a statement, lop off branches; stick to the main facts in your case. If you pray, ask for what you believe you will receive, and get through; if you speak, tell your message and hold your peace; if you write, boil down two sentences into one, and three words into two. Always when practicable avoid lengthiness — learn to be short” (Sword & Trowel, September 1871).

The Beautiful Butterfly Wings of Imagination (Edith Nesbit)

This one has been in the queue for a while: If you are unfamiliar with Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), you still might be familiar with C.S. Lewis. Lewis admitted that he imitated her style in writing the Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve read about half a dozen of her books with my children and recommend them highly (see my recommended reading page).
It is reminiscent of Chesterton’s line that as a child gets older, the door needs to have a dragon behind it to be fascinating, while for the younger child, the door itself is fascinating. We are prone to lose wonder. Lewis said, “Beware the unenchanted man.”
To the child, from the beginning, life is the unfolding of one vast mystery; to him our stalest commonplaces are great news, our dullest facts prismatic wonders. To the baby who has never seen a red ball, a red ball is a marvel, new and magnificent as ever the golden apples were to Hercules.

You show the child many things, all strange, all entrancing; it sees, it hears, it touches; it learns to co-ordinate sight and touch and hearing. You tell it tales of the things it cannot see and hear and touch, of men “that it may never meet, of lands that it shall never see”; strange black and brown and yellow people whose dress is not the dress of mother or nurse—strange glowing yellow lands where the sun burns like fire, and flowers grow that are not like the flowers in the fields at home. You tell it that the stars, which look like pin-holes in the floor of heaven, are really great lonely worlds, millions of miles away; that the earth, which the child can see for itself to be flat, is really round; that nuts fall from the trees because of the force of gravitation, and not, as reason would suggest, merely because there is nothing to hold them up. And the child believes; it believes all the seeming miracles.

Then you tell it of other things no more miraculous and no less; of fairies, and dragons, and enchantments, of spells and magic, of flying carpets and invisible swords. The child believes in these wonders likewise. Why not? If very big men live in Patagonia, why should not very little men live in flower-bells? If electricity can move unseen through the air, why not carpets? The child’s memory becomes a store-house of beautiful and wonderful things which are or have been in the visible universe, or in that greater universe, the mind of man. Life will teach the child, soon enough, to distinguish between the two.

But there are those who are not as you and I. These say that all the enchanting fairy romances are lies, that nothing is real that cannot be measured or weighed, seen or heard or handled. Such make their idols of stocks and stones, and are blind and deaf to the things of the spirit. These hard-fingered materialists crush the beautiful butterfly wings of imagination, insisting that pork and pews and public-houses are more real than poetry; that a looking-glass is more real than love, a viper than valour. These Gradgrinds give to the children the stones which they call facts, and deny to the little ones the daily bread of dreams.

Of the immeasurable value of imagination as a means to the development of the loveliest virtues, to the uprooting of the ugliest and meanest sins, there is here no space to speak. But the gain in sheer happiness is more quickly set forth. Imagination, duly fostered and trained, is to the world of visible wonder and beauty what the inner light is to the Japanese lantern. It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.

But Mr. Gradgrind prefers the lantern unlighted. Material facts are good enough for him. Until it comes to religion. And then, suddenly, the child who has been forbidden to believe in Jack the Giant Killer must believe in Goliath and David. There are no fairies, but you must believe that there are angels. The magic sword and the magic buckler are nonsense, but the child must not have any doubts about the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the Spirit. What spiritual reaction do you expect when, after denying all the symbolic stories and legends, you suddenly confront your poor little Materialist with the Most Wonderful Story in the world?

-Edith Nesbit, Imagination, from Wings and the Child, Read it online HERE.

The End of the Pleasure Bar

To be all meat and raw nerve is to exist outside of time and – momentarily – outside of narrative. The crackhead who’s been pushing the Pleasure button for sixty hours straight, the salesman who’s eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner while glued to a video-poker terminal, the recreational eater who is halfway through a half gallon of chocolate ice cream, the grad student who’s been hunched over his internet portal, pants down, since 8 o’clock last night, and the gay clubber who’s spending a long weekend doing cocktails of Viagra and crystal meth will all report to you ( if you can manage to get their attention) that nothing besides the brain and its stimulants has any reality. To the person who’s compulsively self-stimulating, both the big narratives of Salvation and Transcendence and the tiny life-storylets of “I hate my neighbor” or “It might be nice to visit Spain sometime” are equally illusory and irrelevant. This deep nihilism of the body is obviously a worry to the crackhead’s three young children, to the salesman’s employer, to the ice-cream eater’s husband, to the grad student’s girlfriend, and to the clubber’s virologist. But the person whose very identity is threatened by such abject materialism is the fiction writer, whose life and business is to believe in narrative…

For Dostoyevsky – as for such latter-day literary heirs of his as Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Irvine Welsh, and Michel Houellebecq – the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever, the inevitable breaking of some bleak and remorse-filled dawn, is the flaw in nihilism through which humane narrative can slip and reassert itself. The end of the binge is the beginning of the story.

– Jonathan Franzen, The End of the Binge, from Father Away, pp. 279-282

Humanity doesn’t shine through until we realize we can’t hit the pleasure bar forever.

Trusting Something Enough to Find Your Own Words for It

Speaking of writers using cliches.

…dead expressions, the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for.

-From John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, p. 11

Preachers, push the Scriptures enough into your own experience that you demonstrate you’re trusting them enough to find your own words for what they are saying.