Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
A Sunday morning, late in June. The congregation has gathered at the Presbyterian Church, more out of habit than passion, glad that there is at least the hint of a breeze in the air, some possibility of breath. The half dozen voices in the summer choir have a limited repertoire, and the introit is quite familiar. People settle back into the pews. They know how to endure this hour in time. Prayers are spoken that are new, but they sound remarkably like the prayers of last week, of last year. A text is read from the Hebrew Scriptures, and the congregation sings a psalm. Then comes the reading from the gospel.
“A parable, from the Gospel of Matthew,” the preacher announces. There is, in the pews, an almost imperceptible movement. Some cross their legs, silently distancing themselves from what is coming. Some lean forward, ready to hear. A parable is about to be read, after all. And like every congregation, those gathered in these pews on this Sunday morning know a little bit about parables.
Unlike too many sermons, what the parables will not do is bore. These stories tell about common people, about laborers treated unfairly, and unmerited kindness from strangers, about generous widows and prodigal sons. And who is bored by well-told tales? The congregation is more silent than usual, for the notice has gone out. They are to hear a story this day.
And if they are lucky, several think, quite unconsciously, the preacher will set aside the normal homiletic practice of biblical exegesis and historical and literary criticism, and find herself so moved by the simple story that she will go deeper, finding and telling a story of her own. She will discover or invent a story to explain the story, a parable to explore the parable. She will create a bit of art, to explore the parable’s art.
The parable is a muse, after all, a wonder to behold, inspiring speaker and listener alike to consider how they identify with each of the characters presented, to consider their own process of moral decision-making, or judgment, or conclusion.
This Biblical form is well understood by the congregation on this summer morning, well understood by those who expect to be amused, well understood by those who anticipate being shocked. For the parables, writes John Dominic Crossan, intend to “shatter the structural security of the hearer’s world.” More than that, in every parable the possibility of good news awaits us, if it can but be uncovered. Parables, Crossan goes on, “render possible the kingdom of God, the act of appropriation in which God touches the human heart and consciousness is brought to final genuflection.”1 Parables affect us at an emotional level. Parables interrupt the volleys of well-considered argument. Parables interrupt our habits of reflective thought, and bring our thinking to its knees.
That is quite a task, for a worship service late in June. One needs faith to encounter a parable in all of its wonder and awe. And this congregation gathered has a sufficient store of faith. Some sit forward, some withdraw precisely because of that faith, knowing that they are about to be invited to engage in a struggle with the places that theology and art clash. For while the literary form of parable is simply and easily grasped, there will also be present some mystery in the use of words, and the requirement that those who wish to understand will need to refer to more than their Christian faith alone.
By suggesting that dissimilar things are more similar than we had thought, parables offer simple parallel; suddenly, we are aware that the workers who have arrived at different times and labored with different degrees of energy are all due the wage that the master offers. And that the bitterly poor woman with the single coin to offer pleases God immensely. Our eyes are opened to the strange, unsettling economy of God, and we turn the page scandalized at our new awareness.
Parables also seek to teach by providing images that we seldom experience in theological inquiry. We know what it means to sweep the house, to long for an errant child, to ignore the hurting at the side of the road. What we are less prepared for is the element of surprise, imparting some new idea even before we are able to see it coming and offer a bit of resistance.2
That is normally the role of art. But very like the artistic process, parables sneak in between the lines, and the reader, the listener, lowers all defenses. Here is a story that describes something closer to our own experience. Every one knows about tending a garden. Then, out of the blue, the parable shocks us with an unexpected turn, with a quirky take on human and divine relationship.
Will the preacher on this July morning recognize any of this? Perhaps she will go even farther, not just telling a story of her own to accompany the parable’s story, but finding in the parable the inspiration for her meditation, and the Spirit’s prompting. This notion of the Biblical story as muse for the artist is at least as old as the first reformers of the Christian faith. Martin Luther sought to identify just how the grace and the promise of faith could be known among believers. Faith comes, Luther suggested, (quoting one of his favorite texts in Romans 10:17) from what is heard, and what is heard comes from the word of Christ, the Gospel, the good news. This Gospel, this word of Christ that is Christian faith, is God’s gift, God’s recurring activity. The beginning points of faith are not our own, but entirely God’s.3
If the Gospel is in fact God’s gift to humanity and the beginning point for faith, then people of that word are required to find ever new and inviting ways to tell the Biblical story. Such proclamation and reception can carry power and integrity for the living of faithful lives. So Christians have for all the ages turned to the arts, painting basilica walls and writing sonnets of praise to God. Virtually every art form has been explored for its theological possibilities. But does art achieve the level of theological proclamation? Can story or sonnet, symphony or weaving be God's proclamation to the people, as sermon seeks to be?
The most accessible starting place is surely parable, a literary form with which church members and clergy alike feel rather cozy. Parables are sometimes the odd aunt, the curious cousin. But they are dependably curious, old friends really. That is why we might be inclined to welcome the artist’s reflection upon the parable. The parable, after all, can stand up for itself. But what are we to make of the artist who challenges and wrestles, laughs at and cries with these stories, in ways that few church folk would dare to do with stories of the annunciation, or the baptism of Christ, or even the healing miracles?
While much of scripture engages with the traditional issues of law and covenantal relationship, parables allow a more open and free engagement with moral issues. That is why people sit forward in the pew (or cross their legs and try to disengage) when parables are read in worship. In parable, Jesus invites us to be involved with the questions of faith and the moral life on a newly creative level. And if correctly heard, that is enough to frighten, or to delight, but certainly not to bore.
A mustard seed is sown in fertile soil. It is the tiniest of seeds, barely visible to the naked eye. It looks vulnerable, easily lost, immediately forgotten. It is a bit like each one of those sitting in the pews of that Presbyterian Church on a Sunday morning in July. Not all that significant, in the scheme of things. But well nurtured, the seed grows into a fragile seedling, into a healthy plant, and from there, a bush, a tree strong and proud for all to see. So strong, in fact, that the weak, the birds of the air, can make in its branches a home of safety and security. Might the church member at the end of the pew, if well nurtured, become such a pillar of strength for all who come with need? Such a hope could prove to be a satisfying conclusion for the one who has paid attention on that summer morning. But only if the artistic form offered by Jesus takes life on this summer morning, only if the preacher is able to draw on her best creative capacities, breathing meaning into a story so often before heard. The question remains. Would leaving behind the homiletic form, and engaging in the creative process of art, invalidate this day’s proclamation?
Art can speak too to those who never open the heavy doors of a church, who are acquainted neither with the Bible’s wisdom nor the preacher’s theologizing. Because parables stand alone, and do not require a full acquaintance with salvation history, they are far more accessible to the non-believer and to the agnostic. In our society, where there is a great hunger for meaning, though an ever diminishing patience for the institutional church, those who care about the value of scripture need to find ways to communicate with those who are not likely to hear a sermon anytime soon. That means that more is possible, and more is required of preachers and theologians than tidy analogies for the confirmed believer. Biblical texts that bear power, complexity, and import, deserve to be introduced to the non-believer in post-modern society with the greatest energy and imaginative art that the church can muster.
But does the artist’s response, in fiction or in dance, in music or in painted canvas, serve as a worthy reflection on God’s word? Might it even replace the word preached and proclaimed?
John Calvin, in his own sermon on II Timothy 3:16-17, suggests what the written reflection on the Biblical text ought to include.
Calvin recognizes that there are dangers inherent in the creative process, and perhaps in all of art. Calvin is concerned with the ways in which the written word, and especially the sermon, can lift up the preacher instead of “the truth of God in its purity.” Here, a sense of suspicion about the artist in service of that which is less than holy.
In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin suggests just how it is that the written word holds tremendous value. “It is a singular privilege that God deigns to consecrate to (Godself) the mouths and tongues of human beings in order that God’s voice may resound in them.”5 If God moves in the mouths and tongues of people, if God speaks through them, then the spoken word, the written word, might aspire to reach the level of the holy.
Calvin’s contemporary, the Zurich reformer Heinrich Bullinger, insists that Scripture is the Word of God written and that preaching is the Word of God proclaimed.6 The word preached is the Word of God. What of the story written in order to illumine a parable? What of the sculpture shaped, and song sung?
Can we take this reformation notion even farther, and suggest that the word written, even in a creative story based on the Scriptures, can become the Word of God? Such a claim would require, within the realm of Reformed theology, both a deep and faithful understanding of the Biblical text, and a community who will contextualize that understanding. As we have already seen, Calvin would be concerned about any artistic creation that fails to lift up “the truth of God in its purity.”7 But if that is indeed the goal of a work of art, which is based on the Scriptures, then Calvin might not object that the literary form of sermon has been lost, in favor of mere artistic expression.
Perhaps the Biblical word, and parable in particular, can inspire in the artist not just reflection on the faith story as must, but proclamation of the word of God. If so, then this divinely inspired artist might reach not only those who expect to hear that word, in hot churches on summer Sundays, but believers and unbelievers alike who long to be moved by the artist’s yearning for truth and meaning. If a painting or a film or a jazz piano piece is able to meet the Christian’s longing for meaning and even provide an entrance point into the story of redemption, if the artistic expression is able to suggest both the paradox of human experience and our hope for change that finds possibility in the drama of Christian faith, then such art is surely worthy of the attention of every Christian theologian and pastor.
We might then move into a post-homiletic age, in which we consider parables and indeed all of scripture as art form with theological integrity, and explore the themes and directions the Biblical word suggests to secular society. Such art, directed toward that society, might find not just sustenance but even power and great meaning when well planted and nurtured, and when given the opportunity to be linked with the faith story as so many sermons over so many centuries have done.8 Such art would address the longing for meaning so evident in American culture, extending the gospel’s hope well beyond church communities.
There is, however, a significant problem with which we must contend. By its very definition, true artistic expression must be quite free from any of the constraints of theological doctrine or contextual pulpit. Sermons gain power and meaning within the context of Christian worship. They are written and delivered to a particular community, a particular congregation, seeking to bring the Biblical text to life in order to engage and strengthen the faith of those gathered. That is really the aim and purpose of the word preached.
While other art forms might well seek to reach those people who sit, Sunday after Sunday, in church pews, the artist also seeks to reach beyond those pews, to those who are not normally included in the horizon of pulpit rhetoric and conversations of Christian theology.
Artistic expression, like parables, stands outside the church door. While the Christian artist will perhaps have little interest in de-authorizing scripture as ultimate story, ultimate reality, that same artist will, quite like the teller of the Gospel parables, find ways to challenge without any need to reassure, ways to question without any desire to answer, ways even to upset and infuriate with no pastoral sensitivity whatsoever.
There is both freedom and theological integrity in the artist’s creative process, a freedom and integrity that might well be too often missing from the sermon writer’s toolbox. There are, at the very least, some elements of the artist’s life that would serve the preacher well.
The life stories that I’ve listened to day after day for two decades of parish ministry are not, after all, constrained by the literary or stylistic forms that most find acceptable for the Christian pulpit. The anguish of real lives is more intense than any congregation wants to endure. And the ecstatic joy of life well lived is generally not spoken on Sunday mornings. We live lives that are at once profane and holy. We are sometimes angry, and work that anger out in hurtful and vengeful ways. Art allows for such emotions. The sermon simply does not.
What preaching can do is proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, in the language and context of the people gathered. Art, be it the creative word or the painted canvas, is less able to do that effectively, contextually, and personally.
Art can invite an audience to draw their own conclusions, answers that sermons seldom dare to leave unsaid. Art can ask more of the engaged participant. And most art is intended to be revisited and considered more than once, giving the artist the freedom to take more risks and make more demands.
It is not too much to say that art expresses truth in a way that sermons fail to do. The unadorned and honest story of people’s lives can be represented, even in the midst of a theological reflection, with the artist’s voice.
The theologian as artist might well find this process to be tremendously freeing, when allowed to begin the conversations that are generally shushed by a congregation awaiting a sermonshushed by the homiletic self-editor if not by the congregation themselves. The artist’s freedom from staking the claim of the Christian gospel allows that claim even deeper roots. Art is perhaps an exercise more in tilling the soil than in collecting the harvest.
The artist might well discover a willingness to challenge the role of God in human life much more freely than does a preacher or theologian tied to pulpit or academy. Without the weight of pulpit robes or academic discipline, without the duty to represent a particular theological tradition, there begins an honest exploration of the intersection between human experience and the Word of God. The artist can explore just how outrageous it is to be the son who stays home, in the Parable of the Prodigal. The artist can wonder how very difficult it is to decide which of the many lying at the side of the road are worthy of our compassionand to confess to the mix of motives that causes us to act with kindness when that is our choice.
If Reformed theology in the last century was continually concerned about the human inclination to limit God by our own inadequate words about God, to reduce God to our own theology, our own talk of God, the artistic license invites a very different sort of exploration of the experience of the divine. And if, in the moment that we attempt to tell of that experience in human language we fall short of that holy instance, in art we are able to circumvent the process that causes us to fall short of talking of God with complete integrity. The artist attempts only to give life to the experience of the one who is feeling the touch of the holy.
In speaking the name of God we probably fail to perceive it, to understand it. We claim ownership, and in that very claim we no longer get it. But if instead we paint a scene, offer a character, compose a song, then there is at least the possibility that the one who experiences that artistry will enter that scene too, and join the character in perceiving something of the presence of God, or in becoming poignantly aware of God’s absence.
Does art in which the Biblical parables are used as muse reach Calvin’s goal of the Word of God itself? For if the Word proclaimed in sermon is itself the Word of God, then perhaps the Word expressed in other art forms can be that Word of God as well, and art reflecting on Biblical texts might serve as a way to reach beyond the pews to people who sit far from any congregation’s hospitality, never to open a church door.
It is not. In the Word proclaimed, in the doing of theology through the preaching of the Word, we are the church. We don’t stand alone, making up Christian faith from whole cloth. While there might be, while there in fact need be some elements of the writerly craft, some elements of art in the composition of the sermon preached, we preach and live the faith within the context of other believers and within a particular tradition.
The artistic process, of writing, of painting, of sculpting or composing, is a delight for faithful people because it allows the artist to step apart from the tradition, to intentionally turn it aside. That is a valid and probably essential aspect of the artistic process. But it is not in the Word preached.
To say that differently, art must serve the ends of art, in the end, not the Word of God, but the word of one writer, the work of one painter, the song of one composer, expressing the power of human story, and perhaps God’s story too.
For the holy work of art, surely that is enough.
1 John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Toward a Theology of Story (Niles, Ill.:Argus Communications, 1975), p. 123.
2 Brian C. Stiller, Preaching Parables to Postmoderns (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,2004) p. 9.
3 Dillenberger, John, ed. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1961), pp. 212-230.
4 John Calvin, Sermons on Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), p. 120.
5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), pp. 1011-1101.
6 Second Helvetic Confession, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I: The Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 1996).
7 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 979.
8 Gila Safran Naveh, Biblical Parables and Their Modern Re-Creations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), p. 7.
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING 2008, VOL. 8, #1.
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