The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Develop Your Whole Person in Three Areas, Chapter 15

Gregory Edward Reynolds

Ordained Servant: June–July 2024

End-of-Life Care

Also in this issue

Hospice and Palliative Care at the End of Life

Christianity and Nationalism: A Review Article

Flannery O’Connor Revisited: A Review Article


As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom. (Daniel re: himself and his three friends, Dan. 1:17)

Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. (Stephen re: Moses, Acts 7:22)

Chesterton’s work is that of: “a thinker and a poet with a serious and comprehensive belief about the nature of life.” (Marshall McLuhan[1])

The literary author’s first task is to present human experience. This means that the subject of literature is human experience concretely presented. A work of literature is not primarily a delivery system for an idea; it is an embodiment of human experience. A work of literature is a house in which we are invited to take up residence and out of which we look at life. (Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson[2])

The Value of Fiction: The Meaning of the Human

No one among us would doubt the importance of reading for pulpit preparation.[3] We love to pore over tomes of theology and volumes of commentaries. But how many works of fiction do Reformed preachers read? If the answer is “not many” or “none,” we should ask why. My guess is that many Reformed preachers do not think fiction is worth their time. But the best fiction probes reality—especially human reality—in a way that no other medium does. Its consideration of the meaning of the human is incomparable. Our Reformed doctrine of common grace provides a theological rationale for appreciating good fiction. It also helps us to develop an oral imagination. As Calvin taught, God gifts unbelievers in various arts and sciences—so we should not reject them.[4]

C. S. Lewis has written a wonderful treatise on the value of fiction properly read.[5] Many English departments, especially in the university, have removed the simple pleasure of reading fiction with all their tortuous politicized methods of study and criticism. But beyond the simple enjoyment, I have discovered three homiletical benefits from good fiction, which I think are of inestimable value to preachers.

First, good fiction presents a picture of humanity that squares with reality, and thus with the biblical account—horribly fallen and yet wonderfully made in God’s image. Good fiction, whether by a believer or an unbeliever, explores this complex tension. As Harold Bloom suggests in the title of his monumental commentary on the Bard—Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human[6]—good fiction expands our understanding of the human condition and, thus, our sympathy with our fellow mortals.

We tend to read works that mirror our own attitudes, ideas, and opinions. This approach inhibits intellectual and spiritual growth; we fail to develop the skill of seeing through the eyes of another. In order to do this we must give ourselves to the author’s view. C. S. Lewis instructs us along these lines:

We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.

But one of the chief operations of art is to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from that solitude. When we read the “literature of knowledge” we hope, as a result, to think more correctly and clearly. In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions—though this of course is sometimes their effect—than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore the attitudes, feelings, and total experience, of other men.[7]

Shakespeare has taught us that there is a world in every human soul; it is this world that great fiction both explores and expands in us. Our theology itself compels us to cultivate wider interests than theology proper, because we are called to minister to the people—the world—around us. Understanding them, sympathizing, and empathizing with them are not optional.

Painting is similar to fiction: to truly appreciate a work we must submit to the artist’s vision or narrative. In late Medieval and Renaissance times painting was a visual narrative—one that need not be idolatrous when appreciated outside of public worship. Christian painter Makoto Fujimura makes an eloquent plea for this sort of engagement with art in his article “Come and See.”[8] It is amazing what he learned as he went and “stood under” in order to “under-stand” da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in the St. Maria delle Grazie in Milan. So standing under good fiction can be an illuminating and expanding experience. As Fujimura indicates, good art offers both relief and perspective in the midst of a surfeit of vacuous images and sound bites.

By contrast, Thomas Kinkaid, the self-styled “painter of light,” depicts an unreal, illusory world. Light emanates confusingly from everything. In da Vinci’s painting there is a many-layered interplay between light and darkness. But the source is clear: God incarnate at the center.

Good fiction deals honestly with good and evil in the world. Good fiction does not revel in evil, for the sake of evil, but depicts evil as evil—for what it is in its ugliness and deformity; the very best fiction depicts evil in light of hope and redemptive grace and glory. In twentieth-century fiction, such as the novels of Graham Greene, character development is often profound in its depiction of the human predicament. Twentieth century American writer Flannery O’Connor was a master at depicting the dark side of human nature, leaving the reader hungry for Jesus, writing as she did from the Christ-haunted South. The landscapes of human life are often like the paintings of Edward Hopper, desolate and even desperate, yet in Greene’s case not without a glimmer of light and hope. In his work the hope of redemption comes in subtle rays of light penetrating darkness, only occasionally entering the horizontal world of hopeless and bleak fallen humanity. 

Second, good fiction helps us become better story tellers. The Bible is, after all, the story of redemption. Thus, since God is the divine storyteller, we should imitate his essential means of communicating truth to his people.

The temptation to preach with too much doctrinal density can be resisted by helping people enter the sermon through good storytelling, especially in connecting the pericope with the story of redemption. But, of course, many texts are themselves stories. Novelist Larry Woiwode suggested to me that the use of narrative, or storytelling in preaching, slows us down so that we can better engage people with the divine message.[9]

When truth is embedded in a narrative, it is more memorable, not only because of the pace, but also because of the concreteness of human detail. Stories deal with the specific realities of life in space and time—in the history with which we are familiar. Truth is more believable when presented as history, since it is in history, not mythology, that God has dealt with his people—most pointedly in the Incarnation. Truth resides in the created order—in the world in which we live and move and have our being. All of Scripture is embedded in history—in space and time. When not situated in the narrative, doctrine alone may appear to the hearer to be the construct of the preacher’s mind. I believe this is one reason why people have enjoyed the Joseph story more than any series of sermons I have preached in thirty-five years. It is storytelling at its best. The truths of providence and salvation are never made more memorable, woven as they are into the rich drama of the Jacob cycle. This experience has moved me to use stories, biblical and otherwise, in all my preaching, especially Pauline epistles.

Our Lord often used stories, such as the good Samaritan tale, making his point stick by telling it in an unforgettable way. Such stories are set in the context of the larger story of the history of redemption. This is the way God himself has chosen to impress us with his truth. From Jesus’s example we preachers should take our cue. Reading well written fiction will help us become better storytellers.[10] 

Third, good fiction expands the sensibilities of the preacher in the preaching moment. Perhaps some Reformed preaching is dull because of a lack of imagination—what we might call “oral imagination,” that expresses itself in the act of preaching. Well written fiction teaches us how to speak in colorful, euphonic ways. Rich and good-sounding language is the fabric of Scripture and the gift of human speech. As good fiction describes the world and its inhabitants in detail, it also inculcates patterns of speech that are concrete and down to earth—for contemporary fiction is up to date, giving us the best formed sounds of our world. Such patterns invite people into our sermons and help purge us of the Christian clichés to which we are all too accustomed.

Developing healthy oral imaginations also helps us to maintain a cadence of speech more reflective of the everyday world as we experience it. Electronic media, unfortunately, tend to make us impatient with the slower paces of space and time. This is one reason that I favor reading slowly, and often stopping to read a well-written passage aloud. If God took time to create, we preachers ought to take more time to communicate our thoughts to God’s people. The meaning of the human, the art of storytelling, the expansion of the oral imagination; these are all good reasons to read good fiction.

The Power of Poetry: Quintessentially Oral

Novelist and poet Larry Woiwode, and Leland Ryken, author and professor of English, are always lamenting the lack of interest in literature and poetry among pastors. They are doing their best to make a difference. But why bother? Well, consider this.

Poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), raised worrisome concerns about the state of literary reading in America in the 1990s. Building on an alarming trend, Gioia sounded the alarm in dramatic fashion in 2004 and 2007 with reports “Reading at Risk” and “To Read or Not to Read.” He was often criticized as a doomsayer. But, because parents and educators, including the NEA, did not simply accept this as an irreversible trend, the twenty percent decline in literary reading in the youngest age group surveyed (ages 18–24) in 2002 was reversed to a dramatic twenty-one percent increase in 2008, as presented by Gioia in a subsequent NEA report “Reading on the Rise.”[11] But sadly the only area of literary reading that continues to decline is poetry.

One of my favorite editorial writers recently lumped poets in with the dilettante, second-generation, trust fund rich kids. Poetry is the literature par excellence of daydreamers. Walter Mitty’s early twentieth-century daydreaming[12] was thought to be a disease we moderns should consider vaccinating out of existence. But, unlike polio, it is not, I would argue, a disease, but a cure for our modern dis-ease as I have argued in Chapter 10.

Here are several reasons why poetry is important to the task of preaching. Poetry fosters the creative pleasure and discovery that serendipity allows. Poetry affords the preacher the cultivation of meditation and daydreaming.[13] Since it takes time to understand, it slows us down—a serious need in our hyper-active world. I believe one of the reasons poetry is generally out of favor is that we have very little time for day dreaming in our electrified lives. Thus we have little chance for the creative pleasure and discovery that serendipity allows, as I have discussed in Chapter 10.

One of the great errands of poetry is to get us to see ordinary things in a new light. The poetic sensibility cultivates attention, to notice what others miss. This in turn helps the preacher to think about what is going on in a pericope in ways that go beyond the obvious. For example, recently as I read in Matthew of the soldiers’ misunderstanding of Jesus’s cry of dereliction from the cross “Eli, eli, lema sabachthani” (Matt. 27:46) as a prayer to Elijah, I thought how profoundly we often misunderstand others. It is a major aspect of our fallenness. Jesus was the most misunderstood person in history. Only the Holy Spirit can clear the fog. This attentive and observant sensibility also helps us notice what is going on around us, things about people and situations we might otherwise miss.

The difficulty of understanding poetry inhibits its ascendency in our culture because it takes meditation, time, and concentration. Of course, poetry in the past several decades has appeared in the form of poetry slams throughout America. Although this gives a glimmer of hope, it does not usually represent the kind of appreciation that grows out of a deep reading of the best poetry in the English language. One reason is because slams are timed, promoting the opposite of what is necessary to enjoy poetry. I have even encountered disdain among slammers for the forms and discipline of the greatest poets. But this is not to say they are not onto something important. They read or recite their poetry in small public settings. They are exploring orality—the beauty and interest of the sounds of words. We should remember that poetry was originally song. The carefully crafted words set to a melody were the most memorable and thus lasting way to transmit tradition.

Poetry is a thoroughly biblical medium of communication. I always begin my lectures on media ecology by asking if anyone in the audience likes poetry. Invariably only a few say “Yes.” Then I tell them that I am certain that they do like poetry, because they like the Bible—God’s Word is over one third poetry. 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.

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 had to go to the synagogue to search the Scriptures as they did. Ordinarily through all the millennia of Bible history the primary access to God’s Word among God’s people was through hearing the Scriptures read and preached.[14] 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 ποίημα poiēma, emphasis mine), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Poetry helps foster a love of words, the basic material of preaching. In poetry every word counts. The density and intensity of poetry make it especially helpful for the preacher. Poetry teaches us to love words—their sounds and their meanings. Consider Paul Engle’s poem:

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.[15]

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. “The poet is someone who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they be, exquisitely.”[16] I am certainly not advocating form over substance but rather substance memorably and well expressed. In his long poem An Essay on Criticism (1711) Alexander Pope describes poetry:

True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,
what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d.

Frost’s definition of poetry, “the sound of sense,” gets at the essence of poetry. But the reverse does, too. W. H. Auden (1907–73) had this to say about what makes good poetry and poets:

A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language. . . . [I]t is certainly the sign by which one recognizes whether a young man is potentially a poet or not. “Why do you want to write poetry?” If the young man answers: “I have important things to say,” then he is not a poet. If he answers: “I like hanging around words listening to what they say,” then maybe he is going to be a poet.[17]

Preachers should love “hanging around words,” since they are the raw material of his preaching, and preaching is primarily an oral, not a written, discipline, although the two are clearly closely related. Consider Frost’s double quatrain.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost (1874–1963)

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.[18]

Consider the words of Qoheleth in the framer’s conclusion to Ecclesiastes:

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. (Eccl. 12:9–12, emphasis added)

In the age of bits and bytes we are told that science alone gives us truth. Thus, we are suspicious of poetry. Many Christians believe that all talk of literary structures undermines our confidence in God’s Word. The creation debates, among conservatives, often yield such ideas. Poetry enshrined the Exodus event in many Psalms. They are no less historical or true for being communicated in poetry. Poetry in the Bible presents truth in memorable form.

The inspired words of the sage in this text are carefully crafted divine wisdom—“arranging many proverbs with great care.” He fashions wisdom especially designed for troubled believers living amidst the injustices and wackiness of a fallen world. We must remember to leave the mystery of God’s disposition of our lives in the hands of God, recognizing our mortal and human limits. The beauty of the design of the book of Ecclesiastes is itself a testimony of the perfect control and benevolent purposes of our God in caring for us. God’s Word is crafted with the original Designer’s care—a care with which he gifts the writers of Scripture—“weighing and studying and arranging.”

The concept of artfully wrought truth reminds me of the Roman architect Vitruvius’s three rules of good architectural design exposited in his foundational The Ten Books of Architecture: firmness (structural integrity), commodity (usefulness), and delight (beauty). They are all necessary to one another, just as biblical truth must be expressed artfully. So the text describes its own words in two ways in 12:10.[19] The first is “words of delight (hephets חֵפֶץ).” The basic meaning of “delight” is to feel great favor towards something. The Author of beauty gave literary skill to the human authors of Scripture to draw us to its meaning and transforming power. The second is “words of truth (emeth אֱמֶת).” These are straight or orthodox words. Truth and beauty go hand in hand. The medium is perfectly suited to the message. In God’s Word content and craftsmanship are inextricably linked. The medium and the message are perfectly complimentary as they teach us the beauty of God’s grace. This should give us confidence in our task of communicating God’s Word in an artful way to the rising generation through preaching, teaching, and writing to the glory of God.

Reading and memorizing poetry, as I have said, trains us to meditate deeply on texts. I also think that the decline of interest in poetry is in part due to a lack of reading aloud, especially hearing poetry well read or recited. What I have discovered in my “memory walks,” on which I memorize poetry, is that by memorizing poetry, through regular oral repetition, the meaning becomes clearer with time—but it takes time. Memory muscles are exercised along with the physical. The sound and meaning of the words begin to sink in. But few of us have patience to repeat poems aloud until it is etched in our memories. That is why I have learned to combine it with my daily two mile walk.

Another reason for the decline of interest in poetry is the deterioration of linguistic depth and nuance in early exposure to language. Electronic media tend to immunize us from the nuanced use of words, spreading our attention over a thin surface of reality and addicting us to the cliché and the sound bite. Moreover, technical and scientific language dominates our culture, making poetry especially to appear useless. Thus the vernacular, the staple of poetic vocabulary, has become superficial and poorly suited to explore and express the complexities of external or interior realities. Cultural conformity cultivated by mass media has eviscerated much common language of its richness.[20] Birkerts observes, “every second a standardized medium is rubbing away the idiosyncrasies and burrs from our speech.”[21] Furthermore, the egocentric nature of much modern poetry that I witness in the premier organ of poetry in the English speaking world, Poetry, reflects the tendency toward solipsism in our culture. Often written in a prose form much modern poetry is barely distinguishable from mediocre prose, hence making it prosaic. The Bible is full of the singularities mentioned by Birkerts, a treasure trove of interest. To this the preacher must pay careful attention.

The compression of language in good poetry forces the reader to pay attention to the details of grammar and punctuation. Sven Birkerts tells us, “Poetic composition is the most profound exercise of full human consciousness. . . . The poem is the most concentrated and refined possible use of language.”[22] It thus tends to make us better oral communicators, speaking in memorable sentences, and—a near miracle for Reformed preachers—making our preaching more concise. I have often finished leading worship before noon since engaging in this exercise. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a little over two minutes long (280 words), while the forgotten Oration by famed orator Edward Everett was over two hours long (13,508 words). The next day Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”[23]

It is also important for those new to appreciating poetry to read more accessible poets. Herbert is surely one of them, although not every poem he wrote is as accessible as “Submission.” Even so, its depths take meditation.[24]

“Submission” by George Herbert (1593–1633)

But that thou art my wisdome, Lord,
       And both mine eyes are thine,
My minde would be extreamly stirr’d
       For missing my designe.

Were it not better to bestow
       Some place and power on me?
Then should thy praises with me grow,
       And share in my degree.

But when I thus dispute and grieve,
       I do resume my sight,
And pilfring what I once did give,
       Disseize thee of thy right.

How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,
       That I should then raise thee?
Perhaps great places and thy praise
       Do not so well agree.

Wherefore unto my gift I stand;
       I will no more advise:
Onely do thou lend me a hand,
       Since thou hast both mine eyes.[25]

Poetry also, as all good literature, gives us insight into the human condition, and in the case of sacred poets like George Herbert, insight into God, his Word, and the Christian life.

Finally, poetry helps cultivate the color and cadence of pulpit speech. 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. The verbal economy of poetry makes every word tell. Poetry can help us cultivate more concise speech patterns in our preaching.

“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.’[26]

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. Poetry in the twentieth century was primarily written but rarely recited until Dylan Thomas inspired a revival of recitation. Donald Hall relates that when his first book of poetry came out in 1955,

nobody asked me to speak them out loud. . . . To my students I recited great poems with gusto and growing confidence—Wyatt, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Yeats, Hardy—and worked on performance without knowing it. It was a shock when a lecture agent telephoned to offer a fee for reading my poems at a college. . . .

When my generation learned to read aloud, publishing from platforms more often than in print, we heard our poems change. Sound had always been my portal to poetry, but in the beginning sound was imagined through the eye. Gradually the out-loud mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants, gave body to poems in performance. Dylan Thomas showed the way.[27]

A Word on the Value of Classical Music

Amuse is literally to stare stupidly or be distracted from the point at issue.[28] As Neil Postman has warned, we are in danger of amusing ourselves to death, especially when it comes to the television.[29] However, the abuse of something legitimate should not divert us from seeing its proper place. Amusement and entertainment have a proper place for humans, especially in a fallen world. Everyone needs a break from the rigors of work— even work which one enjoys—and the pressing issues of the day. The quality of the entertainment we choose, however, raises many important questions for the preacher. Not only do ethical questions need to be asked, but also epistemological questions. Beyond this, however, aesthetic questions should also be addressed. It is commonly believed that aesthetics are simply a matter of taste. Harold Bloom in his brilliant anthology The Best Poems of the English Language laments that “by reprinting only half a dozen poems published after 1923, I have largely evaded our contemporary flight from all standards of aesthetic and cognitive value.”[30] The dominance of popular culture has blinded us to these questions. Just as the forms of communication affect the content, so it is with forms of cultural expression. Popular culture is like the mud room of a grand mansion, in which young people get stuck, not realizing the unexplored treasures that lie beyond the second door.

Kenneth Myers has demonstrated how many secular assumptions about reality have shaped the forms of popular culture. Christians should be alert to the nature of these forms. To say that diversion from work is not sinful per se is not to say that all forms of diversion are of equal value. Much contemporary diversion is part of the suppression of the knowledge of God and an escape from the seriousness of life in God’s world. Myers has distinguished among “high, folk, and popular culture.” He argues that popular culture is a dangerous hybrid, which is uniquely a product of industrialized society.[31] The wise Christian should consider these as he contemplates the value of various forms of entertainment.[32]

Among the highest and best forms of cultural recreation is classical music, and like other forms of high culture, is being undermined by the overwhelming dominance of popular culture. Identity politics labels high culture as elitist.[33] The preacher must graciously overcome such comments by demonstrating the value of these forms. Like fine wine and good literature, classical music takes cultivation, which in turn takes time—not an activity for which popular culture and its powerful electronic purveyors prepare us. Musicologist Julian Johnson argues,

Classical music, like all art, has always been based on a paradoxical claim: that it relates to the immediacy of everyday but not immediately. That is to say, it takes aspects of our immediate experience and reworks them, reflecting them back in altered form. . . . it refuses the popular demand that art should be as immediate as everything else.[34]

Classical music is simply music as an artistic expression, rather than simply for entertainment, thus going beyond the bounds of what we normally label as “classical”—jazz for example. Like religion, Johnson claims, classical music seems to the general public to come from another age very unlike the modern world and so having no important place in it.[35] He goes on the say, “The high value accorded to art, classical music included, derives from its opposition to the social devaluation of the particular and individual.”[36]

The value of classical music has always been found in its relationship to “cosmology, natural science, and politics.”[37] Sadly, identity politics, with its issues of race, class, and gender, has made incursions into all of the arts, reducing them to quests for power, whereas classical music has always been “considered a nonreferential art form whose value lay precisely in the transcendence of such worldly differences.”[38] Classical music offers a rich alternative to “how one-dimensional contemporary musical practice has become.”[39] It envelops the listener in grand ideas. In a tangential way it also develops our aural sensibilities. For the preacher it enhances meditation on the profound truths of orthodox Christianity. “Quintilian provides the basis for the Western liberal arts education when he advocates devotion to subjects as impractical as music.”[40] Quintilian asserts the connection in antiquity between music and rhetoric. Music, poetry, and philosophy were considered to be of divine origin. “The art of letters and that of music were once united.”[41] Music, particularly vocal music, has a direct bearing on rhetoric:

Now I ask you whether it is not absolutely necessary for the orator to be acquainted with all these methods of expression which are concerned firstly with gesture, secondly with the arrangement of words and thirdly with the inflexions of the voice, of which a great variety are required in pleading.[42]

No wonder it was one of the four subject areas in the quadrivium.

While other forms of music, like jazz and folk, offer various means of profound reflection, I have focused on classical music because it is the form with which I am most familiar. Other popular forms of music such as rock-n-roll are entertaining but hardly conducive to the kind of preparation for ministry of the Word I am discussing here. They may also be a helpful window into a culture’s soul, but serious music is what is needed for serious preaching.

Great classical music expands the human soul, not by way of sanctification, but by way of sensibility, which may in turn, depending on the listener, enhance sanctity.


[1] W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, A Biography (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 32.

[2] Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson, Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 13.

[3] Adapted from Gregory Reynolds, “On the Matter of Notes in Preaching,” Ordained Servant, 16 (2007): 14–16.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.15.

[5] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 129.

[6] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead, 1998).

[7] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 85.

[8] Makoto Fujimura, “Come and See: Leonardo da Vinci’s Philip in the Last Supper,” Books and Culture, 12:6 (November–December 2006): 10–13.

[9] From an email exchange in 2003.

[10] Gregory E. Reynolds, “Preachers: Tell the Story of Redemption!” Kerux, 15:3 (December 2000): 26–30.

[11] Dana Gioia, “Reading on the Rise,” https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/ReadingonRise.pdf.

[12] James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” The New Yorker, March 18, 1939, 19–20. This was made into a movie in 1947.

[13] Gregory E. Reynolds, “The Value of Daydreaming,” Ordained Servant 21 (2012): 18–20; Ordained Servant Online (Aug.-Sept. 2012), https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=317; “Changing Pace: The Need for Rest in a Frenetic World,” Ordained Servant 18 (2009): 14–17; https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=151.

[14] 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.

[15] Paul Engle, BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2015. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/paulengle162234.html, accessed June 17, 2015.

[16] Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase (London: Icon, 2014), 5.

[17] W. H. Auden, “Squares and Oblongs,” in Poets at Work (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948), 171.

[18] Edward Connery Lathem, ed., The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), 222.

[19] We could also relate the three rules of Vitruvius to the biblical text in this way: 1) firmness (structural integrity) is found in the various literary forms of the biblical text, which serve the interests of the text’s meaning—chiasm, for example, is structured to make a main point in the center; 2) commodity (usefulness) is the application of the biblical text in worship and service; and 3) delight (beauty) is the beauty of the text artfully crafted and structured to fulfill the purposes and designs of the ultimate author, God.

[20] Sven Birkerts, “The Rage of Caliban” in The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (New York: William Morrow, 1989), 55–77. Birkerts explores the effect of media, especially television on poetry.

[21] Birkerts, The Electric Life, 75.

[22] Birkerts, The Electric Life, 31.

[23] Bob Green, “The Forgotten Gettysburg Addresser,” The Wall Street Journal (June 22-23, 2013): A15.

[24] See my articles on George Herbert’s poem “Submission” in Gregory E. Reynolds, “Submission: A Model for Preachers,” Ordained Servant (2013): 13–16.

[25] George Herbert, The Complete English Works, ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (New York: Everyman’s Library #204, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 92.

[26] Herbert, The Complete English Works, 156.

[27] Donald Hall, Essays after Eighty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 40–41.

[28] Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, s.v. “amuse.”

[29] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985).

[30] Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 13.

[31] Kenneth M. Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1989), 60ff.

[32] Cf. T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968).

[33] Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music: Cultural Choice and Musical Value (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 5.

[34] Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music, 5.

[35] Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music, 7ff.

[36] Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music, 9.

[37] Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music, 14.

[38] Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music, 21.

[39] Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music, 31.

[40] Dave McClellan with Karen McClellan, Preaching by Ear: Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out (Wooster, OH: Weaver, 2014), 47, fn. 15.

[41] Quintilian, The Institutes of Rhetoric (1.10.18), 169. He deals with the place of music in the training of orators in 1.10.9–33.

[42] Quintilian, The Institutes of Rhetoric, 1.10.22.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, June-July, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2024

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Hospice and Palliative Care at the End of Life

Christianity and Nationalism: A Review Article

Flannery O’Connor Revisited: A Review Article


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