Wednesday, July 15, 2009

why preachers need to listen to writers

Over the past few years I have tried to find ways, as a preacher, to listen to communicators who are not preachers: Ira Glass, the host of This American Life; Lauren Winner, author of the memoir Girl Meets God; Garrison Keillor, on more than one occasion in person but also on the radio; Toni Morrison, author of Beloved; Tim Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name; and the poets Billy Collins and Scott Cairns. When I am in Nashville, which is once or twice a year, I also try to spend an evening at either the Bluebird Cafe or the Douglas Corner Cafe, where songwriters perform for groups as small as fifteen and as large as seventy-five. None of these are preachers, and yet their work, and their reflections upon that work bears directly upon the task of preaching.

Today I attended a reading by Ron Rash, a professor at Western Carolina University and the author of a number of novels, most recently "Serena". I had read one of his previous works, "Saints At The River", and had read notices about "Serena". It is a compelling novel, chiefly due to the presence of a very powerful female character who personifies evil. It is also set in Haywood County, North Carolina, where we have a small cabin (near Lake Junaluska).

Whenever I hear a writer in a context such as this, I am reminded as a preacher about the importance of the creative process. It is easy, over time, to continue to pull sermons "out of the barrel" (old sermons). This is almost always a bad idea: they have likely become stale, times change, contexts in differing locales are not the same. It is also tempting, over time, to fall into a rut, preaching the same message, in essence, over and over again: the theme could be the acceptance of God, or our need to get along with each other, or to make the world a better place, or to try harder to be virtuous. All good sentiments, but ones that have been spoken and heard before.

In the presence of someone who is creative, one senses the importance of speaking and writing in such a way that all of this will find a hearing, in a fresh way. In part this is exploring themes that are not original; for example, "Serena" is about two women, and how each makes a choice between power and love. Of course power and love are at the heart of the gospel (see John 13), and yet most preachers (myself included) do not spend enough time bringing this struggle to life, or portraying it in a way that it is relational....and yet this is precisely where most of us live. The task is to dig more deeply into the recurring themes in search of the new life to be discovered, or the fresh relevance that awaits us (for example, Serena focuses on timber mining in the 1920's, and is a warning against the practice in our time of mountaintop removal).

Ron Rash is clearly a novelist who has reflected deeply upon his family heritage (his parents worked in the textile mills of piedmont North Carolina) and the landscape of the region (the mountains). He spoke of the temperament that shaped his family life and the geographical and environmental qualities that bear upon the lives of the folks in this region: at times this is a kind of fatalism, and at others there is a literal absence of light (shielded by the terrain). He also paid homage to Shakespeare and Flannery O' Connor, and commented on the care he takes with structure (the repeating greek choruses) and the choice of the names of characters.

The artist who works with words can be an important conversation partner with the preacher. We have an audience, but one that we can take for granted. Characterization, choice of words, variance of structure, attention to communal worldview and geographical landscape: all of these issues can help in the shaping of sermons, and the end result can be a narrative that is compelling and even transformational.


Blogger Sky McCracken said...

Well said, Ken. I read On Writing by Stephen King several years ago. The importance of "setting up the scene" for the audience and communicating well was reinforced when I read it.

As has your blog. Thanks.


10:32 PM  
Blogger Talbot Davis said...

This is on the mark. Thank you.

Just once, I'd like to meet Wally Lamb and ask, "how'd you get so good?"

Talbot Davis

5:45 AM  
Blogger John Leek said...


It makes a difference and communicates far better than lecture or study.

Our minds are built that way... to take in information and emotion through story.

I listen to Ira Glass to hear how to tell other people's stories and perhaps my own. I don't know how much I learn or hold onto, but I know it keeps me pushing the bar high.

Preachers must be students and teachers at the same time.

9:02 PM  
Blogger foxofbama said...

Got a good bit of stuff about Rash on my blog if you want to take a peek.
Got one of his poems, Sunday morning 1959 you will have to see if you haven't already.
Rash is a force as we both know. With you I his Preacher in the cabbage patch in Serena, about page 300 best I remember.
Waste no time; get a copy of One Foot in Eden today, strong stuff
Looking to see you do more on Rash. Would be great to see the Willimon Treatment in The Christian Century.

Raised in Gaffney SC; in NE Alabama now.

3:01 PM  

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