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Editorial: Preaching and Poetry: Learning the Power of Speech

Gregory Edward Reynolds

I still remember my internal gasp when to my auditory horror—as I presided over my daughter's wedding—one of her well-educated friends recited the poem of her choice: Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments..." He read it in a near monotone, expecting I think that mere spontaneity—it was obvious that he had never read it before, even silently—would see him through, perhaps even making it a great reading. I secretly vowed never to allow this to happen again and promptly memorized that lovely poem myself to insure it—"If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved." But what does this have to do with preaching? Everything. Not one word the hapless chap recited ever stuck in my mind. He did not serve the Bard's word well. It was written to be read memorably. Shakespeare's Elizabethan world represents a pinnacle of the written—printed—and oral word's triumph in English culture. Our wedding reader represents the antithesis of the world of the sonnet he read so poorly.

Several years later I experienced the polar opposite. New Hampshire hosted the first national gathering of the poets laureate from each of the states (around forty, as not all states have one) in 2003. A literate neighbor alerted me to the fact that novelist and poet Larry Woiwode, whom my friend remembered reading with great delight in the New Yorker in the sixties, would be doing a reading at the New Hampshire State Library that Friday as the poet laureate of North Dakota. I worked extra hard at completing my sermon preparation and headed for Concord, half an hour north. Larry's recitation was by far the most polished and passionate of the four poets who read. It was arresting, a kind of presence all too rare, invoked by speech. I introduced myself and recalled our meeting at an OPC general assembly at Beaver Falls in the 1980s—I had gotten him to sign a paperback copy of Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975). Now in New Hampshire Larry was still wearing his cowboy boots and looking very much the western North Dakotan. It was obvious the way he walked that he was used to wearing these boots at home on his ranch and not just for readings. The urban air had not poisoned his love of home. His years in New York learning his craft had only deepened his affinities.

Larry worshipped with us that Sunday and stayed in our home. On Saturday evening he had been present to hear Dana Gioia, the then newly inaugurated chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, give the keynote speech to the gathered poets. Gioia, himself a very imposing poetic presence, is one of the founders of the New Formalism, a movement to restore metrical structure and rhyme to poetry. Larry and I spoke late into the night about the place of fiction and poetry in the church and in the pulpit.

On the following day I invited Larry to the annual Shakespeare Festival at Saint Anselm's College at which all 154 sonnets are read by alumni and friends in the open air. The readings were varied in quality, until Larry volunteered, during an open mike intermission, to do a reading. Decades ago in New York City he had acted in King Richard the Second with the then unknown Robert Duval. Now he recited—acted—a soliloquy of the king (Act V, Scene V) in which the Bard reflects on his own place in the world as the many-faced writer-player on the stage of life.

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.

The crowd of students and professors—meandering inattentively toward the refreshment table—was stunned. The presence of the word—not the divine Word, the human word as one of God's best gifts—was like a strange voice, remembered from the distant past of primary orality, when words counted and made their mark. No one drank coffee until Larry had finished. This made me long for the church to know more of this oral power in the preaching moment. By his own speech God called the cosmos into being. By it he is calling his people into his kingdom. Preaching is after all God's chosen medium. The spoken word changes the world. The Word of God produces a new creation.

Our neighbor, though a sonnet reader—and one of the best—was not present for king Richard's epiphany. But, when we arrived home, he was there next door reading under the maple trees. I asked Larry if he would recite something for Jim. So there on our deck against the hue and scent of spring he read Sonnet 116 in a way I shall never forget. And that is the point of poetry. No wonder it is in such eclipse—we so infrequently read aloud. We miss the immediacy of the spoken word—a God-given power to cultivate and form his world. Scientific rationalism—analyzing the world to death—has evacuated the spoken word of poetry and disenchanted us all.

April is National Poetry Month. How many ministers of the word are celebrating? We wordsmiths should care. Many in our circles may believe that reading poetry is a superfluous pursuit. I should like to convince you that the poetic sensibility lies at the heart of our task as interpreters and communicators of God's Word.

I ended last month's editorial encouraging preachers to find their "voice" in the pulpit. "Finding one's voice" is usually meant and taken as a metaphor for the way one writes—one's writing style. Let me suggest that we preachers also need to think about the way our voices literally sound in the ears—the original meaning of catechize—of those we are addressing with the Word of God. How does what we preach sound, not How does it look on the page?

An Interest in Poetry Is Biblical

Poetry's place in the Bible should inspire us to give it prominence in the preparation and practice of preaching. Would a prophet write a poem to communicate God's truth? Jacob, David, and countless others biblical writers did. More germane for you, my readers, is the question, As a preacher would you read a poem—would you read it aloud?

We must admit that our tendency—were we writing Scripture—would be to write a journal article or a lecture. Perhaps we even secretly wonder if the literary forms in which the Bible was written are the best modes of communicating. This is because we are mostly "silent" readers. But the original audience of both testaments would not even have had the luxury of owning manuscripts unless they were very wealthy—the average cost of a book would have been equivalent to a working man's annual income. The Bereans in Acts 17 would have had to go to the synagogue in order to search the Scriptures. Ordinarily through all of the millennia of Bible history the primary access to God's Word among God's people was through hearing the Scriptures read and preached.[1] Thus the patterns of sound in the structure of the text would need to be memorable—and so they are. A large portion of the Bible is written in poetry and poetic structures like the chiasm. But how often do we take advantage of this in the preparation and delivery of sermons?

In Ephesians 2:10 Paul says that "we are his workmanship (poetry, literally poiēma, emphasis mine), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."

In Romans 1:20 Paul uses the verb form: "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (poiēmasin, emphasis mine). So they are without excuse." This word comes from the Greek verb "to make," poieō). So we are God's poetry, especially as remade in the image of his incarnate Son. I quote this verse, not to suggest that what we call poetry is what Paul had in mind, but rather that poetry as a form of spoken art is a species of this general idea of God's craftsmanship in creating and recreating. There is a world in every soul, and a poem is a tiny universe of meaning reflecting the reality that we are made in God's image. As new creatures in Christ—new "poemas"—we say the world through his words, the incarnation of thinking God's thoughts after him. A poem, like a person, is a carefully crafted creation, in which every part serves to form the beauty and meaning of the whole. Because poetry is so intimately connected with our humanity, I believe that our hearers are hungry for the beauty, healing, and recreative power of the word in every arena of life, especially in worship.

As Paul Engle puts it:

Poetry is ordinary language
raised to the Nth power.
Poetry is boned with ideas,
nerved and blooded with emotions,
all held together by the delicate,
tough skin of words.

A poem is words patterned to impress. This is the genius of hymnody. Poetry and song—the music of the human voice—are very closely related.

Developing the Poetic Sensibility in the Service of Preaching

Preachers must learn to distinguish between oral and written speech. The written is for the eye, while the oral is for the ear. The greatest problem for the seminary trained preacher—and we all need such training—is that our training has been rigorously literary. We are book, text, and lecture oriented. Lectures are content heavy and meant basically to inform, not so much to move or persuade. J. C. Ryle expressed this well: "English composition for speaking to hearers and English composition for private reading are almost like two different languages, so that sermons that 'preach' well 'read' badly."[2] Perhaps there is some truth to the provocative statement that "people today are not tired of preaching, but tired of our preaching."[3] Thielicke observes that "the man who bores others must also be boring himself."[4]

I think that the kind of notes we bring into the pulpit bears directly on the quality of our oral presentation. Try putting the results of your study in a more oral format. Homiletics is the art of translating the meaning of the text, in the context of systematic and biblical theology, into a form designed to transform God's people in the preaching moment. Theology—and the academy—serves homiletics, not vice versa. Think of your preparation as soil for the sermon, not the sermon itself. Don't bring your study into the pulpit. Bring the results; and bring them in oral form—bring them to be spoken. Extemporaneous preaching is live preaching, fully prepared for, but exclusively oral, not directly rooted in the manuscript itself. "The written text of the New Testament is ordered to ... oral activity."[5] The structure of persuasive speech is essential to its effect on the memory and thus the heart of the hearer. Thus, your sermon notes should be structured more as a set of cues than a manuscript to be read or memorized. Use two manuscripts, if necessary: one is a written summary of your exegesis and application put in the order of your sermon; the other is a one-page abbreviated form for the pulpit.

Poetry is invaluable in teaching us the rhythms and cadences of the spoken word. One of the best ways to develop oral skill is to pay attention to how others read—to the best oral presentation. John Gielgud's recitation of Shakespeare's sonnets is incomparable.

Baseball radio announcers are an excellent example of vivid speech which engages the listener. In our visual, hi-res age their skills are tested to the limit. They are well paid to hold attention, with words that stimulate the imagination so that the hearer visualizes the game. The best of these announcers are often English majors in college and former English teachers, as is Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione. "That hard grounder to the short stop ate him up... He roped one over the head of the second baseman into right field... He crushed that one and sent it into the stands in center field... He had a notion, but checked his swing... A one-two-three inning-ending double play."

Poetry teaches us to love words—their sounds and their meanings. The preacher must cultivate a love for the English language, especially the spoken word. Ransack the best dictionaries. Above all read aloud. Choose the best poetry and prose and read it aloud. Read the Psalms, George Herbert, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, the essays and stories of G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, Stephen Leacock, Christopher Morley—aloud!

How poorly we ministers often are at reading of Scripture in public. Many seek to overcome the monotone by over-reading. The proper expression should be a heightened form of our ordinary speech—each word weighted according to its position and meaning. TheKing James Version is best suited to the practice of reading Scripture aloud, not because it is a perfect or even the best translation—I am not recommending it for public worship, only for practice—but because it was produced in a golden age of orality. One thing is certain:the Authorized Version was translated to be read aloud in churches. The Authorized title says: "appointed to be read in churches." This certainly did not mean silent, private reading. Reading aloud—even to yourself—impresses the beauty and power of the richest language in history into your oral memory. Words are your tools. Labor to be a wordsmith. As McLuhan said, "language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere."[6] "The spoken word involves all the senses dramatically."[7] The preached word is the most powerful "view-maker" of all, as it corrects the idolatrous "view-making" propagated by our fallen world, especially by the electronic media. The preached word inculcates the redemptive "view-making" of the heavenly reality of the incarnate Logos.

As we learn the rhythms and cadences of the spoken word in reading, so the entire sermon should be varied in intensity, rich in linguistic diversity and acoustic texture. Poetry can teach us this.

An Example of the Use of Extra-Biblical Poetry in Preaching

The verbal economy of poetry makes every word tell. Poetry can help us curb the prolixity to which we preachers are prone. In preaching on Ecclesiastes I have noticed that my sermons are ten minutes shorter than normal (45 minutes). I believe that this is related to the economy of language that poetry tends to cultivate in our speech patterns. These sermons not only involve interpreting the poetry in the text itself, but also the quoting of extra-biblical poetry, which I have reproduced below.

The best hymns are poetry heightened by music. Or, because both poetry and song are musical in nature, we may say that hymnody is poetry in its highest form. Great hymns have retained or regained favor among those who have some measure of poetic sensibility. But properly sung and read they may also teach preachers and worshipers alike to be better stewards of the spoken word.

The poems below were used in a sermon titled "Trust God amidst Life's Uncertainties" on Ecclesiastes 7:13-18. God is sovereign over the crooked things in life and uses them to teach us the limits of our wisdom and the boundlessness of his. He alone can make the crooked straight.

William Cowper (1731-1800) New Trinity Hymnal #128

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain.
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

"The Pulley" by George Herbert (1593-1633)

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by,
'Let us,' said he, 'poure on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.'

So strength first made a way;
The beautie flow'd, then wisdome, honour, pleasure;
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottome lay.

'For if I should,' said he,
'Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

'Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse;
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.'

May every month be poetry month for preachers.

Some Resources

Jay Adams, Studies in Preaching: Sense Appeal in the Sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, vol. 1 (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976). An excellent study of the importance of the "sensual" element in effective preaching.

David Dombeck, "Reading the Word of God Aloud," in Samuel T. Logan, Jr., ed. The Preacher and Preaching (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1986), 419-444.

Sir John Gielgud (1963), The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, 2 cassettes, Caedmon Audio (New York: HarperCollins, 1996). Incomparable performances of one of the finest Shakespearean actors of all time.

Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word (New Haven: Yale, 1967; reprint, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1981). A foundational study of the primacy of the oral/aural and the radical nature of the change in the human sensorium which printing and the electronic media have initiated. Some of the best insights into the power, immediacy, and effect/affect of the oral in divine and human life, by a Jesuit who interacts with Scripture. Ong is somewhat neo-orthodox and takes his cue from Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary perspective on redemptive history.

________, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982) Ong's magnum opus, not in size, but in substance. A seminal study of the comparison of orality and literacy. Stimulates us to think especially of the difference printing has made in the way we use and think about words. A must-read for anyone interested in media ecology.

Charles Grosvenor Osgood, Poetry as a Means of Grace (Princeton, 1941). These five chapters were originally delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary as the Stone Lectures in 1940. The book is an engaging apologia for a lifetime appreciation of poetry and for poetry's value to the minister and the Christian "to meet the increasing materialism of the modern world."

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, "On the Voice," in Lectures To My Students (n.d. 19C Reprint. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 110-126.

Richard S. Storrs, Preaching without Notes. New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875. An excellent treatment of the art of extemporaneous preaching.

Endnotes

[1] This point is made over and over again by Hughes Oliphant Old in his monumental multi-volume series The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church in 6 volumes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998-2007). Rich historical resource with excellent commentary and extensive bibliography and indexes. More than a history of preaching, loaded with biblical and historical wisdom for the preacher.

[2] Iain Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 345.

[3] John W. Doberstein, Introduction to Thielicke, The Trouble with the Church (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), viii, referring to a statement by Paul Althaus, emphasis added.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, The Trouble with the Church (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 9.

[5] Walter Ong, Review: Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (William A. Graham) in America (March 4, 1989), 204.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, "Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters," in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szlarek (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), 2-3.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 77-78.

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